Spoilers for the end of the Handmaid's Tale book below.
How you view the conclusion of Margaret Atwood's groundbreaking 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, likely depends on how much of a cynic you are. Like other big plot points in the book that come before things wrap up (like what really happens to Luke, or where Offred's daughter is), Offred's fate is left vague and open-ended. Does she survive and make it across the border? Does she die at the hands of an Eye? There are a lot of key differences between the book and Hulu's adaptation, but we have a feeling the show is going to go in a pretty different direction, especially since season two has already been confirmed. In the meantime, let's break down Atwood's interesting ending.
Offred, a "Handmaid" forced into sexual servitude to help repopulate the dystopian Republic of Gilead (America has been overthrown by a restrictive, religious regime), strikes up a connection with the chauffeur who works at the home where she serves, named Nick. Over the course of the story, she discovers Nick is an undercover Eye (aka a member of Gilead's brutal secret police), but he seems to genuinely care for her. The barren Wife of the household, Serena Joy, is desperate for Offred to conceive, so she suggests Offred have sex with Nick since she believes her husband, Commander Waterford (who rapes Offred once a month in a government-sanctioned ceremony), is sterile. Atwood's narrative style, which is told solely through Offred's perspective, is never quite clear on Nick's true intentions: does he truly want to help Offred, or is he merely gathering incriminating evidence to relay back to his superiors and have her arrested? Offred herself suspects he's a member of May Day, the underground resistance, and is her ticket out of Gilead.
The book has two separate mini endings, with the first happening when one of the Eye's black vans pulls up outside Offred's home to take her away. On her way out the door, Nick is able to sneak a word in and addresses her by her real name (although it's never confirmed in the book, the show reveals it's June in episode one). This has led many readers to believe he's a good guy, especially since it's also vaguely hinted that Offred is pregnant with his baby. She's hauled into the van with a group of men, and it's unclear if they're arresting her for grievous treason or Nick pulled through and got them to smuggle her across the border to Canada. "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing," Offred says. "I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped." See what we mean about the whole cynicism thing?
The second ending is just as murky. Following Offred's capture, the book flashes forward more than 200 years to an America that has been restored to a democratic government. What follows is a "partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies," which features a few professors discussing a collection of cassette tapes found in a safe house in Maine near the border of Canada, which contain the recordings of Offred's experience as a Handmaid (which might explain why much of Offred's story is written as a stream of consciousness). The scholars debate who and where she was and which Commander she might have served under. Since Offred never states her real name (Offred literally means "Of Fred," since her Commander's name was Fred), they're unable to ever find out her real identity. They also have no idea what happened to her, although they can parse that she at least made it to a safe house on the outskirts of Gilead, which bodes well for her chances of survival.
Since the show gives us concrete, detailed answers for the fates of certain characters that we don't get in the book (ex: Luke, Ofglen), there's a good chance Offred's story will conclude in a far less obscure way. At a recent Tribeca Film Festival panel, showrunner Bruce Miller said he "wanted to know more" upon finishing Atwood's novel and hopes to elaborate on the world she built. "I wanted to know what happens next. The end of the book is quite a mystery, so I get to make it up." This is one of the few times where deviating from the original story will probably be the best choice. Bring it on, season two.