The Commander

The Commander's independence

The first time we encounter the Commander, ‘he is violating custom', standing The Commander from the 1990 film, photo from http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie/3345/The-Handmaid-s-Talein the hallway near the door to Offred's room. Offred is concerned: what does this mean? ‘It could mean attack, it could mean parley.' As the novel progresses we find that the Commander does indeed violate custom, talking to his Handmaid as if she is more than just an anonymous servant.

Developing relationship

Offred's feelings towards the Commander are complex. At the end of chapter 10, well before he has asked her to go in secret to his office, Offred tells us:

‘I ought to feel hatred for this man ... What I feel is more complicated than that. I don't know what to call it. It isn't love.'

After going to his office to play Scrabble, and talking to him, Offred realises (chapter 26) that ‘he was no longer a thing to me.' When he takes her to Jezebel's, and wants to have more intimate sexual intercourse than the Ceremony allows, Offred is aware that she cannot make the response he wants, but does have a sense of pity, and comments that:

‘he is not an unkind man ... under other circumstances, I even like him.'

A cultured man

The ‘other circumstances' to which Offred alludes may include her games of Scrabble with the Commander, which he first suggests in chapter 23. As Scrabble is a word game, involving reading, creating words and thinking about the possibilities of language, it is a dangerous and forbidden activity in Gilead. Hence, as Offred realises, the Commander has ‘compromised himself.' The fact that his office contains books and magazines - also forbidden by Gilead - might suggest that he is a thoughtful and cultured man, and his desire to be kissed ‘As if you meant it' seems to indicate a certain rejection of the lovelessness of Gilead. In chapter 25 he tells Offred that Serena Joy:

‘won't talk to me much any more. We don't seem to have much in common, these days.'

He is not simply concerned with power: Offred realises (chapter 32) that:

‘there are things he wants to prove to me ... services he wants to bestow.'

The Commander's sexism and complacency

The conversations Offred has with the Commander, both in his office and at Jezebel's, in fact reveal his limited mind and his acceptance of much of Gilead's dogma. He is not a deep thinker, and after their first game of Scrabble Offred realises (chapter 25) that:

‘his motives and desires weren't obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.'

She senses that, ‘For him... I am only a whim.' She recounts (chapter 29) how the Commander had once told her:

‘Women can't add ... For them, one and one and one and one don't make four.'

He was laughing at women's supposedly poor mathematics, but Offred tells us that this is a strength of women and reveals a sensitivity which the Commander does not have. For Offred,

‘One and one and one and one doesn't equal four. Each one remains unique.'

In his conversations with Offred the Commander also tries to justify the oppressive theocracy that is Gilead. ‘You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs,' he tells her (chapter 32). ‘We thought we could do better.' Offred is appalled: ‘How can he think this is better?' In chapter 34 he tells her that:

‘We've given them more than we've taken away'

He then asks her, ‘What did we overlook?' ‘Love,' Offred tells him.

Hypocrisy

When the Commander takes her to Jezebel's, Offred realises fully the hypocrisy of Gilead and of men like him. They purport to believe in sexual purity and restraint, but in fact frequent state-run brothels where the sex-workers are slaves. The women are not even real people for him: when Offred asks him ‘Who are these people?', he talks about the officers and trade delegations. She has to explain to him that she means the women, at which point the Commander laughs, and comments that these women, once professional career women, ‘prefer it here ... to the alternatives.'

The Commander's fortunes in Gilead

As Offred is supposedly arrested for ‘violation of state secrets', she sees the Commander with ‘his hand to his head', aware that he may now be purged - that is, executed - by the state. In the Historical Notes, Pieixoto speaks of attempts to identify the Commander who may be either Frederick R. Waterford or B. Frederick Judd:

  • Waterford was responsible for borrowing and using the terms ‘Particicution' and ‘Salvaging', and for calling the Aunts by the names of ‘commercial products' with names which were ‘familiar and reassuring'
  • Judd was supposed to have devised the form of the Particicution ceremony.

Pieixoto thinks that Waterford may well be Offred's Commander; Waterford had ‘a substantial and unauthorized collection ... of literary materials' and:

‘met his end ... in one of the earliest purges, accused of harbouring a subversive.'

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