An analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood depicts the Commander as a human character despite his title and stoic exterior; despite the system he stands for, he longs for genuine human connection in a very innocent way. Prior to her acquaintance with him, Offred views the commander as merely a part of the system. He is stoic, mechanical, and robotic, even throughout the entire Ceremony day: “I’ve been watching him for some time and he’s given no evidence, of softness” (Atwood, 88). The Commander’s absence of softness reinforces his authoritative status, and even the title itself manifests him as a heartless authoritarian. To Offred, the Commander seems to be an tyrannical character who is apathetic towards his household. While Offred is “watching him,” she notices that the Commander looks over the women in the room as mere objects. During the ritualized sex ceremony, Offred dares not open her eyes, as she detests even the thought of seeing his open eyes, hanging over her body. All she can focus on is her eagerness for the ceremony to be over. Her opinion of the Commander, however, changes after her secret, forbidden meeting with him: “To be asked to play scrabble, instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation in its own way. As a request it was opaque” (Atwood, 155). Even though the Commander appears to be emotionless, he proves to have humane qualities. As Offred spends more time with the Commander, he has many childlike innocent requests such as that to play scrabble, and for Offred to kiss him like she means it. Ironically, Offred self-describes the request as one between an “old married couple, or two children,” a relationship that is between two equals, although the reality more closely mirrors one between a king and a slave. Offred assumes that the Commander’s forbidden request would be sexual, but the request is so ridiculously innocent that she stifles the urge to laugh. Although the word “kinky” implies something sexual in nature, the possibility of being able to play an intellectual word game in this censored society is absurd in its own sense. Reading and writing is forbidden to women in the Gilead Republic; even the simple game of scrabble is prohibited, making it “a violation in its own way.” This request is an opaque one, as Offred does not expect the Commander to crave something that deviates from his strong, masculine title. Offred finds the traces of “softness” from the Commander that she was unable to find before. After Serena Joy finds out about Offred’s personal relationship with her husband, she labels Offred a slut while sending her to her room. Shortly after, a black van arrives to the house to take Offred away, and she sees the Commander looking “worried and helpless… I still have it in me to feel sorry for him… Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking. There have already been purges among them, there will be more” (Atwood, 294). Here, Offred sees the Commander as weak and “helpless,” which are adjectives that would usually be associated with handmaids like herself. However, in this scene, Offred pities the Commander, showing him as an imperfect character who shows weakness and fear. She describes herself as being “above him, looking down,” marking the power shift between the two. The fact that “he is shrinking” shows the irony of power in society; the Historical Notes reveal that he was one of the men responsible for the egregious gender disparities in Gilead society, yet he is now a victim to that same corrupt society. The recent “purges” refer to the recent hanging of a Wife, ominously implicating the possibility of the commander being executed as well for violating the law.

Through her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood suggests that subjugating women in society is not only detrimental to women, but to all people, including men, as well. The Commander is the perfect example of this; initially, he was a highly powerful man responsible for many of the atrocities in the Gilead Republic society, such as originating the term Particution, but he too falls victim to the system he was responsible for creating. The society that Atwood writes about is a warning for 21st century American society; it warns the readers of the potential detriments of a non-egalitarian society–≤ for all its inhabitants.

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