How does Atwood portray the Commander to us in the novel ‘ The Handmaid’s Tale’
In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a society under threat, the Commander is the head of a household in the Republic of Gilead. He is an older man who is married but has no children. Children are very important in Gilead and the lack of them is the main reason the existing regime has occurred. The ruling regime are there to encourage the population to increase the birth rate, in the face of a population that chose to either not produce children or embrace a homosexual approach to life. We learn a lot about the Commander over time and are given an insight into his thoughts and views through his illegal relationship with Offred, the handmaid in his house.
However, there are many factors about him that we cannot answer, such as his role in the community. We assume his name is Fred, but he is always referred to as ‘The Commander’. This is a military term, although what he commands is a mystery to the reader. We are also unsure whether he loves or loathes women, due to his diverse relationships with the women in his household.
At the beginning of Chapter 15 we see the Commander as an obnoxious man. He doesn’t wait for permission to enter ‘Serena’s Territory’ but steps forward into the room anyway. This rude action is seen to be a deliberate attempt to show his importance.
In her description of the Commander before the first ceremony, Atwood uses language such as, ‘a chair reserved for him’, and ‘uncommunicative’ and ‘innocuous’, which makes him appear distant from all the other members of the household. He asks for a glass of water from Cora; this prolongs the obvious tension and discomfort between the people in the room and makes him seem more important than the other members of the household community. Being the Commander, he is also the only one to speak in the room. This further enforces his position at the top of the household hierarchy.
Next, Atwood describes the Commanders physical attributes and likens him to many people from a ‘museum guard’ or to a ‘mid-western bank president’. These diverse men are from different backgrounds and have different status within society. However, the most striking similarity she makes is that of the Commander to a ‘man in a vodka ad’ that you would see in a ‘glossy magazine’. Both alcohol and magazines are banned in Gilead and so to liken a man who is an important and admired figure in society to an illegal and frowned upon image is very shocking and an interesting view from Atwood.
The Commander also behaves rather pompously. He hardly acknowledges his wife, Serena, and seems to be somewhat dismissive of her. When entering her presence he nods at her with no more respect than you would have for a servant, rather than a near equal.
The first ceremony directly follows these events, at the awkward prayer reading in the living room. The ceremony is very quick, but seems to drag on like an unpleasant task. It is true that none of the participants wants to be there, but Atwood’s language enforces this. She makes the scene crude and coarse and describes the Commander as down to ‘serious business’ and that this is his ‘duty’. These words are associated with work and she enforces this; her description of his behaviour encourages us to assume his work is militaristic, by the use of phrases such as ‘a regular two-four marching stroke’
There is a dramatic change in the Commanders behaviour in the second ceremony, as compared to the first. The focus is not on what he is doing but instead how he is thinking. Atwood’s describes him as ‘on a single-minded mission like he was unconscious’ or ‘existing apart from the body’ so as not to be involved in the awkwardness of the situation. The situation was awkward because of the connection made during the secret meetings between Offred and the Commander, although this wasn’t love, just lust. Atwood describes him, when trying to touch Offreds face as a sort of symbol of his feelings for her. This is very personable which, in the first ceremony, he was far from.
The first time the couple meet in private shows another dimension to the Commanders personality. He seems to be pleasant and inviting to Offred, which, up until that point, he had never done, and had either ignored or not acknowledged her.
When Offred enters the room, the Commander is standing like a stately gentleman or a ‘country squire’. Atwood describes it as a ‘studied pose’, possibly in order to impress Offred. The next description Atwood provides is simply ‘pleasant’, the complete opposite to the distant and abrupt man we see at the beginning of the novel. This short and simple description portrays a feeing of honesty.
Next, the Commander says ‘Hello’, something that is a normal greeting to us, but a powerful gesture in their situation. It shows the Commander as a person who is willing to forget the formalities of the regime whilst in this room. This sign makes him appear as a willing man who would like to be true to his self, (himself in the time before), which is what he starts to do, by offering Offred a game of Scrabble, a forbidden game which uses banned words
Atwood says he is elaborate and slow when with Offred. These actions emphasise either his false nature or his natural emotions. This confusion between whether the Commander is genuine or fake is a theme that runs through the novel whenever he appears, as everyone seems to have a different opinion about this possibly illusive man.
The reader is left with the impression that the Commander is a very complicated an somewhat enigmatic character; he has different relationships with different people and shows different sides of his personalities with each of these people, and so to some extent must not trust, and be false to stop others getting at his insecurities.
I feel that the Commander sees himself as a superior person to every one else, we see this when he swans around Jezebels without a care for others he also seems to ask a lot of others; Mainly Offred because of their meetings but also Nick who risks his good record to drive him to dangerous places such as Jezebels and asking him to signal Offred and to meet her at night in Serena’s living room. All these factors suggest to me that the Commander, up until this point in the novel is a very selfish man who only looks out for his own safety and uses others to his advantage and for his pleasure.
Despite these negative points about the Commanders personality he seems to becoming more trusting and honest with Offred and doesn’t appear to be as lonely, distant and unhappy as he appeared at the beginning of the novel