The handmaids tale – Character development and contribution to the text as a whole
Main characters in stories have the innate ability to steal the limelight from all other characters simply the plot is based around them. However, readers must be aware the without supporting characters, whether good or bad, a story could not develop into something meaningful. Supporting characters guide the plot, reveal themes, and most importantly contribute to characterization of main characters. One could argue that supporting characters are more important for the author to portray accurately as they are essential for the success of the main character and hence story.
Comparing Roger Chillingworth from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the Commander from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale will offer a succinct explanation of this question. Introducing anyone into a story is difficult, as readers will immediately make judgments and assume first impressions are correct. Changing the depiction of a character halfway through the novel without any support from plot signifies a weak author. Chillingworth and the Commander are carefully intertwined into the novel in a similar fashion.
The reader meets Chillingworth at Hester’s most vulnerable stage as she stands on the scaffold revealing her scarlet letter for the first time. His real character and relationship with Hester is not spoken about immediately, as the author wants Chillingworth to remain dark and mysterious. Hester’s reaction towards the “stranger” in the crowd holds the reader in suspense. He is also portrayed as mysterious because he is a newcomer to the town, his figure is disproportionate and his face is “a writhing horror”, and he arrives with the Native Americans.
His words about Hester immediately signify that he holds no sympathy towards her, “she will be a living sermon against sin”. The language depicts him as an unkind and frightening character, which foreshadows his contribution to the lover’s misfortune, and embodies their sin along with Pearl. Only later when he interacts with Hester does the reader understand her reaction and the meaning of his gesture when he places his fingers over his lips. The Commander is also introduced in a suspenseful manner at the night of the Ceremony when he must read from the Bible.
This is arguably Offred’s most vulnerable stage as she knows what horror is to follow. He is described as looking “like a Midwestern bank president”, and remains mysterious as has no interaction with Offred and is known to be the authoritative figure of the household. His name is never revealed either. The reader only witnesses his deceptive side many chapters later when he asks Offred to his office. Offred’s point of view constricts the reader and provides a bias.
However, the Commander’s attempts at going against the society’s values of which he embodies reveals to the reader that he is a deceiving, ambiguous, and manipulative character. Still, Atwood waits to reveal his character just as Offred must wait. The suspense factor both authors place on the supporting male characters engages the reader’s attention, and foreshadows their important role to the development of theme and plot. Chillingworth and the Commander play very similar roles, and are very similar characters indeed.
Both have the authority over the helpless main female character offering a contrast of innocence and corruption. Their physical appearance corresponds to their psychological appearance. For example, as Chillingworth grows bitterer, more satanic, and closer to the truth his appearance deteriorates becoming more deformed and weaker. Perhaps, Hawthorne is commenting on the power of their so called sinful love, which is in actual fact a part of nature that should not be stopped. However, it is not crystal clear what Hawthorne really feels towards the sin of the lovers.
Also, Chillingworth is a healer for the Puritan society, yet he damages Dimmesdale’s health representing a duplicity in his character. Returning to the “Midwestern bank manager” simile used to describe the Commander, the reader could interpret this as representing his outside law-abiding appearance in conflict with his deceiving and ambiguous manners. A bank manager could be considered not trustworthy. Therefore, he symbolizes Atwood’s dystopian novel, as he is a corrupt, deceitful authoritative figure in this totalitarian society.
This also represents duplicity in the Commander’s character. The authors use the supporting male figures to represent the evil in society, as they exploit their power to control the main female possibly heroic figures. The relationship between Chillingworth and Hester and the Commander and Offred are both kept in secret, which provides the climax of both novels. Chillingworth knows Dimmesdale’s and Hester’s secret, which is eventually revealed to the public out of Chillingworth’s doings. He provides the climax of the novel.
Then, the secret meetings between Offred and the Commander eventually lead to her escape as she grows stronger knowing more and more about the Commander. These despised characters also allow for the reader to place blame for the tragic circumstances the females are in. Rather than blaming the society, the reader can pinpoint one person because they interact with the main character the most and cause the greatest despair for them. No matter how much a character is despised, he/she is there for a very important reason.
The supporting characters are just as important to a novel as the main ones, and should never be taken for granted. The progression of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Scarlet Letter obviously would not be the same without these ruthless characters. Society itself is not sufficient to play the evil role to contrast with the goodness of a novel. It is interesting to note that the striking similarities between Chillingworth and the Commander can also be seen in the fact that the same actor plays both roles in the adapted films.