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The Handmaid's Tale

Characters

The Commander

Characters The Commander

The Commander poses an ethical problem for Offred, and consequently for us. First, he is Offred’s Commander and the immediate agent of her oppression. As a founder of Gilead, he also bears responsibility for the entire totalitarian society. In person, he is far more sympathetic and friendly toward Offred than most other people, and Offred’s evenings with the Commander in his study offer her a small respite from the wasteland of her life. At times, his unhappiness and need for companionship make him seem as much a prisoner of Gilead’s strictures as anyone else. Offred finds herself feeling some amount of sympathy for this man.

However, both Offred and the reader recognize that if the Commander is a prisoner, the prison is one that he constructed and that the prison he's created for women is far worse. As the novel progresses, we come to realize that his visits with Offred are selfish rather than charitable. They satisfy his need for companionship, but he doesn’t seem to care that they put Offred at terrible risk. We know that the Commander is aware of this risk, since the previous Handmaid hanged herself when her visits to the Commander were discovered. The Commander’s moral blindness, which is apparent in his attempts to explain the virtues of Gilead, is highlighted by his and Offred’s visit to Jezebel’s. The club, where the elite men of Gilead are allowed to have recreational and extramarital sex, reveals the rank hypocrisy that runs through Gileadean society.

Offred’s relationship with the Commander is best represented by a situation she remembers from a documentary on the Holocaust. In the film, the mistress of a brutal death camp guard defended the man she loved, claiming that he was not a monster. “How easy it is to invent a humanity,” Offred thinks. In other words, anyone can seem human, and even likable, given the right set of circumstances. But even if the Commander is likable and can be kind or considerate, his responsibility for the creation of Gilead and his callousness to the hell he created for women means that he, like the Nazi guard, is a monster.