The Commander is a powerful figure in the Gileadean government. He is apparently sterile, although this is not confirmed because, according to law, only women are tested for being fruitful or barren.
The first time the Commander is seen breaking the strict social structure is when he sends for the handmaiden to come to his office alone at night: it is arranged like a sexual rendezvous, but she finds to her amusement that he shyly asks her to play Scrabble. As her night visits to the office increase, she becomes increasingly informal with him, sometimes even correcting him, as when she tells him “Don’t ever do that again,” after he nearly becomes affectionate during the impregnation ceremony.
He acts amused when she shows strength. The gifts he offers her show that he underestimates her intelligence: skin lotion, glances through magazines, and a secret trip to a house of prostitution. These are all presented with the expectation that she will be delighted, with no recognition that she only accepts them because her life is so empty of stimuli.
At the house of prostitution, the Commander does finally force himself upon her sexually, mindlessly responding to the environment of degrading sexuality. His attempts to win the handmaid’s approval are contrasted to the fear he has for his wife. In the end, when their secret relationship has been found out, she sees him sitting behind the wife, looking harried and gray: “No doubt they’re having a fight, about me,” the narrator asserts. “No doubt she’s giving him hell.”
The Commander’s Wife
The Commander’s Wife was once Serena Joy, the lead soprano on the Growing Souls Gospel Hour, a television program devoted to telling Bible stories to children. Throughout the story, Offred refers to The Commander’s Wife as Serena Joy, although none of the other characters do.
Like 99 of 100 women in Gilead, the Commander’s Wife has been found to be sterile. On account of her husband’s high government rank, she is supposed to receive Offred’s baby as soon as it is born. During the traditional fertilization ceremony, she holds the handmaiden between her legs while the Commander attempts 10 impregnate her. She cannot help being jealous, despite all of the rules built into the ceremony to make the relationship between her husband and the handmaid impersonal; when the ceremony is over, Serena Joy curtly tells the handmaid to leave, even though standing and walking will diminish the odds of fertilization.
In the end, she finds evidence that the Commander has taken the handmaid out of the house in makeup and frilly clothes, and the handmaid finds that her predecessor, the last Offred, hanged herself because Serena Joy found out about a similar arrangement. “Behind my back?” Serena Joy tells her. “You could have left me something,” which raises the question of whether there was love in the cold relationship between the Commander and his wife after all. When the handmaid is taken away by uniformed guards, Serena Joy is angry but also panicky, afraid that the government will find out about illegal actions around the house.
Cora is a Martha, the housekeeper in the Commander’s household.
At the Red Center, Aunt Elizabeth is in charge of the less spiritual aspects of the training of the handmaids: she teaches gynecology and oversees discipline. Wheo Moira escapes. it is Aunt Elizabeth that she lies up and strips of her clothes.
The handmaid who narrates this story refers to this character as “that whiney bitch Janine,” and she is shown throughout this story to be annoying and pathetic . At the Red Center, when Janine tells the other handmaids-in-training about being gangraped at age fourteen. they chant that it was her fault that she led the boys on. The next week Innine announces that this rape was ber fault. For me rest of the story she behaves as me model handmaid . is trusted as Aunt Lydia’s spy when Moira escapes, and gives her baby up immediately after the delivery is over. Her compliance is achieved at the cost of her sanity; when the handmaids tear a man apart with their hands during the ritual called me Salvaging, Janine wanders around with blood smeared 00 her cheek and a clump of hair in her hand. Clearly delusional, she babbles cheerfully: “Hi mere,” “How are you doing?” “You have a nice day.”
Luke was the husband of the narrator before the time in which this novel lakes place. They had a daughter together. They were caught trying to escape from Gilead , and, while she was put into the handmaid program because of her ability to have children, she never finds out his fate. Their daughter’s name is never mentioned, but the narrator does get to see a current photograph of her in exchange for agreeing to go along with Serena Joy’s plan to get her pregnant.
Aunt Lydia is responsible for teaching enslaved women how to be hand maids. She wears a khaki dress and Iectures about what behaviors are decent and which are inappropriate, filling the women with disgust for the dangers of outlawed practices, such as pornography and abortion, while encouraging admiration that borders on awe toward pregnancy. “There’s more than one kind of freedom,” she tells them. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underestimate it.”
An old friend who knew the narrator well before the events of this novel take place, at least since college, Moira surfaces several times throughout the story as an emblem of resistance 10 the misogynistic, totalitarian state. She also is used to contrast the government’s repressive attitude toward sexuality.
In college, Moira once basted an exotic lingerie party, selling the sort of items that were sold at the Pornomarts before they were outlawed by me state. Later, after the narrator has been at the teaching center for handmaids for a few weeks, Moira shows up, having been arrested for “gender treachery,” or homosexuality. She tries to escape from the Red Center by feigning illness, hoping to bribe the guards in the ambulance with sex. When they cannot be bribed she shows up back at the center with her feet mutilated. causing the narrator to remember that an official has told them, “for our purposes. your hands and feet are not essential.” Her second escape is successful: she makes a weapon from a part of the toilet mechanism and threatens the guard. Aunt Elizabeth, then takes Aunt Elizabeth’s clothes and pass and walks out of the Center’s front gate.
After eight or nine months underground, she is caught, and the narrator later meets her in Jezebel’s, the house of prostitution. Moira is dressed in a tattered, lewd bunny costume. Despite the realization that prostitutes are often put to death in three or four years, Moira claims to like being at Jezebel’s. She only works nights, and can drink and take drugs, and is allowed to have sex with other women. She compares it to the only other option-working with toxic waste in the Colonies until her body rotted away. Since the life of prostitution, symbolized by her ridiculous costume, is so completely the opposite of what she had stood for, her enthusiasm for working at Jezebel’s can be seen as a blend of wishful thinking and potent brain washing.
“I don’t want a man around, what use are they except for ten seconds’ worth of half-babies,” the narrator’s mother once told her, explaining why she never married. “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.” With her view of sex as good only for procreation and her activism against pornography, her views are similar in ways to those supported by the Gileadean government, although to them she would be considered an “Unwoman,” too strong-willed to have a place in society.
Nick is the commander’s chauffeur. He is an attractive young man about the narrator’s age. He is not allowed to associate with the handmaid, but they defy the rules and start a physical relationship. On the night after the impregnation Ceremony, the narrator goes downstairs to the sitting room of the house because she feel like stealing something. Nick finds her there, and in the silence they kiss and touch each other. Nick functions as a messenger throughout the her series of clandestine meetings with the Commander. When he wears his hat sideways, she knows that she is to go see the Commander that night. Later, the Commander’s wife arranges for the narrator to get to Nick’s room safely at night in order to become pregnant by him, since it appears that the Commander is sterile. She keeps her affair with Nick going, sneaking to his room over the garage even without the approval of the Commander’s wife.
Eventually Nick provides an escape from her enslavement. It is revealed that he is a member of the Mayday resistance group and takes her to safety.
We never learn the real name of the narrator of this story, although she reveals it to several other characters whom she trusts. She is officially known as “Offred”: the name means that she is the possession “of’ the Commander, “Fred”, as “Ofwarren” and “Ofglen” belong to Warren and Glen. This name can also be read as “off-red,” indicating that she is not well-suited to her role as a red-uniformed handmaid trained at the Red Center.
When the novel begins, the narrator is already a handmaid, and has been “posted” at the Commander’s house for five weeks. She is not supposed to express her individuality in any way; she cannot sing, ask questions, or in any way express unhappiness with her situation. Her mission is to become pregnant by the Commander, so that he and his wife will have a baby to raise as their own.
Her history comes out as the novel progresses: she had a husband and a child and worked as a librarian before the government was overthrown by right-wing fanatics and the rights of women were limited, supposedly for their own protection. Attempting to escape the country, she and her husband and child were captured by government troops, and she never saw them again, although she thinks of them often throughout the novel. In the Republic of Gilead, she is intimidated, afraid to talk openly to the other handmaid, Ofglen, who is her companion, and is certainly afraid of confiding in any of the other members of her household.
When the Commander summons her illegally to his office at night, she goes, even though she assumes that his purpose is to have sex with her, because she feels that she has no option: it is amusing to her that all he wants to do is play word games and read magazines, which are as illegal for a Commander as they are for a handmaid, indicating that he feels as enslaved as she is. Their relationship grows, so that she can express herself more freely as time goes on, but she is always aware of the legal control he has over her.
When the Commander’s Wife arranges for her to have sex with Nick, the chauffeur, in order to become pregnant and complete her mission in the house, she continues sleeping with him for weeks, even though it will be fatal for her if she is caught. She feels unfaithful to her husband, Luke, but she is so desperate for affection that she cannot help herself. But when Ofglen confides in her about the resistance movement and asks her to help, she cannot overcome her fear of the consequences. The “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” at the end of the book says that the narrative was recorded on a series of cassette tapes and found in a safe place along the Underground Femaleroad, indicating that she did escape from Gilead in the end.
The woman referred to as “Ofglen” in this story is just one of a succession: the narrator knew an Ofglen before her, and at the end of the novel another Ofglen shows up in her place.
When she first shows up in the novel, the narrator says, “she is my spy, as I am hers.” They are mutually distrustful, carefully keeping conversation to officially-sanctioned topics, each unsure if the other will turn them in to the authorities as a subversive if they mention forbidden topics. As the novel progresses, Ofglen turns out to be connected to the revolutionary group calJed “Mayday,” a fact that she first hints at by commenting on the weather: “It’s a beautiful May day.”
Later, she speaks openly to the narrator about the underground movement, and reveals mysteriously that she knows about Offred’s evening meetings in the Commander’s office. She asks her to look through his paperwork and find anything that could help them fight against the government. When the handmaids attend a Salvaging, at which they are to beat a man to death with their hands for allegedly raping a pregnant woman, Ofglen rushes out in front and knocks him unconscious with kicks to the head. She later explains that he was not a rapist but a Mayday activist, and she was putting him out of his misery. The next day a new Ofglen shows up, explaining that the old one hanged herself when government agents were coming to take her away.
Rita is a Martha, the cook in the Commander’s household.
See The Commander’s Wife.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Margaret Atwood, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998