The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

The Commander

He manages to appear puzzled, as if he can’t quite remember how we all got in here. As if we are something he inherited, like a Victorian pump organ, and he hasn’t figured out what to do with us.

Offred describes the Commander as he enters the room for the Ceremony and sees the assembled members of his household. His seeming to be flustered indicates that, while the Commander is a high-ranking official in Gilead, he is uncomfortable with the world he helped create. Offred’s comparison of the situation to a complicated antique mechanism suggests the architects of the new order used outdated ideas they themselves don’t understand. It becomes clear that as the Commander tries to make Offred’s life slightly more bearable, he never acts on his own apparent guilt by using his power to undo any of Gilead’s policies.

The Commander likes it when I distinguish myself, show precocity, like an attentive pet, prick-eared and eager to perform.

Offred characterizes the Commander’s reactions to her during one of their Scrabble games when she plays a word he does not know. Offred’s show of intellect inflates the Commander’s pride: His Handmaid is cleverer than others’. Even though the Commander seems to see Offred as a human more than others in power in Gilead do, her observation here shows that his throw-back attitude towards women, that they exist for men’s pleasure and entertainment.

Sometimes after a few drinks he becomes silly, and cheats at Scrabble. He encourages me to do it too, and we take extra letters and make words with them that don’t exist, words like smurt and crup, giggling over them. Sometimes he turns on his short-wave radio, displaying before me a minute or two of Radio Free America, to show me he can.

Offred describes how the Commander behaves during their evenings together. From her description, we can see the humanity that Offred sees in the Commander. At the same time, however, she notes the things he does to show her his power. Even though he has a high-ranking title and a household of people who belong to him, he is still insecure enough to need to show off the privileges he has. While seemingly innocent, such actions ensure Offred understands her powerlessness.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better. Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better? Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

The Commander has just asked Offred what she thinks about Gilead, but before she can answer, he offers a defense. In serving a greater good, he accepts the trade-off life in Gilead requires from those who do not have power. He takes no action to make life better for those without power. In Gilead, he has power, and powerful people tend to let inequalities stand if they source their power from making others powerless.

He retains hold of my arm, and as he talks his spine straightens imperceptibly, his chest expands, his voice assumes more and more the sprightliness and jocularity of youth. It occurs to me he is showing off. He is showing me off, to them, and they understand that… But also he is showing off to me. He is demonstrating, to me, his mastery of the world. He’s breaking the rules, under their noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it.

Offred describes the Commander’s preening behavior when they arrive at Jezebel’s. She seems surprised that the Commander feels the need to show off to her when she already knows the extent of his power. However, she realizes his power allows him to get away with behavior that would not be acceptable in Gilead otherwise. His high position in the chain of command has desensitized him to guilt at breaking the rules that he helped to create.