Spring gives way to summer, and Offred continues to meet the Commander in his office at night. They develop a system of signals so that Serena will not realize what is going on. If Nick is polishing the car hatless, or hat askew, the Commander wants Offred to come see him. Sometimes she cannot go because Serena is knitting in the sitting room. Other times, Serena goes out to visit other Wives when they are sick, or feigning illness. The Wives take turns being sick; Offred thinks it adds interest to their lives. Other women, the Marthas and the Handmaids, cannot afford to be sick, because the sick and old might be sent away to the Colonies. Offred says that she sees no old women, although no one really knows where they go.
The Commander does not make any further physical advances toward Offred. They play Scrabble, and he allows her to look at an old copy of Vogue. The women in the magazine remind her of princes or pirates. On the third night she asks the Commander for some hand lotion. He laughs when Offred tells him the Handmaids use butter to keep their skin moist, which infuriates her. She leaves the lotion in his office so that it will not be found in her room.
The story of Moira’s escape makes her a symbol of rebellion and resistance for the Handmaids. She is the only woman in the novel who dares to resist Gilead directly. She lacks the strength of her oppressors, but she makes up for it with her resourcefulness and canniness. Her escape from the Red Center is a masterpiece of clever planning and bravado. Moira’s exchange of clothing with Aunt Elizabeth is an important symbolic gesture; Gilead uses clothing to define rank, and by stealing the Aunt’s high-ranking uniform, Moira strikes a blow against Gilead’s attempt to define her identity.
The Commander, the only major male character in the novel, embodies Gilead’s patriarchy. His character becomes fleshed out as Offred begins to visit him in his study. Her first impressions surprise us; we expect the Commander to behave cruelly, but he seems almost likable. Like the women, he seems to be a prisoner of Gilead, starved for genuine human contact. He behaves in a shy, courtly fashion around Offred, careful not to make unreasonable demands or intimidate her. He seems to want her to like him, and even to feel attracted to him, which explains his wistful disappointment at the coldness of her kiss. Offred finds herself liking him in spite of herself.
Ultimately, however, the problems of his life seem laughable compared to the problems of Offred’s. Though kind, the Commander still works as an enforcer of the rules of the totalitarian state. Furthermore, it seems he has no true understanding of the plight of women. He laughs at Offred’s admission that Handmaids put butter on their hands—their ingenuity pleases him. He does not understand the humiliation of these women, treated like animals or babies, forced to hide scraps of their own dinner, denied the tiniest luxuries. He does not even understand that their rooms are searched, that they live under constant scrutiny and have no privacy whatsoever. Offred’s memory of the documentary about the Nazi guard and his mistress creates an obvious parallel to her situation with the Commander. The Commander is a human being, and like all human beings he is not pure evil. But then, neither were the Nazis pure evil. “He was not a monster, to her,” Offred says as she thinks of the concentration camp guard and his mistress. “Probably he had some endearing trait ... How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.” The Commander is human, even endearing, but he nevertheless bears responsibility for the monstrous world of Gilead.