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November 3rd 2017
Is the Commander a sympathetic character, a monster, or both?
Is the Commander someone to be pitied, or hated? It could be disputed that to rank highly in a regimented, oppressive state such as Gilead as the Commander does suggests by nature that he must be a monster. Yet, Atwood’s portrayal of the Commander through the narration of Offred paints him in a more sympathetic light- his illicit meetings with Offred and apparent need for an emotional connection portraying him as a pitiful individual. Atwood’s humanization of the Commander is similar to that of the mistress of the Nazi guard Offred reminisces of in chapter 24- could Offred be a victim of similar conditioning? It could be debated he is a monster by deed, and any sympathy felt by the reader is merely a result of Offred’s biased narration.
It could be argued that the Commander is a character to be sympathized due to his impersonal relationship with his own wife, and his corresponding loneliness. He opens up to Offred in Chapter 25 about the cold Serena: ‘She wouldn't understand. Anyway, she won't talk to me much anymore. We don't seem to have much in common, these days.’ For such vulnerability to be exposed by someone as high ranking as the Commander conveys to the reader how truly lonely he is- ‘these days’ showing how the rise of Gilead has stripped the Commander from being able to maintain any intimate relationships, not even with his wife. However, this could be countered with the possibility that the Commander played on Offred’s natural dislike of Serena Joy, and manipulated the situation as to make her a common enemy to gain her trust. Yet, throughout ‘A Handmaids Tale’, Atwood portrays a humane side to the Commander, demonstrating the destructive power of an oppressive regime to all those within it, even those who may have aided its rise to power. Furthermore, the Commander is to be sympathized as this lonely side is accompanied with a compassionate one; he treats Offred fairly well despite having total dominance over her life, and holding the power to coerce her into anything. Offred notices this, narrating that he ‘"want[s] [her] life to be bearable"-one could argue it is this courtesy that allows for the reader to feel sympathy for the Commander- remorse for his part to play in the rise of Gilead being a possible motive for this kindness as well as his loneliness. Before finding out the Commanders intention to play scrabble with her Offred is aware denying him could have dire consequences- ‘But to refuse to see him could be worse. There’s no doubt about who holds the real power.’ The emphasis of his power to be ‘real’ exposes the serious problem Offred was facing- whilst Serena could have her sent to the colonies for their meetings, the Commander had the ability to wreak much more havoc on her life. Atwood’s use of blunt sentence structure reinforces this, and so for being cordial for...