The Commander

Outer characterization

The Commander is an important character in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. His first name is Fred, but we do not know the rest of his name or much more about his identity. 

Offred describes his appearance: 

The Commander has on his black uniform, in which he looks like a museum guard. A semi-retired man, genial but wary, killing time. But only at first glance. After that he looks like a midwestern bank president, with his straight neatly brushed silver hair, his sober posture, shoulders a little stooped. And after that there is his moustache, silver also, and after that his chin, which really you can’t miss. […] His manner is mild, his hands large, with thick fingers and acquisitive thumbs, his blue eyes uncommunicative, falsely innocuous. (Chapter 170, 0%)

In the final chapter of the book, the future academic studying Gilead suggests two possible identities for the Commander: “we know that there are two possible candidates, that is, two whose names incorporate the element ‘Fred’: Frederick R. Waterford and B. Frederick Judd.” (Chapter 47, 62%). Neither identification fits perfectly with Offred’s description, but both men were important in coming up with some of the rules and ideas that defined Gilead.

Inner characterization

The Commander is emotionally detached

He initially appears to be confident and impressive, as well as emotionally detached. For example, he treats the “Ceremony” as a chore: 

The Commander fucks, with a regular two-four marching stroke, on and on like a tap dripping. He is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he’s humming; like a man who has other things on his mind. (Chapter 16, 96%)

He seems to accept the strange circumstances in which he is living (and which he has helped to create) without much consideration for their impact on other people: “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.” (Chapter 15, 8%)

As the narrative develops, it becomes clear that the Commander is unhappy with his home life. When Offred asks him why he is showing her the illegal women’s magazine, he replies sadly: “Who else could I show it to? He said, and there it was again, that sadness.” (Chapter 25, 78%). When Offred then suggests he could show it to his wife, he says that they do not have much in common anymore: “So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn’t understand him. That’s what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true...

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