The Characters (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Because Margaret Atwood’s purpose is to provide as much detail as possible about her imagined new country, the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are not provided with strongly individualized personalities. Offred reports on her experience in detail, but she has been an ordinary person before the changes brought about by the religious revolution. The daughter of an activist in the women’s movement, she has gone to college, worked at a clerical job, and fallen in love with Luke, a married man; after his divorce, they marry and have a daughter. After their attempt to flee, Luke disappears, the daughter is taken from her, and Offred is sent to a school run by “Aunts,” who train the surrogate-mothers-to-be in their new responsibilities.
The Commander is at first a menacingly shadowy figure, but he becomes more human as he invites Offred to participate in forbidden intimacies. He tries to win Offred’s affection, since he gets none from Serena Joy, and he does so by offering Offred forbidden enjoyments: skin lotion, access to books and magazines which were supposed to have been destroyed, and information she is ordinarily denied. As she perceives, he wants to make her his mistress, an outdated conception in this society. In the end, he dresses her up in a skimpy costume and takes her to a former hotel in Boston, now a brothel for the powerful and for foreign visitors, where he shows her off and tries to make love to her. He mistakenly...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Offred, a Handmaid to Fred, one of the Commanders in the Republic of Gilead. Deprived even of her name, she is known only in reference to her master, as “of Fred.” Having already proven her fertility by giving birth to a daughter before the revolution, this thirty-three-year-old woman functions as a surrogate womb for Serena Joy, the infertile wife of the Commander. Other than her role as substitute womb, Offred has no standing in the community; she is a faceless entity, forced to wear a nunlike habit of red (for fertility), the headpiece of which prevents her from looking anywhere except straight ahead. Offred, like all women in Gilead except the wives of the Commanders, is allowed no recreation other than shopping for the household; thus, she spends many hours alone in her room staring at the walls. No women in Gilead are permitted to learn to read, nor are the Handmaids allowed to form friendships with anyone of either gender. Prior to the revolution, she had been a wife and mother, as well as working to support herself. Eventually, she forms quasi relationships with Nick and the Commander. Her one goal is to escape from Gilead and go north to Canada in search of her husband and child.
The Commander, Fred, one of the leaders of the Republic of Gilead, the husband of Serena Joy, the “owner” of Offred, and the employer of Nick. A conservative man caught up in the strictures of his...
(The entire section is 784 words.)
As in her previous novels, Atwood has chosen a first-person female narrator for the story of the plight of a state "handmaid" reduced to a strictly biological destiny. The reader knows the narrator only as "Offred” in keeping with the Gileadean practice of renaming handmaids as the property of whichever commander they serve at the time (hence "Offred" literally means "of Fred"). Like other Atwood protagonists, Offred begins her narration in a state of psychic numbness, determined to keep from thinking about the nightmarish circumstances of her life. Having become a handmaid following a failed attempt to escape across the Canadian border with her husband and child (the former presumably now dead and the latter placed in an adoptive home with politically correct parents), Offred rejects the premises of the new order but attempts to comply with her captors' agenda. In her passivity, she serves as another of Atwood's studies in the psychology of victimization, and her slow renunciation of that stance creates the novel's central drama. In the course of the narrative she shows a growing willingness to risk rebellion on both emotional and political levels, despite the threat to her oft-voiced goal of survival. Offred cannot repudiate her emotional history, nor can she escape the tacit complicity of her generation in failing to challenge the patriarchal backlash against women's growing autonomy in the late twentieth century. But Offred also reveals herself to be an...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
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 the their secret relationship has been found out, Offred sees him sitting behind the wife, looking harried and gray: "No doubt they're having a...
(The entire section is 256 words.)
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 to 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 questions her. "You could have left me something." This 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,...
(The entire section is 254 words.)
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 to the misogynistic, totalitarian state. She also is used to contrast the government's repressive attitude toward sexuality.
In college, Moira once hosted an exotic lingerie party, selling the sort of items that were sold at the Pornomarts before they were outlawed by the 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...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
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 her family 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.
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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 feels like stealing something. Nick finds her there, and in the silence they kiss and touch each other.
Nick functions as a messenger throughout 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.
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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 her in to the authorities as a subversive if she mentions forbidden topics. As the novel progresses, Ofglen turns out to be connected to the revolutionary group called "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.
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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. When Moira escapes, it is Aunt Elizabeth that she ties 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 gang-raped at age fourteen, they chant that it was her fault, that she led the boys on. The next week Janine announces that this rape was her fault. For the rest of the story she behaves as the 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 the Salvaging, Janine wanders around with blood smeared on her cheek and a clump of hair in her hand. Clearly delusional, she babbles cheerfully: "Hi there," "How are you doing?" "You have a nice day."
Luke was the husband of the narrator before the time in which this novel takes place. He had a daughter with the narrator. They were caught trying to escape from...
(The entire section is 497 words.)