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 As she perceives, he wants to make her his mistress, an outdated conception in this society.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 country’s social, political, and moral system, he leads an empty life. Eventually, he turns to Offred for companionship, even though Handmaids should mean nothing to those in power. He plays Scrabble with her and gives her reading material, despite the injunction against women being literate. Eventually, he takes Offred to a club/brothel, where he has her dress like a prostitute. Even though he does not acknowledge it, Gilead’s ultraconservative structure has...
(The entire section is 784 words.)