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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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What does the Commander want from Offred and what is the purpose of their Scrabble games?

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The Commander's motives are not entirely clear when he requires Offred to start meeting him in his office for Scrabble games. The entire novel is from Offred's perspective, so we have no real insight into the inner workings of the Commander's mind. When Offred is first called to the office, she assumes she is going to be required to perform some sex act. This, of course, is illegal in Gilead, as the only sexual activity allowed for handmaids is the "ceremony" that is performed once a month in an attempt to impregnate the handmaid. Offred is shocked to find out that the Commander wants to play Scrabble. This is also not technically allowed—for the Commander and handmaid to spend time behind closed doors, for the handmaid to read or enjoy leisure activities of any kind—but seems more innocent than what Offred first imagines he wants.

As far as his motives, it is possible that the Commander is seeking companionship. The strict rules of the society do not allow for he and his wife, or he and any other female company, to socialize freely or "for fun." Despite his role in building and maintaining the social structure, the Commander may simply be human—lonely, bored, looking for a connection. Based on the later scene at Jezebel's, we might also see the Commander's request for Offred's presence in his office as a precursor to the later sexual relationship he hopes for. As such, it could be some sort of twisted, Gilead-era version of courtship (which is not allowed). Maybe the Commander thinks that if he has built a relationship with Offred and given her things (access to magazines, information, etc.), she will be grateful and consent to an affair with him outside of the ceremony. As I said, though, it's unclear what the Commander wants or has planned, since Offred's is the only perspective we hear from in the novel.

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First, it is obvious that the Commander doesn't have a particularly satisfying relationship with his wife. She seems to distrust and even dislike him. On the night of the Ceremony, when the family gathers together in the sitting room, Serena Joy lights a cigarette and says, "Late as usual," describing her husband to the other members of the household. Such a statement, uttered without humor, seems cynical, even irritated or angry. In the absence of any real companionship, maybe the Commander simply wants some kind of human connection, and this makes sense given his request that Offred "kiss him as if [she] meant it." This makes it seem as though no one else does. Later, he tells Offred that his wife doesn't "understand." He continues, saying,

she won't talk to me much anymore. We don't seem to have much in common, these days.

And Offred thinks,

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.

At one point, Offred expresses her own interpretation of what the Commander wants. She says,

I thought he might be toying, some cat-and-mouse routine, but now I think that his motives and desires weren't obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.

She thinks he isn't even sure what he wants her there for. He provides her with things that he thinks will make her happy: an opportunity to read old fashion magazines, hand lotion, conversation. Perhaps he hopes that she will not hang herself as his last handmaid did. Offred learns that the Latin-sounding phrase the former handmaid scratched into her closet isn't random; rather, it is something that handmaid must have heard in the Commander's company or saw in his book. In other words, he's done this before. Perhaps he feels guilt and wants to try to make Offred happy.

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When the Commander asks for Offred to come to his study and play Scrabble, it seems that he has at least two motives. One motive seems to be to have some kind of friendship/relationship, something “real,” with another person. His approach, at first, is rather innocent and contradicts what Offred thinks he might want. This motive can also be reinforced by the demeanor of his wife, Serena Joy. She is cold and unimpressed by her husband’s position in society, and he seems to be looking for someone to whom he can relate. Another motive, a much more sinister one, can be inferred from the constraints set forth in that society. The Commander could be trying to make Offred his “accomplice.” In doing this, he might make her so afraid of being caught that she would do whatever he wanted to avoid being found out. When he takes her to Jezebel’s and gives her a peek into the hypocrisy that reigns supreme in that society, he is giving her a knowledge that could be dangerous. He is also putting her into a very dangerous position, one that only he could rectify should it come to that.   

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