The Handmaids Tale presents a futuristic society in which men and women do not have an emotional relationship. They need one another only for procreation. Men are represented as powerful and self-sufficient. Women are relegated to the position of servants. The intricacies of this society are examined through the characters of Offred and the Commander. By describing their daily lives, Atwood suggests that there are underlying problems in the Republic of Gilead relationships. She uses the Scrabble scene to symbolize that the characters needs are greater than society is able to meet.
Through great risk, the Commander seeks to change his relationship with Offred and therefore, take a small step toward changing society. Offred is summoned to the Commander’s room for unknown reasons. A plethora of possibilities go through her mind about why he would break the rules to see her. As she enters his office she notices his position and the serious tone of his body language. “I think I will cry,”(178) Offred thinks as she takes a seat. She is trapped in a sticky situation internally. She is obliged to go to the Commanders room at night, regardless if she doesn’t want to break the rules.
Because of this new relationship, Offred is exposed to many new feelings and insights. Many of these feelings are uncomfortable and confusing. She does not know what to expect next. More important, Offred knows she is expendable to the Commander. From this situation Offred is given a new role as a handmaid. She is not only needed for her ovaries, but also wanted for her mind. The Commander uses her for himself, which is selfish yet Offred has an opportunity for Offred to open her mind as she once used to.
She gains a new confidence and acquires a new sense about herself and her situation as a handmaid. Offred is not allowed to speak about her situation but has the ability to look at herself differently. She now has new meaning in the house, and a relationship of the mind with the Commander. The Commander says; “I want. ”(178) Hearing this Offred does not want to give away her eagerness. He continues, “I would like you to play a game of Scrabble with me. ”(179) He shows a new side to himself by exposing a weakness. A man who was an intimidating force in the house is seen differently.
He exposes a forceless side. It is understood that he too suffers in this new society. He feels the lack of friendship, companionship, and love. He has shown vulnerability. He does not have everything he wants in life. It is hard to like the Commander because he is seen through the Handmaids eyes. A weak side to personality is rarely exposed in a leader. They are stereotypically presented as strong. When a weakness becomes obvious, the masses are satisfied because they can identify with the leader. It is understood that they are human and capable of making mistakes.
The Commander is the stereotypical leader in the Republic of Gilead. Others look up to him and seek his power. Atwood has given him the name “commander” suggesting a higher ranking above others without even giving more details. A powerful label in life is seen as an immediate sign of power. Readers are programmed to respect people of authority, which happens just by knowing their label and not necessarily knowing them personally. Without getting to know him the readers subconsciously fill in what a commander should be.
As Atwood describes the Commander in more detail, a different side begins to emerge and our thinking about him changes. As a man reading about him, I understand how the Commander feels. He has been socialized as a macho leader, with a one-dimensional side and no sympathy for others. Then a need for companionship emerges through the Scrabble invitation. By taking this interpersonal risk, a new respect was gained for him. He is no longer just the stereotypical norm. He has the guts to become involved in a relationship, and risk humiliation for companionship.
He becomes three-dimensional showing a side that needs love. The commander is human. Scrabble was presented with new status in this society. “This was once the game of old women, old men, in the summers or in retirement villas. ”(179) What use to be a game of innocence is now forbidden. Scrabble is a symbolic analogy to Atwood’s new society, which also had forbidden pleasures. A game that was once taken for granted becomes a source of hope for Offred. Scrabble now means engagement and the possibility of future changes.