“You Got Power to Let Power Go?”
an analysis of two dystopian novels, Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
The genre of dystopian literature focuses on the absolute disastrous parts of social reality and brings them to aesthetic fruition. Dystopian settings often have a government that is totalitarian and tyrannical in nature but that presents itself through propaganda as a wholesome and moral governmental body. Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale fall under the category of dystopian literature, as they both paint a distinct picture of a nightmarish future. Orwell’s text is often seen as the proto-typical dystopian novel as it was written as a direct response to the radical political climate of 20th century totalitarian regimes, critiquing the totalitarian dictatorships of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mussolini’s Italy. Orwell draws upon these dictatorships to construct the world that protagonist Winston finds himself subject to in 1984. The disturbing dystopian society found within Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is very similar to Orwell’s world as Atwood draws upon similar components of language, manipulation, propaganda, surveillance, sexual and political repression, and a shocking lack of agency for key characters in order to create a world as terrifying and eerie as Orwell’s. Where Atwood’s novel strays from Orwell’s conceptions of dystopian literature is Atwood’s emphasis on gender relations and prescribed gender roles. The Handmaid’s Tale is a critical account and veiled criticism of gender politics at the time it was written, 1985, and like Orwell, draws upon contemporary political and social issues that exist outside the realm of fiction and exaggerate them within the fictional work as a form of satire. Both Orwell and Atwood construct rich and complex worlds that may seem outlandish and ridiculously fictional but are rooted in history and terrifying possibility. Although both texts are rooted in history, their criticisms of gender politics and totalitarian regimes transcend decades and can be read as present-day political satire.
The construction and manipulation of language is central to both totalitarian governments in 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. It is through the manipulation of words, phrases and sentences, through control of the media and elimination of reading, that rebellious movements like the Mayday resistance or The Brotherhood can be thwarted as the governments attempt to deny their respective subjects political agency. Language is something linked so closely to freedom, the freedom of expression, freedom to create and freedom of the press; yet by eliminating diverse forms of language and creating a new uniform model of language that caters to the ideals and needs of the totalitarian government, the citizens of said government are denied those freedoms. This manipulation of language is evident in Orwell’s 1984 through The Party’s invention and enforced use of Newspeak. Newspeak, an altered and manipulated form of English, is used by The Party to repress those words and thoughts which could pose a threat to the totalitarian regime such as individuality, peace, and self-expression. Newspeak lays heavy emphasis on the eradication of synonyms and antonyms and vocabulary that could hurt The Party and its ideals. By eradicating these ‘useless’ words, The Party is attempting to narrow the scope of expression which if left unwatched could result in subversive and scathing criticisms of The Party and Big Brother. To be critical of The Party, whether in spoken or unspoken forms, is considered ‘thoughtcrime’ in the eyes of the law. ‘Thoughtcrime’ is essentially thinking or saying something that is in direct opposition to the government, resulting in the lack of political agency and loss of freedom in Oceania. Syme, a Newspeak specialist, in a conversation with Winston explains the goal of Newspeak in regards to thoughtcrime when he says, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” (Orwell 67). Much like how Atwood’s text emphasizes the power art has against literalism, Orwell is placing heavy emphasis on the importance language as a means of political agency and freedom of critical thought, as well as dissensual expression. He is advocating against the vocabularic genocide of Newspeak, as this new language may make it seem like the idealized world but that is only because The Party is manipulating it that way in its favour, to eliminate any idea of an alternative world where critical thought is allowed, or even conceivable. Orwell highlights the importance of language and expression, no matter how small, as enforced censorship and Newspeak literalism are central to a totalitarian government remaining in power. For example, artistic expression is a form of political agency but The Party has adopted this medium to create social-realist propaganda to serve their own needs, to represent their own vision of society, whilst also diluting the medium as a viable vehicle for critical thought. The inclusion of this in the text is a direct response to social-realist propaganda art found within Stalinism and other authoritarian regimes.
Relating to Atwood, Syme’s reasoning for Newspeak is eerily similar to Gileadean ideology in The Handmaid’s Tale and the ‘making ordinary’ of everyday life though the elimination of reading and the imposition of structure on what can be said. This is the idea that, through repetition and practice of daily rituals, Gilead is able to force a new ordinary upon its citizens, eliminating a creative human response much like The Party is doing with language. It should be noted that Gilead also achieves this through managing and manipulating language, having the game of Scrabble be a taboo pleasure and outlawing reading.
Similarly, in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Republic of Gilead is able to manipulate its citizens using some of the very same tactics Big Brother uses in 1984. Just as The Party is eradicating words that do not fit or express their agenda, The Republic of Gilead actively re-defines words, sometimes to the point of irony and semantic reversal. The concept of freedom is almost completely reversed in The Handmaid’s Tale as freedom is defined and accepted as the lack of something despite it being expressed as a positive change. Early on in the novel our main character, Offred, is having a conversation with Aunt Lydia about the differences between now and before the revolution when Gilead rose to power. Aunt Lydia explains:
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touched us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. (Atwood 27-28)
The slight difference of adding a ‘to’ or a ‘from’ to the end of freedom completely changes the meaning of the phrase. Freedom to implies a certain level of agency, an active participation in something whereas freedom from is restrictive and denies agency. Women like Aunt Lydia have been manipulated to believe that Gilead is looking out for the best interests of women, when in reality it is the complete opposite. The place and function of women is wholly determined within the social hierarchy that exists for them within the Gileadean order of things. Whereas women will no longer be cat-called or subjected to sexist remarks, the institutionalized and systemic sexism that occurs instead is being masked through the totalitarian art of language manipulation. Both Atwood and Orwell share similar sentiments about what the near-future might harbour if we are not careful by constructing narratives through the eyes of richly-crafted characters that the reader can empathize with, who stand-out as glimmers of hope in an otherwise desolate, and seemingly intractable political setting. However, at the same time, both authors are offering a critique of contemporary social and political society as institutionalized and systemic sexism and governmental manipulation of language persists in the reader’s present. Earl Ingersoll, a Professor at the State University of New York, in his 1993 article, “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Echoes of Orwell”, notes this connection between the two text as he writes, “Atwood shares Orwell’s liberal-humanist anxieties about a future in which totalitarian states offer individuals the firm option of either freedom and anarchy or repression and security… we are encouraged to identify ourselves with focal characters who seem the “last man” or “last woman” in their desperate struggles to preserve their humanness” (Ingersoll 64).
Another similarity between the totalitarian governments in both texts is their emphasis on surveillance masquerading as security. In 1984, there are telescreens and microphones strategically placed everywhere inhabitable in order for Big Brother to obtain absolute knowledge of its citizens and surveil any possible instances of thoughtcrime or radical behaviour. Winston describes the telescreens and their properties in the opening chapter: “The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument…could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely” (Orwell 4). From the opening chapter it is clear that The Party has a massive amount of surveillance in place, limiting the amount of personal freedom the citizens truly have. This is due to the fear of being watched, and the panoptical effect of not being able to see or observe the observer who watches. This creates widespread social anxiety that every movement, action or thought had by a citizen is under surveillance which results in a populous fueled by fear and consequence. Outside of technological surveillance, there is an active human force constantly keeping watch for any hints of thoughtcrime, young children. Young children are the easiest to persuade and manipulate as they have grown up under the watch of Big Brother and have easily bought into the State’s propaganda and scare tactics. They are taught to listen to and report any instances of thoughtcrime committed by their parents, their own flesh and blood, in order to serve the totalitarian government they have been manipulated to adore.
Almost a direct reference to Orwellian surveillance tactics, Atwood’s Republic of Gilead employs a secret police group referred to as The Eyes. The Eyes also evoke a symbolic representation or homage to the repeated phrase in Orwell’s text, “Big Brother is Watching You”. Under the threat of constant surveillance, the citizens – and more importantly the women in the novel who have been categorized by strict social function – are tormented into performing their prescribed roles for fear of punishment coming their way. Offred and the other women live in constant fear of The Eyes, which manifests itself as paranoia and self-policing, and what they might do to those who disobey or are rebellious. Offred witnesses The Eyes in action and writes:
Right in front of us the van pulls up. Two Eyes, in gray suits, leap from the opening double doors at the back. They grab a man who is walking along, a man with a briefcase, an ordinary-looking man, slam him back against the black side of the van. He’s there a moment, splayed out against the metal as if stuck to it; then one of the Eyes moves in on him, does something sharp and brutal that doubles him over, into a limp cloth bundle. They pick him up and heave him into the back of the van like a sack of mail. (Atwood 201)
The Eyes act as a secret police, much like the agents of Big Brother in 1984, which are representations of totalitarian enforcer regimes like the KGB or Gestapo officers. The Eyes and Big Brother may seem outlandish and exaggerated displays of governmental force but they are rooted and based on very real and horrifying police regimes used to enforce a strict code of rules and laws. The seemingly fictional aspects of these dystopian texts are rooted in historical fact, which brings a whole new level of uneasiness and horror to the novels, as well as a means of using the texts to critique our own social worlds. The manipulative qualities of these branches of the totalitarian states anticipate post-9/11 Western societies as individual freedom and self-expression is routinely being heavily censored and muted in the name of security and patriotism. Using the United States as an example, the amount of surveillance that has been built up post-9/11 through legislature like the Patriot Act and through security agencies like the NSA, similarly parallels the dystopian settings of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Another key characteristic of both the Republic of Gilead and The Party is their focus on sexual repression as a form of manipulation. In 1984, Winston comes in contact with a woman who is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, a group created by The Party to repress their sexuality as a means to use their repressed urges as motivation for hate and fostering pro-war nationalist sentiments based on fear of the other. The Party is constantly at war with another nation, and that nation changes on any given day, so in order to prevent people from questioning the various wars, The Party draws upon repressed sexual frustration and presents the war as an outlet for that anger. In a similar fashion, Gilead’s Salvaging’s work in a similar way. A series of public executions are held with emphasis in inciting hatred towards the perpetrators as a uniting force to bring everyone together. Fear mongering is a common tactic employed by both The Party and Gilead. Winston’s attitudes towards women is shown early on in the novel as he describes Julia, a future love interest, as:
She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her. He knew the reason. It was because of the atmosphere of hockey-fields and cold baths and community hikes and general clean-mindedness which she managed to carry about with her. He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. (Orwell 13)
Despite describing her using positive attributes and praising her beauty, Winston cannot help but dislike her because of her association with the government Anti-Sex League, which is an extension of The Party. Winston’s hate and rage due to sexual repression would be useful to The Party for him to support the war effort. However, Winston fantasizes about becoming intimate with Julia, and through their expression of sexuality later in the text, their intimacy becomes an act of rebellion against The Party. Orwell writes:
Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. That too was a gesture belonging to the ancient time. (Orwell 39)
Winston’s fantasy is a natural expression of his repressed desires and one that The Party cannot interfere with or try to manipulate. These desires manifest themselves later on as Winston seeks out prostitutes to purge him of his sexual urges because they exist outside of the Party’s repressed sexual community. It is clear from these two passages that his hatred towards women and sexuality is a behavioural manipulation of The Party, or an intended consequence of the mechanisms of power established by the State.
Sexuality in The Handmaid’s Tale is presented in a similar fashion but acts as the focal point of an oppressive regime. Offred, a handmaid, is one of many women who are kept essentially captive strictly for reproductive purposes. This is her prescribed role as a woman, one of many roles that Gilead is re-imposing and amplifying based on fundamentalist readings of scripture. The act of sex in the Republic of Gilead is strictly to counter-act the declining birth rates and population decreases due to pollution and disease as a result of the revolution. Sex is seen as something done to a handmaid in order to get her pregnant rather than an intimate time shared between two people for pleasure in addition to conception, reinforcing a puritanical theocratic-patriarchal ideology towards the act of sex. Similar to Winston’s sexual fantasies, sexual oppression is lifted ever so slightly for Offred as she develops a romantic relationship with Nick, the driver for Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena. Offred is hesitant at first but slowly develops a liking for sexual expression and thus having sex for pleasure. This is seen as an act of rebellion, similar to Winston’s fantasy as it stands in direct opposition to what the totalitarian government is demanding of its citizens. The Salvaging and Particutions further articulate this ideology, much as the Anti-Sex League serves as a driving force behind pro-war nationalism. The institutions within either text act to reinforce the ideologies of the State through overt and covert methods of channelling libidinal energy.
Another act of rebellion that links these two texts together is that of writing or recording one’s own story. Both Offred and Winston keep a secret diary of sorts, using their own language to express themselves and keep a record of their daily lives. Whether it is Winston writing in a journal or Offred recording her story on cassette tapes, their recordings serve as private acts of resistance as they defy the prescribed roles they both have by refusing to conform to the restrictive language parameters outlined by the oppressive government. As a form of literary therapy, both Offred and Winston are able to express themselves freely and critically in an otherwise imprisoning world. The act is therapeutic for both the characters and the reader as their words draw the reader into an authentic space free of State control. Winston discovers a place in his apartment where the telescreen cannot see him, and it is in this small and cramped space where Winston is most free. In this space he decides to write a journal where he documents his everyday experiences. After his first journal writing session where he writes about a movie he saw that day, he stops. Orwell writes, “He did not know what had made him pour out this stream of rubbish. But the curious thing was that while he was doing so a totally different memory had clarified itself in his mind, to the point where he almost felt equal to writing it down.” (Orwell 12). The act of writing, a rebellious act, unlocks and unhinges Winston from the state of oppression he lives in. From this simple act of defiance against a totalitarian government, Winston feels slightly liberated and freer than he once was.
Offred, like Winston, is rebellious in her act of recording her story, which eventually is recovered and translated in order to create the Handmaid’s Tale. In a state where female literacy is a crime, Offred clings to her oral communication, memories, and private narratives in order to free herself ever so slightly from her oppressive surroundings. The reader is only aware that Offred’s story is a text, recorded from the perspective of Offred, after being translated by those who recover her tapes. She recounts her experience at a book and magazine burning. Reminiscent of pre-Gileadean feminist burnings of pornography, Gilead appropriates the act as a means of totalitarian censorship, a subtle paradox presented by Atwood which speaks to the manipulative nature of totalitarian regimes. Offred has the following to say about the story that she is telling:
This isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. (Atwood 45)
Offred, despite her circumstances and lack of tools, understands the importance of telling one’s story and the importance of differing perspectives as no doubt the Gileadean state would want one and one story only to be told, their own. Offred understands how this is an act of rebellion and the nuances in the text, her words, are real and important to analyze for the future group of scholars who discover and study her cassette tapes.
It is clear that Atwood’s text can be read as a companion piece to Orwell’s as the two are so similar, and it is no coincidence that her novel was published in 1985, one year after the supposed events of Orwell’s 1984. The Republic of Gilead and The Party are very similar in the way that they manipulate individual sexual and self-expression. Their manipulation of language and creation of new language forms, emphasis on surveillance veiled as security, and general deception and propaganda are all testaments to this. However, Atwood’s emphasis on gender dystopia presents a striking critique of patriarchal society today, whilst also highlighting the faults and failings of totalitarian government institutions. Despite being so similar, both texts are unique in their own way and are fantastic criticisms of the fictional societies and states the stories take place in, as well as critiques of the worlds in which the authors live. Ingersoll (1993) may have put it best when he comments on the similarity between both text’s’ main characters when he states, “Winston and Offred are both defined through their efforts to affirm a subjective “truth” as legacy for future generations to whom they look for validation of their noble struggles to survive as humans, rather than as creatures of an overbearing patriarchal state exacting a kind of castration as a price of citizenship.” (Ingersoll 72). Ingersoll’s comparison between Offred and Winston can be extended to Orwell and Atwood. Both authors use their immediate social situations, the rise of totalitarian regimes for Orwell and institutionalized sexism for Atwood, to create extended metaphors about individual agency, the human condition, and systematic forms of oppression. Unfortunately, these metaphors ring true today. However, it is through these forms of social satire and criticism that governmental and institutionalized oppression are exposed and connections can be drawn from fiction to reality. Who is to say which dystopia is more terrifying?
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print.
Dean, Mike, and George Orwell. 1984. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2003. Print.
Ingersoll, Earl. “Margaret Atwood’s “the Handmaid’s Tale”: Echoes of Orwell”. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 5.4 (20) (1993): 64–72. Web.