Social Satire in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale and George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s Animal Farm exemplify the literacy practice of using parody to cleverly criticize a satirical target: each texts government or social structure. Orwell, through political commentary and ‘beast fable,’ creates an example of socio-political allegory, which alludes to the historical reign of Joseph Stalin. The underlying critique demonstrates how farm animals, under the control of their oppressive owner, revolt against his power only to evolve into creatures embodying the same or inflated characteristics of their inhumane keeper. Comparatively, Atwood plays on contemporary societal forms within The Handmaid’s Tale by utilizing the conventions of satire and feminism in a parody of an utopian world. When reading both texts one is able to make relations to where satirical ironies are placed within the dystopian worlds. When both texts are contrasted one can explore their allegorical properties and how they critique social worlds and political organizations.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian society, which in a nightmarish way contrasts with the ideologies and beliefs of contemporary society. Atwood creates a world filled with policies that are aimed at controlling the functionality of the female body for total reproductive control. Just as women are controlled in the society of Gilead, men and women are classified and ranked based on their function or status in society. Women are highly categorized within their society based on marriage, fertility, and age. Women such as Cora, a Martha, imply a differentiation of problematic class segregation within their society. Cora coldly explains to the protagonist Offred, a Handmaid, that respect is divided between the women’s classes. The Martha’s feel that they deserve just as much as the Handmaid’s for they work harder and are burdened by their bodies, “If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could have been me, say I was ten years younger. It’s not that bad. It’s not what you’d call hard work. (Chapter 1, line 20) Offred exemplifies just how elevated fertile women are within her society as she describes what it is like to publicly see an impregnated woman, “She’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved. (Chapter 5, line18) This “magic presence” represents pregnancy to be one of the most celebrated stages in a woman’s existence within her society. Gilead presents a strong connection between their government and their church in which ones ideals fall onto the other. The connection between the two – resulting in a theocracy – causes the community to falsely submit into the dominant idea that women owe their society the job of procreation, “Adam was not deceived, but the women being deceived was in transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing” (Chapter 34, line 221). Thus, Offred’s society is not only depicting their women in containment and being used as a lesser sex, but is also pushing for the reader to see this world as a hauntingly paralleled world to our own.

In the contemporary world, there are countless ways that women are subjected to subordination and objectified. Within our own world, females have been denied various rights that men exhibit such as land ownership, occupations, and education rights. By exposing women to be used as “incubators” within The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood is presenting a terrifying thought to her readers, through Offred, that Gilead echoes allegorical faults within our own society. We learn within the first chapter that Offred is denied the freedom of speech which amplifies the restraint that Handmaid’s endure within her society, “We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names from bed to bed: (chapter 1, lines 5-6). Even Offred’s name suggests constraint as she admits in chapter fourteen that she has “another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden.” (chapter 14, line 37) Not only does Offred comply with taking on a new name she explains that she must tell herself that her original name is a nuisance like a telephone number. In doing so, Offred distances herself from her own identity and convinces herself that such separations are not what her society accepts. Just as she is robbed of her identity by name, Offred was previously robbed of her motherhood. Offred feels as if she is “obliterated” from her child’s life completely and has become only a “shadow” to her. Being subjected to such cruel acts, Offred conveys to the audience allegorical elements which we the audience can see as a type of warning. Within our own society women attempt to take on the ‘angel of the house’ role which is defined as a woman’s single life before marriage and “provide[s] training for her role as angel-wife. As a wife and mother she obeyed her husband, adored him… She was an acquiescent, passive, unintellectual creature, whose life revolved entirely around social engagements, domestic management, and religion.” (Peterson, 678). These close-to-home issues, presented within The Handmaid’s Tale, should coerce the reader to despise such a futuristic society, and do everything in their power to avoid such a future from becoming reality.

Contrastingly, Orwell’s Animal Farm exhibits the elements of political allegory and ‘beast fable’ in an attempt to satirize the uncompromising Stalinist era, by alluding to the ideas of propaganda. Orwell’s text can be viewed as less of a warning towards our present society and more of a cause and effect satire. Unlike the horror of the world that one steps into in The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm commences in a less connectable manner. Whilst using the structure of “fable and fairy tale” (Kirschner 759), the author uses the technique of anthropomorphism and personification to give animals human characteristics while still keeping their innate animalistic qualities apparent. This method causes the human traits to have a distorted and exaggerated projection as the characters’ stereotypes and historical references become visible to the reader. Orwell creates a “pointedly political criticism”(Kirschner 758) by crafting Napoleon the swine as the anthropomorphic version of Stalin. By posing Napoleon as the most “clever of the animals” (Orwell 8), Orwell alludes to the totalitarian leader Stalin, portraying him just as intelligent as a human, and just as vulnerable to the corruptibility of power. This mixture of humour and trenchant critique announces to the reader that anyone is susceptible to the consumption of their own greed and the enslavement of their moral compass in the pursuit of power. Snowball, the anthropomorphic Trotsky, demonstrates this when their most impressionable “comrade” Boxer kills a child and feels remorse, Snowball feels no compassion as he shouts justifyingly at him that “war is war” (Orwell 41). Thus, Orwell, through the animals, creates a parody of the Russian Revolution by alluding to how political tyrants are able to go from “pig to man” (Gulbin 87), as their wide-eyed followers adhere to their governing. Though the farm revolution was conceived in order to overthrow their owner, Mr. Jones, the outcome of their actions causes the animals to be run by pigs who run a society much crueler than their past owner, thereby emphasizing that what they fought for is in reality much worse than what they originally had to endure.

When dissecting Animal Farm and The Handmaid’s Tale side by side, in comparison to our society, the reader is able to see various similarities within their major themes and literary devices. Both Orwell and Atwood’s text push forward the same societal tendencies within their dystopian worlds that emphasize class segregation. Both the pigs and Offred’s oppressors use the literary device of rhetoric as a gateway into manipulation for power. Animal Farm’s society suggests a tendency towards class separation and segregation, while promoting equality, the society in The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes these same views. As Cora was previously exemplified for normalizing segregation, the pigs use rhetoric in a manner which pushes the other animals to believe mistreatment is beneficial “it is for your sake that we drink the milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed our duty? Jones would come back!” (Orwell 25) Atwood’s use of rhetoric emphasizes manipulation in a human form by separating sexes and outer appearances as the pigs do, by branding inadequate females as “unwoman” and deformed infants as “unbabies” (Atwood Chapter 14, line 37). Thus, both Atwood and Orwell convey language as a kind of weapon in itself, by proving how malleable minds can be to corruption through influence. Just as language is a source of control, both texts emphasize power enabled through normalized violence. Torture and intimidation riddle The Handmaid’s Tale with such common conduct that death is established in Offred’s mind as being natural, “last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha. She was fumbling in her robe; for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb” (Atwood chapter 2 line 23). This moment differentiates itself from Boxer’s murder of the child because his kick can be seen as a pivotal moment of change as well as a clear example of how strong the use of rhetoric can be on a susceptible mind. Unlike the dystopia formulated by Atwood, where violence is the norm. Though the two stories use violence and language in their own variations, both when paralleled, assert the idea that these two aspects can force a society to become corrupted through ideologies.

By conveying their own satirical stories through allegorical methods of beast fable and the political, while correlating with the socio-political issues of each texts time frame, both Orwell’s Animal Farm and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are able to convey a parody of human beings and their societal norms. Through Atwood’s format in The Handmaid’s Tale, a reader can render this parody of women as an ironic display of societal views in a female gender script. Similarly, a reader can interpret the political allegory in Animal Farm as an analogy to totalitarian communism. Nothing in either text is accidental; rather, both emphasize within every point of their textual bodies, a satirical undertow pushing forward how these dystopian worlds are similar to our own.





Works Cited


Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin     Company. Boston. 1986 Print.

Gublin, Suzanne. “Parallels and Contrasts in “Lord of the Flies” and “Animal Farm””. From The English Journal. Volume 55, No.1.    National  Council of Teachers of English Publishers, 1966. Pg. 86-88 +92.

Kirschner, Paul.The Dual Purpose of “Animal Farm”. From The Review of  English Studies. Vol. 55, No. 222.    Oxford       University Press, 2004. Pg. 759-786.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New American Library of Penguin Group. Toronto, 1996. Print.

Peterson, M. Jeanne. “No Angels in the House: The Victorian Myth and the Paget Woman.” The American Historical Review 89.3 (1984): 677-708.

Erica H.

On weekdays I'm either working my derriere off at York University, or volunteering with high school students. On weekends I model, manage my company, and travel the world. I work very hard to keep my passions of modelling and teaching separate, which has been the cause as to why I haven't had a day off since September. I love making jerk chicken. I love fashion a little too much, and I really can't stand tank tops paired with scarves. I want to be able to connect my loves of English and Social Science together to come up with some sort of career where I can help people.