The literary genre of dystopian fiction is concerned with the depiction of a future that is devoid of basic human rights and freedoms, of a world where poverty, tyranny and terrorism is the norm. The basic tools and themes dystopian novels use are common. The difference lies in their approach. The essay tries to explore some of these common themes through two novels: The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty- Four, while highlighting the similarities and differences in their expression.
The plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four is as follows: Winston Smith, the protagonist lives in Oceania, one of the three main regions of the world along with Eastasia and Eurasia, between which war is constant. Oceania is controlled by the Party and ‘Big Brother is always watching you’. Party members do not have any personal freedom. The story follows Winston’s resistance and his relations with co-worker Julia.
The Handmaid’s Tale follows the story of ‘Offred’ in the fictional republic of Gilead where a theocracy has taken away the basic rights of women. Due to declining birth rates, Handmaids are assigned to a Commander to get impregnated by him. The baby is snatched away. The book depicts the life of those who don’t have any control over their physical selves.
In both these stories, the setting is used to convey the feelings of the protagonist and the nature of subjugation. For instance, in Nineteen Eighty- Four, there is a sentence that says: ‘The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.’. This evokes a sense of austerity and staleness, of something wasted. Another passage: ‘Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere.’ The eddies of dust and torn paper signify a bleak existence, a life flapped about by the Party in any direction it wished. Even the sky hurts the eyes with its harsh blue, because they have been bombarded with the ubiquitous black and white posters. That only these seemed to have any colour signifies the effect of the posters: the appropriation of human sight and perception, how Big Brother has taken over everyone’s minds and lives. Winston expresses his frustration by describing the habitations around him as ‘sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken houses’. Sordid accentuates the general air of wretchedness; the addition of ‘chicken houses’ brings up an image of restriction and being cooped up. A ghastly image of the Oceanian regime emerges through this sentence.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, the opening lines state that the trainee handmaids slept in a former gymnasium. Gyms are associated with rigour and discipline and it seems symbolic that they are part of the training area. There is a nostalgia for the engaging atmosphere with its profusion of scent and colour, that would have prevailed there when games were held, in the following lines: ‘Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.’ The images portrayed here signify their yearning for uninhibited expression of joys and sorrows, for the dramatic flavour of these events. ‘There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name.’ Stripped of its former glory, the place feels lonely now; much like how the girls feel lonely after being separated from their loved ones. Old sex feels stale, more so by the fact that they are not allowed any sexual freedom. The formless expectation shows hope in the future despite awareness of the bleak outlook. The mention of a dormitory that is currently used for something else, with its fairy-tale turrets painted white and gold and blue can be seen as a fantasy of escape.
The difference in how the setting is used lies in the tone of the text. Orwell describes it in a way that it mirrors Winston’s despair. But Atwood describes how the setting was used in the past and uses this to depict current feelings. There is a longing for the past in Offred’s words, while only the desolation of the present in Winston’s view.
The attitudes towards sexual activity and freedom are generally the same in both Gilead and Oceania. Sex is a perfunctory act to produce children and is not to be undertaken for any pleasure. There is no sexual freedom. But the rationale behind this principle, the methods used for enforcement and how rules are broken are very different.
In Gilead, due to the rapid decline in birth-rates and a reversion to Victorian prudishness, the handmaid system was formulated. Fertile divorced/remarried/unmarried women are separated from their families and forcibly sent to the houses of Commanders (whose wives are unable to reproduce) to get impregnated by them. It is ritualized with the reading of the Bible and the involvement of the wife in the act. A certain group is oppressed for the benefit of others.
Force snuffs out sexual freedom. The hunger of Offred for consensual sex is brought out in these lines:(with reference to Nick and her): ‘We make love each time as if we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.’ This shows the frantic desire that permeates their sexual intimacy. Sexual pleasures are no longer entitlements but rewards.
In Oceania, sex is perceived as a duty to the Party, for raising children to serve Party interests. There is a marriage approval committee which only approves couples who are not sexually attracted. Organizations like the Junior- Anti Sex League, drill the undesirability of the sexual act into the minds of young girls. Winston thinks that the aim of the party is to kill the pleasures of sex. ‘Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema’. Sex is being denied its naturalness and is seen as an invasion inside the body. Why? Satisfaction resulting from it might endanger the Party’s aim of controlling human instincts to fit its purpose.
Winston has no choice but to satisfy his sexual drive by seeking the favours of a prostitute. It only made him feel cheap and ashamed of himself because he associated with the proles. Though the act may seem against the Party, it is not. Winston ends up worse than before. The Party has succeeded in its aim of removing pleasure and there is no danger of change in inter-Party relations.
Sexuality is also used as a tool of rebellion by both Winston and Offred. This is evident in what Winston feels when he and Julia share their first embrace: ‘All he felt was incredulity and pride.’ The astonishment is the result of his dream coming true; the pride from being able to do the forbidden. Winston is more fascinated with the act itself than with individual relations. ‘Not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.’ He sees the sexual instinct as something that can be revolutionary. Only by affirming this fact with Julia is he able to yield. ‘It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.’ It is not the personal satisfaction but the triumph against oppression. The personal has become political.
Offred thinks of the actual sexual intimacy with Nick as a generosity, not as a rebellion. But she feels powerful because of the desire she can induce in young Guardians through her sexuality. It is a more direct act of revenge and rebellion. ‘I raise my head a little, to help him, and he sees my eyes and I see his, and he blushes’. She derives pleasure from tempting him, from being in control. It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach’. She revels in their suffering and derives joy from being the cause of it, from having the power to inflict mental agony. It is a protest, so small as to be undetectable, but nevertheless indicative of the possibilities of rebellion.
There is a glorification of brutality by the government in both Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Handmaid’s Tale. Public hanging of war prisoners and people who have committed crimes against the regime is made out to be a social occasion. This violence becomes internalized to a point that it is no longer abnormal. Public punishments also serve as a warning to other people.
Oceania conducts public hangings of its war prisoners. Syme says ‘And above all, at the end, the tongue sticking right out, and blue — a quite bright blue. That’s the detail that appeals to me.’ This shows an appalling insensitivity towards fellow beings, and worse, a gloating over suffering. The unnerving thing about his statement is that this violence has a social sanction, which renders trust and safety impossible.
The corresponding practices in Gilead are the Men and Women Salvagings. These are ritualized with mandatory attendance and protocol. These are public hangings, but the term used is interesting: Salvaging. It evokes images of rescue and restoration. By death, people are rescued from their own criminal nature. Their pure self is restored. The handmaids are required to proclaim their solidarity with the decision; here, social sanction is explicit and not merely internal like in Oceania.
There is also a practice called Particicution, which celebrates direct violence.The handmaids physically punish a man accused of crimes against women like rape. They can do anything until the whistle is blown. ‘It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend. ’The real victory of the Gileadian regime lies in the fact that they inspire such manic feelings against fellow beings- it is a defeat of the human spirit. Particicution is seen as an allowance to handmaids, an opportunity for them to express their repressed emotions: ‘She is about to give us something. Bestow.’
Another similarity in these novels is the absence of personal freedom of the protagonists. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s especially pronounced. Offred does not exist as an individual. She is Of- Fred: Fred’s personal possession. She does not even have the right to end her life. Her clothing is selected for her and it is highly restrictive. Her sexual partners are predetermined. She cannot raise the baby she gives birth to. She is not allowed to read or write- when the Commander shows her a magazine, she wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. This statement shows the intensity of her yearning; the magazine is precious, when only some years before, it was a mindlessly discarded possession.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, even a differing thought is a crime. Winston is surrounded by telescreens which endlessly broadcast Party propaganda. They can watch whatever he does or speaks. He is denied the freedom of thought and opinion. His life is controlled by the Party which rations clothing, imposes curfews and regulates physical exercise. His marriage needs to be approved by a committee and he has no sexual freedom. At a point O’ Brien says that the death of the individual does not matter because the Party is immortal. This implies that Winston’s existence is of no use except as a vehicle for fulfilling Part interests.
What’s different about the state of personal freedom in Gilead and Oceania is that in Gilead the absence of a physical sense of one’s self is more pronounced; there is no self as her body is not her own. In Oceania, the absence of one’s mental self is more evident- even Winston’s thoughts are monitored and controlled. What’s similar is the complete infringement of human rights in both regimes, rights that account for both physical as well as mental freedom.
This essay has tried to explore the common themes of the use of setting, attitudes towards sex, the use of sexuality as a rebellious tool, the glorification of violence and the absence of personal freedom in dystopian literature through two novels: Nineteen Eighty- Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. The similarities and differences in the approach of both to these themes have also been discussed.
1. Nineteen Eighty- Four, George Orwell (e-book): https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79n/contents.html
2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (e-book): http://www.readbook1.net/The_Handmaid_s_Tale.html
(all the aforementioned quotations are from these books)