Brave New World And Handmaids Taleredraft English Literature Essay

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Jade Bromilow

In Brave New World Revisited (1958) Huxley described Brave New World as a "nightmare". Compare and contrast the ways in which Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale present "nightmare" worlds.

For many it is understandable why Aldous Huxley describes Brave New World as a "nightmare". Through the employment of genetic engineering, brainwashing, drugs and recreational sex, Huxley reveals The New World State to be a society that is often deemed as unacceptable, inappropriate and quite possibly feared. Likewise, Margaret Atwood offers a restrictive, totalitarian society built around the single goal of reproduction. The Handmaid's Tale presents a "nightmare" world whereby women, and perhaps men alike, are stripped off their individual rights and identity.

Both Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale have been defined as dystopian fiction, presenting an imaginary and somewhat dysfunctional future society. Both could be seen as cautionary tales, satirising aspects of reality to sound a warning about possible future developments. Brave New World is set in London, a location the reader can identify with and relate to. However, set in the future of "a.f. 632" (632 years After Ford) Huxley predicts the development of science as not only a lead to new technology, but as a means to alter human nature, human behaviour and in turn enable us to 'redesign' ourselves.

When Brave New World was written in the early 1930s there was much interest in 'eugenics': the scientific planning of human breeding in order to improve the health of future generations. However, much of the research into this subject was often seen as crude and unreliable and people became even more cautious about expressing such views after World War II and the Nazi Germany "Final Solution". Contributing to the eugenics debate, Brave New World serves to offer a more plausible account of the positive eugenics in depicting a system where human characteristics can be chosen in advance. Huxley's cautionary tale acts to directly address this topic and consider the issues it entails, while portraying the somewhat limited and disastrous results. The Handmaid's Tale...

Brave New World appears to be written in third person with an omniscient narrator. The reader is given a more personal account of individual experiences for a number of different characters, which effectively allows Huxley to include an outsider, John the Savage, who can identify the flaws of this so-called perfect society that are seemingly invisible to those who know no different. Considering that the World State is an already established system, it is perhaps through "John's" eyes only that Huxley can present the faults and imperfections of the futuristic and artificial world. The World State has no past, and perhaps on its own would not be seen as so imperfect, yet John and the Savage Reservation offer an alternative society that Huxley uses to highlight the flawed and limited qualities of the World State. The World State and the Savage Reservation seem to lie parallel to each other, and it is only when John crosses between the two that the reader is exposed to the shock of "external reality".

In contrast with Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale is a first person fictive autobiography, giving a retrospective account of personal experience. Atwood offers a non-chronological account as Offred moves between past and present; the reader is presented with a very fragmented representation of time and through Offred's eyes only do we begin to comprehend this 'cautionary tale.' The Handmaid's Tale presents one single society, the Republic of Gilead, whereby all members are expected to comply with the 'rules'. Essentially, there is no other world to compare to: there is only the past that can highlight what they used to have. Rather than portraying an already established system Atwood portrays a society in transition and reformation. This allows comparisons to be made between past and present and thus highlights the differences between Offred's past and her current situation. The reader accompanies Offred and many other Handmaids through the Red Centre and essentially "Re-education", and it is perhaps this sense of journey and understanding that allows the reader to empathise with Offred and the "nightmare" world she lives in. Offred often recollects her past, giving frequent details of the "time before" when "Luke was still at work, [her] daughter was at school", highlighting how she used to live and what she has left behind. By placing emphasis on the freedom and independence that Offred used to have, these flashbacks serve to contrast with the way she lives now as a Handmaid and fundamentally promote the "nightmare" qualities of her current situation.

Brave New World portrays a society where all members are considered to be 'happy consumers', if this was the case then perhaps Brave New World is anything but a "nightmare". Ultimately, inhabitants are living in a controlled and stable society, "they're well off; they're safe; they're never ill; they're not afraid of death." Brave New World offers social control based not on terror, but on pleasure, yet in a way that we as contemporary readers find unacceptable. It seems to be these 'ideal' qualities that connote a "nightmare" world, whereby "they're so conditioned that they practically can't help behaving as they ought to behave". It seems to be this complete lack of freewill and independence that makes the World State so feared and appalled. In Brave New World Huxley includes many trends that seem to strip away the basic qualities that make human beings unique individuals; we cannot imagine a world where natural reproduction is not a necessity, disease is banished, "and if anything should go wrong, there's soma".

Huxley describes how "[John] woke once more to external reality, looked round him, knew what he saw - knew it, with a sinking sense of horror and disgust, for the recurrent delirium of his days and nights, the nightmare of swarming indistinguishable sameness." The reader is invited to share John's revolt and rebellion, like him, we too cannot comprehend the World State: through John's eyes we also reject "external reality". John cannot cope with modern civilisation, the nightmare world, and it is this that leads to his tragic downfall.

The Handmaid's Tale on the other hand does not value pleasure or happiness and instead promotes a restrictive and guarded society. Women have been stripped of all individual rights, even their names, and left virtually imprisoned and isolated. The Republic of Gilead is not acting out of concern for each individual, but rather simply seem to be proposing an answer to fluctuation in world population. Atwood reveals a completely totalitarian society, taken to such an extreme that women are only seen as potential (surrogate) mothers; they have no income and instead are given tokens to shop, they need passes to gain access through guarded barriers and cannot even look at one another in the eye. Offred appears to address the reader directly when she declares "I wish this story was different...I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story...But there is nothing I can do to change it.", clearly showing the desperate and absolute situation many women are in. It is also possible that Atwood is echoing the earlier female stereotype whereby women objectified as a means of reproduction, suggesting that these circumstances in Gilead are current also. Offred continues that she has "tried to put some good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?" It becomes obvious, that when "flowers" are the only "good things" included, there is something wrong. You could also consider the significance of "flowers" as symbols of nature and growth, freedom and beauty, all seemingly repressed for Offred. However, as with Brave New World there are good things that result from such a society. In The Handmaid's Tale women are 'protected', the streets are safer and women are not a target for men. 

The use of language becomes increasingly significant throughout both Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale. There seems to be a certain sense of language restriction in Brave New World as the apparent conditioning of all World State inhabitants presents a restricted and ultimately conditioned use of language. When faced with any situation, the World State citizens are incapable of an original response and simply fall back on certain cliché slogans and proverbs. Huxley's use of parody means that certain quotes such as 'ending is better than mending' and 'everyone belongs to everyone else' hinders language and meaningful discourse. Even Lenina, when faced with Bernard's unorthodox attitudes, has certain stock phrases that she is almost inclined to say; "a gramme in time saves nine", "After all, everyone works for everyone else. We can't do without anyone", and ironically, "I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time". Lenina is not free, and even her language is restricted to what she has been conditioned to say and think. John's frequent use of Shakespeare allows him to give shape to his experiences as he likens them to that of Hamlet and Othello. It is also evident, however, that John has a habit of falling back on slogans in place of his own thought, using Shakespeare as a way to articulate his feelings, which he may otherwise be unable to express.

Another intense focus throughout both Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale is the notion of sex and relationships. In Brave New World recreational sex is an essential part of society; sex is seen a social activity and is far from a means of reproduction, while those few women who can reproduce are 'conditioned' to use birth control. Essentially, "everyone belongs to everyone else" and it is this maxim that promotes any sense of "family", marriage or parenthood as obscene and even offensive. The relationship between John and Lenina Crowne is very complex due to the completely opposite worlds that they belong too. Lenina is "uncommonly pretty" and is desired by many men. John on the other hand is sexually immature; he is repulsed by Lenina's promiscuity and this indifference clearly shows how the two worlds, the World State and the Savage Reservation, cannot meet as one. In addition, for us as modern readers it is hard to comprehend a world where family no longer exists, the word 'father' is considered "pornographic" and natural reproduction is no longer needed. For many, this would be considered a "nightmare" situation.

In Atwood's own words, The Handmaid's Tale is "what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions." In contrast to Brave New World, women are valued only as potential surrogate mothers: fertile women have no choice but to reproduce, for they are merely "two-legged wombs". Men and women are strictly divided and in taking a feminist perspective it is clear that women are considered as intellectually and emotionally inferior. Atwood, as a female author, is clearly reflecting upon the imminent feminist movement, emphasising the fact that inequality between men and women was still prevalent. For many, a world in which women are objectified and men are superior is a "nightmare" in itself. Offred's relationship with the Commander, and to a certain extent his wife also, is described as "serious business", there is no "passion or love or romance" and essentially both Offred and the Commander are simply doing their "duty" rather than seeking out an emotional relationship. Nick on the other hand offers Offred freedom, a chance to be herself, yet this relationship is strictly forbidden. Fundamentally, while Lenina may be 'conditioned' and encouraged to seek out sexual activity, although not emotional relationships, Offred is not even given the chance and is only permitted to fulfil her supposed purpose, i.e. reproduce. It is also important to remember that men too suffer in this 'ideal' society. Men are segregated in the same way as women, being ordered to serve military purposes and are therefore also restricted to what they can and cannot do. It is somewhat incoherent to imagine the future as being this way, where emotional relationships are forbidden and are instead replaced with "ceremonies" as a means of reproduction. The reader is invited to feel sympathy for the Handmaid's as they are denied all individual rights, left isolated and restricted in a somewhat "nightmare" world.

With both Brave New World and The Handmaid's Tale being dystopian novels, it is perhaps expected of them to reveal "nightmare" worlds in order to criticise and warn over future developments. Although Brave New World promotes a society whereby every individual is 'happy', safe and secure, the reader understands this in a way to be unacceptable. Huxley presents the World State in such a way that the reader, as does John, sees it nothing more than an unnatural fantasy. The Handmaid's Tale also could be said to reveal a "nightmare" world, although not so much based on pleasure seeking. The Republic of Gilead objectifies women, leaving them with no sense of individuality and only one option: to reproduce.

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