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Aldous Huxley describes Brave New World as a “nightmare” world of genetic engineering, brainwashing, drugs and recreational sex. The New World State is a perfect society gone awry: a society to be feared by the contemporary audience with the intention to warn about expectant future developments. Margaret Atwood offers a 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 of their individual rights and identity.
The early 1930s saw much interest in ‘eugenics’. However, many were cautious about supporting such views after World War II and the Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution”. Controversially, Brave New World offers a plausible account of the positive effects of eugenics in a system where human characteristics can be chosen in advance. Huxley’s vision of the future is one of happiness, yet this happiness is in exchange for freedom. This cautionary tale highlights the limited and disastrous results of a society where perfect efficiency leaves no room for emotion, will or mind.
Set against the backlash of the 1980s and the second wave of feminism during the 1970s, Atwood portrays a society not progressing towards equal rights for women, but rather these rights are taken away. Babies are the most valuable commodity in this society to coincide with the declining birth rate, and so to achieve compliance women are objectified and stripped of all rights to present a terrifying and alarming future society.
Written in third person with an omniscient narrator Brave New World gives a personal account of individual experiences for a number of different characters, allowing 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. The World State is an already established system, and so through “John’s” eyes only does Huxley present the imperfections of the futuristic and artificial world. The World State has no past, and perhaps on its own would not be considered so imperfect, yet the Savage Reservation offers an alternative society that highlights the flawed qualities of the World State. The World State and the Savage Reservation seem to lie parallel to each other. It is only when John crosses between the two that the reader is exposed to the shock of “external reality”.
In contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale is a first person fictive autobiography, giving a retrospective account of personal experience. Atwood gives a non-chronological account as Offred moves between past and present, presenting the reader with a fragmented representation of time. Through Offred’s eyes only do we begin to comprehend this ‘cautionary tale’. Gilead is a solitary society, whereby all members are expected to comply with the ‘rules’. There is no other world to compare to, only the past highlighting what they used to have. Rather than portraying an already established system Atwood portrays a society in transition and reformation, allowing comparisons to be made between past and present, and thus highlighting the differences between Offred’s past and her current situation. The reader accompanies Offred through the Red Centre and essentially “Re-education”, and this sense of journey and understanding 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”, accentuating how she used to live and what she has lost. Placing emphasis on the freedom that Offred once had, these flashbacks contrast with the way she lives now as a Handmaid and promote the “nightmare” qualities of her current situation.
Brave New World portrays a society where all members are considered to be ‘happy consumers’, if so then it 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.” Social control is based not on terror, but on pleasure, yet in a way that contemporary readers find unacceptable. It is 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”. The word “ought” acts as an imperative; they have no control over their actions and can only behave as they should behave, as if it is their duty. This complete lack of freewill and independence makes the World State so feared and appalled. Huxley includes many trends that 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 is “soma”.
The Handmaid’s Tale, however, does not value happiness and instead promotes a restrictive and guarded society. Women have been stripped of all individual rights, including names, and left imprisoned and isolated. The Republic of Gilead is not acting out of concern for individuals, but rather proposes an answer to fluctuation in world population. Atwood presents a completely totalitarian society, taken to such an extreme that women are only seen as potential (surrogate) mothers. Directly addressing the reader Offred declares “I wish this story was differentâ€¦I’m sorry there is so much painâ€¦But there is nothing I can do to change it.”, showing the desperate and absolute situation many women are in. Possibly, Atwood is echoing the earlier female stereotype whereby women were objectified as a means of reproduction, expected to stay at home and bear children.
However, in The Handmaid’s Tale women are ‘protected’, the streets are safer and women are not targeted by men. Atwood differentiates between a former society that promoted violence against women, and the present society that protects them from such harm. Coinciding with the feminist battle against pornography in the 1980s, Aunt Lydia shows “old” pornographic films with graphic images of “â€¦women being raped, beaten up, killed”. It becomes obvious “that was what they thought of women then” and so, if men are not allowed to see such images then they will not find it acceptable to commit such acts, and women become safer. However, that is not to say that Atwood condemns the past, nor idealises this future, but rather strives to create a sense of balance between the two.
Offred continues that she has “tried to put some good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?” Obviously, if “flowers” are the only “good things” present, there is something wrong. You could consider the significance of “flowers” as symbols of freedom and growth, both repressed for Offred. Flowers are used throughout the novel, from the word “FAITHâ€¦surrounded by a wreath of lilies” on a cushion, to the “tulipsâ€¦shedding their petals one by one”, to present the imposed restrictions on the women, contrasting their limited growth and freedom with the free and unhindered evolution of nature. In Brave New World, faced with the “rushing emptiness of the nightâ€¦the pale face of the moonâ€¦among the hastening clouds” Lenina can only exclaims how “horrible” and “dreadful” such independent nature is. Nature is not appreciated, yet it does still exist and ultimately represents that which cannot be controlled.
There is a 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, citizens are incapable of an original response and simply fall back on 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” hinder language and meaningful discourse, while also promoting the central notion of commerce and materialism. 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. Shakespeare allows John to give shape to his experiences, likening them to that of Hamlet and Othello. It is evident, however, that John also has a habit of falling back on slogans in place of his own thought, using Shakespeare to articulate his feelings which he may otherwise be unable to express. While this use of language seems to strip away any sense of individuality, you could also question whether the World State really is such a “nightmare” if both environments produce this stock approach to communication. It is hard to condemn the World State as a “nightmare” when John, a Savage Reservation inhabitant, also has a conditioned approach to communication using Shakespeare in place of personal and free discourse.
Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale communication is also limited. An old “Vogue” magazine becomes contraband, “books” and “writing” become “black-market stuff” and newspapers are “censored”, as the Republic of Gilead aim to cease all forms of communication. Handmaids are not allowed to read and fear saying anything that may be interpreted as defiance towards Gilead. Women are defined solely by their gender roles as Wives, Handmaids or Marthas, stripping them of individual names and identity. Feminists and deformed babies are considered subhuman, denoted by the terms “Unwomen” and “Unbabies”, while specially created terms characterise the rituals of Gilead, such as “Prayvaganzas,” “Salvagings,” and “Particicutions.” This perversion of language allows Gilead to exert control over the society; through manipulation of language Gilead maintains its control over women’s bodies and their actions. Atwood uses language as a tool of power.
In Brave New World recreational sex is an essential part of society; sex is a social activity, not a means of reproduction, while those few who can reproduce are ‘conditioned’ to use birth control. The maxim “everyone belongs to everyone else” promotes any sense of “family”, marriage or parenthood as obscene and even offensive. The relationship between John and Lenina Crowne is complex due to the completely opposite worlds they inhabit. Lenina, being “uncommonly pretty”, is desired by many men. John, however, is sexually immature, repulsed by Lenina’s promiscuity. This indifference clearly shows how their two worlds cannot meet as one. For the contemporary reader it is hard to comprehend a world where family no longer exists, the word ‘father’ is “pornographic” and natural reproduction is no longer needed. For many, this may 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.” Women are valued only as potential surrogate mothers: fertile women have no choice but to reproduce, for they are merely “two-legged wombs”. Offred’s relationship with the Commander, and possibly his wife also, is described as “serious business” lacking “passion or love or romance”. Offred and the Commander are doing their “duty” rather than seeking out an emotional relationship. Nick, therefore, offers Offred freedom, a chance to be “in control”, yet this relationship is forbidden. Fundamentally, while Lenina is ‘conditioned’ and encouraged to seek out sexual activity, although not emotional relationships, Offred is not given the chance, permitted only 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 so also restricted to what they can and cannot do. It is incoherent to imagine the future in this way, where emotional relationships are forbidden and replaced with “ceremonies” as a means of reproduction. The reader is invited to feel sympathy for the Handmaids as they are denied all individual rights, left isolated and restricted in a “nightmare” world.
Being dystopian novels it is perhaps expected that Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale will reveal “nightmare” worlds in order to criticise and warn about future developments. Although Brave New World promotes a society whereby every individual is ‘happy’ and secure, the reader understands this as unacceptable. Huxley presents the World State in a way that the reader, as does John, sees it nothing more than an unnatural fantasy. The Handmaid’s Tale also reveals 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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