Reviewing The Novel The Handmaids Tale English Literature Essay

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The novels '1984' and the 'Handmaid's Tale' present a world engulfed by fear, manipulation destruction and chaos to the anticipating reader. Both worlds are governed by a party which strictly monitor most aspects of the lives of its citizens. Totalitarian is the term which can be used to describe the way in which these governments act as a dictatorial one-party state, that regulates every realm of life. At the heart of each novel, dystopian themes wreak havoc upon the protagonists, whom attempt to express their emotions and dramatic experiences in a unique, yet spellbinding first and third person narrative.

The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985 by Margaret Atwood whom wrote the novel as a slight twist on the society we have now. The dystopian novel's central character is Offred and is set in the not too distant future, in Gilead. She was once a graduate student in Victorian literature and she believed in a similar way to the Victorians, that a novel isn't simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination. Atwood found herself increasingly alarmed by statements made by religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, whom influenced a lot of Americans to not ignore a variety of events such as the Iranian Revolution. It brought power to the Ayatollah Khomeini and his crusade against Western "pollution" that included freeing women from their traditional role as wife and housekeeper.

George Orwell published '1984' in 1949 as a science fiction-dystopia type novel. The Protagonist is Winston Smith and the setting of the novel is London (Airstrip One, Oceania) .Orwell has said that the book described what he viewed as the situation in the UK in 1948, when the economy of Britain was struggling, the British Empire was dissolving, and wartime allies were quickly becoming vicious enemies. Orwell designed 1984 to alert the Western World, whom were unsure how to tackle the rise in communism. He was horrified by the oppressions he witnessed in communist countries and particularly concerned by the way in which technology gave governments the leeway to monitor and control their society.

In order to help critically analyse the theme of dystopia, it is necessary to understand its actual meaning. Dystopia represents a world clothed in anguish, basked in pain, and removed from all depths of happiness. A key instrument in employing a dystopian society , is the government that rules over its citizens. In 1984 for example, there is a mysterious head of government whom is named as Big Brother and he is usually displayed on large posters with the slogan "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU." It is the enigmatic aura that surrounds Big Brother (as it is unknown whether or not he truly exists) alongside the constant reminders that he is omnipotent and omniscient, that helps instil fear into the people of Oceania. Though London is the head of Oceania's government, its leaders allow for the city's corruption. These leaders belong to a group known as The Party, a political party without opposition. The idea that the party is always watching, even when people are in the security of their own homes, illustrates totalitarianism in one of its greatest forms. The Party undermines the core family structure by educating young children to spy on their parents and report any signs of rebellion to the party. The party also forces individuals to suppress their sexual desires, replacing its meaning with nothing more than the procreative duty. This particular point bares resemblance to The Handmaid's Tale, whereby sexual lust is a prohibited act.

In Atwood's dystopian vision, the red gowned handmaids obey what they are told by the men or by the Aunts. An Aunt is an infertile woman who has been given a position of command over other women. Men can be "Angels," or soldiers, who fight the regime's enemies-Baptists, Quakers and Catholics or they can be assigned to groups that provide other necessary operations. The novel displays a picture of which attempts to release heartfelt emotions and speak freely are punishable by death. The omnipresence of Angels, Guardians, and Aunts induce an atmosphere of constant surveillance and social repression in which fascist tactics technology and biblical mandate are all combined. The Handmaid's are given no rights in Gilead, they are not permitted to write or partake in any extra-curricular activities. They obey what they are told and are alive to serve only one purpose; give birth. The line : "Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential. Moira lay on her bed, an example." puts this dystopian view into clear perspective for the reader.

In discussing freedom one envisions freedom of speech, equality between sexes and liberation to act according to one's will. In Oceania such qualities are nonexistent. In chapter 6 part 1, Winston gives the reader an insight into the social restrictions placed on himself and fellow citizens: "Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema."Sex which is known to be the covenant bond between two people, whom share a tender love for one another is stripped down to a duty, an exercise, a sheer emotionless procedure with no real option for romance to domineer. The goal of the party is to remove an individual's soul; "There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love except the love of Big Brother." Orwell signals alarm about the future of mankind who is doomed its self worth without the qualities of loyalty and love. Sex, family and love are the core anchors that hold the emotions of human essence to our individual selves and they hold no place in the world of Oceania. Freedom's restraint is not only confined to love between citizens, having the wrong facial expression qualifies for "Facecrime" and talking in sleep, thinking against the Party, having misgivings about the Party, doubting Big Brother, or questioning any Party action is regarded as "Thoughtcrime". The fearful element of these crimes is not so much the punishments that follow them, but rather the ideal that they cannot be escaped. Big Brother monitors the citizens through highly sensitive telescreens, and therefore sees everything.

The following quote from The Handmaid's Tale, provides interesting links between the two novels, when considering the aspect of freedom: "I think about Laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money.. I think about having such control...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." The quote initially informs the reader of the uniform appearance between all handmaids. In 1984 there is no difference between the citizens appearance, they all must wear the same uniform, almost like an army whereby own clothes and individualism is prohibited; "three hundred million people all with the same face." The words "freedom to" and "freedom from" provide two aspects of freedom. "Freedom to" represents the historical battles women fought to achieve "freedom to" and to be successful. "Freedom from" signifies an environment where women are now protected from America's pollution and dwindling birth rate. In 1984 similar motives are insinuated by the party, i.e. the citizens are given a life protecting them from the opposing colony whom they are at war with(Eastasia) "Freedom Is Slavery" because, according to the Party, the man who is independent is doomed to fail. By the same token, "Slavery Is Freedom," because the man subjected to the collective will is free from danger. Offred, the protagonist of Atwood's novel, describes her uniform here in this passage as unattractive and unflattering: "The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts...I never looked good in red, it's not my colour." The Gileadian government know that by denying women their almost innate sense of expression through what they wear it reduces their individuality, morale and their freedom and thus willingness to resist- a clear dystopian feature.

With a restraint on freedom it is expected that there will be urges to resist its oppressive force, and this is the case in both dystopian worlds. Winston begins to write in his diary in the opening chapters of 1984, although he realizes that this constitutes an act of rebellion against the Party. By writing a diary he understands that he has committed his first overt act of rebellion and is a thought criminal. He considers himself doomed from the very beginning as mentioned before, all of Oceania's citizens believed, once a crime was committed, "sooner or later they were bound to get you." This particular point differs from Offred's development of character throughout her story, she at first "accepts assurance that the new order is for her protection." and does not initially start off with hatred towards Gilead's government. Now Gilead did attempt to destroy any resemblance of the "corrupt" past, however they failed to understand that it isn't easy to remove the memories of the human heart. It is not hard to deprive someone something they never had, however it is a greater challenge to erase an enjoyable experience that people have already experienced. This is perhaps part of the reasoning behind both Moira's and eventually Offred's motive to rebel.

Winston has the thoughts to rebel but his hunger for it increases as Julia announces that she has illegally had sex hundreds of time. He sees their sex as a "blow struck against the Party" and it helps his fuel his desire to discover the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the secret, anti-government organization headed by Emmanuel Goldstein. It is unknown whether the organisation really exists, but by allowing people to believe that it does and then by showing people the horrible consequences that faces those who join or associate with the group, the Party manages to keep people in order. Winston also has hope that the Proles (women 85% of the population that are not Party members) will become conscious of the corruption and rebel, but unfortunately they are represented as mental inferiors who are simply incapable of understanding the Party's vision. For this reason they are unable to challenge the Party or create a world that would justify existence.

In 1984 Julia's determination to rebel appears to be stronger than Winston's. However this may be mistaken for Julia's reckless attitude to most things in life, whereas Winston is an observer, a thinker. Julia concerns herself with the present, whereas Winston thinks about the future. These traits do bare some resemblance to Offred and Moira. Moira being similar to Julia in terms of will to be insurgent, and Winston bearing some resemblance to Offred in terms of their conservatism, and reflective way of thinking. Yet their are close parallels to their personal rebellion in terms of Winston's sex with Julia and Offred's sex with the guardian, Nick. By having sex with Nick it is in essence a reminder that sex connected with love is not the same as sex in the absence of love.

A dystopian environment; engulfed by terror, an atmosphere where temptation to break the rules is an inescapable thought for some, and with this notion, the punishments that follow provide a callous yet powerful warning to others whom dare not repeat the same mistake. A "Salvaging" is the public execution of a person whom has broken one of the laws in Gilead. Usually the criminal's head is covered with a bag, and hung in front of the handmaid's who kneel in front. It is a chilling experience that Offred finds difficult to observe.

In 1984,the greatest punishment that one can receive is a visit to Room 101. The thing that is in Room 101 is "the worst thing in the world". It is a room that contains an individual's greatest fear , and in Winston's case it is wild rats. A few things stand out in this area of the novel. Firstly, the omniscience of the Party is justified here because something as personal as one's greatest fear is not secret. Secondly, Room 101 tends to do more than to act as a punishment, it psychologically and emotionally transforms an individual to fit the Party's needs. Once the experience is over, any inkling of rebellious motives toward the party or individualism to any degree, is extinguished. We see this happen to Winston as he screams repeatedly that Julia should receive his punishment, that it should be she who's face gets mauled with rats. The woman whom he loved the most, became his greatest enemy in a split second, and this was all that was necessary for the Party's procedure to be complete. Manipulation coinciding with fear is the heart of Room 101's effectiveness and is a key dystopian element that exists in both novels. The rats were perhaps never really intended to attack Winston's face, but rather to force him to break his promise to never betray Julia, thus breaking his spirit.

A major reason for the Party and Giledian government's hold on its citizens is Propaganda. The Ministry of Truth, where Winston works, is responsible for disseminating all Party publications and information. All figures and facts come from the Ministry of Truth, and all are dictated by the Party. In other words, the Party decides exactly what to tell the public, regardless of what is true and what is false. The effectiveness of this propaganda machine, allows the Party to ultimately control all ranges of information given to the public. In essence as O'Brien says, the propaganda machine determines what constitutes reality. In Gilead it is understood that the news available through the media is highly censored. As Offred says: "They only show us victories, never defeats. . . . (The male newscaster) tells us what we long to believe. He's very convincing" The media presents the information in such a way that the government is shown as being good and its goal is simply to build credibility with the audience. Propaganda is a theme that does contribute to the dystopian feel of both novels, and it links well with the theme of manipulation. For example by creating a new truth, the society is in essentially living a facade but moreso with the Party's tool double think(word with two mutually contradictory meanings) it can employ a loyal willingness in citizens to believe contradictory statements when the Party demands it, which allows for a continual alteration of the past. The vision of how Big Brother views the world, is exactly how Oceania views the world, there is only one reality and it belongs to the Party.

With Propaganda, manipulation follows directly and one of its greatest effects is the language that it forces citizens to use.   Oceania's Newspeak language narrows the range of thought and shortens people's memories. It is ideal for a totalitarian scheme, whereby the government relies on a passive society which lacks independent thought such narrowed thought is what the Inner Party prefers, because a public that lacks the ability to think clearly, is less dangerous than one that can defend itself from harm and condemn the government.

The notion of storytelling is woven throughout Offred's tale and so we are accustomed to the language of Gilead through her narrative. We discover that that the official vocabulary of Gilead is different from traditional American language. Women are stripped of individual names and are assigned gender roles such as Marthas Handmaids and Wives. "Unwomen" represent feminists and deformed babies are represented the title "Unbabies" (There is similarity here to 1984 whereby a criminal who is killed is known an as "Unperson") Greetings such as Hello ,are removed and replaced with holy substitutes like "Blessed Be The Fruit" and "Praise Be". By employing a new language, and new names it gives Gilead the necessary power to control the women's bodies.

In discussing dystopian imagery features and themes, I feel both novels provides a healthy array of material to consider and evaluate. Both novels share major themes such as totalitarianism, propaganda and manipulation yet each has its own unique techniques and themes that accentuate a dystopian living.1984 for example is renowned for its great twist when O'Brien is discovered to be part of the thought police, and the reader is given an authentic insight into the thoughts and desires of the Party. We see how destructive the Party wants to make the world become and this helps add depth to the horror elements of the story. Orwell managed to take his readers on an extraordinary journey with Winston, whereby he begins as an individual just coming to terms with his hate for the Party, and became a man so intrigued by an underground rebellion organisation, that it led to his demise. The dissimilarities between the novels that I have noticed lie in the way individuals lose their self worth and the time frame between the past free world and the current dystopias. Women in Handmaid's Tale are reduced to fertility, treated as nothing more than a womb and a set of ovaries. In an extremely pivotal scene Offred lies in the bath and remembers that, before Gilead, she considered her body an instrument but is now just a mound of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled in order to justify her existence. In terms of time before the current dystopias and during it, Winston does not remember things having ever being different. Instead he must look out and search to find out what life used to be like. The fact that only he and Julia know about the government encourages the stifling atmosphere of the book, where the government pretends that life was always and will always continue that way. Atwood takes a different route, Offred knows from the beginning that life used to be different. She remembers her child, love, birth, freedom to rather than freedom from, yet she is forced to participate in a system she doesn't believe in. Also Atwood allows room for thought as to whether or not Offred escapes to safety, whereas Winston's fate is shown to the reader.

Robert Linkous was one of the very few reviewers completely unmoved by Atwood's novel: "Offred's monotonous manner of expression just drones and drones," he wrote in San Francisco Review of Books. Peter Prescott wrote that The Handmaid's Tale was better than those other dystopian books because Atwood was a more talented novelist. "Unlike those English gentlemen, she can create a nuanced character," he wrote in a review entitled "No Balm In This Gilead." "The dystopia she imagined may be more limited than theirs, but it's fully horrifying-and achieved without recourse to special effects."

Many critics found the Proles in 1984 unconvincing and have condemned them as stereotypes. They argue that Orwell, the product of upper-class schools could not possibly empathise with those below him in the class structure. However British novelist V. S. Pritchett wrote "I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down"

The removal of identity is a key element to both novels, because in removing individuality, there is little that stops a totalitarian government from dominating every aspect of life. It is with this concept that perhaps a dystopian story truly comes to life. The novels show Orwell and Atwood's strength as engaging story-tellers, creators of sympathetic characters, and as articulate authors of a theme that is both current yet captivating.