Compare and contrast the ways these authors present the oppressive society of their dystopias and the effect these techniques have on the reader
Both novels stimulate the reader’s anxieties and fears as they explore the dystopic worlds of ‘Airstrip One’ and ‘Gilead’. All of the aspects and issues that are portrayed in the societies are conveyed using a number of techniques such as the manipulation of the familiar and comfortable with the alien and unnerving that Airstrip One and Gilead come to represent. The basic literary techniques and depth of detail are paralleled in both of these pieces of prose and go someway in highlighting the similarity in style yet the backgrounds and eras of the authors set the texts apart and the means (characters, motifs, symbols and experience) they use to deliver the chilling messages behind the novels.
‘1984’ is a political novel written with a purpose of warning readers about the dangers of totalitarian states and in one part says that if you want to see a picture of the future ‘ imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever’. It is a horrific view of the destruction of totalitarianism. Some of what Orwell prophesised came true in Russia, to some degree. In Stalinist Russia, documents were destroyed as in the ‘Ministry of Truth’ and there was a ‘beautification’ of a leader, like there is with Big Brother.
The title suggest that he thought that in thirty-five years time if left unopposed totalitarian governments could reign like this. He drew on the experience of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin’s governments and makes many references to these periods and states throughout like the exercise instructor being fit and healthy and having four children, which in Nazi Germany was awarded with one thousand Marks and a Gold Medal which due to the vast propaganda campaigns were highly prized especially during a period of economic hardship.
Atwood similarly says that passivity can allow these worlds to become reality and that everything in her novel has either happened or was happening at the time that it was published in 1985. At the time the Taliban were gaining power and Afghan women were expected to stay at home and it was at this time that there was a resurgence in fundamental Christian activity.
The narrative structure and voice of a novel affects the acceptance and experience of the reader. Both novels and the styles lend themselves to a similar acceptance and effect on the reader. Michael Sherborne notes that ‘1984’ is divided into three parts: a beginning, middle and an end. The clear structure is an attempt to impose some order on a chaotic situation.’ ‘1984’ is narrated by an un-credited third person. However the close link and exploration of the protagonist’s thoughts forces many to believe that the narrator is Winston. By never naming Winston as the narrator Orwell has left enough ‘space’ as to accept a third person, neutral narrator as to make the narrative more reliable and to further highlight the oppressive society where you are unable to tell your own story.
It is also hinted that Winston can’t be the narrator as at one point vapourization is discussed and it is noted as a fact that ‘Mrs Parsons would be vapourized. Syme would be vapourized and Winston would be vapourized.’ The conviction of this means that it can’t be Winston and lends itself to many to suggest that O Brian may be the narrator because as he later discloses he has followed Winston for seven years. The depth and detail the narrator is privy to again serves to highlight another point in Orwell’s society, that not even thoughts are private and that others are conscious of them and monitoring them.
As a character Winston may be perceived as hopeless and uninspiring, with his ‘varicose veins’ but in this society it would be unrealistic for him to be inspiring, positive and enviable. He is a run down product of this oppressive society. The use of the present continuous tense means that the reader experiences things as Winston does and this makes us uncomfortable as voyeurs only again to emphasis Orwell’s point that there is no privacy and that in that society you can never escape the ‘gaze’; the male gaze of Big Brother that exerts power over you and restricts you. The book is disturbing as Winston’s consciousness is beyond his control, attacked not only by the outside pressures of propaganda and regulation but also internally through nightmares and memories, over which O’Brien finally proves to be master.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is narrated in the first person, in present tense. The present tense gives the narrative a sense of immediacy and allows the reader to share her experiences. As Offred tells her story, she often slips into flashbacks. She goes over the beginning of the new regime, her time with Luke and her daughter and times with her mother. In ‘1984’ Winston tries to ‘squeeze some childhood memories’ and often tries to form clear memories of his mother and sister and what the country used to be like. While they are quite vivid in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the flashbacks in ‘1984’ are often incomplete. In both novels the use of them highlights the characters longing to make a connection with their past and to have some control. For Winston, memories are dangerous to the party and they seek ultimate control.
‘Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past’.
Winston’s memories are a rebellion and take some power from the party.
As a character, Offred, the protagonist and narrator she is intelligent and perceptive and possesses faults, which make her human, like Winston. However she isn’t as dreary or hopeless in presentation and her dark sense of humour or ‘graveyard wit’ make her descriptions more bearable and highlight her intelligence and awareness making her a more reliable and trusted narrator. She is aware of her role and that of the handmaid’s in general as ‘containers’, a ‘womb on legs’.
Winston’s frail body and his poor mental state make him seem weak and unstable and forces the reader reserve judgement of what he says. He is presented as a weak man but throughout we see him become more assertive and animated in his actions with Julia. He now leads her in rebellion. The awareness of both characters makes the narration or content more reliable and informed. The ability of Offred to put things in context means that her narration is sensationalised as she has perspective.
Language is used in both societies as a tool of power to restrict people in their expression to limit their ideas, thoughts and emotions, to mould into social ideals. Both powers manipulate vocabulary to warp reality in order to serve and fulfil their own objective. The difference, however slight, is the apparent degree to which this is taken. In Gilead it is illegal for women to have jobs and whereas men are defined by their military ranks women are defined by their gender roles as wives, handmaids or Marthas. Handmaids loose their names and become interchangeable objects belonging to a commander.
Their new names say exactly who they belong to: Of-Fred. The names for men are from the New Testament and concern faith and piety. The renaming in this manner with these connotations is to whitewash the political injustice and evil and serves as a reminder that Gilead is supposedly based on the authority of the Bible. In the Christian context, Gilead is a source of healing. By stripping down the language used to show imagination, feeling, thought and individualism they are stripping away identities and placing people into groups to make it easier to persecute them and to prevent them from fighting back. In ‘1984’, people are address as ‘comrade’ and while this is supposed to group people it isn’t there to help them identify with each other. Instead it strips them of individuality and presents them as ‘just another’. Winston’s own name – Smith, presents him as an ‘everyman’ character which more people can relate to and make the text more personal.
Specially created terms: neologisms, define the rituals of Gilead such as ‘prayvaganzas’ and ‘salvagings’, which are unconnected with the connotations that the names have. ‘Prayvaganzas’ aren’t sincere meetings but ‘like a show or a circus’. Gilead maintains control over women’s bodies by controlling their names and prescribing them for a purpose and eliminating any way in which they can formulate opposition as they can’t express or convey it. During a flashback Offred begins to sing and notes that she can’t remember the words to a song and states that some ‘aren’t merely forgotten or confused but banned, such as the word ‘free’. By banning a word, the thing it describes or represents cannot be easily identified or conveyed. By setting up this obstacle and blocking it in peoples minds you leave them with things that they can’t express and so can’t achieve because it no longer exists.
‘The Handmaids Tale’ carries on a tradition of exploring a connection between a states repression of it’s subjects and its ‘perversion of language’, made famous and set as a bench mark for dystopic novels, in Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘newspeak’. ‘Newspeak’ is the eradication of revolutionary words to ensure that people only use necessary pro-party speech. Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and English Language’ (1945) that the ‘decline of language ultimately has political causes’ and this is explored in ‘1984’. People work on new editions of Newspeak constantly, in order to reduce the number of words to the absolute minimum to restrict full expression, which could slander the party.
Language is used as mind control in ‘1984’ and is one of Orwell’s most important messages; that language is of central importance to human thought because it ‘structures and guides’ the ideas that individuals can formulate and express. Linguists suggest that thought depends on language. Derrida said that the word to describe an object has no real connection with the object and the signifier has nothing to do with the sign until you can highlight that the object exists in relation to something else. The word dog, for example, has nothing to do with what we know as a dog but it has meaning and relation when we compare it with a cat – direct binary opposite. By taking away the signifier the signified can’t exist, as you’ll have nothing to contrast it against.
In ‘1984’, the Party alters the structure of language to make it impossible to conceive disobedient or rebellious thoughts because there were no longer any words with which to think them. The Party constantly refines newspeak to reach the ultimate goal where no one will be capable of conceptualising anything that questions their absolute power.
Writers and critics dealing with the ‘legacy of colonialism’ have used Orwell’s ideas about language as a controlling force. During colonial times, foreign powers as part of their occupation, instituted their own language and postcolonial writers ‘often analyse or redress the damage to local populations by the loss of language and loss of culture and historical connection’ which makes them feel lost as Offred and Winston do in their respective societies because of the change in language and its use.
In ‘1984’ Syme notes the ‘beauty’ of Newspeak and states that the ultimate goal is to end the ‘wastage’ in verbs and adjectives to reach and end where the whole notion of ‘goodness and badness’, for example, is covered, ‘in reality, by only one word’. He fully encompasses the party’s belief and states that the destruction of words is a ‘beautiful thing’. He makes the changes sound attractive but there has to be a lot of doubt in expression being fulfilled in one word. He says that ‘Newspeak’ has a ‘beauty’ and that destruction is ‘beautiful’ and the repetition of this word is there to bring people around to the positive nature but it makes his language seem boring and so the limited use of words doesn’t appeal and sets up an opposition to the restriction.
Syme also notes that thoughtcrime will be impossible as there will be ‘no words in which to express it’ and in the end, every concept can be expressed by ‘exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined’. It’s contradictory that you can be expressive using just one word, when, entail, it’s meaning has been rigidly defined. Rigidity and expressiveness have antithetical meanings.
The extent to which the Party wishes to carry Newspeak and the exploration of this depth in ‘1984’ contrasts the degree to which language as a whole is manipulated in ‘The Handmaids Tale’. While they have banned the word ‘free’ and changed the Handmaid’s names they aren’t striving to reduce language to a few words. Most of the action the have taken such as the renaming of handmaid’s and taking the names off of shop signs is to prevent women from reading in a bid to limit their power and while it is the states aim to prevent opposition they haven’t gone to the same length as the party in ‘1984’.
What is paralleled in the novels is the fear of thoughts and conversations being detected and overheard. On walks with Ofglen, Offred is reminded to stay silent at checkpoints and on main streets around others and says that the occasion for them to speak in out in open areas as they’re ‘always safest outdoors’ with ‘no mikes’. Julia hushes Winston while in the forest until they are in a clearing so as not to be detected by any hidden mikes themselves. In ‘1984’, the monitoring is very obvious with the telescreens, which serve the purposes of monitoring and the spread of propaganda.
They are a symbol of totalitarian hegemony. ‘Telescreens’ symbolize the abuse of technology for a parties own ends instead of using it to improve civilization, as in a totalitarian state. It is this evasive and noticeable monitoring, which strikes fear amongst citizens in Airstrip One and presents an oppressive regime as they are ‘always transmitting’ and it is ‘conceivable that the party watched everyone all the time’.
Ofglen has a vast knowledge about the use and limitations of state monitoring, like Julia and they are both provide a hope and escape from the restrictions imposed for Winston and Offred. When Offred can speak frankly she and has responses from Ofglen she lets out a ‘sigh’; she no longer feels a threat from her. It is a sign of relief and the relaxing after a climatic point, where she doesn’t observe the reserve or code of behaviour and risks everything to talk to Ofglen. With Julia, Winston is able to freely talk, in the gold country, out in a clearing and supposedly in Mr. Charringtons shop.
As in ‘1984’, the citizens of Gilead are aware of war and Offred is unable to name the enemy. We are told about her world and how Gilead came into existence through her dreams, flashbacks and digressions. We are able to experience a lot through her descriptions and are give details of the rituals and ceremonies. We know about language limitations and name changes, even of shops, which are now represented by pictures.
By noting some familiar places it provides an easy an realistic base which people can easily picture like Harvard university (now the setting of Salvagings) and Trafalgar Square in ‘1984’and evokes a greater unease when the new state or use of it is disclosed because people now have a link with the oppressive new world. The changes to what the reader considers familiar stirs an unease similar to what characters feel and the fear of the unfamiliar. This fear is used to unnerve and confuse the society and get rid of their memories so that the party can have greater control.
The ceremony of Testifying in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is very similar to the Two Minutes Hate in ‘1984’. It is a carefully orchestrated period where the Handmaids join in and hear stories from others then join in unison to chant at the Handmaid, on most occasions, Janine. They turn against Janine and taunt her. They ‘despise her’, because they are expected and told to and now they have someone to exert power over and concentrate their hate onto. Even in the absence of men, the women turn on each other as in this society they long for a power over someone or something because of their own repression.
This is the desired effect: to turn on an ‘enemy’ rather than the party. It is a venting so that they don’t revolt. In ‘1984’ we see that the Two Minutes Hate is more violent and animated but it has the same effect on people and even Winston who doesn’t like the party or accept their doctrines, finds himself joining with those who do as it is ‘impossible to avoid’ because this is the only time he’ll have to release his tension no matter who is the cause.
In ‘1984’ Winston says that he can’t remember a time when his country wasn’t at war and this mirrors Orwell early life. Born in 1903 he experienced both the First and Second World War and witnessed the horrors of many conflicts and totalitarian states. The origins of ‘1984’ lie in the period of 1914-1945, the war years and a huge period linking them of economic slump called ‘the Age of Catastrophe’. He became disillusioned with war and the political system, which produced it.
Sex plays a big part in both novels. For the Commander and Offred and Katherine and Winston, there is a duty to it and an unease and disgust about it. Sexual violence pervades ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The prevalence of rape and pornography in the pre-Gilead world justified the establishment of the new order. In the Red Centre they were shown ‘old porno films’ with ‘women being raped, beaten up, killed.’ Aunt Lydia says to ‘consider the alternatives’ to their present lives. The Commander says in any case they’ve ‘given them more than they’ve taken away.’
While it claims to suppress sexual violence it institutionalises it as we see at Jezebel’s and most importantly in the ceremony. Every month Offred is subjugated to wordless, impersonal sex with the commander who ‘fucks the lower half of her body’. Winston says that Katherine ‘submitted’. She says it’s their ‘duty to their party’. Both women are disconnection emotion and desire from the act and separate their mind from their physical side. ‘Fuck’ is crude and the emphasis on the Commanders action makes highlights his dominance over her and the unease that he feels too.
Winston admits to hiring a prostitute for ‘two dollars’ and explores violent sexual fantasies in his mind. He plays through different scenarios where he’d ‘ravish her and cut her throat at climax’. He doesn’t hate her but the repression at the hands of the party causes this reaction. She is now his target to release his feelings: as Goldstein was in the ‘Two Minute Hate’. His dislike for women ‘especially the young, pretty ones’ stems from a frustration. Winston can’t distinguish between women and Goldstein as enemies as they both provoke fear.
He wants the women, sexually, yet they seem to toy with him as Offred does with the checkpoint guard. They are using their body and sexuality to gain some power. They can manipulate others through their sexuality to assert power over people like Winston so that they are no longer the lowest oppressed. The Handmaid’s power is their fertility; Julia’s power is her sexuality and Winston having sex with her is a ‘political act’. It is a small revolt. Sexuality is a powerful tool. The Handmaid’s bodies, in contrast, can also be called political tools as they are used by the state to help dwindling birth rates due infertility after chemical spills.
In both societies, there is a fear of death or being disregarded as an ‘un’ person. The prefix ‘un’ is used to highlight the new classification, as they’ve been detached from the old meaning; an accepted human being. There is both a fear of capture by the Thought Police or Eyes and a punishment where you disappear into nothingness and forgotten or sent to the colonies. Both have a place of torture before Room 101 in ‘1984’ and whereas there is not one specific place or time in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ there is always a threat and Offred notes how Dolores and Janine go to the old science lab ‘a room that none of them went willingly’.
We know that there is something ominous in that room and lab conjures images of experimentation. The fact that we don’t fully know what happens here unnerves you further as your imagination can create the most horrific fate and this fear acts as a deterrent – to stay inline and not be punished in this way. Both authors play to people’s fears and give the reader a chance to imagine the horror and fear.
As a male writer he may have concentrated on the men’s position and effects on them yet that wouldn’t convey his true message and doesn’t fit in with totalitarian ideas in which all are oppressed. It may have affected his choice of a male protagonist and his own ill health may have shaped some of Winston’s characteristics. Beatrix Campbell, a feminist critic, said that ‘1984’ endorsed ‘patriarchal values’ His gender doesn’t seemingly affect the message, just the viewpoint, yet we see that in that society, under Big Brother, all suffer. We see Catherine suffer, Mrs. Parsons and the Prole Woman.
Atwood similarly drew on her own experience in society and as a woman to illustrate an oppressive society. She wrote during a time when there was an anti-feminist backlash in America and religious fundamentalists emerged to restore what they called family values. Men called Jerry Falwell and Howard Phillips accused feminists of a ‘satanic attack on the home’ and formed lobby groups to re establish ‘every man’s right to rule the home’.
Atwood, as a feminist and campaigner for human rights has said that there is ‘nothing in this novel that doesn’t already exist in some state or another’: from the covering of women’s bodies in Muslim communities, execution for ‘gender treachery’ or adultery or the confinement of Afghan women within the home. She draws on her experience and thoughts on different issues to illustrate a world where these things are taken to an extreme but shows how easily it can escalate. It isn’t a threat because she isn’t going to do anything to bring about this world but like ‘1984’ it does serve a stark warning of what could happen.
Atwood looked at vociferous groups who were now seeking to reverse all the changes that had benefited women in the 1970s and this is a form of warning against their ideas and the separatist ideas of many radical feminists like Offred’s mother who Offred believed had a hand in creating the new society. She says:
‘You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what
you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies’.
Atwood acknowledges that you need men and women to build a relationship.
Roland Darthis said that authors can’t put meanings into texts as a piece only comes into existence on the reading of it. It is the reader that imposes meaning. But both Orwell and Atwood stated that there is meaning in these texts and they have carefully selected language and techniques to deliver these messages.
Both authors present similar fears and warnings through their writing and similar techniques. The thing that shapes their specific presentation is the time in which they wrote in and the social climate that forced them to sculpt it in such a way as to be accepted by the majority of readers. Their own backgrounds and beliefs heavily affect the way they write and these in turn have effect on different people yet the conclusion is very similar. Orwell wrote in a letter in 1946 that:
‘every line of serious writing since 1936 has been written directly or
indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism’
They are both political texts, which seek a redress on certain issues to prevent these oppressive societies in their dystopias becoming our shared dystopic world.