On Friday we were talking about the ways in which Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale were similar. Despite the regimes being completely opposite in their ideology, both achieve the same result in the complete oppression and subjugation of their societies. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale traces its protagonist’s efforts to cope, endure, and survive a nightmare world. Offred’s account of her life in Gilead presents a fascinating portrait of the politics of power and the strength of the individual will in its struggle to preserve a sense of self.
In the novels how the regime came into existence is explained early in the text or as the plot progresses. We also understood this in Children of Men, the dystopia is implied in the beginning and we are shown how the world (in particular England) was effected; eventually giving rise to a regime lacking in human compassion. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother is a created entity by the ruling far-left Stalinist party intended to subjugate the public into obedience through surveillance and fear by using the slogan, ” Big Brother is watching you.”
The protagonist or hero in politically dystopian fiction tends to be someone from within the society of the regime who questions their society’s way of life, and has an acute sense of something horribly wrong within the society. The hero becomes so obsessed with the wrongs of the ruling class and the living conditions for society, that the only thing that begins to consume him or her is either escape or overturning the social order, even if he or she risks his or her life.
Some critics have called The Handmaid’s Tale a “feminist 1984”. Barbara Ehrenreich in her New Republic article, “Feminism’s Phantoms,” finds Offred to be “a sappy stand-in for Winston Smith. Even her friend Moira characterises her as “a wimp.” However, sometimes, such as in the case of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist is too full of fear to act out. Offred remains a silent victim throughout the book, enduring the excruciating lifestyle that she and her class of women have been forced to live. She lacks the strength and defiance of Moira, and constantly shifts back to her memories of “the time before,” and the living conditions she took for granted. She has accepted her lot in life. Yet, although Offred cannot be considered a more obvious traditional hero like Moira, an examination of her more subtle rebellion against the oppressive totalitarian regime which governs her life illustrates the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.
Everyone noted the loneliness of Winston and Offred. We understand that they cannot speak out against their repressive societies because they live in worlds that allow no questioning. Another pervasive factor noted was the use of mass media for propaganda purposes. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the telescreen, and was installed in every home of the inner and outer party members, workplaces, and businesses (note the feel of this in Children of Men) Unlike our modern televisions, the telescreen had the dual purpose of disseminating state-run broadcasts, as well as to serve as an instrument of surveillance. In addition, microphones were placed throughout urban and suburban areas to control thoughts and actions and to deflect dissent. Offred and Winston have to keep in their desires and their fears. Another feature of mass media propaganda is the use of state-sponsored social organisations like the Youth Spies and Junior Anti-Sex League in Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale. All were designed as a means of both enforcing the ruling body’s political ideologies by recruiting and brainwashing youth (including instilling hatred towards any idea or anyone that differs from the ideology of the ruling class), as well as providing a system of social surveillance to suppress dissent. The “Two Minutes Hate” was used in Nineteen Eighty-Four to stir society into a fanatical frenzy of hate towards the enemies of The Party (especially Goldstein). In Nineteen Eighty-Four the party members are not only watched by the regime, but by their comrades and their children to dissuade any potentially anti-Party behaviours.
We also discussed that both Winston and Offred had their small, secret guilty pleasures that they had to hide for fear of punishment. We noted that they must try and satisfy themselves with these little things. Offred’s subtle acts of rebellion include hoarding butter from her meals to rub on her face, and saving a match that she considers using to burn down the house. Often during her nights alone in her room she tries to come to terms with what has happened to her and to decide what she can do in order to survive physically and mentally. Both Winston and Offred know that things are not right and they know that they cannot be alone in thinking this but who is there to confide in? This knowledge just makes the loneliness greater. Offred risks physical harm when she steals a few minutes during bathroom breaks to speak to Moira. During these breaks the two women reminisce about past lives and voice their fears and disgust over their present reality. Offred notes, “there is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with.”
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston does not clearly remember things having ever been different. He wants to find someone who still has any knowledge of what it used to be like before Oceania and the Party. Winston Smith really only knows the harsh world of Oceania and this reinforces the oppressive atmosphere of the book. In Oceania the party pretends that this is how it always was, and this is how it always will be. Offred does remember a time when she had something else. For instance when Offred’s thoughts turn to the teenagers who must have once populated the former gymnasium, she commits a more personal act of rebellion. The citizens of the new Republic are repeatedly warned to forget the past or to view it with contempt. Yet, throughout her narrative, Offred continually flashes back to her life before the formation of Gilead, especially with her husband Luke and their daughter. These recollections of the freedom and happiness she used to have in her friendship with Moira, in her work, and in her life with family help her to maintain crucial ties to her past life and thus to a sense of identity. Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred proves her consistent efforts not only to survive, but also to maintain her individuality. When Offred begins her story with a flashback to her time at the Rachel and Leah Centre, she illustrates the politics of power that characterise the novel. She notes the Aunts guarding them with electric cattle prods and leather belts, restricting their movement and interaction with each other. The Handmaids-in-training seem on the surface to submit to this treatment. At night, however, under the threat of severe beatings, they struggle to maintain contact with each other through silent communications in the dark.
Offred can recall how that she and other women had “freedom to” rather than “freedom from” and we discussed examples of this. She is now forced to live in a system that she doesn’t believe in. Offred can remember a time when love, sex, and birth were something different than the distressing parody they’ve become. In Gilead the regime “prescribes a pattern of life based on frugality, conformity, censorship, corruption, [and] fear.” The novel also illuminates the intricate politics of power: leaders define acceptable roles for subordinates (in this case, the women), who are said to be unable to perform more valued functions (reasoning and governing skills). As a result subordinates often find it difficult to believe in their own ability. Subordinates are encouraged to develop childlike characteristics — submissiveness, docility, dependency — that are pleasing to the dominant group. This group then legitimises the unequal relationship and incorporates it into society’s guiding concepts. In Gilead’s power structure women are subservient to men because they are considered not as capable as men. This system in Gilead involves the marginalisation of women.
The ultimate tool of societal control in these fictional political dystopias is fear, with the height of such fear being torture and even death. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the Eyes, in Children of Men, it’s the Police and in Nineteen Eighty-Four it’s the Thought Police. In these societies, stories of the secret police often circulate involving arrest, torture and execution for anything deemed to be treason by the regime. With such powerful and secret security organisations in place, the people of the dystopian society do everything in their power to appear to be ordinary conforming citizens incapable of dissent. People try to remain invisible and show their loyalty to the ruling class. A perfect example of the implementation of complete fear is in Nineteen Eighty-Four after Winston is captured and endures day-to-day torture in the The Ministry of Love, culminating in horror when he was exposed to what he dreaded most in Room 101, breaking both his promise to himself, as well as his spirit. Another example is when Offred is found out by Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Offred waits in her room in complete fear when she hears the security van for The Eyes pull into the driveway, creating an intense sense of anxiety and anticipation for the reader.
In both texts we follow the protagonist’s struggle in their belief that things can be made better, as he or she begins to take actions that could risk their life if discovered. The climax and ending involves someone or a group within the totalitarian regime discovering the main character’s behaviour and attempts to suppress he or she by force. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston is forced into conformity and succumbs to hopelessness. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we never really know what happens to Offred, as her tapes from the Gilead are found centuries later and discussed in an academic conference. We do know however, that in both texts that the regime eventually ended.