Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or George Orwell’s 1894: both depict a choked society under constant watch from a despotic regime. But which is more terrifying?
I read 1984 a few years ago and was enthralled by the bleak violence portrayed. Then, more recently, I read the Handmaid’s Tale and was captured by the desolate plight of the characters. After reading both, I couldn’t help but notice distinct similarities in the societies portrayed, and to some extent even resemblances in the rebellious attitudes of the protagonists.
1984 is essentially about a government employee, Winston Smith, whose job involves the rewriting of history to suit his country’s leaders’ current agenda. In this closely monitored society, there is no escape from the watching eyes of “Big Brother”, who regularly cause people to disappear if they don’t like the look of what you’re doing.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the United States government. In this society, women are subjugated into a cast system depending on whether they can bear children. The story follows Offred, a Handmaid, who is used as breeding stock.
Whether intentional or not, a stark observation of both led me to believe that, to some extent, both cultures were modelled on a nightmarish view of a Communist society. Each seems to be controlled by an autocratic central government that uses indoctrination, surveillance, paranoia, knowledge-control and punishment as ways of keeping its citizens firmly under the boot. You only have to cast an eye to North Korea to see resemblances in such a regime – and hitherto great effect.
Of course, these dark tools aren’t necessarily associated by a Communist regime, but if we look at 1984’s ruling system, The Party, with its state-issued commodities, and The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, with its government-issued token system for food and its de-commercialised meat store, All Flesh, we get a sense that what people have is simply what the ruling system has allowed them to have.
Although there are arguments against both being portrayals of a “betrayed” version of Communism, such as with using religion to further indoctrinate its people (religion is traditionally opposed by Marxists), it is my view that both are extreme totalitarian regimes with their roots deep in Communism.
In both worlds, the regimes use constant surveillance and indoctrination to prevent citizens from disobeying. One way in which they achieve this is by use of the “Thought Police”, in 1984, and the “Eyes”, in The Handmaid’s Tale. These “secret police” in both societies invade the characters’ personal lives in various ways so they do not rebel against their leaders. Cameras and microphones are placed everywhere that record every movement, leading to a sense of claustrophobia.
“There must have been microphones, they’ve heard us all.” (Atwood 169).
In 1984, in particular, this sense of being constantly watched extends to people, specifically children – which are a new generation of perfectly indoctrinated citizens willing to expose even their parents for acts against The Party.
“‘You’re a traitor!” yelled the boy. “You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!'” (Orwell 23).
This feeling of paranoia and that the oppressive eyes of The Party are everywhere even goes as far as to manifest in the many posters of the face of “Big Brother”, whose eyes are constantly watching you.
This theme is reflected in The Handmaid’s Tale, when the protagonist, Offred, is mistrustful of her Handmaid walking companion, Ofglen (they’re not allowed to walk on their own), whom she takes as pious in her beliefs and observing everything Offred does.
The theme of indoctrination is touched upon more in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the terrifying Aunt Lydia, who teaches the Handmaids to-be that all woman were sluts, and she attempts to instil in them a reverence for the fact they have been chosen, gifted, to bare children on command. 1984 does touch on this theme too, however, with more of an emphasis on manipulating thoughts through language.
Anyone For Scrabble?
The consequences for acting outside the accepted rules for both societies are designed to deter citizens from straying from the path to begin with and offer a fatal alternative to insurgence.
In 1984, you will simply disappear, never to be seen again. You will be erased, even from history, and become and un-person. Sometimes, however, these un-people return, completely reformed. We know from Winston, who is inevitably taken, they are brought to Room 101, where they undergo torture and therapies until they love Big Brother, utterly and sincerely.
“How many times he had been beaten, how long the beatings had continued, he could not remember. Sometimes it was fists, sometimes it was truncheons, sometimes it was steel rods, and sometimes it was boots.” (Orwell 240).
Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale, often walks by the wall, where bag-faced bodies are stung up by the neck with various symbols on their chests to reveal their crimes; whether that be homosexuality, being Jewish or having sex outside of marriage. This idea of punishment reaches a climax when the Handmaids themselves are forced to beat a man to death who is accused of raping a Handmaid.
The theme of restricting knowledge is prominent in both societies. The regimes aim to both gain a tighter control on its citizens and to disarm them from the intellectual understanding to oppose them. It is used as a weapon of obedience.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are not allowed to read, not even the Bible, which Aunt Lydia often misquotes to suit the agenda. They cannot use language from the past, or even mention their lives before Gilead.
“‘I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me?'” he says. Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent.” (Atwood 138).
1984 takes this restriction of knowledge to a deeper level of horror, with the invention of a completely new language, Newspeak, that utterly omits words that could be considered against The Party in order to eliminate personal thought by restricting the expressiveness of the English language. The idea is to eventually eliminate the use of English and therefore what New Speak refers to as “thoughtcrime”, having disobedient thoughts.
Not only do these governments want to control what you say, think and do. They want to also control what you feel. More specifically, they want to control your sexual pleasure. This is most evident in The Handmaid’s Tale, where each of the Handmaid’s are given to a Commander (who is married to a barren woman, by the way) and all sexual enjoyment is stripped from “The Ceremony” – intercourse. The Commander’s wife is with Offred in The Ceremony so that no pleasure is obtained.
“Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed. My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being.” (Atwood 93-94).
Having sex for one’s own pleasure is illegal. If sex is enjoyed, Handmaid’s are sent to colonies where they’re punished. This is shown through Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, who was going to be taken away for this offence.
‘”She hanged herself”, she says. “After the Salvaging. She saw the van coming for her. It was better.”‘ (Atwood 285)
After this, a new Handmaid arrives with the same name. The new Ofglen looks at the Handmaid’s being hung and says that should remind them of the consequences.
And in 1984, “There were even organizations such as the Junior Anti-Sex League which advocated complete celibacy for both sexes. All children were to be begotten by artificial insemination (artsem, it was called in Newspeak) and brought up in public institutions. The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it” (Orwell 66).
The similarities in both societies are clear, and if nothing else, by their literary success, reveal a deep-rooted fear we have in allowing a ruling government to gain too much power over us.
I guess Brexit isn’t looking so bad now, right?