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‘The handmaids Tale’ and ‘1894’ Essay

Both the novels ‘1984’ and ‘The Handmaids Tale’ provide warnings of how each author sees certain problems in society leading to dystopian states. Dystopian genres exist in both novels, but arise for different reasons. Resulting from Atwood’s concerns about political groups and aspects of feminism; ‘The Handmaids Tale’ illustrates how declining birth rates could lead to a state where women are forced into bearing children. In contrast, ‘1984’ depicts a terror state where poverty is rife and tyrannical leaders force citizens to live by their rules. Although both novels share such themes as surveillance, deprivation and loss of identity, they describe two very different dystopian worlds, often by using identical literary techniques but also differing ones.

In both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘1984’, language is obviously used as a form of state control, enabling dystopian leaders to remain in power by manipulating language to restrict free thought. People are consequently politically unaware and unable to rebel against them. This is done in ‘1984’ through using ‘Newspeak’, a reduced version of today’s Standard English, or ‘Oldspeak’. As the Oceanian powers have omitted words from people’s vocabulary they are unable to speak words The Party deems unsuitable or create unorthodox thoughts.

This makes all modes of thought impossible, except those agreeing with The Party’s principles. Winston Smith’s conversation with Syme demonstrates this: “Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan “Freedom is Slavery” When the concept of freedom has been abolished.” If The Party fulfilled its aims, abolishing further words such as ‘freedom’, citizens would become ignorant that they had ever possessed ‘freedom’; would not want freedom from the regime, and would not rebel against it, giving Big Brother total control.

The appendix further shows how reducing words and meanings will affect everyday language. “The word free still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’… it could not be used in its old sense… since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts” The Party eliminate words they deem undesirable by removing unorthodox meanings. The word, ‘free’ remains, but not in such contexts as, ‘free from oppression’.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ also uses language to manipulate people within the dystopia; but Atwood also uses Religious Discourse to prevent unorthodox thought. This could be seen as Atwood’s equivalent to Newspeak, although such strong restrictions as removing words from a language do not exist. Religious discourse occurs in the conversation between handmaids. When Offred meets Ofglen her greeting is “Blessed be the fruit” and the accepted response, “May the Lord Open”. This restricts what they may say. Even if they remember past thoughts, they are unable to communicate them, due to linguistic restrictions; any rebellious thoughts remain unspoken, enabling the regime to continue unchallenged. It is evident that this method of restriction works, as Newspeak works in Oceania. “How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An exchange, of sorts.” This demonstrates the extreme restriction of the handmaids’ conversations, simple exchanges being no longer possible, due to the lack of expected religious language.

Newspeak also tries to prevent free thinking by abolishing many antonyms. By erasing these words people are prevented from thinking the opposite to dystopian rule. For example by replacing, ‘bad’, with, “ungood”, nothing bad exists in language or life. People are therefore unable to conceive that anything, including The Party, is bad, restricting further their power to oppose The Party. The powers in Oceania further use language as a manipulating force by destroying comparatives and superlatives. In ‘1984’ plans exist for the comparatives and superlatives of good, better and best to be replaced with prefixed words, plusgood and doubleplusgood. This further restricts the thoughts and language of Oceania’s citizens and thus their feelings and actions, as no words exist to describe them.

There is no destruction of antonyms, comparatives or superlatives in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, as Gilead powers are not eradicating aspects of language, merely preventing people from speaking them, by enforced use of religious discourse. Atwood does, however, use prefixes to describe certain things, indicating state control. Words such as “unwomen” and “unbaby” denote failure. If a handmaid’s child is branded, “unbaby”, it shows failure to produce healthy offspring. Handmaids wish to produce healthy children, preventing transportation to the colonies. These prefixes therefore scare them into conforming, and trying to produce children as the authorities wish.

In both ‘1984’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, connotations are used to re-define the states’ powers. Big Brother and Aunts suggest protective figures which protect society; however connotations have been re-defined, neither figure having the security of the people in mind. These names, however, result in people believing themselves safe under their rulers, having been manipulated in many ways to produce this misconception.

We are able to see that language in both the texts maintain the dystopian societies. However as well as authoritarian manipulation of language, the dystopian genre is created through the authors styles of writing.

The styles of Both Atwood and Orwell differ, Orwell tending to a blunt style with few metaphors, described as ‘restrained’ in Advanced York Notes. Those metaphors he does include are fairly simple, for example, “a filthy liquid mess that had the appearance of vomit”. Poverty in society is highlighted by describing their food by metaphor. Use of metaphors are infrequent, due to Orwell’s belief that good prose should be ‘Like a window-pane”, easy to see through and the interpretation immediately clear.

This style is apparent in ‘1984’; as there are few metaphors and similes; there are fewer interpretations inherent in sentences, making the novel more straight forward. However, when Winston Smith thinks of the ‘Golden Country’, Orwell’s style changes, becoming much more descriptive and metaphorical than previously. Language becomes richer and characters become free when they have a degree of mental escape from the rulers.

Conversely ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is rich with metaphor, Atwood using them frequently to attain the dystopian feel to the novel. Atwood furthers her descriptions with extended metaphor which Orwell does not. “Well. Then we had the irises … Surprise they’d not long since been rooted out” In this passage Atwood uses extended metaphor to compare flowers to the female body and its processes. We are therefore given greater insight into the characters’ feelings towards their situation in Gilead, and the regime. Although insights into Winston’s feelings are given in ‘1984’ descriptions are limited making it easier to relate towards Offred.

The novels are written from different narrative perspectives. ‘The Handmaids Tale’ uses first person narrative, from the main character, Offred’s, point of view. This gives great insight to the thoughts and feelings of one person, but provides a limited perspective of Gilead and only information about the regime that Offred herself discovers. In contrast Orwell uses free indirect discourse in ‘1984’. In this type of narrative thoughts and speech of the protagonist are incorporated with their words or ideas into third person narrative, promoting understanding of some of Winston’s thoughts and feelings, but not in the detail that first person narrative would, leaving the audience slightly distanced.

Atwood also uses a language style called Ecriture Feminine, female writing or writing the body. It is used as Offred thinks of her body when waiting for the monthly ceremony. “I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing … I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on marking time” Although Offred is not necessarily celebrating the female body this is a prime example of ecriture feminine as it is a feminist term for discussing the female body and its processes.

Offred thinks of her monthly menstrual cycle and the processes she must undergo to become pregnant. The style highlights the theme of feminism that runs throughout the novel and how female body processes have been corrupted by the regime. Also shown is language of resistance. This is where Offred is able to think words that should no longer be used “I could run push buttons.” To push some one’s buttons is a phrase that no one would be able to use, having connotations of free sexual activity. There are no examples of ecriture feminine in ‘1984’ as it predates twentieth century feminist ideals.

Atwood also uses Allusion. This is an implied or indirect reference to other texts or cultures, and may be used by authors to make comparisons between common themes in other texts as well as their own. Atwood alludes often to the Bible. The leaders of the regime use biblical extracts and phrases to justify their actions. Harsh rules are said to be put in place as it is God’s will. Aunt Elizabeth tells the handmaids “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” By using an biblical extract the suffering in society is presented as God’s will and therefore for the greater good. Allusions are also made to the twentieth century feminism movement that Atwood was a part of, highlighting the violation of women’s rights in Gilead, as society reverts back to times before when women had fewer freedoms or rights as men. This exacerbates the dystopia as the idea that men are better than women is extremely outdated. There are no references to other texts in ‘1984’ but the whole novel has been said to be an allusion to Stalin’s Russia.

Atwood uses language showing her characters oppression within the dystopia created. We see this when Offred describes her allocated room in the commanders house, “A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank, space plastered over, like in a face where the eye has been taken out.” The sentences are constructed like a list; many nouns are used with few verbs and commas splitting up individual items.

Offred often uses clipped descriptions of her surroundings in the present showing her oppression, being far more descriptive when remembering the past, where, in her memories, she uses many more adjectives and greater detail. Orwell includes a listing technique in ‘1984’ but for a different purpose. “She had a young face, painted very thick. It was really the paint that appealed to me, the whiteness of it, like a mask, and the bright red lips.” Here listings are used to get straight to the point and for immediacy, Orwell not using many in depth descriptions.

In both ‘1984’ and ‘The Handmaids Tale’, structure aids formation of the dystopia. Orwell uses a three part structure. Although there is a very pessimistic feel from the beginning, giving the sense that Winston Smith will not succeed in beating The Party but will be defeated, it is emphasised in Part One, in which characters and locations are set up. This is first seen when Winston begins to write about his dislike for Big Brother in the diary. “He could not help feeling a twinge of panic.

It was absurd, since the writing of those particular words was not more dangerous than the initial act of opening the diary” Winston has failed from the moment he opened the diary in any attempt at rebellion against The Party, such a simple action being certainly punishable by death. Therefore from the instance he began his futile rebellion, he has sentenced himself to death. By adding these details Orwell maintains the dystopian genre, making the reader believe in the strength of the tyrannical leaders and the insignificance of Winston Smith. He gains the readers sympathy because the feeling of foreboding will not let them believe The Party can be stopped.

The sense of failure on Winston’s part is carried further into the novel, when he thinks he is joining the fabled Brotherhood. “He had the sensation of stepping into the dampness of a grave, and it was not much better because he had always known that the grave was there and waiting for him” As Winston’s attempts to join a rebellion become more ambitious he joins the ‘Brotherhood’, thinking that by doing this he is placing himself into more unnecessary danger. Orwell again does this intentionally, enforcing his dystopia, it now being inconceivable that Winston can get away with his actions.

Part two then sees the relationship between Winston and Julia grow. As their so-called love grows so does the sense that they will definitely be discovered and killed. ” ‘We are the dead,’ he said. ‘We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully”. As their relationship furthers, they knowingly put themselves in further danger, Orwell creating this mood purposely, so there is no doubt anything good will come of Winston’s actions. Part three, therefore, is concerned with the torture and re-education of Winston Smith where it becomes evident that he has done no good in trying to defeat The party and their true power is realised.

In contrast ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ uses a different structure; being divided into alternate day and night sections allowing the mood of dystopia to be set further. The days and nights switch between the personal thoughts and feelings of Offred and the everyday life she undergoes under the regime. “The night is my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I am don’t move”. This means that she is free from the regime and able to think and do as she pleases, within her own mind. This is one of the few things she owns, through her preoccupation with pronouns, such as ‘mine’, ‘my’ and ‘I’.

On these she pauses, emphasising the one thing that is still hers and that the regime leaders cannot take everything of the past away from her. This helps to further the dystopian genre, showing the leaders are in total control and own everything of a person apart from their mind and thoughts. “Today, later, with Ofglen, on our shopping walk: We go to the church, as usual, and look at the graves. Then to the Wall.” The day sections focus on things that Offred must do for the regime. During the day she is not in control of things she must do. This shows the absolute control of the regime as citizens have no time in the day for themselves, especially the handmaids.

Unlike ‘The Handmaids Tale’, ‘1984’ uses motifs in the structure, helping its progression and contributing to the idea that Winston will be discovered in his rebellion. Rats are seen by Winston above Charrington’s shop. Winston exercises his disgust towards them; next time he is confronted by them will be in Room 101, thus manufacturing feelings of foreboding, as when Winston sees them, they are apparently

his worst fear, giving the sense that they will contribute to his downfall. The children’s nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ also reoccurrs throughout. The last line of the rhyme ‘and here comes the chopper to chop off your head’ is only revealed to Winston after he has committed many wrongs in the eyes of the regime, giving the sense that execution will be Winston’s fate.

Both novels use flashbacks in their structure. In ‘The Handmaids Tale’ their purpose is to show that there was a life before Gilead which was better than the present, highlighting how women of the past took their right to fight for freedom for granted, and showing how terrible the present regime is. ‘1984’ contains flashbacks but for a different purpose. They show that there was a time before but it is apparent that it may not have been better. Winston can remember a time when he was with his mother and sister, still living in poverty, but with no suggestion of a regime in place. The main purpose in ‘1984’, however is to demonstrate that before The Party came to power; people had loyalties to their families and friends. Now no person can have loyalties to anyone but Big Brother. This is highlighted when the Parsons children denounce their parents to the authorities.

Atwood and Orwell both make use of an appendix. The first function of this is to give a greater sense of verisimilitude, to reinforce the harshness of the regime and that they actually existed. In ‘The Handmaids Tale’ the appendix is set in a university lecture in which Offred’s diaries are discussed. Atwood uses these to demonstrate a warning that current trends in society, could easily end in a dystopia not unlike Gilead if the sexism of Professor Pieixoto if taken to extremes. In his seminar he talks at great length of how they tried to trace the commander, whereas Offred’s significance seems to be forgotten. This highlights the sexism in society, as the professor seems to sweep the females in the diary to one side.

The appendix in ‘1984’ conveys the principles of Newspeak and reinforces the impression that such re-organisation of language could be possible. It also acts as a warning that this could happen if a dictatorship took hold, but is executed differently than in ‘The Handmaids Tale’. This appendix reads more like a text book with very serious tones to enhance the veracity. As the narrative ends, the impression is given that the regime has carries on and that this could be the future of language. However in ‘The Handmaids Tale’, set in the future, with other free characters it seems that Gilead’s society has ceased.

Both novels have been written with a purpose, voicing the concerns the author’s have towards modern society. Due to their different beliefs Atwood and Orwell draw on different aspects of life, showing what could result if problems are ignored.

Firstly, In ‘The Handmaids Tale’ women are left infertile due to pollution and exposure to nuclear wastes. Atwood shows the worst case scenario that could occur if people continue to abuse the environment. Environmental themes are included as a prominent modern issue, encouraging readers thought about society’s problems.

Atwood is also concerned about far right, religious groups. The fundamentalist Christian group, the American New Right believed in being anti-gay, anti-abortion and that women’s place was the home. A North American all male Christian sect, The Promise Keepers, preach women should return to the home and traditional roles, with biblical ideals. A strong figure in the second wave of feminism, Atwood became concerned that people still have these ideas which is reflected within Gilead; the regime leaders allowing no freedom of sexuality, all fertile women must bear children and most women being pushed into stereotypical past roles; cooks, cleaners and mothers. These themes offer further warnings that if people are not politically aware such groups could gain power, restricting society. We can see from these movements, Gilead may not be so outrageous, the novel being only a continuation of ideas observed in fundamentalist ideas.

The real birth dirth being experienced in parts of the world is drawn upon by Atwood. Showing what extremes the Gilead leaders have gone to demonstrates what could happen if it becomes a real major issue and warns of how things can spiral out of control.

At the time Orwell wrote ‘1984’ there was much totalitarianism in Spain, Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party had taken power in China. Governments were suppressing their people and controlling their freedom. Hence it is full of ideas reflecting this unrest, such as poverty, forced labour, imprisonment and surveillance. Orwell included this to show how regimes can take hold of a state or country and keep people under control by disallowing free thought to rebel against them. By keeping them hungry and in poverty people have no physical strength to rebel. Orwell was in Spain at the time of the fascist regime and discovered the media acting as a tool for the leaders, feeding its citizens and the world propaganda. This is reflected as Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth deleting old news and changing it so the past reflects what The Party say irrespective of truth.

‘1984’ has also been said to parody Stalin’s Russia as many things The Party do to retain power were taking place there. For example the editing of news and the media was used by both Stalin and The Party to keep control. People are therefore prevented from knowing the truth of events. Russia retained secret police, reflected in ‘1984’ as the Thought Police which meant nobody was safe from accusation of crimes or arrest, and children in both instances inform on parents for crimes they supposedly committed. Orwell included all this to show how regimes were able to take over quickly, and maintain power, and to warn of how real an issue it was.

In conclusion both novels give us a view of a fictional dystopian society and warn how events could take place in the world today. Although they are of the same genre the worlds are created by different language features and styles. The author’s had different concerns of the world at the time they were writing so the dystopias keep people under their control in different ways and for different reasons.


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