Comparison: “1984” And “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Categories: 1984 George Orwell

Dystopian worlds bring about a feeling of uneasiness, the general lack of privacy and each unique characteristics that each government or ruling class inflicts upon their citizens. Often regarded as impossible, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and 1984 by George Orwell challenge that speculation. Many of the major events in both novels were inspired by terrifying incidents in the past. However, the books also provide a personal insight into human nature. The real thing that makes a dystopian hit hard is the characters, how they react.

Prevailing issues that the two protagonists Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale and Winston of 1984 face are love in a society where love is useless and illegal, being controlled and conditioned into performing one role in society and propaganda. Though the names, people, places and events are drastically different between the two, what connects them is their underlying themes. They serve as a warning to modern times to say that these things can, have, will and even are happening at this very moment.

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Both are ever so prevalent in the constantly changing modern world of today.

Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred comments on love. She reminisces about her past love with Luke, and remarks about how unnecessary love has become in Gilead. Even with The Commander she knows what they have is not love, though when she is with Nick she acts differently. Though she dare not call it love, in Gilead it is the closest thing. When they have intercourse near the end of the novel that was supposed to be it.

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Though Offred continued to come back, she felt passionate and dedicated: ”For this one I’d wear pink feathers, purple stars, if that were what he wanted; or anything else, even the tail of a rabbit.” She even felt guilty after seeing Nick for the first time, thinking back to Luke. Because she had felt the familiar emotions of love that she thought she had lost so long ago, and though it was risky she went back again and again. Afraid each time may be her last, but relished in the feeling of love in a loveless society.

In 1984 Winston, like Offred, begins with a jaded opinion on love. He is mad at Julia because she is pretty, and a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League so he knows he cannot have her. He has violent thoughts of her, though his opinions shift when she slips him that note of confession. When they begin their secluded affair even more so, he finds his thoughts consumed by her:

At the beginning there had been little true sensuality in it. Their first love-making had been simply an act of the will. But after the second time it was different. The smell of her hair, the taste of her mouth, the feeling of her skin seemed to have got inside him, or into the air all round him. She had become a physical necessity.

Despite love between anyone being illegal and previously thought as impossible to Winston, he never doubts his love for Julia and his desire to be with her forever and always. Between the two of them, in the rented room and “away” from the eyes of Big Brother he read to her, they spoke and embraced. They created a paradise and escape for themselves inside that small room just as Offred and Nick did.

Additionally, control is one of the things utilized in a dystopian society to make it work. To force the population into strict roles they must follow and contribute to, they are not allowed to be themselves and only what they are told to be. Especially in The Handmaid’s Tale everyone has a distinct social class and expectation, Offred, being a Handmaid has one of the most important yet oppressive roles of all. In the Red Centre they “prayed for emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies”. The Handmaids are to be nothing more than walking wombs, they are not allowed to think, speak or act for themselves and are constantly reminded of their sole purpose in the Republic of Gilead: procreation and nothing more.

Alternately, there are no social classes in 1984. Everyone is equal, though they perform different tasks in their society. Winston works to rewrite the past, to control the present as it is said. He and every person in Oceania are equal, provided they love Big Brother. They are not allowed close friends or relationships, all their passion is reserved for Big Brother and nothing more. Similar to the way The Handmaid’s Tale shows that Gileadeans are to love nothing more than a child, the thought of having one. They are to love God, the successes in guerilla wars, the mass child marriages, to accept the fates of their sisters in Salvagings. They do and love merely as they are told to. In 1984 As citizens they are hardly allowed a distinct personality and certainly are not allowed to think for themselves: “You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”They exist merely to conform, to believe everything they are told no matter how ridiculous or hypocritical it sounds. Their role is to have an empty mind and fill it with the lies they are told.

The biggest aspect of any dystopian or totalitarian society is propaganda, and especially the use of language as a tool of power. The women in Gilead, though they can read and write are not allowed to and the consequences for doing so are horrific: “black-gloved hands on her upper arms: reading? No, that’s only a hand cut off, on the third conviction'. Undoubtedly because reading allows one to see perspectives and possibilities, writing enables people to think for themselves and in a society where many are oppressed, it could mean uprising and the overthrowing of the oppressive regime. Even the verbal use of language is restricted, the Handmaids are not allowed to speak to many people even if spoken to. They are generally secluded in their social lives, what could happen if all the Handmaids were able to openly share their thoughts? Once again, an uprising. Language in a dystopian society is restricted by the higher power and utilized to spew propaganda and contradictory rules.

Furthermore, 1984 focuses not only on the control of what one writes and says but what they think. In The Handmaid’s Tale Offred comments on how the only thing that is her own is her thoughts, her mind. What she thinks cannot be found out by anyone unless she tells them. Unfortunately for Winston, what he says, writes and thinks is tracked by The Thought Police. His brain is not his own and is supposed to be full of what The Party wants him to believe as the Handmaids are to believe they are nothing more than objects of procreation. If The Party says that ice is heavier than water, then Winston must seriously convince himself that it is so. Or like O’Brien insisted: if they say two plus two equals five, it equals five. Winston is not allowed to think otherwise. He works at the Ministry of Truth in the Records Department where his job is to rewrite historical documents, newspapers, books, speeches and the like to fit what The Party has said at the current date. It often involves military victories, production predictions, or who they are and have always been at war with: he was not troubled by the fact that every word he murmured into the speakwrite, every stroke of his ink-pencil, was a deliberate lie. He was as anxious as anyone else in the Department that the forgery should be perfect. A mighty deed, which could never be mentioned, had been achieved. It was now impossible for any human being to prove by documentary evidence that the war with Eurasia had ever happened.

Winston is not the least bit guilty in his job of lying, in fact he is exceedingly proud of what he has done. This is his contribution to society, though he always questions the changes in his mind, he is ultimately dedicated to accepting his role of spreading lies to the masses to improve the image of The Party in their relentless propaganda.

Though “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” and  seem astonishingly different, they are strikingly similar. Their protagonists feel the same emotions, the same feelings of unfaithfulness to their oppressive society that insists they are nothing more than what they are told to be. They are not allowed to think or act for themselves and are to believe the lies enforced daily. What is most important to them is their deep desire for love, in a society like a wasteland to romance they both live off the ideas of love, past and present. Apart from rebelling by doing seemingly little things, love is one of their greatest commonalities. The books urge the reader that these things have, can and will happen. They are not science fiction, they are a warning and play a massive role in modern society and are just as important as when they were written. Atwood and Orwell want to make people uncomfortable, to get up close and personal with a real person suffering through these instances. They feel love, fear, anger, guilt. They feel pain and want the reader to resonate with that pain and feelings of hopelessness, and they do not disappoint.

Works cited

  1. Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid's Tale. Anchor.
  2. Orwell, G. (1984). 1984. Signet Classics.
  3. Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
  4. Arendt, H. (1973). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace & World.
  5. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books.
  6. Miller, N. L. (Ed.). (2019). The Cambridge Companion to Dystopian Literature. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Booker, M. K. (1994). Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Greenwood Press.
  8. Rigney, M. (2018). The Afterlives of Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Cambridge University Press.
  9. Suarez, M. F., & Merkley, P. T. (Eds.). (2016). Utopian and dystopian writing for children and young adults. Routledge.
  10. Squires, C. (2008). The New Politics of Gender Equality. Palgrave Macmillan.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Comparison: “1984” And “The Handmaid’s Tale”. (2024, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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