Margaret Attwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is a dystopian novel published in 1985. It is set in New England in the future where the handmaids are forced to produce babies for the Commanders and their wives to raise. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is also a dystopian novel originally published in 1949. In this novel, citizens are taught to love and obey their leader, also known as ‘Big Brother’ who watches and controls everything to the extent that not even their thoughts are safe. The setting of ‘1984’ in Oceania in a dystopian future version of Great Britain.
In this essay, I will be addressing themes such as religion, power, feminism, freedom, identity, sexuality/love, and independence.
Both Attwood and Orwell use power to reinforce the idea of oppression. Most dystopian novels contain themes of corruption and oppression, therefore in both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘1984’ language is used as a form of the state’s control, this enables dystopian leaders to remain in power by manipulating language to restrict free thought and hence keeping citizens to oblige to rules and regulations.
The use of language is commonly repressive, language (example) can also be seen as a way for one to feel liberated, which can then be used as an act of rebellion, which the state forbids in both novels. In ‘1984’, language is corrupted. As we can see from the quote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” we can interpret here that Orwell is referring to the language being strong enough to corrupt minds.
If one has poor language, the poorer his thoughts become and hence can easily fall into the idea of being corrupted because they don’t know otherwise. Contextually, thanks to Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, we know the true meaning behind this quotation, which is for the politicians who can easily use their skill to manipulate others and because of their status, they can easily oppress those who aren’t as educated. In this way, 1984 is a satire of political manipulation. Orwell satirizes the manipulative power of political language. The powers of persuasion and mind control utilized by the government can be destructive for human choice and freedom. we see this through the Thought Police which monitors and restricts Winston’s conscience memory and individual thought.
Zooming in on the adjective ‘corrupt’ can portray the idea of behaving in a way that is morally wrong, especially by doing dishonest or illegal things in return for money or power. An example of this was when Winston’s face was locked into a cage with rats to shred it apart. The reason that this was done was to obtain information about him and Julia which Winston caved in and gave, the government wanted to feel in control again and the fact that Winston and Julia had fallen in love was forbidden and seen as rebellious. ‘Big Brother’ wanted to teach them a lesson for no other reason but to control them. Critic James Schellenberg (1999) argued, ‘This big brother society is too well-constructed to break apart in the face of one man’s resistance,’ hence showing us that Big Brother has become too powerful. This can link to the idea of oppression as citizens no longer have the power to choose what they want to do with their lives and the fact that they are always under surveillance can have them on edge which makes them restrict what they do. This concept can make us question whether the citizens are even human due to the lack of moral characteristics.
Similarly, in ‘Handmaid Tale’, language is used as a form of state control. One right that the handmaids are stripped away from is the ability to be able to read and write. Gilead’s way of confining women is by stripping them of all statuses of their rights, forcing them to live out lives of servitude in a patriarchal society. We witness the Handmaids unable to read the Bible as Offred writes “it was from the Bible, or so they said”. This suggests that the sons of Jacob twisted the words of God in order to fit their ideology which can show corruption as the whole idea behind Gilead is religion. This can then pose the question – is it all a false ideology created by the Commanders to play God and gain more power while oppressing those of the lower class?
The fact that the Handmaids cannot read their holy book and it was “played from a tape”, proves how little freedom they have, as the Bible is supposed to be sacred to them and Gilead society. Offred also “knew they made it up” implying they have no rights and no control and cannot speak up. this can link to the idea of oppression because in the Christian book of Genesis we learn that God himself said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ However, being a ‘ helper’ does not imply that the woman was inferior to a man, God created both men and women in His own image and made them equal guardians of all His creation. this shows that men and women are equal in the eyes of God and the fact the Gilead is restricting the women from living as they please show that they’re going against God’s command.