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Compare how Orwell, a British novelist writing in the 1940’s, and Atwood, a female Canadian novelist writing in the 1980’s present the individual in a repressive society.
Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and Orwell’s ‘1984’ both present a critique of social structures. The Oceanic society in ‘1984’ shares strong similarities between 20th century dictatorships and can be interpreted as a criticism of the regimes of Stalin in the USSR and of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Hitler’s secret police, the Gestapo, are infamously known for abduction-style arrests where thousands of “enemies of the state” would be taken away at night.
This is similar to the arrests made in Oceania “during the night” by the ‘Thought Police’ for “thought crimes”. In both instances, ultimately, existence of those individuals that were taken would be erased. In Nazi Germany these enemies would be sent to concentration camps, used as labour, tortured and eventually killed – and likewise in Oceania they were “removed from the registers”, “forgotten” and then “vaporised”.
‘The Handmaids Tale’ on the other hand bares strong similarities between 1980’s Iran, where there existed great inequality of women. In both societies men are shown to hold a greater status than women. This higher status would stretch even as far as credibility of the spoken word, where for example in Iran there would need to be veritable male witnesses to attest to a rape. Much the same men in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ are seen to be the owner of objects. The commander is shown to have a vast collection of forbidden items and personal keepsakes where as in contrast Offred effectively has no possessions at all.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran there also exists a strict dress code for women. Post-pubescent women are required by law to wear veils covering their body and hair and failure to do so could result in arrest and imprisonment.
Similarly in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ clothes are forms of control. The handmaids are required to wear stiff white veils covering their hair and long and loose fitting clothes that covers their bodies. Women in the Gilead society are assigned “colour coded” clothes according to their rank, therefore wives and handmaids would wear different coloured clothes. Segregation of the sexes also seems to be a prominent feature of Both Iran and Atwood’s dystopian society. In Iran segregation of males and females is in effect at public busses to parks and this idea is further developed by Atwood where there is strict lack of contact for women with men in the novel. The handmaids are not allowed to be alone with males and this isolation Atwood shows has resulted in a sexually repressed and frustrated society.
‘The Handmaids Tale’ is also viewed upon by some as a critique of the individual’s expression of freedom. Atwood’s handmaids are not portrayed as individuals in the novel but reproductive vessels for society. In Orwell’s dystopia similarly people hold no individual rights, they are a part of a larger group, “comrades” in the party just as in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ Offred belongs to her Commander, Fred, and as a concubine her real name is not revealed.
Both authors present repressive societies where the importance of the individual is undermined. Facial expressions and reactions are tightly controlled in ‘1984’. Orwell’s telescreens are the future of technology and is used as a platform for mind control. “Comrades” are surveyed and their “every movement scrutinized” through the “simultaneously” receiving and transmitting telescreens. Winston tells of how there was “there was no way of shutting it off” and that “any sound” and anything “within its field of vision” could be seen and heard by the state Thought Police. Facial expressions are also seen to be controlled in ‘The Handmaids Tale’.
Sex in both novels is a key theme and plays an important role in both dystopian societies. Winston calls sex a “political act” and a “blow struck against the party”. The state in ‘1984’ is actively shown to campaign against sex as it is called to “create a world of its own” that the party cannot control. Control over sex is ultimately control over the individual and thus the party in Gilead aim to have the “sex instinct eradicated”. Winston tells the reader how desire for sex is “thought crime” and the act, if successfully performed, “was rebellion” although at the same time he stresses that Julia’s rebellion was only through sex and she was only a “rebel from waist down”.
Sex in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is however seen as conformity. Women are shown in the novel to take the role of reproductive machines and sex is solely carried out as a form of fulfilling the species. Offred says how “what goes in this room under Serena Joy’s silver canopy, is not exciting” and similarly Winston talks of how the party saw “eroticism” as “the enemy” and aimed to prevent men and women from forming loyalties. This therefore means sex in both novels is uncomfortable and with no pleasure, sex in both societies is meant o be loveless, mechanical and reproductive purposes only. What differs in the novels is that Sex in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is desirable but is sanctified, it is awarded to those with status, and this society ultimately revolves around sex as sex is a form of power, whereas in 1984 intercourse is “a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema”.
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