Future (Not So) Perfect: Exploring Themes of Dystopia in Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

The persistent appeal of dystopian literature has left a considerable mark on the course of much academic study. Novels such as 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and others remain constantly under the watchful eye of scholars and their students. Particularly, the nature of dystopian literature, which is to say, literature that shows the possible decline of societies not unlike our own, remains of interest because of the measure of similarities that can often be drawn to society as it now stands, and as it could possibly become. This proposes that much dystopian literature highlights current societal trends that tend to raise questions of the current course of economics, politics, or religious beliefs. Two dystopian texts in particular, George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, deliver separate, but ultimately similar visions of the nature of possible dystopian states.

To consider a dystopian state, first clarifying the term itself is a necessity. The idea of dystopia is in short, the very opposite of utopia. Utopia, as defined in Thomas More’s text Utopia, is a small nation which seemingly lives in a perfectly ideal setting. A utopia, removed from the original literary source, has through time adopted the same notion. The term utopian is given to any civilization attempting, or currently undertaking in providing a society for its citizens that is better than the current conditions of other non-utopian states. The epistemological definition of utopia is “no place;” More could have been using the term itself to prove that the idea of perfection is not so easily attainable, although that has had little heed in altering the popular definition of utopia. To establish a utopia is to strive for perfection, and this is where More’s Utopia parallels the definition of the popular term utopia, despite the apparent failures the fictional society has been shown to succumb to. Just as dystopian literature is often based on the nature and course of the author’s contemporary society, More’s work is based in a time long past, and no longer proposes a place that the majority would proclaim to be ideal. Some would consider More’s Utopia to now constitute a dystopia, not only because of the vast difference in modern opinion from the time of More’s writing, but also is it not true to believe that attempting to create a utopia and failing is to potentially create a dystopia?

The natural opposite to utopia, dystopia is often described as an imaginary place in which people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives. (Merriam-Webster) Dystopias acknowledge the demise of individual differences as a way of keeping order in power and power in order. Dystopias are stories that contrast the failure of the main character with the unstoppable advance of society towards totalitarianism. The loss of the self is the character's final acknowledgement of, and ultimate contribution to, society's being definitively victorious. (Mihailescu) It is difficult to determine whether More has created a dystopia or a utopia, as our viewing of his text is now skewed by our own cultural opinions, but even then, the direction of most utopian/dystopian literature proves that “perfect” society is much closer to dehumanized and fearful society than one might think. For a utopia to become a dystopia is only through one small mistake or removal of freedom; it would be proper to suggest the two terms as opposite sides of the same coin, one flipping to the other with relative ease. The coin flips naturally to the dystopian side in the writing of 1984, which presents what might be the most potent dystopia of popular literature.

In writing 1984, George Orwell explores dystopia at its most hopeless and desperate vision. Winston Smith, living in Airstrip One, subjugated to a life that is in almost all possible forms, fearful and dehumanized. The laws and practices of Oceania, mother nation to Airstrip One and ultimately Winston Smith, portray a number of the characteristics (“International Reading Association”) that signify a society as particularly dystopian. Oceania is consistently under the influence of propaganda from numerous sources. Media, other society members, and most obviously the telescreens provide a ceaseless flow of misinformation for Oceania’s citizens. Individuality in any manner and even free thought are condemned to those living in Oceania. The society worships Big Brother, a figurehead that provides an emotional focus, and potentially doesn’t even exist. Those living in Oceania are thought to be under constant surveillance from the telescreens, microphones, and once again, even from other society members. The social structure in 1984 is also frozen, so as to allow as little movement as necessary. Each important aspect of Oceania’s civilization is built around maintaining a situation in which the populace is meant to partake in an obviously dehumanized and fearful existence.

Where 1984 depicts a society in which the whole of the populace is under the grip of a totalitarian state, within Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, another possible dystopia is shown, and this one, while dehumanizing and potentially dangerous to all members, is a much more significant threat to the liberty of women. The Republic of Gilead, the governing party in The Handmaid’s Tale, follows many of the same tenants of what could be characteristically dystopian, but it also explores other outlets that Oceania doesn’t, just as Oceania explores some that The Republic of Gilead neglects. The Republic of Gilead is modeled after a religious precedent, particularly The Christian Bible, a text that many in contemporary American society proclaim highlights what could potentially create a perfect society. This questionable source material for creating an ideal state allows those in power to propose a society that is actually an illusion of perfection, particularly an illusion in which men are superior to women. Men have (power over) "the word", women do not; "the word" is singular, monolithic, and biblical because it originated by God, the father. (Cavalcanti) Those living in Gilead are expected to conform to the standards set for their particular caste, whether they are Wives, Econowives, Handmaids, or Marthas. Citizens are also under the impression that they are consistently under surveillance by the Eyes. Naturally, this all makes for a society that is potentially as dehumanizing as the society in 1984, or any other similar oppressive state.

While these are both but small descriptions of the particular aspects that emphasize what makes each of these societies particularly dystopian, they obviously share between the two, a number of obvious similarities. Both societies focus on maintaining an apparent constant surveillance on their members, or at least imposing the thought upon their citizens that they could possibly be under surveillance. Also, the removal of freedoms is a necessary aspect to both dystopian states, and the members are restricted from possessing certain materials that can help propose individuality, freedom, or the knowledge of other or past societies. These similarities constitute what could possibly be the more weighted aspects necessary to create a dystopian state, at least in these two particular societies. To suggest that each author chose these among all possible outcomes as coincidence is to propose that these similarities weigh the same as other, less important aspects of each society. The notion of dehumanization, limited freedom, and constant surveillance are present in each text because these concepts maintained to be a fearful aspect of society not only during the writing of 1984 in 1948, but they also proved to be significant until the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. The nature of dystopian, and even utopian, literature is undeniably shaped around society during the time of any text’s creation, and this fact, proves that while a particular setting, or other elements of a dystopian text may change, the reoccurring elements are the most important in defining society as it currently stands, and the possible fears that arise from the course and direction it is taking.

That is not to proclaim that the differences between the two texts aren’t equally valid in determining the fears and status of society at the time of a texts creation. The feministic view of Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale provides a very effective inspection of society at the particular time in which she was writing. Atwood explains herself, “The majority of dystopias - Orwell's included - have been written by men, and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who have defied the sex rules of the regime. They have acted as the temptresses of the male protagonists, however welcome this temptation may be to the men themselves.” (Atwood) However, this particular viewpoint of a feminist dystopia can only show the topic as it is understood within society at the time of her writing, not how important the issue has maintained to be, by consistently proving a factor in dystopian states through changes in time and society. The Handmaid’s Tale provides an excellent example of how relevant this is towards a temporary setting in the novel coming to no particular conclusion in the story of Offred. This irresolution reflects the position of mid-1980s feminism. In articulating the potential danger of certain directions in which the movement had been heading, the novel can only advise its readers to err on the side of caution, and defend liberty before ideology. (Tolan)

Some of the aspects of 1984 that aren’t shared in The Handmaid’s Tale are just as rooted in the post-WWII era in which Orwell was writing. The widespread fear of fascism and totalitarianism in this era is particularly responsible for the structure of the Party, and the realistic parallels to the failed communism in The Soviet Union between characters like Big Brother and Goldstein, and their possible counterparts in Stalin and Trotsky originate directly from Orwell’s own belief in socialism. Each of these aspects are integral towards the composition of a dystopian state in 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, but the rooted nature of these differences to their particular time periods could propose that these elements are secondary in nature, while the primary elements are those that tend to be more pervasive through all dystopian literature, and reoccur more commonly throughout the texts.

Identifying the nature of dystopia through the particular elements that most often repeat in literature allows for not only an academic analysis of each text, but also provides the opportunity to discern what core dystopian fundamentals are still being instilled through our society, and even through our own limited viewpoints. The nature of dystopia is to be dehumanizing and fearful, but the study of dystopia can provide answers to where fear and dehumanization truthfully originates. Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale explore two dystopian societies, separated by nearly half a century in societal change, and yet each novel focuses on similar aspects of dystopia that have carried through those time periods in either society, or in the very core values of ourselves. For these fundamentals of dystopia to remain fearful allows us to, in some respect, define ourselves by them, while the differentiating aspects of each text can show society as it existed, or currently exists, only in discovering the pattern of how we view dystopia, can society attempt to view and shape where it will ultimately choose to travel.

Works Cited

"Definition of dystopia from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary."
Merriam-Webster. 2006. 1 Mar 2007

Mihailescu, Calin Andrei. "Mind the Gap: Dystopia As Fiction."
Style 25. 21991 1 Mar 2007

"Dystopias: Definition and Characteristics." International Reading Association. 2006.
International Reading Association. 1 Mar 2007

Cavalcanti, Ildney. "Utopias of/f Language in Contemporary Feminist Literary Dystopias." Utopian Studies 11. 22000 1 Mar 2007

Atwood, Margaret. "Orwell and me." Guardian Unlimited. 2006.
Guardian News and Media Limited. 1 Mar 2007

Tolan, Fiona. "Feminist Utopias and Questions of Liberty." Women: A Cultural Review
16. 12005 31. 1 Mar 2007

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  1. Willow said...
    I've really enjoyed reading this article, Cody. - Thank you.

    I consider Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" to be another dystopian novel. - Have you read it? - I enjoyed it - if 'enjoy' is the right verb. I found it very timely and pertinent in these days of GM foods. Big Pharma and the increasing power of the multinationals.
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