A Comparison of The Social and Political Institution Attacks in the Dystopian Fiction 1984 and The Handmaids Tale

‘Much dystopian fiction attacks social and political institutions’. In 1984 and The Handmaids Tale.

Both Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaids Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 are dystopian novels, the genre dystopia has been described as speculative fiction due to its basis on realistic events and institutions. As 1984 was published in 1949 it is largely based on Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany, Orwell has described the texts purpose as a warning against such tyrannical governments. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986 and although the novel has totalitarian government as the crux of the novel, it is main critique is of the conservative rights that was posing a threat during the 1980s.

In The Handmaid’s Tale Attwood attacks the social institution of patriarchal society, which greatly contrasts to the critique of gender equality created in 1984. THT’s Gilead is a male dominated society, in which men control all the power. Women are reduced to mere possessions in with the protagonist being given the name “Offred”, this creates a literal representation of her nature as someone owned by her male counterpart. Though there is a female hierarchy even the highest women “commander’s wives” are defined by their marriage. The names reaffirm women’s positions with in the society as lesser citizens, this social structure is critical of the rise of conservativism in America, as in the 1980s they were large increase in the call for women to return to their homes, which is what has occurred in Gilead. This is contrasted with the social structure which Orwell critiques, 1984 is a society that claims to create gender equality. This is evident from the fact that women work, Julia “had some mechanical job”, a job is thought of as male in nature. Although the equality of genders, in their ability to hold jobs, is utopian in nature the equality in 1984 is used as a method of removing the sexual drive of citizens as women are stripped of feminine nature. This critique of equality can be viewed as critical of the Stalinist Russia, in which the society was supposed to be equal for the benefit of all but instead created large oppression similar to the sexual repression in 1984.

Both 1984 and THT attack the political regimes of totalitarian governments. In 1984, there is a hierarchy of “proles”, “outer party” then “inner party” and at the top “Big Brother”. The way in which power is concentrated in the hands of the few is reflective of regular governance, but the concentration of power in the hands of one person is reflective of a dictatorship. This form of government is criticised when Winston inquiries about Big Brothers existence to O’Brian, who replies “Big Brother is the embodiment of the party”, which indicates that he is not a real person but in fact a representation of the government. Though it has been interpreted that Big Brother was a real leader but has died and has been used posthumous as an identifiable figure, this interpretation better displays the critique of totalitarian government as in 1953 the Soviet government delayed announcing Stalin’s death until they had an effective replacement, hence critiquing the dictatorial control of government regimes in 1948. Like the illusive Big Brother Gilead’s leaders are unknown, due to the first-person narrative of Offred there is limited knowledge of anything other than the structures of her household as Offred is unaware of who possess the power above the “commanders”, though this still portrays an alarming picture of the effects of power concentration in the hands of the few. Although THT was written in the 1980’s the military coup and militarised nature of society draws parallels to communist Cuba, which was created via a military coup led by Castro and Guevara, as Cuba is merely 90miles away from Florida and the novel was written during the height of the Cold War it is possible that the disapproval for communist regimes were reflected by Attwood.

In fitting with the speculative nature of dystopian literature there are elements of THT and 1984 that critique our current society. The use of surveillance is largely reflective of modern society, in 1984 the

government have “telescreens”, which are like CCTV used in present society, used by the government to root out criminals. There is also the use of human to spy on others which creates the suspicion that Winston is “surrounded everyday by informers” like Offred says “it occurs to me that she may be an informer”, this method of turning people on each other is used in both texts to break down relationship and prevent people uniting against the government. This can be linked to the Germany with the Hitler Youth, who were taught to spy on their community, as well as the USA where during the height of the Red Scare people were told to report anyone suspected of being a communist. There are also similarities in the fact that both novels attack the culture of their respective countries.

In 1984, there is the ironically named “ministry of truth” which produces government propaganda, the building is in fact supposed to be the BBC, it can be argued that in portraying the famous building as the “Ministry of truth” Orwell is attacking its nature as a news and information outlet, suggesting that it is rather largely compliant with the governments media agenda. Although it can also be interpreted that the representation of the building is a way of generating concern for Western citizens who currently live in democracy, as it suggests that a dystopian government could gain control in the future. Likewise, Attwood critiques the western laisse faire attitude and tries to warn them. It can be considered that Attwoods featuring of “Japanese tourists” in THT is an attack on the western nations failure to assist countries facing oppression. As the tourist ask Offred and Ofwarren if they can “take your picture”, this shows both that the Japanese society is free and rich as well as the fact that they are unwilling to help the Handmaids, merely contempt to watch their oppression. Which is reflective of the way America failed to assist Eastern Bloc countries who rose up against communism, this seems to warn against the oppressive regime as it highlights the fact that the international community would be unlikely to take any action.

In conclusion, THT and 1984 attack the society both of their past and of the time in which they’re writing, which indirectly critiques the modern era in many respects. Which warns against social controls such as the 1980s-feminist back lash and political restraints like the regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

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