Comparing Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale: Characteristics of Dystopian Texts

You wake up in 2540, everything is perfect, everyone is happy and everyone has been stripped of all individuality. You don’t care though, you’re too busy being mindlessly controlled. There has just been a disaster, and the society is changing in response to it, but we don’t speak of that. There’s a clear caste system, and if you don’t conform to that, you’ll most likely get banished. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ve got yourself a dystopian society. Dystopian society’s generally feature the things just mentioned, and some examples of dystopian texts are The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World. These texts will be discussed below.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is based on a young girl being treated as a surrogate mother for an infertile couple in a society called Gilead. For a more in depth summary, jump over to sparknotes and read up (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/handmaid/summary.html).

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley features a society in which Ford is idolised, a hallucinogen is used to cloud reality’s flaws, and  nobody has morals,dignity,values or freedom to emotions. Again, for more information go ahead and read the Shmoop summary (http://www.shmoop.com/brave-new-world/). Both of these texts adhere to the conventions of the dystopian genre in terms of the setting, characters, societal flaws and the conclusion.

Setting

A common dystopian characteristic is a vivid, in depth description of the setting the story takes place in. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the first chapter is purely a description of a gymnasium, using a strong sense of imagery to include the readers, and make them experience where the characters are. Within this first chapter, the undesirable world is introduced in quotes such as “army cots that had been set up in rows with spaces between so we could not talk”. There is also a distinct juxtaposition between the past and present (also a common characteristic of dystopian texts) in this first chapter, with Atwood making note of dances and miniskirts (the past), and then flicking back to army cots and patrolling Aunts (the present). Atwood has been successful in making Gilead sound like an undesirable society.

Brave New World’s introduction is quite lengthy, making the book difficult to engage with at first. The first two chapters describe the building, society and processes that occur within the novel, in which the details are made painfully explicit to readers. A motif in Brave New World is death,  and in the first two chapters this is thoroughly explored in quotes such as “The light was frozen,dead, a ghost.”. Huxley has used this motif initially to give the readers an eery feeling, reflective of his criticism towards the changing society. The vivid description of setting among dystopian texts almost forces readers into noticing that the novel they are about to read is going to be far from pleasant in some aspects.

Characters and women

Among both of these texts, there are multiple similarities regarding characters. An important similarity is the oppression of women. Women, in both texts, are regarded as inferior to men and basically lack all choice and freedom, however, this is more so portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are totally dehumanized in The Handmaid’s Tale, so much that the protagonist Offred refers to herself as “a rat in a maze”. If thats not sending you signals that somethings not right, then perhaps the next couple of points I make will. In Gilead, a woman’s social standing is determined by her reproductive function and loyalty. This is contrasted with men, as they are not even tested or their fertility is not even acknowledged. Women are further forbidden to read or write, and this has been done to keep women ‘stupid’, unaware and ignorant. The entire concept of the novel, women being used as walking incubators, suggests that women have no other purpose other than to be a surrogate mother in Gilead. These are just a few pieces of evidence supporting why The Handmaid’s Tale is full of misogyny, there is enough sexism within the novel it could have a blog post of its own. Gilead is thus made an undesirable society, the sole purpose of dystopian texts, and in this case, particularly for female readers.

Women are oppressed in Brave New World, however it is not as pervasive as in The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are oppressed in Brave New Word in the way that there are no Alpha females mentioned. This brings the readers to believe that the society feels as if women are too inadequate to be on the top of the hierarchy, and that they belong below men. Not cool. Another way in which men are seen as superior is regarding reproduction. Firstly, women are prescribed contraceptives and must always carry contraceptives on them wherever they go. Secondly, it is said in the exposition of the novel that “We allow thirty percent of the female embryos to develop normally”. Both of these points lead readers to believe the state does not want to leave the duty of dealing with new life and a new generation in the hands of women, so 70% of them are made sterile, and just in case that didn’t work, they are forced to carry contraceptives all the time. Also, not cool. Misogyny is a very common characteristic of dystopian texts, and that is made clear in just two texts.

Another generic convention surrounding dystopian fiction is the prevalence of a trapped protagonist. This is evident in Brave New World, where protagonist Bernard is identified as a social misfit. In one particular scene, there are twelve soma-using characters sittings around a table, shouting that they hear their so called God’s (Ford) footsteps coming for them. Here, Bernard recognizes this societal flaw, portrayed through the quote “He heard nothing and, for him, nobody was coming”. In this part of the book, Bernard should have been conforming with other citizens and believing that Ford (their ‘lord’) was coming for them. Incase that wasn’t enough evidence for you, it is also made clear that Bernard is not what society is conditioning him to be. After an orgy, or even just in general, citizens are conditioned to be happy and content with their social standing and their life, but Bernard is said to be “utterly miserable”. This is proof that Bernard is the typical, dystopian, trapped protagonist. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a trapped protagonist is not as prevalent, although Offred solely existing for the sake of being a surrogate mother is enough for readers to realise that the situation is far from appealing.

Hierarchies

Yet another similarity between the two is the rigid hierarchy of society. In Brave New World, the society is split into the Alphas, Betas, the oppressed Deltas, Gammas and then finally the poor Epsilons. This caste system is used as a barrier for who the characters socialise with, leaving them with the tiniest amount of social freedom. The caste system in this novel is nailed into the citizen’s mind through a bizarre conditioning technique called hypnopaedia. This even leads to upper class citizens despising lower ones, evident when Lenina says “I’m glad I’m not an Epsilon”, and “Khaki is a horrible colour”. The hierarchy within Brave New World is colour coded, just like the society in The Handmaid’s Tale. This colour coding idea merely categorises the characters as nothing but colours and a society, not at all as if they are individuals.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is also a distinct hierarchy. But this hierarchy is way more strict, as if you are caught just making eye contact with a citizen from another class when you shouldn’t be, you face banishment or even execution (I’ll get to this soon). The Handmaid’s hierarchy consists of The Eyes (the people in charge of the exiling and decision making),  The Aunts, The Commander (who the Handmaid’s serve), the Commanders Wives (who the Handmaid’s take orders from), the Martha’s, the Handmaid’s and the Econowives. Obviously, the Handmaid’s are what readers are exposed to throughout the novel. As I mentioned before, this social system is enforced by the consequences being exposed to the public. The Wall, which is opposite the church, is used to display the deceased, the people who have broken rules. This is used as a warning to the public as to what happens when you do something outside the strict rules and regulations. Both of these caste systems are used to frighten and control characters within each novel, and this has proved effective, due to the dismal ending in each text. The use of caste systems in dystopian texts proves to readers that freedom and self-justified choices is important, and because both of these novels end badly, the readers are issued a warning as to what will happen to society in the future.

Injustice systems

Most dystopian texts feature extreme consequences when characters disobey the rules and regulations of society, and this is definitely the case for both texts. The consequences I’m about to speak of are hyperboles on the authors behalves, and they’ve used them as a caution to readers. Readers are made to feel as if society continues as the books are mentioning, these extreme brutalities and consequences will become a reality, and readers are made to fear them, thus the books are warnings. For example, in Brave New World, more than three characters are faced with banishment for disagreeing with the terms of society. Three core characters, John, Bernard and Helmholtz have all recognised flaws within the society, and have attempted to rebel against the rules. In response to this, two of the three are banished to an island for the rest of their lives, and John exiles himself for the sake of not being an experiment to the society. Banishment is also a consequence for the characters of The Handmaid’s Tale, as practically anyone of higher standing than the Handmaids are able to enquire to send a Handmaid to the toxic wasteland to become an Econowife within reason.

Banishment is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale, although a more gruesome form of punishment is shown within the novel. Within this novel, people face consequences for things that seem normal for people in today’s society, such as reading, practicing medicine or having conversation with another person. To readers, facing a punishment for these innocent acts seems ridiculous, but that is exactly what a dystopian novel intends, it intends to make readers fear the society in their hands.  As previously mentioned, there is The Wall opposite the church used to hang the deceased. There is also ‘The Salvaging’ which is where all the women in Gilead are required to watch other people get hung for their crimes. The worst form of injustice is the Particicution, where all the women in Gilead are told to attack/murder an individual for so called ‘rape’. This is an extreme brutality, and the Handmaid’s are made to witness it for the same reason Atwood put it in her novel, to warn them.

Plot

It’s safe to say that all dystopian novels are satirical of something in one way or another. Whether it be satirical of a person, a society, an animal, a decision, whatever the case, they’re all satirical in some way. Brave New World was obviously a juvenalian satire of the society Aldous Huxley lived in post war. Subjects such as overpopulation, the Great Depression and procreation have been critiqued throughout the novel. Overpopulation has been explored through the sarcastic use of the Bokanovsky process (the proliferation of one egg into anywhere from eight to ninety-six budding embryos). This process has been included in order to criticise the tendency to overpopulate in post war society, and bring the possible consequences to the attention of readers.

The satire used in The Handmaid’s Tale is mainly political satire. Atwood has critiqued Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s within her novel. This is reflected how the children of ‘undesirables’ in Hitler’s Germany were forcibly removed from their parents, much the same as how Offred’s daughter was taken from her and she was sent to be a walking incubator. Another recognisable satire of Hitler’s Germany is how books with undesirable content were burned by the Nazis, similar to how literature is restricted in Gilead. If readers make this connection, they should be forced into seeing Gilead as even more undesirable, and they will view the novel as a political satire of Nazi Germany.

Both of these completely whack worlds feature yet another common characteristic associated with dystopian texts: an unsettling ending. Why dystopian texts do this I don’t know, but it’s safe to say it’s bloody annoying for readers. The Handmaid’s Tale finishes with Offred (the main chicka) being taken away in a van, although it’s unknown whether she is taken away by the head honchos to be executed or the good guys that will help take her to somewhere nicer. This ambiguous ending leaves readers hanging, and forces them to draw their own conclusions (if they want) in their heads. Brave New World ends with dangling feet and compass points, giving the suggestion that poor old John hung himself, because he was directionless. Over the course of the novel, readers are made to feel a connection with John, and having him typical die at the end is rather upsetting and unsettling. Maybe this is done to critique society, to tell them that this is where society is heading, and if it is, it’s been done very well in both novels.

There are a tremendous amount of similarities between these dystopian texts, and if I was to explore every single one of them, this would be an extremely long blog post. The characteristics that I have mentioned, however are the ones that are most prevalent in dystopian texts. So if you find yourself reading a novel, and some of the themes and ideas relate back to what you’ve just read, I’m afraid you’ve got yourself a dystopian book, and it’s probably going to end badly. #soznotsoz.

By A.M.

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