Exploring The Dystopian ‘Renaissance’: A Comparison between The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World

Disclaimer: Spoilers may be present for those who have not read the texts in their entirety.

Dystopian texts have become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, with the publication of some of the top-grossing books of the 21st century; adults and teens alike crazed over The Hunger Games phenomenon, and more recently The Maze Runner just to name a few  examples – but where did it all spark from? Comparing two ‘literature greats’; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) allows us some insight into the foundations of Dystopian literature, which laid the groundwork for the more recent Dystopian comeback.

So what makes a Dystopian text?

  • Adherence to Conventions of Genre: whilst being a novel and adhering to narrative convention, Dystopian text is a genre all on its own; one with typified archetypes which make up the text type (we’ll explore these a little later).
  • The Role and Representation of Women: while not evident in all Dystopian texts, this representation is ever relevant in today’s contemporary context – in a literary sense with the introduction of prominent female protagonists, and contextually in society’s current stance on gender equality (re: third-wave feminism).
  • Manipulation of Language and Language Devices: Dystopian authors often experiment with language in the creation of their new worlds; looking at the way language is used with aesthetic quality to shape readings and mould understanding of the ideals of these new worlds

^ Just to name a few premises.

Breaking it all down:

Adherence to Conventions of Genre

Protagonist:

Whilst the stereotypical ‘Mary Sue’ is a fictional character trope known within literary circles quite well, the Dystopian protagonist is a little less clear cut. Typically, the Protagonist is the reader’s eyes in identifying the weaknesses in the society – she/he is the anomaly that questions; identifying the society as Dystopian, and not as the advertised Utopia the other characters are brainwashed into believing it is.  The protagonist also believes that escaping the restraints of the Dystopian society, or overcoming the social order, is possible, and generally aims to bring down said society. In the denouement, the Protagonist also sadly either dies, or fails in their endeavours to bring down the society. It is in this way we can compare the Dystopian protagonist to the Tragic Hero; in that their hamartia is often the desire to, and belief they can, beat the impossible odds set by the society and overtake those in power, ‘fixing’ the Dystopian society.

Both Huxley and Atwood slightly manipulate the Dystopian protagonist however;

There is no clear protagonist in Brave New World – although there is a large amount of focus on Bernard Marx in the first half of the novel there is an equal focus on John the Savage in the second. What defines the two according to the tropes of the Dystopian Protagonist is their view on the society of The World State. Bernard is very much an outsider, although ranked an Alpha-Plus Intellectual (an individual of the highest caste), who is ostracized due to his short stature – seen as so much of a physical deformation in the society that his colleagues joke that his growth must have been stunted due to an alcohol spill in his blood-surrogate – and his ‘atypical’ thought processes in disagreeing with the casual sex that is so openly promoted within the society – In Chapter 3 he is angered by an overheard conversation mentioning “having” Lenina Crowne, his colleagues discussing her as if she were “a bit of meat” – and his open objection of soma and soma-induced activities, such as the Orgy-Porgy (a drug-induced gathering in which the group all engage in sexual activity; it is described as a deeply spiritual experience). In his attempt to bring down The World State, he brings John the Savage into the civilisation as an experiment. The only individual introduced into the society born naturally, John opposes the society’s ideals due to his upbringing in the Savage Reservation – in which his way of life contrasts completely with the day-to-day functionality of The World State – and his exposure to works by William Shakespeare; which leads him to argue that humanity must also know how to be unhappy in order to create and appreciate beauty. In his final confrontation with World Controller Mustapha Mond he expresses, “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin… I’m claiming the right to be unhappy”.  As per Dystopian archetype, both characters fail to subvert the hierarchy of The World State; Bernard is exiled to Iceland, and John hangs himself, closing the book in a description of disturbing compass point directions.

Within The Handmaid’s Tale the character Offred epitomises the Dystopian protagonist in that, through Atwood’s use of flashbacks to Offred’s life before the Republic of Gilead was formed, the readers are lead to realise the faults of the new society by comparing it to Offred’s past and what has been taken from her. Stripped of the right to work and earn money, Offred is removed from her lover, Luke, and child and forced into training at The Red Centre – an acronym for the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Centre; run by the Aunts, (a cross between schoolmistresses and prison matrons, described as “patrol[ling]” the girls , armed with “electric cattle prods”) the centre conditions the women into their new role as Handmaids, educating them on the expectations that come with the role; the main lesson being how to increase their birthing rate and better produce children for their Commander. They are educated on the idea of Freedom From vs. Freedom To. Offred comments, Now we walk… and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles…” and relays Aunt Lydia’s advice: “In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Oddly enough, although aware of the restrictions, she does not express a clear desire to take down the society; emotional and opposing her situation, she is not however motivated to rebel against those in power and instead settles to accept and make the best out of her situation; engaging in secret games of Scrabble with The Commander, and a love-affair with Nick. The denouement of her tale is ambiguous; we as readers are left questioning whether she was captured by The Eyes, or rescued by Mayday (an underground resistance) as she steps “…into the darkness within [the van]; or else the light”.

Control: There are four main types of control evident within Dystopian texts;

  • Corporate Control in which via products, advertising/propaganda and the media one or more large corporations control the society,
  • Technological Control details control through scientific means; for example computers and robots,
  • Bureaucratic Control in which the society is controlled through mindless bureaucracy; regulations and incompetent government officials, and;
  • Philosophical/Religious Control in which ideologies based on religion or philosophy are heavily enforced as a form of control.

All forms of control are evident in both texts in some way or another. Corporate Control is evident in the sleep-induced conditioning (hypnopaedia) that dictates the ideals the members of The World State adhere to – Lenina expresses that “A gramme is always better than a damn” (a significant slogan which promotes a dependence on the chemical substance soma, a hallucinogenic drug which puts its consumers into a sleep-like ecstasy; idealistically ‘curing’ all of their problems) when Bernard begins to act in an upset manner in Chapter 6, and in The Handmaid’s Tale the site dedicated to Salvagings, or public execution, The Wall acts as propaganda advertising the consequence of opposing the society of The Republic of Gilead – Offred notices six male bodies hanging on The Wall in Chapter 6, identifies them as doctors who practiced abortion, those who turned against the church and homosexuals  and comments, “These men, we’ve been told are…criminals.” She expresses that they have “…committed atrocities, and must be made into example, for the rest…What we are supposed to feel towards them is hatred and scorn.”, making obvious, and in turn criticising, the extremist importance  that is placed on fertility and birth, and conservative religion within the society. Technological Control can be seen with the importance given to explaining the scientific principles behind human production within Brave New World; the entirety of the first chapter dedicated to explaining the intricacies of Bokanovsky’s Process and Podsnap’s Technique, and in the introduction of new technological devices in The Handmaid’s Tale such as the Compudoc and the Compuchecks – a sort of technological colonialism making the familiar strange. Bureaucratic Control manifests in the characters of  Mustapha Mond and The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning in Brave New World; both of whom uphold The World State motto of “Community. Identity. Stability” and hold the power to exile uncooperative members of the society, and the Guardians/Angels/Aunts/Eyes in The Handmaid’s Tale – which as well as euphemisms for soldiers in Gilead’s army/Secret Police are also allusions to biblical figures, linking them to the Physiological/Religious Control evident in both texts.

Idolisation of Figurehead/Concept: As an effect of the aforementioned Philosophical/Religious Control, it is common within Dystopian societies for its citizens to worship a figurehead, and/or concept associated with the established figurehead. This figurehead or concept is also often manipulated to better fit the ideals promoted within the Dystopian society.

Within The Handmaid’s Tale, Bible passages and ideologies are bastardised to justify the ideals and customs of the Republic of Gilead. The accepted greeting between the Handmaids is “Blessed be the fruit”; the response, “May the Lord open” – as well as the ideals of successful reproduction being indoctrinated in the Handmaid’s discourse, through this exchange it is also connoted that the Handmaids are expected to be pious and pray for healthy labour.  The Ceremony reinforces these ideals through referring to the biblical passage Genesis 30: 10-3: And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or I else I die. …Behold my maid Bilhah, go unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may have children by her.” The objectification of women in the fact they must submit to a patriarchal society in which they are valued solely for their procreative function and act as surrogate mothers is condoned and the unaesthetic and grossly misogynistic ritual is justified as the participants are given biblical significance.  Through this, Atwood criticises the way that people and theocracies use the Bible for their own oppressive purposes.

Similarly, in Brave New World the people of The World State idolise the great Ford – an allusion to Henry Ford and the mass-production of his Model T cars. The allusion indoctrinates  the idealism of mass-production and consumerism valued within the society, specifically in justifying the aforementioned Bokanovsky’s Process (“The principle of mass production at last applied to biology”) and in the promotion of soma, and of purchasing new things and transportation – the aspects mentioned in a World State child’s [of Beta caste – we look at this soon] hypnopaedia is the repetition of “I do love flying…The more stitches the less riches… Ending is better than mending… I love new clothes…”.

Class Division:

All Dystopian texts have a clear separation of class as a means of control, meaning there is a clear binary opposition between those in power and those lower ranked in the society’s hierarchy, determined by privilege. Class systems and roles are distinguished throughout both Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale on a surface level through the use of colour and name, which then connote rank within the society.

Within The Handmaid’s Tale the hierarchy starts with the Angels/Eyes/Guardians – although not specifically mentioned colour-wise,  they are important as they enforce Bureaucratic Control; within the first Chapter Offred divulges that although the Aunts patrolled the Red Centre with cattle prods, they “could not be trusted with guns. Guns were for the guards…specially picked from the Angels”.  The weapons that used to be a Constitutional Right in the U.S before the formation of the Republic of Gilead are reserved as privileges for those of a higher status within the society. The hierarchy branches down, encompassing the Aunts (dressed in brown/khaki – connoting military power)/Commanders (black) and Wives (identifiable in blue – an embodiment of the idea of the Madonna/The Virgin Mary, denoting the respect that is expected to be given to the Wives), then the Marthas (green), then the Handmaids (dressed in “…red: the colour of blood, which defines us”; their prescribed ‘uniform’ emphasising their functionality within the society – to produce life, they are also described as “Sisters, dipped in blood” again linking the Philosophical/Religious justification to their prescribed functionality), then Econowives (red/green/blue – denoting that the women of lower status have to fulfill multiple roles within their households; this is looked down upon, thus informing their rank in the societal hierarchy) and finally the Jezebels and the Unwomen. Each name has biblical meaning again reinforcing the society’s religious ties, and making evident each role’s significance within the society; the Wives reference Mary Magdalene as previously mentioned, Martha = Martha of Bethany, Handmaids = Genesis 30: 10-3 as aforementioned, Jezebels = the Seductress Jezebel. The significance of the Handmaids not possessing actual names and referred to simply as Of[ their Commander’s Name], for example Offred, also is significant in that the lack of personal identification labels them as possessions, objects owned by the Commanders reinforcing again their position within the society.

Comparatively the caste system in Brave New World bears similarity in that the roles within the society can also be identified through colour and name, and the connotations assumed therein. However, as the product of genetic manipulation, the castes are engineered to be clones of the same make; same attractiveness, intelligence and economic position, according to caste. There is arguably even less of a sense of individuality within the society than The Handmaid’s Tale. The social hierarchy is based on the lettering of the Greek alphabet; the highest rank Alphas (whom wear grey, and are defined by their near-perfect physique, extreme attractiveness and high intelligence levels, determining their high status; the equivelant to a High Class citizen), to Betas (red; good physique attractive, capable of high order thinking, still a High Class, however moving towards more Middle Class), Gammas (green; decent physique, okay looking, possessing an average intelligence, Middle-Lower class), Deltas (kaiki; signs of deformation, not attractive, cannot think abstractly, and of Lower class) and finally the lowest rank, the Epsilons (black; physically stunted, ugly, verging on moronic, and definite Low, what we know as almost poverty, Class). The interactions and prejudices of the separate castes are determined by hypnopaedia; a Beta-caste child is exposed to lessons detailing that “Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta”.

A common privilege of the class systems in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World is the luxury of Education; and whilst this is provided with limitation to the higher classes, both the Commander and Mustapha Mond, two characters of high status in the social hierarchy openly flaunt their power positions in the collection of what can be classed as illegal educational materials. The Commander secrets away his black-market books in his library and invites Offred in for games of Scrabble, as Mustapha Mond keeps his collection of Shakespeare’s works, the Bible and a score of experimental scientific study material under lock and key. It is ironic that those in the positions of the highest authority, the characters that are supposedly the poster-children of everything the society promotes so openly and blatantly disregard, rebelling in a sense, against these regulations.

Satire:

The greater purpose of satire is social criticism; often employing the use of wit to ridicule with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, the government, or society itself into improvement. Authors often use the device as a vehicle through which to explore and make apparent the social issues prevalent within their societies in the era of the text’s publication. Both Huxley and Atwood employ the features of satire, specifically Juvenalian satire, to criticise the ideas circulating their respective contexts.

Features of Satire:

  • Exaggeration/Hyperbole: In its simplest terms – inflation. For example; the overly-inflated sense of importance that a reader interprets being given to the scientific processes of reproduction in Brave New World is a prime example of how exaggeration can be used to criticise. During a first reading, the reader assumes that for having so much importance during the beginning on the novel, that the concept of biological mass-production would carry more weight in further reading. This can be read as parallel to the uproar the concept of mass-production initially created, and the promotion of pro-consumerism that eventuated in economic collapse and lead to the Great Depression.
  • Incongruity: Created through juxtaposition, it is the positioning of something in a place in which makes it seem absurd. The protagonistic characters of both The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World act as vehicles through which to drive the juxtaposition of the unfamiliar ideals presented in the Dystopian societies with life as we know (or as Huxley and Atwood knew) now, and highlight the faults within the idealism.
  • Parody: Ridicule/To diminish what we see as important. For example, the bastardisation of Bible passages within The Handmaid’s Tale as mentioned previously, and also the concept of ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ as received as almost pornographic terms within Brave New World.

Manipulation of Language and Language Devices

Authors often employ the use of certain aesthetic to emotionally engage their readers in the understanding of ideology, and looking briefly at the aesthetic qualities and experimentation of language present within both Huxley and Atwood’s novels, we can determine the success  of employing these strategies to influence the active criticism of the ideals presented. Focusing specifically on The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood does not give time for her readers to become habituated to her un-aesthetic qualities therefore sudden graphic imagery as juxtaposed with her normal narrative flow is noticeable, and has a greater effect on the reader’s reception of the ideology the aesthetic has been employed to communicate. In Chapter 6, Offred narrates; “The good weather holds. It’s almost like June, when we would get out our sundresses and our sandals and go for an icecream. There are three new bodies on The Wall”. Through this, her readers are displaced – Atwood lulls them into a false sense of security and she leads us through pleasant imagery and then destroys the pleasantry completely, shocking the readers into releasing the faults in the Republic of Gilead, and therefore the fault in American ideology as prevalent in the 1980s – the marginalisation of women due to religious extremism.  Experimentation with language is clear in the inclusion of portmanteau words, with references such as the “Particicutions”; derived from the singular words ‘Participation’ and ‘Execution’ – the word denotes the gruesome event that is the active participation in public execution the Handmaids are encouraged to engage with, creating a definite sense of sinister Dystopia. The idea of aesthetic is explored within Brave New World to make obvious the views of the conditioned citizens who consider, as aforementioned, words like ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ are viewed by the citizens as un-aesthetic, pornographic even, whereas this seems absurd to readers of a contemporary context.

The Role and Representation of Women

A recent trend in the comeback of Dystopian fiction is the inclusion of a female Protagonist. However still an alien concept in Huxley’s time; the era fuelled by bigoted, traditional views of the roles of women, the fight for gender equality has become ever present and is evident with The Handmaid’s Tale and more recent Dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games and Insurgent with the introduction of strong and capable women who actively fight against their oppression. Characters like Katniss Everdeen; The Girl on Fire, and The Mockingjay (the symbol of resistance) and Tris Prior mark the rise of an era of non-typified female characters and positive literary representation in Dystopian text, fighting against the extremes of gender oppression, and by extent the rape culture, evident as satire within The Handmaid’s Tale, as previously discussed.

By M.I.

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