A dystopia is a figurative place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically being ruled by a totalitarian government. Most characters within dystopian societies do not realise they are within one, being grateful for their freedom ‘to’s rather than their freedom ‘from’s. As an outsider, readers of this genre are able to distinguish the bad from good, and so are positioned to ever so vitally question: “Why?” What some audience members may not realise, is that most dystopian texts are produced in response to trends in society. These trends or social norms are often manipulated to the point where the text may be considered satirical- but is there really any grain of truth or disillusionment behind it? Common themes include class division, oppression, religion, war and environmental degradation. Anything sound familiar?
Infamous dystopian classics Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), have parallels between them despite projecting two conflicting extremes of Western society- religious conservatism and sexual freedom/expression. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has created a new society known as “Gilead” in an alternate 1980’s America, destroying all traces of the promiscuous past in order to gain control of copulation and population. This is reflected oppositely in Brave New World’s society “The World State”, set in in the year 2540, London, where attraction to old things (including that of traditional monogamy and the family ideal) will not promote consumption of the new. Indeed the two societies are both ruled by totalitarian governments, but all in all, the ‘greater good’ is prioritised… What could go so wrong?
Well first things first, greater good as a whole is generally achieved by the sacrifice of individualism. Identity is now assigned, with a clear caste division and even a little colour coding to cheer things up. Then of course, there’s the protagonist. They don’t have to be brave or righteous, they just have to be different. In Gilead, our protagonist is the narrator- Offred. She understands and acknowledges that she does not fit in by resisting internalisation of the regime, yet does not attempt rebellion in fear of the consequences. Gilead maintains power by fear. In The World State, we have Bernard. Sure, physically he’s a little short, but mentally, he believes he’s actually above all of his brainwashed acquaintances. He’s too busy trying to prove his worth to others to rebel. The World State maintains power by forced ignorance and distraction. But how can anybody be distracted from such a horrific society? Two words:
The societies are both based around sex and its procreational or recreational purposes. Ever noticed in our Western culture that sex is becoming more casual? Losing its sanctity? Just sayin’. Perhaps in all that casualness, we are also losing our emotional attachment to the act. Control of sexual reproduction, arguably the most natural process of all, is used as a tool of power. In Gilead, Offred is forced to have only one sexual partner, the Commander, whom she is forbidden to feel emotion towards. She is there only to receive fertilisation of her eggs and then surrogate his child- but don’t worry, it’s not like adultery or anything. His sterile wife is led beneath her during the procedure. In the World State, emotion is not so much forbidden as opposed to non-existent. From the age of toddlers, beautiful things like flowers and books meant loud noises and electric shocks (seriously, you can thank Pavlov), meaning emotion is filtered out from the society one by one. Sometimes however things out of our reach just that little bit more tempting.
The elite of Gilead and the World State love to dangle things in front of their citizens faces. Even the act of playing Scrabble is reserved for those only with enough status like the Commanders: “Now it’s forbidden, for us… Now it’s desirable”. In the World State, World Controller Mustapha Mond also abuses his power by refusing to educate his people on the works of Shakespeare, especially Othello. Any of these ‘extracurricular’ activities might just spark something new in someone’s mind, and new ideas mean individuality, and individuality is a threat to the system. Knowledge is, and also used as, a tool of power. Gilead even creates an official vocabulary that ignores reality in order to serve the needs of the new society only. Gilead is set in a place (Harvard University grounds) that was established to pursue knowledge and creativity, but instead is used as a basis for oppression- similar to how the World State was created also in order to elevate mankind as a whole. Ironically, in taking their right to knowledge and truth away, humanity has been pushed aside. Offred reverts to the understanding that “They can do what they like with me. I am an object.” This Gilead thing is all justified Biblically though, so it must be okay, right? Even the World State contains religious influences… sorta. Karl Marx did say that “Religion… is the opiate of the people”, and it seems that the custom drug “soma” really is providing some religious-like ecstasy. Bernard of course, decides he doesn’t quite like the customs here, much like our Handmaid, whom for some reason doesn’t like being a “two-legged womb”. Hmm.
Either way, Offered believes there was no way out: “We already know which we will take, because we always take it.” This use of realism shows dystopias are a cyclical trap. Surprise, surprise. No one dares to speak or act against their political system, especially the women. People are only valued for what they contribute to society, and in Gilead, the more babies popping out the better. The future generations are dependent on the fertile Handmaid’s willingness to conform. That is, conform or be hanged. “Momento Mori”. Remember to die. By killing your individual mentality you prevent your physical death. Even in the World State, the women have sole responsibility on birth control. Should anything go ‘wrong’, they pay the price. Not so much hanging, rather alienation or exile. But still. Mustapha Mond regards himself, and his position, “lucky… that there are such a lot of islands in the world.” As much as the death penalty is intimidating to some, John the Savage (the new and improved protagonist introduced later on in Brave New World) sees life and humanity in death. He believes in a soul, and his desire for self actualisation was his demise. So kids, it seems both Huxley and Atwood are telling you not to bother trying your hardest for what you want in life. You will die. And what’s worse than death?
Rape! In the World State, the concept of rape has been eradicated. The state motto is that “everyone belongs to everyone else”, and so if you want someone, “why don’t you just go and take him, whether he wants it or not?” Sex as a constant distraction enforces that the citizens have also been raped by the system of their free will. There is even “sex-hormone chewing gum” available for purchase, and the lesson of “Elementary Sex” is taught to young citizens still sleeping in their cots. In Gilead however, the people are lead to believe rape is no longer a possibility, being left behind with the rest of the immoral past. Handmaids in their training are shown horrifying pornography of a naked women being cut apart with garden shears and then told they are better protected from sexual and physical abuse in Gilead, but at what price? For they are also told that “To be seen, to be seen is to be penetrated.” You got it- victim blaming at it again. At least its metaphorical. So do women really have it better, or do the perpetrators have less ‘provocation’? Handmaids must wear a head-to-toe red habit, symbolic of their menses and therefore fertility. Sterile Wives wear blue, and the servants (“Marthas”) wear green. Male Commanders and Guards wear a uniform depicting their military-style ranking (*sigh*, patriarchy). Uniforms help people conform to their roles and internalise the behaviours associated with them. This too is evident in the World State, where hypnopaedia is used against citizens in their sleep to force internalisation of their regime and social hierarchy: “Delta Children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse… they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.” Colour as a motif leads to the mindset of characters thinking that they should be happy in their dystopian society by looking down on the people who have it worse.
And wouldn’t a future where everyone is happy just be wonderful! How unfortunate that humanity involves more than one emotion. Boring. By hyperbole, Huxley and Atwood show the consequences of tampering with nature for the sake of the greater good. No more religious controversy, poverty, violence, riots, terrorism, war, murder, rape, overpopulation or drug restrictions… Is this a dystopia or a utopia we’re talking about? In the words of Huxley: “Yes, ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays’… But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way… In your own way, for example.”
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.