Handmaid’s Tale and 1984
I’m not very far into The Handmaid’s Tale yet – only about halfway – but I’m definitely being struck by a bunch of similarities between it and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m a big fan of both, but it’s interesting seeing where they’re alike and different.
The big similarity is the loneliness. In each book we get a view from inside the head of someone questioning an unquestionable society. Both protagonists have to hold in their heads their various fears, their desires, their secret, small guilty pleasures, and to hide these for fear of punishment. It’s interesting see how they have to satisfy themselves with very small things. It’s also interesting how convinced they are that everything that’s occurring around them is crazy, and that other people MUST recognize this. It makes the loneliness even greater, in a way, since the risks of exposing their heresy are too great to chance them by trying to form a friendship.
The big difference I’m seeing is the time between a free world and the ones in which the protagonists live. Winston Smith, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, does not remember things having ever been different. He has to hunt and search to find anyone who still has any knowledge of what it used to be like before the totalitarian government took over. The fact that Winston Smith only knows his oppressive world reinforces the stifling atmosphere of the book, where the government pretends that this is how it always was, and this is how it always will be.
In contrast, Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale DOES remember a time when she had something else. She remembers freedom to, rather than freedom from. She remembers love, sex, and birth as something other than the disturbing parody they’ve become. Having done nothing wrong and having had no say, she is forced to participate in a system she doesn’t believe in. (As an aside, the type of oppression she is subject to is very different from that of Nineteen Eighty-Four; in that book, the government is very distinctly atheistic and acting contrary to it is “thought-crime.” In The Handmaid’s Tale, the oppression is definitely a religious one, where opposition is heresy.) To me, Offred’s suffering is much more visible and violent. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the injusticies hurt like a dull, chronic ache; in The Handmaid’s Tale, they’re like repeated jabbings with a hot needle. I haven’t decided yet which I like less.