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Handmaid’s Tale and 1984

2009 March 14
by Solomon Lutze

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.

One Response
  1. Natasha permalink
    March 15, 2009

    Interesting points of comparison.

    Also reminds me of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, what with the magazine/book-burning, and not allowing people to read.

    “Winston Smith, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, does not remember things having ever been different.” yes, and though Offred does remember, she talks about the girls who will have grown up in this society and so won’t remember anything different. And yes, it does seem like just knowing someone else agrees with you is sanity-sustaining (“It’s also interesting how convinced they are that everything that’s occurring around them is crazy, and that other people MUST recognize this.”). That’s interesting in terms of constructions/technologies. We can create/construct/make a technology if there are a number of people doing it, but not by ourselves alone. Whether the technology is the crazy system the Gilead gov has, or the technology is the belief that Offred and Ofglen and others think that the gov’s system is indeed crazy.

    Interesting that despite the difference of 1984’s gov being strictly atheistic and gilead being strictly religious, is that in both, opposition to the gov’s way of thinking is punished. Not allowing a difference in opinions is as scary as the opinions themselves.

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