Literary Ramblings: A Handmaid’s Tale; The Feminist 1984?

Canadian Author Margaret Atwood.

Canadian Author Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale has oft been referred to a feminist incarnation of George Orwell’s 1984, and the comparison’s are understandable in that the novel’s jacket touts the work as an “Orwellian” vision and is even structured like 1984 in that the narrative within is accompanied by some fictional “historical notes”, much as Orwell’s novel had an appendix which some have argued is part of the narrative which implies that fictional academics from the future are contextualizing the novel for students who exist in the in the post-Oceanic world. Though Atwood’s work deals with many of the same issues, such as censorship, and the power of the perpetual panopticon, and though the novel sold well and received many accolades, Atwood’s work ultimately remains a cheap imitation of a masterpiece that narrows the scope of the original work and fails to expand upon, improve, or add to the Orwellian tradition.

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The impact of 1984 cannot be overstated and as evidence one need only look to how the novel, which speaks potently to the power of language, has helped to expand the English language and has contributed to contemporary diction. It is hard to go a day without coming across some sort of Orwellian vocabulary. Terms like “groupthink” that have become prominent in the business world, “doublethink” which speaks to humanity’s ability to compartmentalize, “Big Brother”, which speaks to the perpetual panopticon and has become and important theme in post-modern art, “thought crime” and “thought police” which speaks to how society’s hegemonic tools seek to perpetuate certain ideas, are all important concepts in today’s world and were brilliantly articulated in Orwell’s work by popular arguments such as “freedoms is the freedom to say two plus two make four”, “war is peace”, “sanity is not statistical”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is strength”, and “who controls the past, controls the future”. Each of these concepts cut straight to key themes, they are blunt, simple, potent and perpetually relevant. By introducing such relatable phrases and words to the vocabulary, Orwell has made his work comparable to the works of John Milton and those titles attributed to William Shakespeare whose impact of the language extends into the centuries after their publication. Atwood’s work is not without its own additions to the English language, but her attempts are not so inspired. Atwood draws on common Latin terms like “memento mori” and “nolite te bastardes carborunorum” and adds unoriginal words like “compucount” or “computalk”. Simply adding the abbreviated form of “computer” in front of a common noun is not going to add anything interesting the language or expand and challenge the way people think. Using common Latin and such simply imagined words makes it sound as if the book was written by an undergraduate who has learned three Latin phrases and was told in the early 80’s that computers would be a big part of the future.

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Atwood does add something to Orwell’s original text, and that is the idea that changes in society may be propelled by genetic mutations caused by nuclear fallout. Orwell did write his novel in the post-atomic world, but his work was very much focused on the political and class structures of the world, and his work was very much inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, so Orwell does not speak to the after effects of a nuclear attack. In Atwood’s work though, the men of the ruling class have become sterile, as have many women, which is what serves to propel the nature of the relationship between the novel’s protagonist, “Offred” and her patriarch. Fertile, working class woman are forced to become surrogate wombs for the sterile, ruling-class women and the property of ruling-class patriarchs. This seems to be the only potentially fresh issue which Atwood brings to the conversation as most of the other themes the novel addresses are simply appropriated from 1984. But even in Orwell’s novel women (and men alike) were at the service of the ruling class, so this idea of your body being put to service for the benefit of the ruling class is not so unique. And even the idea of genetic mutations is not so fresh as authors such as Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury (among others)  had written short fiction and novels which explore such issues is a dystopian setting, even if Orwell didn’t. Other themes and situational relationships are appropriated from Orwell’s novel. Reading, for example, is forbidden to women, whilst certain reading material is banned to all, so when Offred discovers that her patriarch has reading material which is supposed to have been expelled form society, he explains that material that is “dangerous in the hands of the multitudes… is safe enough for those whose motives are… Beyond reproach.” This mirrors the relationship between Winston and O’Brien in Orwell’s work, as O’Brien has access to literature and is free to indulge in heretical thought. Another example of these paralleled themes is threaded through Atwood’s interpretation of the omnisceint nature of the panopticon. In her novel there is an atmosphere of the perpetual panopticon, where each person is a potential spy, whether they be fellow handmaids, guards, drivers, or the ruling-class family that has taken ownership of the handmaid. This perpetual panopticon though is even more severe in Orwell’s novel as not only are all the individuals around you potential spies, forcing you to live an isolated life, but there are also cameras and microphones that spy and listen in on everything, which intensifies the climate created by the perpetual panopticon, making it more effective in Orwell’s novel.

What Atwood’s novel does offer is a neat narrative which does lend itself to critical thinking, but its characters are often one dimensional and in turn either overtly sympathetic, or overtly unsympathetic, and though it adds a very feminist nature to the Orwellian tradition, it also serves to narrow the scope of Orwell’s novel. It could be argued that Orwell’s novel is very much a Marxist novel in that it suggest the thing which propels history is the relationship between the classes. This is certainly a modernist interpretation that excludes other social influences on history, such as the divisions between various ethnic groups, the division between men and women, and the impact of nature, but that does not mean that Orwell’s novel does not lend itself to a feminist reading. Orwell’s female protagonist, Julia, is certainly more resourceful that her male counter part, more assertive, and equally oppressed as both she and Winston must give their bodies to the ruling class. In Atwood’s work though, even the working-class men seem to be more privileged than the working class women, and this is a skewed view. There is no doubt that the struggles which men and women go through are very different, but likewise they are not completely unalike, and in Orwell’s novel it is clear that Julia and Winston both feel the oppression of the ruling class and are both exploited. Both of their bodies are used the gain the ends of the ruling class, and should a man and a woman on Orwell’s fictional dystopia seek companionship, the pairing is determined by the state and the offspring will come to serve as the ears and eyes of the state in the home. Atwood’s novel narrows the scope of ruling class oppression to women alone, whilst working-class men, like Nick, the lover she takes on, gets to enjoy women, cigarettes and even drink whilst the only work he need to is wash the car or drive it, while the other men presented in the novel carry guns, and with them authority, or are patriarchs that indulge in multiple affairs, drinking and other forms of debauchery. Highlighting the female experience is important, and feminist literature is an important branch of literary theory, but it is not necessary to downplay and make light of the working-class, male experience to highlight the nature of oppression which women endure.

Overall the novel is a fairly well written piece, but also very much conventional, most especially in the “Historical Notes”, but even during sequences which narrative disjunction is employed, as Offred’s narrative floats between her past experiences and memories in the world before, and her present tense. The “Historical Notes” serve to complicate the novel (though it is within the “Historical Notes” that Atwood references a cassette titled “Twisted Sister: Live At Carnegie Hall”, they only laugh-out-loud moment of the novel). In this part of the narrative it is revealed that the text was transcribed from a series of audio tapes, but since the work is written in present-tense, first-person, and Offred never had an audio recorder, this simply confuses the issue as it would not have been possible for Offred to record the narrative. Inconsistencies like this, coupled with the uninspired additions to the English vocabulary, common Latin phrases, and the trivializing of the male, working-class experience, dilute the value of the work overall. No doubt Offred’s actual husband, and her lover Nick, both felt vulnerable and disempowered and though this need not be the central point of the novel, it could have served as an entry point for male readers to relate to the female protagonist. Instead of expanding the Orwellian tradition, Atwood polarizes its flaws, suggesting that it is the feminist struggle against patriarchy that propels history (where Orwell suggests it is the class struggle). Had Atwood, like Orwell, acknowledged that the working-class is oppressed as a whole and then simply focused on the female experience, the novel would have brought a fresh face to the Orwellian tradition, but instead the novel ends up reading like it was written by an undergrad who has recently been introduced to feminism, read an article about the effect of Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction on the human reproductive system, learned a little Latin and was told that adding “comp” in front of random nouns to imply they are computerized will prevent the work from sounding dated in the future. That’s not to say its not worth reading, if you are interested in feminist literature, or are a patriotic Canadian who likes to support Canadian born authors, or even if you just like to read a conventional narrative then A Handmaid’s Tale should serve your purpose, but to call it a feminist version of 1984 is an insult to the Orwellian tradition.

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Literary Coherency says:

    When people refer to The Handmaid’s Tale as a “version” of Orwell’s 1984, they’re referring to the dystopian universe of surveillance and punishment carried out to extreme measures, not a “let’s-see-who’s-better” contest. You’re right in saying that “calling it a feminist version of 1984 is an insult to the Orwellian tradition”, but I don’t quite see how you’re doing the reading any justice either. No one calls it a feminist version of 1984 unless they’re oversimplifying it: most would probably call it a dystopian novel with feminist critique. 1984 is another dystopian novel, and he’s not the first to do it– the Orwellian tradition that you speak of dating back to the middle of the 1800’s, with Shelley and H.G. Wells.

    First of all, your attempt to “compare” which novel has had more “significance” in “adding to the English language is ridiculous– 1984 may have left more traces in the English language, yes, but that’s not a mark of what makes “better” or “worse” literature. Atwood brilliantly manipulates language so that our reading of certain common phrases, words, and even images are forever changed– she’s not concerned with creating a new language as she is codifying our current one with readings that were previously unimaginable.

    Both authors try to integrate ideas from the Panopticon into their text, but you fail to remember that the Handmaid’s Tale also includes microphones and the policing force labeled “the Eyes”, further reinforcing the level of omni-surveillance in the novel. You clearly haven’t read the novel in depth enough to remember that fact, yet you can make the claim that it reads “like it was written by an undergrad who has recently been introduced to feminism, read an article about the effect of Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction on the human reproductive system, learned a little Latin and was told that adding “comp” in front of random nouns to imply they are computerized, will prevent the work from sounding dated in the future”?

    Atwood focuses on feminist concepts, but her novel encompasses so much more. Dismissing it as feminist literature that cannot relate to male audiences means that you are reducing the act of reading into being able to exactly relate to characters who are in the same situations– are you unable to sympathize or relate to characters who aren’t male or white? Are literary traditions and genres in the non-male, non-white categories irrelevant regardless of their content? Literature, especially well-written and complex novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, is designed to approach concepts and ideas that you may not normally come in contact with, not to relate your personal experience exactly in order for your limited comprehension to bob its head along with a well-worn tune.

    In other words, you’re an idiot.

    Lastly, the “inconsistencies” you speak of in the Historical Notes is in fact a commentary on transmission, authentication, and preservation of history and narratives, not a “trivializing of the male-working class experience”. You have potentially one of the worst readings of this novel that I’ve encountered, which reduces the novel to a simpleton’s level of understanding literature.

    For the sake of all things well-written that don’t enjoy being butchered, please stop writing poorly thought out critiques of novels that you don’t understand.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful, well articulated response, even if the fact you take the time to personally insult me somewhat dilutes your well thought out response. I get the feeling like we know each other? Is this the case? 😉

  3. Grateful Reader says:

    I appreciate the response written by Literary Coherency as it covers many of the same concerns I had with the original critique. Although the ad hominem attacks were not needed, they did give me a chuckle.

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