For thousands of years writers have been utilising their
For thousands of years, writers have been utilising their compelling imagination and masterful storytelling to fashion fictional societies; societies which challenge readers’ assumptions about the customs and institutions of the world in which they live. In creating these thought-provoking worlds, there are two main routes that an author can take. The first is a utopia, a phrase introduced and made popular by a book of the same name published in 1516 by Thomas More. In a utopia (a play on the Greek words ‘eu-topos’, meaning ‘good place’, and ‘ou-topos’, ‘no place’) an idealistic society is presented, where the social and political structures appeal to readers and agree with the author’s ethos, despite the impossibility of such a perfect world’s existence.
Although often satirical in nature, utopian fiction can act as a beacon of hope and a glimpse into the capability of a humanity free from corruption, crime and strife.
On the other hand, dystopian fiction presents a society formed on all that is contrary to the writer’s ethos: poverty, mistrust and oppression.
They function as both an author’s complaint, and as a warning to their readers to act in order to deter society from setting itself on a path to destruction. A dystopia generally exaggerates elements of contemporary society in order to achieve this impact.
Margaret Atwood and Aldous Huxley drew upon features of both utopian and dystopian fiction in their compositions of The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World respectively. Within both texts, information is controlled, identity is abolished and meaningful relationships are forbidden, resulting in societies of “dehumanised masses merely existing to fulfil the ideologies of their omnipotent rulers”. And although the obvious, physical conflicts presented in these societies are indeed horrifying – state-engineered rape and drug use, for example – perhaps this aforementioned mental control of individual identity, the compulsory dehumanisation and lack of empathy, is in fact the primary cause of the catastrophic results of both reformations. For the phenomenon of empathy, the power of individuals to understand and share each other’s feelings, is threatening to a totalitarian regime, and once it is removed, they have the ability to control and manipulate us into complying with even their greatest tortures.
Arguably the greatest assault on individuality is the prohibition of creative expression. Art, from language to formal literature and anything in between, is a conduit for one individual to connect themselves to the thoughts and feelings of the entire human race. Indeed, throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, our protagonist Offred likens language and its ability to express individual emotions as a formulation of identity; in chapter seven she explains how she “must” believe that the recounting of her tale is only a story, as “If it’s a story [she’s] telling, then [she has] control over the ending… and real life will come after it.” Through the imperative “must” in relation to storytelling, it becomes apparent to the reader how vitally important freedom of language is when all other privileges are stripped away, and how, through this freedom, individual identity can persist, even if it is only within the individual’s own mind. It is no surprise, then, that the Republic of Gilead uses any opportunity it is given to suppress this. Women, particularly Handmaids, are banned from reading, writing and even singing, while men in power such as the Commander are able to enjoy the creative expression of their old magazines and books. Although seemingly inconsequential in a society as democratic as ours, the refusal to allow women to indulge in art, whether for recreation or education, is detrimental in maintaining a functional society. The women are dehumanised and discriminated against, and this redefinition of society at the expense of individual identity is evidently a major problem in The Handmaid’s Tale, an idea which Atwood instils in us strongly.
Huxley also feared limitations on creative indulges in his composition of Brave New World, however he took a rather different approach. While Atwood feared the banning of literature and individuality, Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban books, for there would be no one left in society who wished to express themselves creatively. In the World State, John the “Savage” is absolutely unique in his appreciation of Shakespeare and other dramatic works. When he quotes the Classics, he is mocked, and when he questions the Controller’s reasons for putting the pornographic ‘feelies’ and meaningless sexual encounters on a higher level of importance than creative and individual expression, the reply is “that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art.” Much like in The Handmaid’s Tale, the forceful language evident in “we have to” only stresses the idea that, from infancy, the people in this society are indoctrinated to hate the very concept of creativity, and we are repeatedly shown the consequences of such control throughout the novel. Huxley warns to us that trends in the modern world are eroding the idea of human beings as unique individuals and that if we are not careful, we, like the characters in Brave New World, will become so influenced by the drive for satisfaction and social stability that we will begin to treat each other like machines and behave accordingly. Both of these dystopian novels make it painfully clear that the removal of individual identity – in this case through restrictions of artistic creativity – will cause a society to crumble to an oppressive and unrelieved nightmare, a shell of its former self.
However, art is not the only individualistic idea thwarted in Gilead and the World State. When writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has expressed how she did not make reference to any event of practice which has not happened in human history. Similarly, critics such as Michael Sherborne have argued that Huxley’s Brave New World “is not so much a sober prediction of the future as a witty comment on contemporary trends.” One theme evident in the novels which both restricts individual identity and is relevant in a modern society is the idea of class or caste systems. The Republic of Gilead is a strictly hierarchal society, with a glaring difference in opportunity between males and females. The men perform the respect roles, such as Commanders, Guards and “Angels”, while the women are subjugated to the dehumanising “Commander’s wife” or “Unwoman”, Handmaid or the still less-than-pivotal role of an Aunt. A similar idea can be found in Brave New World, where society is divided into a caste system including Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons, with each group being progressively less intelligent, attractive and socially capable than the previous. The neologies used by Atwood and Huxley are extremely dehumanising, suggesting that the people in both of their worlds are not simply enslaved to the limited, machine-like activities of industrial production, but that they themselves are the products of the production-line, standardised into the roles which the state wishes to see them fit, with little room for individual development or expression within each sub-division.
So, what real-life structures are the authors criticising? Many analysts argue that Gilead makes reference to countless historic dictatorships, such as China during the cultural revolution, or even Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Similarly, it can be noted that Atwood’s presentation of women as fully covered in clothing, restricted in their rights and subordinate to their male counterparts is a criticism of the Islamic groups and regimes with discriminatory treatment of women. In chapter four, Offred directly dehumanises herself metaphorically in the line “I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there” showing how passivity and complacency in dehumanising structures such as Gilead, Nazi Germany and restrictive Islamic State can begin to damage even the resistant individual’s identity, a key problem. Brave New World’s caste system also has some modern-day parallels. After the national census every ten years, the UK Office of National Statistics divides the British population into a series of groups based on occupation, stats and accommodation. While seemingly a harmless statistical analysis, the problem arises with the predictability of each result, as people in lower divisions often find themselves in a cycle of poverty, unable to escape or improve. Huxley may have been criticising dehumanising schemes such as this in his novel, warning to us that if we do not improve then they will be the primary cause in our descent into a catastrophic dystopian society.
On top of this, in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World, there are a lack of meaningful relationships in which two people have strong feelings for one another, and this lack of emotional expression and care is highly dehumanising. For example, in Gilead, the choice to indulge in a personal relationship is not decided by the people but is instead predetermined by the state, creating a lack of love, freedom and self-direction. This can be seen starkly through the character of Offred. Forced into a paradoxically intimate yet emotionless relationship with the Commander, our protagonist begins to feel emptiness in her life: “I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does.” Through the use of simile, Atwood shows Offred’s need for personal love, not the forced sexual encounters which have become her duty to perform. Her longing for her past individualism rebels against the lack of meaningful relationships which Gilead have used to dehumanise the masses and create stability, showing how dehumanisation – in this case in relation to the stripping away of individual relationships – most definitely acts as a catalyst in society’s destruction and downfall in this dystopic society.
Similarly, the society in Brave New World can only survive because it has destroyed any remnants of human relationships and bonds. In chapter three, when Mustapha Mond is explaining the history of the World State to the group touring the hatchery, he talks about the past world and its customs regarding family and faithfulness with disdain: “Mother, monogamy, romance… No wonder those poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable. Their world didn’t allow them to be sane, virtuous, happy.” Huxley’s juxtaposition of the “mad, wicked and miserable” past with the “sane, virtuous, and happy” World State shows the tragic irony at play, as the citizens in Brave New World are brainwashed into thinking they are content despite being mere machines for further production and consumption in the enormous system of their state. The removal of family relationships removes too the idea of filial gratitude and loyalty, and although the people in this state believe that those ties were a burden to be freed from, this redefinition actually acts as a tactic for the World State to infiltrate, dehumanise, and manipulate its masses, showing how the restriction of individual identity and relationships acts as the primary cause in a dystopian society’s downfall.
However, there are instances within both novels where the protagonist’s reclamation of their own individuality suggests that the dehumanising regimes placed upon the people in a dystopian society is not the most threatening force, and that it can be combated and uplifted with appropriate psychological freedom. The narrative structure of The Handmaid’s Tale is the most evident way in which Offred can rediscover her past self and free herself from oppression in a seemingly hopeless society. The novel is divided into Day and Night sections, the latter being Offred’s individual, psychological escape from the patriarchal, oppressive and physical hindrances in her life. In chapter seven she states that “The night is mine… the night is my time out.” Through Atwood’s use of personal pronouns, we can see clearly that Offred maintains her identity even in a society which attempts nothing more than to wipe it away. In this instance, it can be argued that dehumanisation is not the primary cause of society’s downfall in The Handmaid’s Tale, as individuals who are able to resist the regime with a just as powerful mental fight of their own can be spared from the restrictive external influences superimposed over their past lives.
Brave New World’s Bernard is a character who, like Offred, maintains control over his own individual identity in order to protect himself from the unhealthy redefinition of society taking place around him. In chapter six, after Lenina pressures Bernard to eat a soma sundae – soma being the ideal pleasure drug which erases all one’s problems – he refuses, stating: “I’d rather be myself… Myself and nasty. Not somebody else, however jolly.” In Brave New World, Fordist principles support the suppression of the individual for the sake of collective stability, but Bernard believes in his own freedom and agency. The repetition of “Myself” in his response emphasises this belief, showing how Bernard values his individuality over a chemically induced pleasure. Contextually and symbolically, it is noted by many critics that the state-registered influence of soma over the population represents the powerful force of religion to control society. At Huxley’s time of writing, many ground-breaking scientific advances were being made, such as Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859), in which he put forward the ideas of evolution and natural selection. Despite these ideas being remarkable for their time and now accepted as scientific fact, the highly religious nineteenth and twentieth century audiences would have rejected such an idea as blasphemy. It is this blind following of religion which Huxley satirically critiques in Brave New World, perhaps arguing that it is not dehumanisation of individuals that will cause society to collapse into chaos, but rather this decision to refuse fact and follow obstinacy to dangerous extents.
British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing has been quoted as saying “We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.” In both Gilead and the World State, the easiest way for each totalitarian regime to achieve this indoctrination is through dehumanisation of the individual. For if we have no recollection of our past feelings and emotions, we are simply an erased canvas, waiting to be redrawn and rewritten. In my opinion, it is in fact this redefinition of society at the expense of individual identity which is the primary cause in a dystopian society’s downfall.
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