Identity: Fighting Dystopia’s Cookie-Cutter Molds
Dystopian governments often work hard to erase identity through specific social constructs; they work to force the people they govern into a “cookie-cutter” mold. In literature, this molding is often fought by a person within the society, and that fight leads at least one person to become a more extreme individual as V in V for Vendetta, Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I-330 in WE all did. In older dystopian novels, the narrator is often not that individual but someone close to the person fighting the mold. In novels that have an audience more centered on young adults and teens, the main character becomes the character fighting against the government-restricted identity. Finding the fight for individualism and freedom in identity is a theme held in common within The Handmaid’s Tale, WE, and V for Vendetta.
Governmental control of women’s rights and identities in The Handmaid’s Tale, along with Moira’s extreme defiance of this control, gives the reader the idea that identity is a key concept within the dystopia that Moira calls home. The Republic of Gilead’s government is continuously trying to take the women’s “old” identities away and give them “new” identities. By changing their names, giving them jobs or titles, assigning them colors that correlate to these jobs, and taking away their rights, the Republic of Gilead is brainwashing and forcing these women into a frame of identity that are established and controlled. In her life before Gilead, the main character’s name was June, but while in The Republic of Gilead, she is Offred. With this name, the government has essentially named her as the property of Fred (the Commander). The Republic of Gilead started to remove women’s rights after the suspension of the Constitution. Once they gained control, women lost the right to have money, to hold a job, and eventually they lost the right to read or write. Through losing these rights, women also lost a sense of character because they could no longer identify themselves through their success, intelligence, and financial security. Though there were several subtle declarations that the government made, the forced change of identity did not become apparent until the jobs or titles and the colors of these titles were put in place. Giving the women titles such as Handmaid, Martha, Wife, and Econowife forces them into the idea that these are their identities; the colors red, green, blue, and multi-colored are a part of that new identity. Women become Handmaids when they are still fertile. Once their fertility ceases, they become Unwomen and live in the “colonies.” The Marthas are women who cook and clean in the homes and the Wives are the women who seem to have been in some sort of power or married to a man of power before the Republic of Gilead took over. The Econowives are often looked down upon, almost as second class women as they “are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can” (Atwood, page 24). These titles and roles are basically the only identification for these women in the Republic of Gilead. The shaping of identity in the Republic of Gilead causes many women to be uncomfortable, but no one seems more angry than Moira, Offred’s friend. Moira is the citizen in Gilead society who cannot, and will not, fit the government’s mold of identity.
The Republic of Gilead adheres to an extremist form of fundamental Christianity, in which homosexuality is a sin. Moira is not the “ideal” women from the very beginning, since Moira is a lesbian. Because she is still fertile and can have children, she is forced to be a Handmaid because being a lesbian in this society is impossible. Moira is taken to the Red Center where the “Aunts” continually try to brainwash all of the fertile women into feeling that these roles and this society is the best. By brainwashing these women, the government was able to take control of their identities and shape them because “thoughts mold identities more than looks…” (Eisiminger 4). The Aunts would show pornographic videos so the Handmaids could see “what they [men] thought of women, then” along with Unwoman protest documentaries in which the women were “wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful” (Atwood 118). After arriving at the Red Center, Moira tries to escape. The first time she is unsuccessful and is subsequently tortured. The second time, Moira succeeded by taking apart a toilet, capturing and threatening an Aunt, stealing her uniform, and simply walking out of the Red Center like she knew what she was doing. This escape, and the unknown possibility of success outside of the Red Center, leaves hope for Offred to have courage, and to remember her life before. Moira’s ability to retain some of her identity from before, despite her becoming a prostitute at Jezebel’s, tells the reader that some identity is better than none.
In the dystopian novel We, Yevgeny Zamyatin made the government mostly successful in removing individual identity, except in one cipher, Cipher I-330. Within Cipher D-503’s diary, the reader begins to see the unfolding of a society in which the government has removed all ideas of individuality and identity. In this society of the One State, D-503 explains perfectly what the One States goals are as he talks with a new cipher, I-330. D-503 seems to believe entirely in the idea and goal of the One State, that “…No one is ever ‘one’, but always ‘one of’. We are so identical…” (WE, page 8). By removing all individual identity and giving them the same mechanical identity as the government, the One State makes ciphers believe that the government’s mechanization of identity is theirs and they do not have their own. The One State and the Benefactor instigate the Table of Hours to prevent growth of the imagination, which may develop and foster the mechanical identity. Preventing the progress of imagination within the society becomes a key to stunting the growth of identity. Yang Jianfang finds that, “…the more central an identity is to an individual, the more likely this identity is to impact cognitions, feelings, and actions…” (Jianfang 167). These feelings, cognitions, and actions all relate to imagination, since imagination is found to sometimes create these feelings and cognitions which influence actions. Within the Table of Hours there are two personal hours, leaving everything else in day scheduled. D-503 hopes for the removal of these Personal Hours. He “believe[s] that sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place in the general formula for these hours too, one day all of the 86,400 seconds will be accounted for in the Table of Hours.”(We page 13). By removing these two hours, the government would remove all freedom. Within these Personal Hours, a cipher is allowed to draw, write, meet with another cipher, walk, or run where they please. Ciphers are also allowed to lower the blinds in their rooms in order to have sex with another during these two Personal Hours; these are the only times the blinds can be lowered, and both ciphers must have a permission from the One State. If a cipher is doing anything other than having sex, the blinds may not be lowered.
This obvious lack of privacy encourages a sense of unity but a lack of identity. These ciphers have nothing that is their own, nothing that they can hide from other ciphers as something personal. By giving ciphers a name of combined letters and numbers, the government has also found another way to succeed in removing individual identity. Skip Eisiminger states that “… all names are intrinsic parts of their bearers’ identity and deserve respect” (Eisminger 2). Indeed, the government’s lack of respect towards the ciphers’ names and identities exemplifies the negative sentiments of the government regarding the idea of individual identity. D-503 identifies more as a machine than as a human because he is given the name of a machine. The sense of identity is still engrained into the subconscious of these ciphers as D-503 shows even as he finds identity and individualism to be unsettling. Many of the female ciphers that D-503 comes into contact with are described by D-503 using their names. D-503 describes O-90 as having soft edges, a roundness, and a half moon as a mouth. These adjectives are correlated to her name in which the letter “O” is circular and round. D-503 also gives I-330 characteristics that are sharp, angled, and harsh as the letter “I” in her name. As little as these identifying characteristics are, they show that even a cipher as brainwashed as D-503 still has a sense of identity within his subconscious. These successes in removing identity by the One State are thwarted by cipher I-330 in various ways. Many of her choices are self-harming and seem very small, but her use of D-503 shows that her goal is to get rid of the One State, thereby restoring the individual sense of identity. D-503 is always told to meet I-330 at the Ancient House, often during times when he is supposed to be somewhere else according to the Table of Hours. During his time there, D-503 sees I-330 put on the clothes of the Ancients and drink and smoke as the Ancients did. In making her own choices, I-330 identifies herself as a rebel. Her goal to use D-503 to break down the One State is a fight that, though unsuccessful, keeps I-330 going and makes her an individual with an identity and an imagination.
Within V for Vendetta, the government’s control over identity is far less strict than within We, but it still amounts to control over individualism and identity. The government control through concentration camps and the regulations and controls outside of the concentration camp restricts the amount of individuality and identity that the futuristic British are allowed. The majority of the men and women taken to these concentration camps are homosexuals and radicals that opposed the government. The threat of the concentration camps cause many people to be the government’s ideal citizens. To help keep people within this “ideal” mold of distinctiveness, the government began instituting controls through the use of the eye, the ear, the mouth, and curfews. By enforcing curfews, the government could control the whereabouts and activities of the population. Moreover, the government used the news to help keep the knowledge to the citizens limited. The “mouth” of the government, or television, was used to give only the knowledge that they felt the citizens needed to hear. By changing the bombing of the houses of Parliament into a “scheduled demolition undertaken at night to avoid traffic congestion…[and the fireworks] a freak effect of the blast” (Moore and Lloyd 17) the government could keep tabs and compress any ideas of revolution or revolt. Using the mouth and television to give the citizens approved information, the government can alter identities to be more of the mold that they are gearing towards. The “ear” of the government placed microphones in homes of citizens and bugged telephones. Based on what was said, the government could come in and “black bag,” or kidnap, the citizen.
By reducing the expression of self-identification and cultural differences, the government made the idea of autonomy less and less prominent within this society. Lack of freedom of speech keeps citizens from identifying themselves through agreeing or disagreeing with topics and discussions. Answering these extreme methods with extreme measures of his own, V stages his fight for freedom to expresses identity as an extreme, almost terroristic fight. V spent time in one of the concentration camps. His entire identity — name, demeanor, goals, characteristics — are based on that concentration camp and the room he was forced to stay in. His room number, five, was written in Roman Numerals as a V, creating an entire new persona. After destroying the camp, he set out to find those who made him become this. V also conveys his harsh experience to Evey in a simulation, to break her and create a new person. He claims that he is setting her free from “happiness…the most insidious prison of all” (Moore and Lloyd 168) but in reality, she is gaining a new identity which becomes clear when she becomes V’s successor by the same name. Through his fight, V shows how much the government has control over identities using these regulations. He fights to end this control and give the people their own chances at freedom, individuality, and their own chosen identity.
The amount of effort that dystopian governments put into forcing people to become something they are not and to have an identity that is not theirs is somehow always thwarted in a typical novel’s pages. Among Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale, I-330 in We, and V in V for Vendetta, there will always be a character to prove that having one’s own identity is a better and brighter choice. To these protagonists, fighting the government for the freedom to express individualism is worth the battle, beatings, torture, and even death.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print. Eisiminger, Skip. “With Respect To The Name: Names And Identity.” Vocabula Review 15.10 (2013): 1-6. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2014 Jianfeng, Yang. “Linking Proactive Personality to Moral Imagination: Moral Identity as a Moderator”. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 41.1 (2013):165- 175. SPORTDiscuss with Full Text. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Moore, Alan, David Lloyd, Steve Whitaker, Siobhan Dodds, Jeannie O’Connor, Steve Craddock, Elitta Fell, and Tony Weare. V for Vendetta. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2005. Print. Zamyatin, Yevgeny, and Natasha Randall. We. New York: Modern Library, 2006. Print.
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