Utopian “Simplicity”: A Comparison of Gilead and Blithedale
Throughout history and literature, utopias usually materialize as attempts to fashion a more perfect society, typically catalyzed by a disagreeable quality of the current civilization. Having an understanding of the purpose for the creation of these faultless organizations can offer justification for the structure and rules of the society found in utopian fiction. Although Margaret Atwood and Nathaniel Hawthorne in their novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blithedale Romance respectively, designate distinct severities of punishment for breaking the rules, both authors fashion utopias that ensure each member plays a critical role in the functioning of society. Both Gilead and Blithedale possess a societal structure of a simpler nature as a result of the faults of their preceding civilizations. To investigate the guarantee that society will continue to operate flawlessly, Atwood and Hawthorne design social structures that ensure that each member participates in the advancement of the community.
Within the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead maintains a significantly rigid social structure in order to fulfill the immediate goal of the society: repopulation. Due to a variety of consequences from their previous civilization, the number of infertile women remains dramatically higher than ever before. Thus the founders of Gilead incorporate a new social class, the handmaids, into society to resolve the issue by commanding them reproduce constantly. According to the Aunts, who instruct the girls how to fulfill their duty to the community, “[The handmaids are] in a position of honor” (Atwood 13). Since every female does not qualify for the position of a handmaid, Gilead’s founders designated other roles that can still aid society in achieving its overall goals. For instance, the marthas handle a majority of the domestic responsibilities of the household such as cooking and cleaning so that the handmaids do not have to worry. The Guards of society also provide the handmaids with stability and safety so that the women can focus on their responsibilities. Similarly, in the community of Blithedale, within the first few hours of the society’s creation, the inhabitants determine that each person must fulfill tasks to keep the organization operating. As with Gilead, the responsibilities of the men and women of Blithedale correlate with their specific gender. For instance, according to Zenobia, the women will,
“take the domestic and indoor part of the business… To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew—to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep, and, at our idler intervals, to repose ourselves on knitting and sewing—these, I suppose, must be feminine occupations for the present” (Hawthorne).
The men, on the other hand, tend to the outdoor tasks of husbandry, gardening, and generating infrastructure. With each social group performing their designated function, the community of Blithedale works seamlessly during its first few months of operation. In the end, the authors of the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blithedale Romance, each construct a social structure that incorporates every individual of the community in order to satisfy its needs.
Likewise, the organization of both the societies of Gilead and Blithedale reflect the desire for a simpler way of life as both authors intend for their communities to demonstrate perfection in comparison to their predecessors. In Gilead, for instance, the mistakes and horrors of the previous civilization spark the generation of a firm hierarchy. Each tier on the social pyramid upholds a clear objective or two in order to maintain the peace in society. The reasoning behind the reversion seems to stem from the errors of the past, “These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice” (22). Hence, by not integrating education and the opportunity for choice, Gilead supposedly cures its potential demise in the future as no inhabitant has a chance to go against the wishes of the society. Comparably, Hawthorne’s utopian community in his novel The Blithedale Romance also reverts to an uncomplicated societal structure thus reflecting their desire to seem dissimilar from the complex way of life in the old society. In the minds of those who reside in Blithedale, the society they once resided in heads towards a downward spiral,
“Alas, my countrymen, methinks we have fallen on an evil age!… We are pursuing a downward course, in the eternal march, and thus bring ourselves into the same range with beings whom death, in requital of their gross and evil lives, has degraded below humanity” (Hawthorne).
As a result, in efforts to avoid the degradation of society, the founders construct a community with a nonexistent class structure, except for the division between genders. All in all, in order to rectify the errors of previous civilizations, authors Atwood and Hawthorne incorporate uncomplicated social structures in their utopias to allow them to embody the idea of perfection.
However, despite both communities develop simpler societal pyramids, the punishments that the Gilead and Blithedale establish in order to uphold societal values vary greatly as they seem dependent on the length of time since the civilization’s beginning. Commencing with the society of Gilead, since it embodies an older status, the punishment system seems further developed than that of Blithedale. The culmination of past disobediences paved the way for the creation for the ideal system of punishment to keep the citizens of Gilead in line. Inhabitants of this community fear crossing the Eyes which, in reference to the Bible and the eyes of God, always seem knowledgeable of every single event of each person’s life. Those who act against the rules face the possibility of disappearing. This punishment generates an enormous sense of terror within the people of Gilead, inspiring civilians to follow the laws of society. For instance, when Offred and Ofglen finish their forbidden conversation which doubts the presence of God, they spot the infamous black van of the Eyes, causing the protagonist to enter into a state of pure trepidation, “I freeze, cold travels through me, down to my feet. There must have been microphones, they’ve heard us after all” (169). Conversely, due to the relatively short lifespan of Blithedale, a punishment system never materialized within the community. Initially, it appears that one seems unnecessary as no one noticeably breaks the established rules of society, even when people take a leave of absence from their way of life. While in Gilead, any attempt to leave the walls of society receives a severe punishment of banishment to the colonies. Inhabitants of Blithedale find no restrictions regarding separation from civilization. Since they often refer to themselves as an infant community, the founders seem unaware if castigation would seem necessary if someone desires to take leave of Blithedale. Coverdale, for instance, faces no resistance when announcing his spontaneous vacation from the society,
“What’s in the wind now, Miles?” asked one of them. “Are you deserting us?”“Yes, for a week or two,” said I. “It strikes me that my health demands a little relaxation of labor, and a short visit to the seaside, during the dog-days.”“You look like it!” grumbled Silas Foster, not greatly pleased with the idea of losing an efficient laborer, before the stress of the season was well over” (Hawthorne).
Rather than face a serious consequence, Coverdale only meets slight grumblings from others due to the loss of a productive hand. Ultimately, both Atwood and Hawthorne fashion different systems of punishment in correlation with their simple societal structures based on the number years since the commencement of the communities.
Comprehension of the origin as well as purposes of the formation of utopias can enrich a reader’s appreciation for a novel of utopian fiction as they now possess justification for the ways of life that the civilization functions under. In the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blithedale Romance, Margaret Atwood and Nathanial Hawthorne devise societies that utilize each member to further enhance the advancement of society. Additionally, the foundation of both communities stems from the complications of previous organizations and the desire to seem perfect in comparison. However, due to the distinct ages of the civilizations, Gilead and Blithedale each possess a different system of punishment to enforce the way of life that the founders dreamed of creating.
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