The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood and 1984, by George Orwell

Both four stars, read in 2010.

I knew very little about The Handmaid’s Tale when I started it, so I had no idea how similar it would be to 1984. The fact that I read them back to back was a coincidence, but the fact that I am writing about them in the same post is not.

I have been meaning to read 1984 for a loooong time, and have even started it twice before. When I finally buckled down and got into it, it went pretty quickly–except for that section in the middle where you read the book along with Winston–which was interesting, but just stopped the action for too long. I was ready to find out what was going to happen.

As you probably know, 1984 is about a society in the future in which everything everyone does is watched by Big Brother and the Thought Police; where children are encouraged to turn in their parents for “unorthodox” behavior, and do so willingly; where every home has a telescreen out of which they can be watched at any time, which talks constantly at them, feeding them Party propaganda, and which only the highest members of the Inner Party can turn off; where they all wear the same ratty blue overalls and eat pinkish gray mush every day for lunch; where they are constantly at war, but their allies keep changing; and where the news is rewritten every day so that there is never even one shred of evidence that the Party was not always, 100 percent right about everything. The main character is Winston, and the story follows him as he secretly rebels against the Party.

The Handmaid’s Tale, as it turns out, follows a similar story. I liked Wikipedia’s description of the society:

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead, a country formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America. It was founded by a racist, male chauvinist, nativist, theocratic-organized military coup as an ideologically-driven response to the pervasive ecological, physical and social degradation of the country. Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Muslim terrorists) that kills the President, a movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launched a revolution under the pretext of restoring order, ousting Congress, suspending the U.S. Constitution. Given electronic banking they were quickly able to freeze the assets of all women and other “undesirables” in the country, stripping their rights away. The new theocratic military dictatorship, styled “The Republic of Gilead”, moved quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical, compulsorily-Christian regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy among its newly-created social classes.

The main character is a Handmaid, a woman who is assigned to the house of a Commander who hasn’t been able to produce a baby with his Wife. Once a month, during a pretty awkward ceremony, the Commander sleeps with the Handmaid in the presence of his Wife. Handmaids are given names based on the name of the Commander to whom they belong at the time–we never learn our main character’s real name, but she is called Offred.

Everyone is color-coded in this society: Commanders wear black uniforms; Wives wear pale blue dresses; Handmaids wear red habits, with white hat-type things that come forward to create a tunnel for their vision; Marthas (the maids, basically) wear green smocks; Aunts–older women who instruct the Handmaids–wear brown; the Guardians–basically the police, men who are either too young, too old, or too stupid to be Angels (the elite soldiers)–wear lime green uniforms. The lower class of women are called Econowives, and they wear multicolored dresses to represent that they are responsible for all the many domestic duties of a woman, as opposed to the higher class women who are relegated to one task. Women who were widows, political figures, lesbians, nuns, or unable to have children are called Unwomen, and sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste until they die.

Everyone is watched by the Eyes, similar to 1984’s Thought Police, and when someone is caught in the slightest misstep, they are taken away in a black van and never seen again. It’s impossible to describe all of the ways women—and men, for that matter, men who don’t fit in well enough to be Commanders or Angels—are controlled and degraded in this society without going on for several more paragraphs.

Both of these books are fascinating, infuriating, and terrifying, the more so because they are easily imaginable. Margaret Atwood’s novel was published in 1985, one year after George Orwell’s book was set to take place, and that is only where the similarities begin. To me, both of these books are a horrifying commentary on the evils of fanaticism, especially religious. There is nothing more dangerous than a lunatic who believes God supports him—and religion specifically provides the perfect breeding ground.

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