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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Discussion Topic

Themes in 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale

Summary:

Both 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale explore themes of totalitarianism and control. In 1984, the government exerts control through surveillance, propaganda, and the suppression of individuality. The Handmaid's Tale examines a theocratic regime that controls women’s bodies and enforces strict societal roles. Both novels highlight the dangers of oppressive governments and the loss of personal freedoms.

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What key themes do 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale share?

Orwell's 1984 and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale share a great deal in common thematically since they are both dystopian novels.

Both novels explore sexual repression. In 1984, the Party insists upon sex as a means of procreation rather than as a source of pleasure or bonding. As a result, Winston and Julia's affair becomes subversive, since they are unmarried and indulging in sex for pleasure alone. The Handmaid's Tale also explores these ideas but from a second-wave feminist standpoint. Gilead proclaims sex is for procreation alone, hence the use of handmaids as baby-making vessels. The scene where the Commander tries impregnating Offred is a prime example of this ethos, with Offred feeling no pleasure from this act. As in Orwell's novel, pleasurable sex becomes subversive, with the male Gilead elite visiting brothels or the Commander trying to initiate an affair with Offred outside of their procreative duties.

Both novels also warn readers about totalitarian regimes. Oceania and Gilead keep their populations firmly under control through propaganda, mass surveillance, and force. While they represent different sides of the spectrum (Oceania is communist, while Gilead's culture is born from fundamentalist Christianity), both are oppressive in the extreme. Winston and Offred become unlikely rebels, initially unwilling to challenge these systems outright before their actions lead them into further subversiveness.

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What are the main themes linking The Handmaid's Tale and 1984?

George Orwell's 1984 was published after World War II and prophesized the rise of totalitarianism in England. In the world of the novel, a symbolic figure called Big Brother is said to be "always watching" what citizens are doing, and even accessing what they are thinking. The ruling class, "The Party," controls every aspect of citizens' lives. The novel is a classic of dystopian fiction, predicting the potential horrors of the future if a government could take full control of citizens, strip them of their rights, influence their thinking, and even reduce the language so that rebellion is no longer possible. The Party also controls public perception by erasing history that does not agree with the current narrative and "disappearing" people who rebel, erasing any trace those individuals ever existed.

The Handmaid's Tale is another dystopian classic, but in this novel, the targets of the government's oppression are women. The government is controlled by a fundamentalist religious sect that believes women should serve as breeders for the upper class, or else should be banished to an area where they will eventually be killed by exposure to radioactive chemicals. The narrator, Offred, is one of the handmaids, forced to "mate" with a "Commander" once a month in the hopes of becoming pregnant. The handmaids are trained and offered into these positions without their consent. The sect that is in charge of this future version of the United States is reacting to an apparently drastic drop in birth rates. This novel, like 1984, shows the tragic impact of omnipotent government control on a powerless population.

The two novels also feature protagonists who become aware of the oppression they live under and attempt to fight it, albeit to varying degrees of success. In Orwell's novel, Winston Smith works for a government department, but he gradually becomes aware of how restrictive the Party is and tries to fight back. He has an affair with Julia and reads inflammatory documents about a supposed secret society that opposes Big Brother. Eventually, Winston and Julia are imprisoned, and Winston appears to have been brainwashed by the end of the novel so that he "loves Big Brother."

Offred also becomes increasingly dissatisfied with life in a dystopia and also begins a subversive affair with Nick, who is the Commander's driver. The affair provides her some satisfaction, but eventually, Offred appears to have been caught by the ruling class. The novel ends with an ambiguous scene in which Offred is put into a van; the reader is not sure if she is going to be sent to her death or to safety via an underground network. In both novels, protagonists attempt to rebel, but the societies around them appear to be so powerful that they can make escape seem unlikely or impossible.

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What are the themes of "The Handmaid's Tale"?

You can read an excellent discussion of the themes in this novel in the eNotes study guide. "The Handmaid's Tale" is set in a futuristic United States in which lower-class women of childbearing age are forced to bear children for any male member of the ruling class. When the story begins, the narrator is in her third assignment as birth mother. She failed to become pregnant in her previous assignments, and if she fails in this one, she will become an "Unwoman" and be made to clean up toxic waste.

With this premise, it is easy to see that one of the themes of this novel is the role of women in society. Along with that is the theme of free will. The narrator, whose name is not given, has no free will. She was forced to leave her family, forced to become a handmaid, forced to have sex with strange men.

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What are the themes of "The Handmaid's Tale"?

There are many themes that arise from this novel, so I will mention a few. First of all, this novel is considered one of Dystopian literature; that is, when utopia (the perfect world)goes horribly wrong. One theme that emerges is the effect of this dystopia on humans. Look at Offred's life with Serena Joy and the Commander! That leads to another theme, human sexuality. Look at what happens when women are valued only for their ovaries and all emotional ties to sex are banished! One more theme for you could be the irony of national unity under a fascist state. When you have a government that attempts to make all people the same and dispose of individuality, all that arises from that is dysfunction. Are not all the main characters dysfunctional, whether they are Handmaids, Aunts, Wives, or Government Officials?

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