The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four can be described as dystopian novels as they both explore the theme of invented futuristic nightmare worlds, which are based on current, social, political, and economic trends, and are warnings against possible future disasters. The theme of oppression runs constantly throughout both novels. Both these texts explore rule under a totalitarian government, in which only one party has complete rule. The characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are under the rule of Gilead whilst Nineteen Eighty-four is an oligarchy, governed by a figure of supreme authority known as Big Brother, and members of the inner party.
In both texts the protagonists are being, and have been, oppressed in many different ways. The most obvious form of oppression and one that persists throughout both novels is the lack of personal freedom. Characters such as Winston Smith from Nineteen Eighty-four are all under the watchful eye of Big Brother. A telescreen is situated in each room which traces every single movement and sound made.
“Any sound Winston made…would be picked up…so long as he remained within the field of vision…he could be seen as well as heard” This shows that Winston is constantly being watched and he must always be aware of his actions. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale is in a similar position, as she, along with the other characters in the novel, must always be aware of her actions and surroundings, as many acts committed can be interpreted as “illegal”. As Offred walks down the corridor at night she comprehends that “this is entirely illegal” and when she has been caught by Nick, she is aware that “he too is illegal, here”. The constant repetition of “illegal” makes the reader conscious of Offred’s restrictions.
Most characters in both novels have had their sense of personal identity stripped away from them. The societies they live in have de-humanised them, so each individual no longer holds distinctive characteristics. Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale must learn to forget who she is, thus totally erasing her past. “my name is Offred now” there is something rather disturbing about this quote as the reader is now aware that Offred, whose real name is never revealed to the reader, has lost her uniqueness (and freedom).
It also shows that Offred has conformed to the Gileadean regime as she has now accepted her new name which is “composed of the possessive preposition…first name of the gentlemen in question” from this, it can be seen that Fred was the “name of the gentlemen in question” and by placing the “possessive preposition” ‘Of’, at the beginning, the name Of/Fred occurs. By replacing Offred’s real name with that of a man’s, Atwood is illustrating to the reader that Gilead is also an extremely patriarchal society where men are dominant and the handmaids are no longer themselves but the property of others. It is also one of the many ways Gilead uses when attempting to deflate the past and to establish the regime.
Orwell also explores the loss of personal identity through the character of Winston who first starts to write a diary at the beginning of the novel. This diary introduces the reader to the kind of society Winston is living in by allowing the reader to understand Winston’s thoughts and feelings. As Nineteen Eighty-Four is written in the third person, Orwell uses free indirect discourse by incorporating Winston’s thoughts into a third person narrative.
This helps the reader to relate to Winston more easily, however one is still not fully able to sympathize with him as the novel is not written in a first person narrative and as a result the reader is not able to wholly share Winston’s thoughts and feelings. But the question also remains as to whom Winston is writing his diary? He himself is not certain. Winston, along with the reader, is aware that it is for someone living in a time “when men are different from one another” from this the reader is made aware of the current lack of personal identity Big Brother has imposed upon its subjects. Although Winston has his own name and has more freedom than Offred, both characters are oppressed as they no longer hold particular characteristics which make them unique.
After exploring The Handmaid’s Tale one can see that Offred and the other characters in the novel are restricted in every single aspect of their lives. For example, when Offred goes shopping, she acknowledges the fact that, even here, the only time that she is allowed to leave the house, she is restricted. “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays in the maze” The rat is a metaphor representing Offred, while the maze represents Gilead. Although Offred claims that “now and again we vary our routes”, she must “stay inside the barriers”. Offred is able to go wherever she wishes, as long as it is within Gilead’s approval.