George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale have turned out to be famous dystopian novels which are frequently used in advanced Foreign Language Teaching (FLT). It is tempting to carry through a systematic comparison of the two works in class since Atwood's novel has justly been called "a female 1984)" (cf. below).
Besides, in 1984, Emmanuel Goldstein's theory of the state is described at some length (pp. 150ff). Thus in 1984, a sociological treatise is inserted into the novel, which is theoretical and abstract rather than literary in nature. For this element, there is no correspondent part in THT: it is the personal account of the narrator Offred: rather than offering a sociological, a scientific or a scholarly analysis she just tries to put together the fragments of her own experiences, which she calls a mutilated story (p. 344). For the reader, then, Orwell’s message is more or less direct. In Atwood’s case, the story is rather ambiguous because sometimes it is called in doubt by the narrator herself, who fears that, with the help of drugs or strong medication, she has undergone a brainwashing process (p. 51, p. 91). Thus Offred is not even sure about her personal past and about pre-Gileadean life in general, which, of course, was determined by quite a different set of values.
Similar ideas may be traced in the text of THT. In Atwood's novel, for example, the handmaids are neither allowed to read nor to watch films; instead they are frequently exposed to official platitudes (p. 353), and regular readings from the Bible (pp. 116-117). Moreover, in the prison-like Red Centers, the handmaids are proclaimed to be free which can be seen from Aunt Lydia's distinction between freedom to and freedom from (p. 33). What Aunt Lydia calls freedom from rape, abortion, etc., ironically means freedom from individual choice: the handmaids are subservient "breeders" who have to fulfil their biological destiny. Thus living in very reduced circumstances, the handmaids are treated as sexual slaves: they are depersonalized and exploited as procreational tools. The handmaids, then, have to be regarded as examples of sexual inequality.
The meaning of the second Orwellian paradox becomes clear from the context of the novel. For the people of Oceania, fighting against Eurasia means that attention is detracted from the superstate's inner problems: that is, wars may be a contribution to stability and even to peace. As it is expressed in the text of 1984, wars are used to solve the problem of overproduction (p. 166) and to keep the structure of society intact (p. 160). Thus in 1984 the wars serve a tactical purpose; they are clearly instrumentalized by the ruling class. In a similar way, in THT the Angels, a euphemism for the state's soldiers, are said to fight permanently in battles either real or imaginary, and only victories are reported on TV (p. 106). However, even if such reports of permanent triumphs are hardly credible, wars are exploited for propaganda purposes so that they may increase people's willingness to make sacrifices. That means that the controlling agency does not take the individuals seriously; on the contrary, walls of political deception are built up as the general rule. The individuals are not cared for, they are only interesting as conformist social cells.
In 1984, the world is divided into the three superstates Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania. However, most of the events (similarly to Huxley’s Brave New World) take place in London, the capital of Oceania, which unites the English-speaking nations. In THT, the Gileadean republic is said to be situated on the territory of the former United States of America, and the events mainly take place on the east coast (there are some references to Harvard for example: cf. chapter 41).
In 1984, there is large-scale omniscient narration which includes an analysis of people's minds and feelings in general and those of the protagonist in particular, while in THT, the female narrator describes the state she lives in from her own personal point-of-view. The protagonist of 1984, who bears the common name Smith but whose first name Winston is reminiscent of the former English Prime Minister Winston Churchill,(8) is working in the Ministry of Truth (p. 6) whereas Atwood's protagonist has lost her individual name and has to fulfil her duty as a national resource. Thus both of them are supposed to play a useful part in their society, where, as a rule, people live in isolation and where little communication and hardly any interaction of their members occur.
In both novels we have got a small group of privileged people, who have power over all the others. In 1984, there are the party leaders and party members, i.e. the members of the Outer and the Inner Party. In Atwood's novel there are the Commanders who are the rulers. It is true, though, that only one of them, namely Offred's master Fred, is individualized to some degree, and that there is incidental mention of the fact that some commanders are more important than others (p. 146). It does not come as a surprise that in both novels there are also suppressed people: in 1984, there are the proletarians, the dumb masses, called the proles for short, who are said to be not only naturally inferior (p. 60), but even not human (p. 46). They are ascribed traditional roles: the female proles' task is to do child-bearing and household work, whereas the life of their male counterparts is determined by hard work, football, beer, and gambling (pp. 60-61). In THT, there are the handmaids whose task is child-bearing and the Marthas and the ecowives (p. 32) who do the household work, which implies that in both utopias there is a caste society with a clear hierarchy (cf. 1984, p. 167). The party members in 1984, just like the handmaids and the different castes in THT, wear uniforms, which also points to the extinction of their individuality. Thus in both societies there is a lot of sexual and social inequality.
As it is already hinted by the name Gilead, Atwood's state claims to be founded on biblical principles. Gilead may be called a pseudo-religious theocracy whereas Orwell's novel describes a totalitarian state, a dictatorship in which many aspects are reminiscent of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany and in which everything is controlled by the Inner Party and their wise and infallible leader Big Brother.(9) Atwood's novel describes a fundamentalist state, in which there are also rigid controls and which leaves hardly any freedom to its members. Generally speaking, then, the organisation of the two states is very similar in so far as there is practically no freedom for the individuals. Individual life in both societies is determined by complete control and consequently by a lack of choice.
For the figures in both novels, there is hardly any privacy left. Both are nonconformist people: Winston Smith writes down his ideas in a secret diary whereas Offred has her ideas recorded on several audiotapes. Withdrawal into the self is the consequence of the society's refusal to offer an attractive context to its constituents.(10) For both Offred and Winston, however, it is dangerous to retreat into their own personality: they live in permanent fear since very often enemies of the state just disappear (p. 19); in THT, they are taken away by the black vans (pp. 217-220). Yet for a time, Winston becomes an active rebel by joining the Brotherhood while Offred, because of her permanent fear, rejects Ofglen's proposal to become a member of a secret resistance group.(11)
Offred has her tale recorded on a number of audiotapes, which were originally used for the recording of music: thus she produces a palimpsest. In addition, the learned scholar in "The Historical Notes", who completely misunderstands her meaning by using her personal story as a historical source (cf. pp. 381-395), superimposes another kind of palimpsest on Offred's tale. In a similar way, Winston Smith's official task of rewriting history according to the current party-line doctrine (p. 170 and p. 223) implies that he, as the master of the files, produces one palimpsest after the other. This term can be found in both primary sources (THT: p. 3 and p. 383; 1984: p. 35).
In this respect Winston Smith might be compared to Moira (her name meaning 'fate' in Greek): it is obvious that she has been tortured, and, in her last meeting with the narrator, Offred has the impression that Moira has resigned, which Offred does not like about her: she wants her to be confrontational (pp. 324-325). One might also refer to Ofglen: she kills herself because she is afraid of cross-examination, torture, and of being forced to inform on other Mayday members (pp. 366-367). In a similar way, Julia is grateful to a former lover of hers, who took his own life without confessing her name (pp. 107-108). Thus in both works suicide becomes a tactical weapon in order to escape and to prevent confession, which also shows the brutality of the systems. This is what Offred would feel in such a situation:
"Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I've resisted, comes flooding in. I don't want pain ... I resign my body freely, to the use of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power" (p. 368).
The following confession is still closer to Orwell's standpoint; it shows the strength of fear on people's personality:
"I'll say anything they like. I'll incriminate anyone. It's true, the first scream, whimper even, and I'll turn to jelly. I'll confess to any crime, I'll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall" (p. 366).
The conviction that, because of torture, confession is thought to be unavoidable is also to be found in 1984 (cf. p. 135 and p. 142). In this novel torture is used as an official therapy, which is to cure or to wash people free in a religious or moral sense: this means that Winston Smith's soul becomes "white as snow" (p. 239). Now, similar to people in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Winston is completely happy, but he is unfree.
As a consequence, serious literature is also to be re-written in Newspeak, which means that it is trivialized and thus deprived of its very nature: ultimately there will be no art, no literature, no science in Ingsoc (p. 215). Thus Julia has to take care of novel-writing machines (p. 106) which produce very uniform works.(13) In 1984, the prefix 'un' is used to express the opposite of something: thus 'ungood' replaces 'bad'. There occur also newly coined words of this kind in Atwood's work like 'unbabies', 'unwomen', etc. For everyday purposes language in Gilead, like in Newspeak, is very much reduced; there are ritualized greetings such as "Blessed be the fruit" (p. 25) or standardized formula like "Praise be" (p. 26), and shops are known by their signs alone (p. 33) in order to reduce interactive speech as much as possible. Moreover, interpersonal communication in the Red Center is tabooed. In Puritan Gilead, the reading and writing of books is forbidden - at least for the less privileged people (cf. pp. 238-239): probably literature (just like knowledge generally speaking) is considered as potentially subversive, that is, as a possible threat to the system.
In Gilead, religion is abused in order to justify the oppression of women, to make them subservient to such a degree that the handmaids become dependent on their bodies (p. 82). In 1984, there is fanaticism and ideology only, whereas the Church is just something belonging to the past (p. 94).
In Gilead, there is a similar, yet much more drastic picture: sexuality is instrumentalized, controlled and clearly over-regulated by the state: since human survival is at stake, procreation has become a monthly necessity in this so-called republic which stands in the Puritan tradition as well. Thus, in THT, official sexuality is deprived of any feeling of pleasure in the first place. Since the handmaids are treated as sexual slaves, it also implies suffering, humiliation and dehumanization for them.
However, it can often be seen from experience that obvious discrepancies between theory and practice exist. In 1984, party members have sexual affairs secretly, and the proles are provided with cheap pornography (p. 107), which shows the existence of double standards. But a real love affair is an almost unthinkable event (p. 58). The sexual act, successfully performed, is rebellion (p. 58), a political blow against the authority of the Party. In THT, the commanders may go to the club (Jezebel's; cf. pp. 255ff), which, officially, does not exist and which thus testifies to sexual hypocrisy, too. Moreover, in this novel, sexuality is an affair which is deprived of human tenderness. Although the Commander wants Offred to have 'real' sex with him, her body is said to be "like a dead bird" (p. 331).
Yet it is necessary to distinguish between sexuality and love. It is with Nick only that Offred falls in love, and it is Nick who seems to be responsible for her rescue. Love is also very valuable for Julia and Winston. This is the only thing which they are unwilling to sacrifice (p. 141). This is why both of them want to defy the Party by joining the Brotherhood. Still in the end there is mutual betrayal: the instinct for survival (caring about oneself) is stronger than love (p. 234f). Winston for example cannot overcome his fear of rats: his fear and his life-preserving instinct make him betray Julia. Winston Smith has to realize that the Ministry of Love is very powerful: they can get inside a person (p. 233), which is reminiscent of Aunt Lydia's statement: "The Republic of Gilead ... knows no bounds. Gilead is within you"(p. 31), that is that the state takes root in the personality of individuals. In THT, there is no official love. In 1984, Winston's personal will, his humanity, is destroyed; the only love which remains is that of the Party and Big Brother (p. 227). Apart from loyalty towards Big Brother, neither ideals nor values exist any more.
Perhaps it is the suppression of human love that is the decisive aspect in both dystopias. In THT, there is no arousal, no desire, no passion and no communication in the sexual act; even for the Commander it is "very silent" (p. 114). In 1984, love between two human beings is unacceptable; the party is interested "solely in power" (p. 211). Ultimately Winston (like Offred) is on the verge of insanity, trying to compose himself (p. 225), but he is made to accept the Party doctrines (p. 223), according to which nothing exists except through human consciousness (p. 213). In THT, thanks to the official importance of religion and faith in God's creation, at least lip-service must be paid to a belief in an immaterial world.
Apart from that, a team of two students may carry through a contrastive analysis of the two literary works: this may be a topic in a so-called "homework restaurant",(18) for which they are expected to read George Orwell’s novel on their own.(19) This task implies that two students for example are prepared to give a talk on this topic but the other course participants may be expected to make active contributions of their own. It may be the case that a few students have some knowledge concerning George Orwell. Otherwise the two experts could use a couple of notes for a hand-out or for blackboard work. Alternatively, they could develop a transparency for overhead projection on which some key passages, important quotations or relevant information are given in order to pave the way for a lively discussion in class. Orwell’s three paradoxes, which have justly been called the “gospel“ of the Party,(20) could serve as a starting point.
Whatever procedure is chosen, it is possible to illustrate the results by using the following diagram (cf. below): information on the left-hand side should be known from the previous units, on the right-hand side there are gaps to be filled in during the lesson. If the students watch the film together, their task of finding the solutions for the right-hand column may be done as silent work (for example in pairs) or as a homework task to be discussed in the following lesson. Eventually the students might discuss which of the two future societies they think is more topical now and which of the two they would prefer to live in. This is a transfer which appeals to the imagination of the students as well as to the real world they are living in: consequently, it becomes both possible and motivating for them to voice their own standpoints.
|Atwood's theocratic Gilead||Orwell's totalitarian 1984|
|patchwork novel, told from the limited perspective of the protagonist||traditional novel told chronologically from an omniscient perspective|
|Gilead is situated on the territory of the former U.S.A., Harvard, Massachusetts||the novel takes place in London, the capital of Oceania|
|events refer to the immediate future||events refer to 1984 (cf. title)|
|fundamentalist, scripture-based state; abuse of religion; theocracy; pollution of the environment, such as nuclear and chemical accidents, toxic waste ...; food supply = a real problem||totalitarian state based on systematic supervision by the state and the political ideology of the Inner Party (fanaticism); Nature deprived of its traditional function; intentional poverty caused by permanent wars (cf. below)|
|individuals suppressed, e.g. handmaids; no privacy, no self-determination; use of uniforms; re-education in the Red Centres||the Proletarians, called the Proles for short, are said to be subhuman; loss of freedom and individuality, use of uniforms, too|
|informational policy: permanent wars during which only victories are reported in order to maintain the stability of society||wars in order to solve the problem of overproduction and to keep society intact, i.e. to enhance the people’s will to make sacrifices; cf. "war is peace"|
|control of people: secret police, the Eyes||supervision by the televisor/Big Brother and the thought police, cf. "ignorance is strength"|
|retreat into the self; cf. Offred's first-person narration is produced secretly||Winston Smith writing his secret diary (his self revealed by omniscient narration)|
|existence of secret resistance groups such as Mayday||resistance organized by the so-called Brotherhood|
|action: Offred's different love relationships; love reduced to state-controlled sexuality; officially Puritan morality; clubs like Jezebel's; handmaids = 'slaves' (sexual hypocrisy)||action: love between Winston and Julia; any love relationship officially unacceptable; hypocrisy of double standards; cf. freedom is slavery|
|emotional pressure for the protagonist: feeling abject, fearing incrimination of others because of possible torture||Winston on the verge of insanity; use of torture as a means of conditioning, manipulation and re-education|
|language reduced to denotation; no interaction, no communication; isolation of people; no creative use of language allowed; literature suppressed; Offred's recorded report is a palimpsest||manipulation of language, of thought and the past, which is subject to permanent change: Winston is the author of many palimpsests; literary works trivialized|
|persecution of minorities/dissidents/rebels: hatred aroused against scapegoats in public executions||Emmanuel Goldstein = official hate figure/scapegoat; Winston and Julia are forced to betray their love by means of torture; only the love of the godlike Big Brother is left|
|Conclusion: a lot of social inequality; few Commanders, many people, mostly women suppressed; ecological catastrophes; satirical nightmarish vision of the future; dystopian novel||Conclusion: Big Brother and the Inner Party in power; Outer Party = followers; the Proles = suppressed; unbearably gloomy, rigid and pessimistic satire; dystopian novel|
(2) Cf. Willi Real, "Aldous Huxley’s and Margaret Atwood’s Visions of Future Societies in Foreign Language Teaching", in: Peter E. Firchow/Hermann J. Real (eds.), The Perennial Satirist. Essays in Honour of Bernfried Nugel, (Münster, LIT Verlag, 2005), pp. 291-311. ["Human Potentialities", vol. 7]
(3) Cf. Max Bracht, "'Handmade Tales' - Margaret Atwoods Roman THT im produktionsorientierten Fremdsprachenunterricht", Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 52:4 (1999), p. 229.
(4) Page references are based on the following paperback editions: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Harmondsworth: Penguin, repr. 1967); Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York, Fawcett Crest, 1986); in the following they will occur in the text in (...).
(5) Cf. Willi Real, The Handmaid's Tale in Foreign Language Teaching (FLT). Part One: Textual Analysis and Willi Real, The Handmaid's Tale in Foreign Language Teaching (FLT). Part Two: Teaching Strategies.
(6) Francis Bacon is said to have invented this very influential thesis: "Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est"; (cf. "De haeresibus", in: Meditationes sacrae). In the utopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a similar statement may be found: "Knowledge is more than equivalent to force" (Berlin: CVK, 3. Auflage, 1985), p.104), which may go back to Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, chapter XIII.
(7) Cf. Hilde Staels, Margaret Atwood's Novels: A Study of Narrative Discourse (Tübingen: Francke, 1995), p. 157. However, I have been unable to find any textual evidence for this.
(8) Cf. Wiklef and Traudl Hoops, Stundenblätter. Orwell: '1984' (Stuttgart: Klett, 1984), p. 110. This teaching model is based on the authors' personal teaching experience and contains a systematic discussion of Orwell's depiction of a totalitarian state (cf. in particular lessons 1-7). A similar interpretation of the protagonist's name may be found in: Willi Erzgräber, Utopie und Anti-Utopie in der englischen Literatur. Morus - Morris - Wells - Huxley - Orwell (München: Fink, 2. Auflage, 1985), p. 187.
(9) Cf. Peter Ronnov-Jessen, "World Classics and Nursery Rhymes: Emblems of Resistance in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell's 1984", Dolphin 10 (1984), p. 62.
(10) Cf. Ruth Teeuwen, "Dystopia's Point of No Return: A Team-Taught Utopia Class", in: Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen (eds.), Approaches to Teaching Atwood's 'THT' and Other Works (New York: MLA, 1996), p. 119.
(11) As to THT, a film version directed by Volker Schlöndorff exists which was released in 1990, starring Natasha Richardson (as handmaid Offred), Robert Duvall, and Faye Dunaway (as Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy). In contrast to the novel, the film herione accepts a knife provided by Ofglen in order to stab the Commander.
As to a general comparison of this film with Atwood’s novel, cf. Willi Real: The Film Version of Margaret Atwood's THT in Foreign Language Teaching.
(12) Cf. Horst W. Drescher, "Der Außenseiter im utopischen Roman der Moderne: George Orwell, 1984, und Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451", Anglia 96 (1978), p. 431 and p. 439f.
(13) This mechanical aspect is reminiscent of Atwood's so-called Soul Scrolls: they are shops from which a limited number of prayers may be ordered in order to show one's faithfulness to the regime. (cf. p. 216)
(14) Cf. Willi Erzgräber, p. 176.
(15) Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 223.
(16) Quoted in Willy Erzgräber, p. 202.
(17) As to 1984, the teacher may use the version directed by Michael Radford, featuring Richard Burton (as inner party member O'Brien), John Hurt (as Winston Smith) and Suzanne Hamilton (as Julia). The following contribution pleads for an integrated use of the book and this film: cf. Wilfried Brusch/Eckhart von Glan, "George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four" (Lektüre und Film), in: Rudolf Nissen/Wilfried Brusch (eds.), Romane im Englischunterricht (Hamburg, ELT,1989), pp. 67-82.
(18) Cf. Susanne Kröger, "'Welcome to the Homework Restaurant': Differenzierende Hausaufgaben im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II", Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 52:4 (1999), pp. 239-246. This article applies to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
(19) In this respect the following publication may be helpful: Dieter Bergsch/Wolfgang Hirsch, Kursmodell Englisch. George Orwell: 1984. München: Langenscheidt-Longman, 1983. This is a teaching model which above all consists of three parts: lexical annotations, commentary and questions for analysis. - The following article contains a critical discussion of several teaching models concerning Orwell's novel, which, among others, includes that by Bergsch/Hirsch as well as that by Wiklef and Traudl Hoops: Helmut Schütz, "Im Jahre eins nach Orwell. Einige literaturdidaktische Anmerkungen zu Unterrichtsmodellen zu George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-Four aus der Retrospektive", Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 38 (1985), pp. 247-252.
(20) Cf. Wiklef and Traudl Hoops, p. 33.