Compare and contrast the ways in which George Orwell and Margaret Atwood use a central character to portray a dystopian society. Which of these is the more compelling character and why?

(This essay was written for my English Literature A Level in 2009, but I wanted to upload it just as something to look back on.)

The two novels that I have been studying are Nineteen-Eighty Four by George Orwell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both novels are dystopias showing a corrupted society in which conditions of life are extremely bad. Dystopian literature investigates how the human desire to create a perfect world can go wrong. Authors create dystopias to comment on and criticise features of their own society. George Orwell and Margaret Atwood both use a central character to convey these dystopian societies in which their novels are set in. Nineteen-Eighty Four is narrated in third-person to tell the story of Orwell’s main character, Winston Smith, whilst The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated in first-person by Atwood’s main character, Offred. These protagonists are given many similarities and differences in the ways in which they are presented to help portray the dystopian societies in which they live. I am going to compare and contrast these techniques to evaluate who is the most compelling character and why.

As dystopias, both of these novels offer similar threats of a totalitarian society; a government where the people have no authority and the state holds absolute control over every aspect of the country. Nineteen-Eighty Four was published in 1948 and was written as Orwell warning about the future; a close enough future to frighten the present even though 1984 is now in the past to us. His novel is set in the grey, decaying urban area of London in the state Oceania, formerly known as Europe, which was taken over by “The Party.” The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, just as Orwell’s story would be taking place, and was set in Gilead, known to us as Cambridge, Massachusetts in the former USA which is controlled by a group of males called The Commanders. Her novel warns about a much more distant future, and although Atwood didn’t give her novel a specific time era, this only makes her novel more frightening as it allows the chance of it actually happening. Both authors were encouraging the readers to stand up and have their say so that such regimes didn’t come into power. They created these totalitarian societies to present warning against the results of particular behaviour today to illustrate how the future may result, and it is through the central characters that we are able to feel the suffering that exists inside these societies.

Furthermore, Orwell’s novel was published just after World War Two had ended which was the main influence for him. One of England’s allies at this time was Joseph Stalin who ruled with an iron fist and killed in his hundreds. There was then Adolf Hitler who slaughtered his enemies, and Mao Tse-tung in China who began a long, oppressive totalitarian regime. All of these dictators influenced Nineteen-Eighty Four and can be seen through the “vaporizing” of people, Big Brother, and even by the rations of food and clothes. Orwell was also influenced by the philosopher Karl Marx who wrote about equal rights in farming and the even distribution of profit amongst the workers. He also served in the MI5 and fought in the Spanish Civil War, which shows that he had experience of the government service and was constantly surrounded by oppression and tyranny. Atwood, however, didn’t have any experience of what she was writing about. However, she was influenced by her feminism. Atwood was writing her novel in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan had just been elected in the USA. The USA had become a debtor nation and there was an increase in poverty and homelessness. The Equal Rights Amendment were no longer gathering any support and pornography and abortion were trying to be outlawed. Atwood intended to originally set the novel in Canada but said, “The States are more extreme in everything.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is structured by Offred piecing together the present through fragmented scenes and constant flashbacks to her past. Her use of flashback gives a more complex structure to the novel and it is through them that we learn how the regime came into place. We are told about her husband, Luke, and her daughter who she no longer has contact with. Early in the novel, before she became Offred, she is removed from work to find that she has lost all control of her finances. Offred and Luke were then found trying to escape with their daughter, were separated by the government and Offred was sent to the ‘colonies’ for women. Alternatively, Nineteen-Eighty Four uses a more linear structure. There are three parts to the story – the rebellion, the affair with Julia and the capture and torture. A similar structure that these novels use is that both Offred and Winston tell their stories event after event, introducing us to the characters and describing the societies that they live in first, going onto to detail how they rebel against the regime and then finally showing how their behaviour resulted.

A main difference between the two novels is that dystopias usually belong to a masculine genre as Nineteen Eighty-Four does. But Atwood goes against this in The Handmaid’s Tale by creating a woman narrator. Through Atwood using an ‘involved female,’ we are shown how women were worse off in a dystopian society. We become aware of women being exploited as soon as we are introduced to The Handmaids who are used for nothing more than their “natural resources.” They have been degraded to a fertile womb whose purpose is only to give birth and are monitored by a class of older women called Aunts. The Aunts work for The Commanders, training the Handmaid’s into believing that the regime is acceptable; it is the only way for infertile, unmarried women to have any autonomy. Aunt Lydia’s words are often quoted through Offred. She says, “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after time it will. It will become ordinary,” and later, “It’s not easy for me either.” Aunt Lydia confirms that it’s not easy or enjoyable for any of them, but that they know that they have no other choice. She also tries to demonstrate the power of the regime by saying that one day, the women will conform and agree with its workings. This is true because sooner or later what is happening will become normal as nobody will know any different. When we are being told about the Handmaids situation, Offred says, “Waste not want not, I am not being wasted. But why do I want?” It’s a very strong comment being made by Offred. She isn’t being wasted, she has been put to the use of others, but she still wants something else, something more, portraying the harshness of her situation and the forcefulness of the regime.

Offred’s narrative could be described as an internal monologue, talking to herself due to her isolation. We are told the whole story from her point of view, experiencing events as she does and receiving her memories as she remembers them. She tells the story as it happens in an episode like structure which is done by Atwood to keep the reader interested. We are left with cliffhangers that leave us in suspense and never know what to expect next. Atwood also lets us see the travels of Offred’s mind through asides, flashbacks, and digressions. She is impressionistic as she misses out essential information because she is often sidetracked in her train of thought and departs from the main subject. She seems to have a love of words and frequently plays around with them along with their varying definitions. She is an observer who looks deeply into things and focuses on the detail of an object to give intense descriptions. Offred also uses her other senses to show what she is experiencing; it’s not only what she sees that we aware of, but also of what she hears, feels, tastes and smells. An admiration of Offred’s character is her dark sense of humour that almost makes her descriptions of Gilead bearable, and maybe to an extent, enjoyable. At one point she comments on her own narrative which shows why no story can recapture the whole truth of human experience.

Nineteen-Eighty Four is narrated to tell the story of the main male character, Winston Smith. His name is taken from Winston Churchill, prime minister of England during World War Two, and Smith is the most common last name in the English language. Orwell did this because he intended Winston to represent an ordinary man who makes a courageous effort in an extraordinary circumstance. He is an everyman, especially to the intended audience of the World War Two society. By doing this, Orwell has made Winston a character that the readers can easily relate to. Winston’s narrative is more concerned with politics. Rather than being intensely descriptive, like Offred, he is an intense thinker; he is philosophical and reflective.

This difference in narrative forms, as well, gives us a differing insight into the two characters. We do not know Offred’s real name as she is given ‘Offred’, meaning that she belongs to her Commander, Fred, by the regime. However, we are much more aware of her emotions and opinions from her first-person narrative; we are able to know what’s going on in her mind. “Night” appears as a chapter title seven times in the novel. This is a time where Offred is alone in her room and she is able to reveal her inner thoughts to us. It is mainly through these chapters where Offred thinks back to “the time before.” We only know Winston through a more on-looking perspective. We gain information through Winston’s eyes from the third person narrative leading us to easily identify with him. We find ourselves feeling the same emotions as him and, in the end, we sympathise for him for giving in to the regime after going through his experiences with him. Winston shows us that no one can really know his fellow men. At one point in the novel, he looks around the room and tells himself who will be vaporized in the next few weeks. From being in Winston’s head, we make the same mistakes that he makes in judging people.

The totalitarian societies in which Offred and Winston live restrict both of their freedoms. Offred cannot even wander the streets without being with somebody else. Even then, ‘Angels’ are guarding everywhere and the Handmaids have to be careful of what they say to each other. Winston, on the other hand, can wander the streets and even go on train journeys. However, there is the chance of a microphone being hidden in the trees and every house has a telescreen which makes it possible for party members to watch anyone in their own home at any time. Orwell had recognised the popularity of the Television and noticed its potential. He imagines that one day it would be able to transmit back images allowing the broadcasted to spy on the viewers which he shows through creating these telescreens in his novel. From Winston’s job in The Ministry of Truth, he is able to know what is going on around him by the regime whilst Offred has no idea about her situation. Even if Offred had the opportunity to know about the workings of the regime in her society, she cannot see because of the headgear she is made to wear to restrict her view. In a way, Offred does hold a little power through her femininity which she occasionally remembers. We are aware of her using this power, such as winking at the Angels, just to remind herself of what the regime can’t take away from her. At one point in the novel, she also compares her freedom to that of a women’s blouse by being able to have it unbuttoned. She says, “Such freedom now seems almost weightless,” meaning non-existent. “Flashes of normality come at me.”

The use of language in both cases is being abused because it is not wanted for a means of communication. Offred is not allowed any of the comforts that she once had such as magazines and perfume. Books have been abolished making it impossible for her to read or write, She says, “Even the names of the shops were too much temptation for us.” Winston’s job is for him to re-write parts of history. Nineteen-Eighty-Four explores the concept of language’s power. Orwell himself noticed the malleability of human ideals through language. He noticed a ‘fuzziness’ of language as meanings were chosen for words rather then words being chosen for their meanings. He believed that the corruption of language may be used to oppress an entire group of people which is why he created “New Speak” in his novel. The intention of this was to make the language so simple, that the risk of rebellion would be minimized. Syme described New Speak as an “orthodoxy” meaning not needing to think. If a concept cannot be spoken, it will eventually be impossible to think. If the regime erased the word “free” then it would eventually be erased from people’s minds. Diana Hurlburt feels that Orwell created New Speak purposely to “embody all that he found wrong with the English tongue.”

Furthermore, an important similarity between the central characters in these novels is the use of memory. Winston’s memories appear a lot more blurred and he only remembers small fragments of the past whereas Offred is certain of her past and uses her memories to retain knowledge of “the time before” and how the regime came into existence. It’s confusing to whether Winston has made his memories up or whether they genuinely happened. He doesn’t know of a life anything more than the one he is living, and rather thinks towards to the future and how the regime can be changed. Atwood’s memories are not ordered; they appear scattered. Offred often dwells on the past as she wants to keep her memories; they are a part of she can hold onto to keep herself sane which are used to reassure herself.

Also, both characters are trying to rebel against the cruel system that regulates them as they struggle to conform like everyone else around them. Offred is more of a resilient character; she often writes about her body as this is her resistance to society. She thinks about being rebellious and taking control but she never does. Offred remains her own person in her head but deals with society because she wants to survive. She is intelligent and knows what society wants from her. After she begins her affair with Nick, she seems to lose sight of escape and almost starts to feels that life in Gilead is tolerable. If she does finally escape, it is not because of anything she does herself, but because of Nick. Although Offred resists brainwashing, her regular reference to Aunt Lydia’s teachings of how the women should deal with the regime signifies the success of the program indoctrinating her mind.

Winston is more of a rebellious character; he is a risk takes. He hates the Party and wants to test its limits. At the start of Nineteen-Eighty Four, he buys a diary to record his experiences in which he at some point writes “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.” He does this knowing he is likely to get caught by the Thought Police and soon after participates in an illegal love affair with Julia, again knowing the obvious risks. He takes risks such as trusting Mr. Charington and O’Brien knowing that his actions are only getting him closer to being caught. He convinces himself that he needs to rebel although he knows there is no getting away with it. He creates false hope for himself and because of his paranoia and naivety, Winston ends helplessly in his fate; he is caught and tortured until he finally conforms. He attempts to achieve freedom but by the end of the novel, rebellious actions of joining the brotherhood, a set up by O’Brien, leads to his torture and eventual conformation.

In conclusion, Atwood gives Offred a multi-narrative with flashbacks to the past and descriptions of the present as well as an episode-like structure to keep the reader interested. Personally, I feel that Offred is the more compelling character even if she seems to give up everything she was after starting her affair with Nick. I feel that she includes in her narrative, the parts of a dystopian society that Orwell missed out. I also think that her first-person narrative allowed a more personal relationship with the character. In contrast, because Winston is so real, a reader cannot resist identifying with him and imagining themselves in his place. He is an ordinary man who finds the strength to try and make his circumstances better which makes it clear to see why he receives the reader’s sympathy. In my opinion, he is quite a dull and boring character and I didn’t find a liking to him at all. His character gave off quite a depressing emotion whereas Offred knew how to fit in her humour. I felt that Winston was always going to conform, even from the very start, and that his actions were more for his self than to rebel against the regime. His small actions of rebellion were only out to benefit himself which is why he made no difference to the regime and which is why Big Brother won. Winston fails to uphold what he fought for but it is criticised by many that this only makes him more human. In realistic terms, it does, but Offred escapes her situation and I feel that this makes her a hero whereas Winston is more of a tragic hero who falls at the end.

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