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Essay: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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  • Published: 22 March 2022*
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Although The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley entail different stories, the societies portrayed in these two examples of dystopic literature still lack the fundamental freedoms required for a properly functioning society to exist. Brave New World examines a futuristic society, called the World State, that revolves around science and efficiency. In this society, emotions and individuality are conditioned out of children at a young age, and there are no lasting relationships because “everyone belongs to everyone else”. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a near-future New England, in a totalitarian state, known as Gilead, that has overthrown the United States government. It explores themes of subjugated women in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women resist and attempt to gain individuality and independence. In each novel, a dystopia is depicted through the use of conflict to reveal the government’s censorship of knowledge, the use of theme to establish an individual’s lack of identity and the use of characters to demonstrate the government’s control over relationships to facilitate a stable society.


The context of both Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale possess important factors in their novels. It was 1932 when Aldous Huxley began writing his novel, an era when the world was drastically changing politically and industrially after World War 1. Due to the height of technological optimism at the time, Huxley used his novel to criticise such optimism and created a dystopian world in which technological advancements are used to alter the population’s wants and needs. Brave New World is set in the year 2450, where the planet is united politically as the “World State”. The novel does not have an intended audience. Huxley wrote Brave New World as a dark satire, meaning to humorously mock some people’s concept of the perfect society. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. The book postulates a Christian fundamentalist theocratic regime in the former United States that arose as a response to a fertility crisis. Margaret Atwood speculated the book was set around 2005 and is a response to those who claim the oppressive, totalitarian, and religious governments that have taken hold in other countries throughout the years “can’t happen here”. She used her dystopian society as a depiction of how such a takeover could possibly pan out. Both novels possess the similar theme of a dystopian society, however, while Atwood used her novel to inform and bring such a government to light, Huxley used his novel to mock other’s beliefs of a perfect society.


Offred is the narrator and the protagonist of the novel, and we are told the entire story from her point of view, experiencing events and memories as vividly as she does. Offred is intelligent, perceptive, and kind. She possesses enough faults to make her human, but not so many that she becomes an unsympathetic figure. She also possesses a dark sense of humour. Like most of the women in Gilead, she is an ordinary woman placed in an extraordinary situation. She is hardly a feminist champion; she had always felt uncomfortable with her mother’s activism, and her pre-Gilead relationship with Luke began when she became his mistress, meeting him in cheap hotels for sex. Offred is a mostly passive character, good-hearted but complacent. Like her peers, she took for granted the freedoms feminism won and now pays the price. Throughout the novel, Moira’s relationship with Offred epitomizes female friendship. She represents an alternative to the meek subservience and acceptance of one’s fate that most of the Handmaids adopt. After embodying resistance for most of the novel, Moira comes to epitomise the way a totalitarian state can crush even the most independent spirit. In Brave New World, Bernard Marx is the central figure of the novel. He is an Alpha-plus who is disgruntled with society. He is an individualist with noble ideas, but is weak-willed and hypocritical, as shown in his confrontation with John. He does not seem to feel guilty about using John for selfish purposes. John the Savage represents the most important and most complex character, being the symbol of the old-world order. The physical description of the Savage reveals the conflict within him; he is dressed like an Indian, but his straw-coloured hair, pale blue eyes, and light-coloured skin betray his origin. Helmholtz Watson is not as fully developed as some of the other characters, acting instead as a foil for Bernard and John. For Bernard, Helmholtz is everything Bernard wishes he could be: strong, intelligent, and attractive. As such a figure of strength, Helmholtz is very comfortable in his caste. Unlike Bernard, he is well liked and respected. Though he and Bernard share a dislike of the World State, Helmholtz condemns it for radically different reasons. Bernard dislikes the State because he is too weak to fit the social position he has been assigned; Helmholtz because he is too strong.


These novels depict dystopias in which all-powerful states control the behaviours and actions of its people in order to preserve its own stability and power. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the former United States is now the Republic of Gilead, controlled by the theocratic dictatorship, “The Sons of Jacob”. Gilead was formed in response to a crisis caused by dramatically declining birth rates. The government is built around the control of reproduction and emphasises this ideal through its rigid political hierarchy and religious trappings. While the government in Brave New World promotes sex, recreational drugs and games to control its population, “The Sons of Jacob” take a dictating approach. Utilising fear, violence and the destruction of sexuality to control the state. A major difference between the two is that, whereas in The Handmaid’s Tale control is maintained through the destruction of sexuality, the Eyes, and the power of language, power in Brave New World is maintained through technological interventions that start before birth and last until death, and that effectively change what people want. In Brave New World, the government retains control by making its citizens happy and superficially fulfilled, causing them to not care about their personal freedom. The consequences of state control are a loss of dignity, morals, values, and emotions—a loss of humanity.


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