Behind the Book: "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "The Handmaid’s Tale"

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In this polarising political climate, dystopian fiction doesn’t seem too far off the mark from reality. Thanmaya Navada has a look at two classics of the genre, and why they continue to stand the test of time, compared to recent novels.

Beware of spoilers! Seriously, if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading here. 

The earliest works of dystopian literature date back to the 18th century, and over time, the genre has largely shifted into a primarily young-adult-driven space. Series such as The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or Divergent by Veronica Roth, have taken the young-adult genre by storm; they function as the first glimpse into dystopian societies for a large part of our generation. 

Yet, I'm fascinated by the novels that have stood the test of time, and continue to remain relevant across all demographics - whether we like it or not.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) tells the story of Winston Smith living in Airstrip One, previously Great Britain, under the rule of a totalitarian regime. The world is overseen by a mysterious leader known as 'Big Brother', who symbolises the ever-present and intrusive government surveillance and political ideology. The government in Orwell’s constructed world follows what is called ‘Ingsoc’, short for ‘English Socialism’, in the invented language Newspeak. Those who strive for individualism or independent thinking are persecuted and found guilty of ‘thoughtcrimes’.

Our main character here, much like in every young-adult dystopian storyline, hates the regime and struggles to break out of it, and throughout the novel, commits acts of rebellion, such as starting a sexual relationship with a coworker.

One of the major characteristics of young-adult dystopian fiction is an eventual revolution led by the protagonist, leading to a somewhat happy ending after having overthrown the oppressive regime.

However, Nineteen Eighty-Four refuses to offer this solution. As far as character development goes, Winston’s arc is quite disturbing. After a horrific sequence of events, any hope of a revolution is completely lost, only working to further the bone-chilling possibility of the novel.

But if you’re looking for a more uplifting dystopian novel… I’m sorry to disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) has been under the spotlight recently after it’s television adaptation, but I would highly recommend reading the novel as well.

Atwood’s novel is set in a near future of the United States, called Gilead, which is under a Christian totalitarian regime. The story depicts a dystopian world in which women have lost all rights. We follow Offred, a woman who is forced to serve a male master whose wife in incapable of conceiving children, and thus is subject to endure rape at the hands of the nation’s leaders. Her title as a handmaid offers her absolutely zero freedom, to the extent that she must denounce her birth name and go by Offred - meaning “of Fred".

This dystopian world is as bleak as any and is similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four in it’s detailed world-building, which is to be greatly commended. A line from Atwood’s novel which has stuck with me even now is:

There is more than one kind of freedom ... Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

For me, this is the underlying pulse of dystopian fiction, especially in Orwell and Atwood’s works. Just imagining a reality in which you are convinced that your oppression is actually protection is terrifying. And so is the ever growing reality of it.

Overall, it is evident that the refusal of self-identity and individualism strikes a chord with most readers and that both Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale have effectively remained relevant. But I’m not quite sure if that’s really a good thing.

Thanmaya Navada is a second-year Journalism/International Studies student at UTS. She describes herself as a film-buff and bookworm, when she's not napping during literally every spare minute she gets. Also cheese. She loves cheese.