The Novel Nine met in October to discuss the Triple Crown of Dystopia: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). We had a lively discussion, requiring multiple bottles of wine. [It’s probably no accident that we chose for our next book Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear to put us in a quieter, more contemplative state from which we can consider creativity and beauty.]
The three dystopian novels differ markedly in the future worlds they portray. In Brave New World humans are no longer born; they are “unbottled” – grown in artificial wombs on an assembly line to precise specifications so that everyone, alphas to gammas, is satisfied with his or her lot in life and kept happy with the drug soma. Children are conditioned in their sleep by the repetition of messages. Discontents are exiled to islands. Orwell, influenced by the communist revolution in the Soviet Union, depicts in 1984 a totalitarian world in which the proletariat is kept uneducated and poor, but marginally free, whereas the “managers” are continually monitored by Big Brother and the thought police; stepping out of line costs you your life. Language is so degraded (Newspeak) that complex, democratic ideas cannot even be expressed, history is continually revised, and there is no truth. The Handmaid’s Tale is a world created by religious zealots. Everyone is controlled by the government, and women have been stripped of any rights or agency. There are four categories of women: those married to the Commanders; the handmaids, who are divvied out to the Commanders and whose sole purpose is to bear children; econo-wives, who are married to lower echelon men, and the un-women, who are either eliminated or sent to clean up toxic waste sites. Reading and books are prohibited to women.
Although there are big differences among the futures depicted in the novels, one common thread we saw was the obsession with sexuality. In Brave New World “everyone belongs to everybody,” sexuality is open, but becoming attached to any one person has become unacceptable. In 1984, the proletariat are relatively free to have sex and marry, but among the managers, marrying and reproducing are controlled by the Party. And in The Handmaid’s Tale sexuality is strictly controlled. For a handmaid to have a sexual relationship with anyone other than her Commander is tantamount to a death sentence. She is even named for her Commander: Offred, Ofglen, and so forth, and the “relationship” with her Commander is meant to be mechanical, with his wife cradling the handmaid between her thighs while the sex act is performed. The handmaids are not even permitted to have friends.
Another commonality we saw was that in all three societies, those in the highest echelons could disobey the rules. They could have prohibited books and better food and alcohol; they can engage in prohibited sex and other behaviours.
Most of us had read these novels when we were in high school or university. The differences in how we read the books this time around were interesting. Some of us found the novels far more disturbing now than when we were younger – perhaps because those worlds seem closer and more plausible now.
Many of us found The Handmaid’s Tale to be the most engaging, perhaps because the protagonist was a woman or, somehow, that world seemed more real and plausible to us. Others preferred 1984, which they found horrifying and gripping, with excellent writing –“vivid and detailed” – and with scenes that were easy to picture.
All of us drew parallels with what’s happening in the world today, and that may be why both The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 seemed more chilling and real to us than Brave New World.