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Impact Of A Totalitarian State In The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood And Never Let Me Go By Kazuo Ishiguro

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With references to wider reading, explore and compare the impact of a totalitarian state in The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) and Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro).

In The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, both authors explore and compare the impact of the totalitarian states present within the novels. Both Atwood and Ishiguro make distinct links between totalitarianism and the post colonist theory as they portray how a totalitarian state requires to confine certain individuals, similarly to colonies during the 1700s and 1800s, in order to exert power over them. Both novels clearly portray how totalitarian states exploit, brainwash, segregate and remove the identities of certain individuals who they view as the apparatus for a successful totalitarian state.

Disturbingly, both The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go portray a totalitarian state as an inescapable force, which determines their fate and programmes their minds to function for society’s betterment. However, the notion itself of totalitarianism greatly differs between the two novels as Ishiguro portrays a forever existing totalitarian state, whereas Atwood conveys a descent into a dictatorial regime. It seems impossible to dismiss the amount of corruption presented in Gilead as individuals are programmed to perform to the government’s values. Gilead has achieved its goal of incarcerating individuals and controlling their lives, emphasised by the character of Offred through her description of how the “Handmaids” are “rat[s] in a maze [who are] free to go anywhere, as long as [they] stay inside the maze”(p.g174). This use of animalistic imagery accentuates how their role in society makes them feel as filthy as “rats” and how they feel trapped inside a “maze”, emphasising their inability to escape this brutal system. Here, Atwood skilfully moulds the novel to portray a cyclical structure emphasising how the world is not progressing for the better but instead is repeating events, evident in the confinement of the “Handmaids” in Gilead, which fundamentally acts as a warning to future society.

It is possible to interpret The Handmaid’s Tale from a post-colonist perspective as Atwood mimics the events of British colonisation in the 1700s when the British Empire exploited and separated citizens of America for their own economic needs[footnoteRef:0]. The concept of history repeating itself is shown as the USA was a colony belonging to the British Empire, who achieved independence in the 1760s[footnoteRef:1]. Similarly, Atwood constructs the “Colonies” in parallelism to the British Empire’s rule suggesting that these colonies function on power hungry people. The introduction of Moira; a rebellious character, graphically describes the situation in the colonies as not only a place for “people they want to get rid of”(p.g260) but also where humans were treated like machines for manual labour. Moira’s character explicitly describes the setting of the colonies, where “the toxic dumps and the radiation [makes] your nose fall off and your skin pull away like rubber gloves”(p.g260).This graphic imagery is resoundingly similar to Nazi Germany and their German nuclear weapon program; fuelled through the exploitation of the Jewish community[footnoteRef:2] , who were viewed as easily discardable machines designed to perform physical work.The image [0: ] [1: ] [2: ] constructed of a “nose fall[ing] off” and “skin pull[ing] away like rubber gloves” suggests that there is a barbaric practice taking place, emphasising the immorality of the Gileadean regime. Atwood highlights the extent of the government’s corruption and lack of protection they offer their citizens by freely discarding those deemed worthless in their vision of a Utopian state.

Similarly, Ishiguro illustrates the concept of a separate world within a world, where the clones have willingly surrendered to the administrative values of the government. The portrayal of Hailsham as a completely separate world is identical to Atwood’s illustration of the colonies. This is visible in the way they are “cloned only to donate their organs and then to complete their life cycle in death[footnoteRef:3], similar to the way colonists were taken advantage of by the British Empire[footnoteRef:4]. Ultimately, Ishiguro exposes the destructive power of totalitarian states by character relationships such as Tommy’s and Kathy’s. This is seen when Tommy accepts his fate as a clone belonging to the government and describes his relationship with Kathy. “trying to hold onto each other…but in the end it’s too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart” (p.g277). At this point, Tommy metaphorically compares the government to the destructive nature of a river that is powerful and difficult to fight. This use of nature imagery emphasises how the government’s immense power and force is similar to the flow of nature and fate: both impossible to alter or futile to go against. Sadly, the clones are forced to swallow this bitter truth and have no choice but to adhere to the government’s values; in turn, they destroy their illusions of a [3: ] [4: ] happy life by coming to the realisation that they “can’t stay together forever”(p.g277). From this, it is obvious that death will inevitably separate them.

Arguably, the notion of the government as puppeteers is predominantly influenced by the biographical context of Ishiguro, a Japanese born individual. The Japanese regard the belief that each individual is connected to their soul mates through a red string of fate[footnoteRef:5]. Essentially, this will ensure they live a happy life together[footnoteRef:6]. However, Ishiguro challenges this cultural vision of life by highlighting how the government systematically alter fates and destroys relationships. For example, the most significant instance of this is when Kathy states how “our lives… so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate… there were powerful tides tugging us apart”(p.g194). Once again, the reader feels the government’s intensity through the continuation of metaphorical language, likening the government to a destructible force more profound than Mother Nature. Additionally, with reference to the Japanese proverb, the government appear to possess such power to “separate” and [5: ] [6: ] “unravel” the strings connecting clones who are viewed as puppets. This relates to Tommy and Kathy’s imminent separation as the dictatorial regime is the force that drives them apart, resulting the clones to have no control over their lives due to the puppeteers

Both novels also explore methods that totalitarian states deploy to indoctrinate nations. This is evident through the use of linguistic manipulation as a crucial weapon in brainwashing citizens for a complete authoritarian state. Essentially, Ishiguro and Atwood starkly remind the reader that the “clones” and “Handmaids”, do not rebel against the ‘Guardians’ or the regime, accentuating how indoctrination is viewed as a privileged education. This bears a resounding resemblance to Nazi Germany during the late 1930s. For instance, children were re-educated and moulded into believing the Jews were the reason why Germany was in poverty[footnoteRef:7]. [7: ]

Ishiguro illustrates how the clones unconsciously conform to this preordained fate of theirs as they fail to acknowledge their cruel fate as donors. For example, the clones have dreams and aspirations of their own just like humans but are always harshly reminded of their sole existence. This is clearly evident when the “Guardian”, Miss Lucy, draws the class’s attention to their lack of aspirational worth when she says “none of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets… Your lives are set out for you”(p.g80). Ultimately, repetition is the language of indoctrination when phrases like “none of you” prompt the clones to question their self-worth as they feel unworthy of having dreams, let alone pursuing them. Furthermore, Ishiguro creates a heartless character like Miss Lucy to promote education systematically to “tear human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing”[footnoteRef:8]. Hence, the reader views Miss Lucy as a hard lined, political educator who uses the language of indoctrination to restrict free speech and to fulfil their purpose of donating their vital organs. [8: ]

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Ishiguro’s characterisation of the ‘Guardians’ as people in authority are needed to ensure a totalitarian regime functions accordingly. Arguably the prestige title of “Guardian” connotes protection. However, in this case their key role in society is to protect the government’s values through controlling what the clones “have been told and not told”(p.g81), enforcing censorship through “didactic”[footnoteRef:9] mannerisms. From a post-colonist perspective, Ishiguro’s function of naming is “one of the most subtle demonstrations of the power of language”[footnoteRef:10], giving prominence to an imperial concept of being able to “name the world…is therefore to exert power over it”[footnoteRef:11]. This is clearly evident in the construction of the “Guardians” to ensure that the clones are constantly reminded of their reality. Thus, these reminders by Miss Lucy, have a [9: ] [10: ] [11: ] negative psychological impact on the clones as they can no longer distinguish between right and wrong, ultimately succumbing to their ill fate.

Similarly, Atwood presents the “Aunts” in a identical manner to the “Guardians”. However, key figures called “Aunts” play “subliminally on the reader’s conscious”[footnoteRef:12] because Atwood may not specifically explain the connotation but the reader is nevertheless able to see the satirical intentions behind the name. The “Aunts” in Gilead directly contrast mother-like figures in a traditional sense, evident in Aunt Lydia’s retraining of the “Handmaids” as she states: “Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary”(p.g43). This reinforces how Atwood’s “naming of the characters”[footnoteRef:13] present a concept of irony as the title “Aunt” juxtaposes its connotation. The “Aunts” at the Red Center in The Handmaid’s Tale adhere to a notion of repetition similar to the ‘Guardians’ in Never Let Me Go. This is evident when Aunt Lydia refuses to acknowledge the injustices of the system by stating: “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”(p.g34). Ironically, the repeated noun “freedom” is deconstructed to suit the needs of the state to free the “Handmaids” from the so called previous “days of anarchy”. Here, Aunt Lydia adheres to the change, making her motivation behind the acts of proselytising individuals very obvious. The reader is acutely aware that the strength of a totalitarian state and Atwood’s construct of such figures act as the fuel that runs “a world in which power can decree that two and two make five”[footnoteRef:14]. [12: ] [13: ] [14: ]

Although both novels explore the idea of human exploitation where bodily functions define individual worth and are paramount to the success of the regime. Patriarchy is kept at the forefront of Atwood’s novel unlike Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Atwood makes it clear that for a totalitarian state to function, it requires men to be the base of dominance by exploiting women for their reproductive organs; women solely exist to give birth and keep the regime alive. Offred emphasises how she “used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will (p.g83)… Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object” (p.g84). This metaphorical language showcases how women view themselves as a vehicle that mobilize values of the government as if they are martyrs sacrificing their lives for a bigger cause; “pleasure” no longer matters. The only important part of her body is this “central object”, which is the precious fertile uterus unlike the rest of her body that is meaningless like “a cloud”. The fact that her has “flesh arrange[d] itself differently” accentuates how the role of women was established forcefully by the government. Critic K Reshmi argues that “In the Gileadean patriarchy, a woman is denied the right to possess or to have control over her own body. Her value is determined on the basis of her reproductive capability”[footnoteRef:15], giving prominence to the social stratum of women in Gilead. Therefore, those who are fertile, such as the “Handmaids”, are protected by the regime because they valuable assets to the Republic of Gilead. [15: ]

Ishiguro presents a similar concept of sacrifice through the exploitation of the body in Never Let Me Go through the way in which the clones solely exist to donate their organs. This is evident through the character of Miss Emily who harshly emphasises the truth of how the clones will “become adults… and before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do”(p.g80). Sadly, this emphasises how their organs are the only “vital” element of their entire existence, ultimately justifying what they were “created to do”. Critic Nathan Snaza argues that Hailsham is an experiment in humane treatment, even an attempt at free range production of organs in an industry where factory farming is standard”[footnoteRef:16], perhaps providing a form of justification for the presence of Hailsham. Arguably, it is possible to question the “humane” aspects of Hailsham and the beliefs it operates on as the clones are discarded after fulfilling their duties. The fact that Hailsham is described as an “industry where factory farming is the standard”[footnoteRef:17] highlights how the clones function analogous to animals, as they exist to provide profitable materials for their farmers, who in this case are the “originals” of the clones. It is possible to infer from a post colonist perspective that Ishiguro, similarly [16: ] [17: ] to Atwood, is attempting to convey Hailsham as a colony itself, where certain individuals are wrongly utilised for the benefit of a larger power.

Both The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go illustrate how the roles allocated to certain individuals have resulted in them becoming outcasts in society. This is distinctly evident through Atwood’s characterisation of the Marthas, Cora and Rita, and their treatment of Offred as a Handmaid. Offred is aware of how the Marthas view her disgust but explains how “the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for. She thinks I may be catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck” (p.g19-20). This clearly illustrates how Offred’s role in society as a Handmaid has resulted her to become an outcast in society as she is now viewed as a “disease” or a “form of bad luck”. .Perhaps Atwood’s reference to diseases could be interpreted from a post-colonist perspective through the way in which colonists were alienated and brutally treated with disgust as fatal diseases[footnoteRef:18]. This reinforces how Atwood crafts the setting of Gilead in an identical manner to the colonies as the “Handmaids” are viewed as “the other”[footnoteRef:19] due to their position in society. Atwood’s symbolism of “the red dress” emphasises this sense of “the other”[footnoteRef:20] as it mimics the uniform allocated to the individuals who fuel a successful totalitarian state. The critic Jessie Givner states how “the desire of the Gilead regime to remove name is as strong as the desire to remove faces. Just as the rules of Gilead try to eliminate mirrors, the reflection of faces, so they attempt to erase names'[footnoteRef:21]. This links back to how the regime monopolize and oppress individuals, stripping them of their identities through the assignment of clothing. [18: ] [19: ] [20: ] [21: ]

[bookmark: _qooelgfcf0c7]Similarly, Ishiguro creates the powerful character of “Madame” to highlight how the clones are treated as outcasts. Whilst she does show sympathy for the clones, in this instance her disgusted reaction portrays a “real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her…Madame was afraid of us…in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders…It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders” (p.g35). Such a reaction essentially provokes the clones to feel like outcasts in society. From a post colonist perspective, it can be suggested that Ishiguro attempts to convey this “concept of otherness” through the way in which the setting of Hailsham is crafted to mimic a separate colony, where the “outside world”[footnoteRef:22] fails to acknowledge the inhabitants as humans. Perhaps, Ishiguro’s construction of “Madame” acts as a microcosm of the human world as they view the clones as monsters. This ultimately provokes feelings of outsiderness as the clones are unable to comprehend with the reaction of “Madame”. Ishiguro highlights how clones, despite containing human-like qualities, are viewed as fearful creatures as they are distinctly being compared to “spiders”. The symbolism of the spider is used to further emphasise how the clones are treated like outsiders as spiders signify fear, highlighting how the regime has instilled fear even within key figures as it portrays this concept of fear of the unknown. This ultimately reinforces how no matter how [22: ] hard the clones try to mimic their originals, they are still viewed as inhumane by figures who “dread” to even “brush” past them.

In conclusion, both The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go explore the brutality of a totalitarian state through the way it impacts certain individuals. It is evident in both texts that the government have no regard of who they sacrifice to attain a successful Utopian state. Overall, post colonist critics highlight how the notion of totalitarianism is strikingly similar to the way in which the colonies were ruled by the British Empire. From a modern female reader perspective, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale gives more prominence to the impacts of a totalitarian state as it clearly portrays the change that has occured in the state. Atwood’s skillful use of flashbacks within the novel ultimately provokes feelings of sympathy within the reader as they are able to make a clear comparison between the past and the present, emphasising the change that has occurred due to the regime. The fact that the readers are able to gain an insight of this past allows them to develop a personal connection with the protagonist of the novel as it emphasises how the characters can do nothing but remember the past.This gives importance to the cruel concept of totalitarianism as it possesses the ability to mould the world according to their liking.

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  3. Orwell, G. (2014). 1984. London: Penguin Books.
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  11. Holocaust Encyclopedia, Indoctrinating Youth, [Accessed November 2018]
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  13. Atomic Heritage Foundation, German Atomic Bomb Project, [Accessed January 2019]

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