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Lack of Identity in The Handmaid's Tale and Brave New World

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In both The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the writers explore how control and oppression establish a lack of identity in individuals. This exploration is achieved by focusing the novels around how the main characters live under governments who manipulate individuality, relationships and knowledge to create their own visions of stability.

Huxley’s government in Brave New World is known as the World State, who are responsible for the entire planet aside from a few “savage reservations”, and rule under the motto “Community, Identity, Stability,” whereas in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale people are under the rule of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state representing what is left of the United States of America in this dystopian world. The Gilead society bases its treatment of people, notably women, on a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible – more specifically, the Old Testament.

In both societies, individuality is restricted by the governments. The two novels each accomplish this through their own social class systems. In Gilead, citizens are divided in to a number of castes, the women’s castes defined largely by the colours they must wear. Wives wear blue, Marthas wear green, Daughters wear white, and so on. The Handmaids are the titular characters, being the most important and simultaneously the most oppressed women in the Republic of Gilead. They are tasked with breeding and having children for the Republic. Lawbreaking women who are fertile are essentially forced to become Handmaids – their only other choice is to be sent to the Colonies of Unwomen, where they will certainly die. This class of women are identified as Handmaids by tattoos of numbers and an eye on their ankles. This calls to mind the identification system of concentration camp prisoners in the Holocaust of World War Two. Handmaids also wear red as a form of identification – the colour of blood, thus the colour of life. They are given new names that the ownership of their Commanders. The protagonist and narrator of the novel is called Offred – of Fred, belonging to him. The government has taken away the one thing that defines the Handmaids from each other – their names and identities from their previous lives – reducing them to the property of man in a higher caste. Offred remembers her real old name, and tries to tell herself it is not important; “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, only useful to others.”

Her mindset has been worn down so much that she believes whatever she thinks or feels is worthless or futile; “what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter”. All throughout the novel, readers are never told Offred’s real name. This shows just how truly lost her identity is, and how resigned she is to her fate in Gilead. This resignation is clear as Offred states, “They can do what they like with me. I am an object.” She has given up hope in order to survive. Additionally, withholding the character’s true name allows the reader to put themselves into that character’s shoes. It emphasises how the story could be about anyone in that same situation – it could be you.

The caste system in Huxley’s Brave New World is referred to as such, and consist of five castes – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon, in order of importance and social status. A person’s caste dictates their career, social ranking and appearance. The novel doesn’t seem to have one set protagonist, like The Handmaid’s Tale does, but rather several main characters – my focus will be on Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne and John the Savage. Bernard Marx is an Alpha male, the top ranking caste. Alphas and Betas are the most attractive and intelligent individuals, tasked with the job of running society. They are not mass produced as clones like the lower castes, but rather exist as unique individuals with their own personalities. They are, however, conditioned since birth for this role, and to make them feel superior to other individuals from other castes. This brainwashes them to develop a preconceived notion about their own existence and the existence of all other people. This conditioning is given to every individual in the World State, leaving little to no room for individuality between people in the same cast, and making independent thinking nigh impossible, limiting the chance of rebellion.

There are significant differences in the methods of control that both governments use in each novel. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, control is established through force, fear and intimidation by the leaders of Gilead. As previously mentioned, Offred had no real choice in becoming a Handmaid. The Gilead society believes that Handmaids choose their position, when really they have no other choices but to be sent to the Colonies, or death – the Handmaids have only chosen survival. Certainly, this could be said to work in Offred’s favour. Her surrender to the ways of Gilead mean that she survives, whereas all the women we see rebelling against the Government suffer much worse fates – for example, Offred’s friend and fellow Handmaid Ofglen eventually commits suicide to avoid torture and to protect the others in the resistance, and Moira is condemned to work in a brothel, named Jezebel’s, after being caught trying to escape Gilead. Moira was, before working in the brothel, a defiant and independent feminist, firm in her beliefs and determined to escape her confinement in the Republic of Gilead. Her resignation to her fate in the brothel after her capture clearly highlights just how powerful a totalitarian state can be, breaking even the strongest women’s spirits. “She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something—what?—that used to be so central to her?”

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It appears that Moira actually enjoys her life working at Jezebel’s. Her homosexuality is accepted and rewarded, alcohol and drugs are available and permitted, and she has a great deal more sexual freedom than she had in Gilead. Yet, Offred is so alarmed by Moira’s “lack of volition” because it suggests the absence of hope of a better life for generations to come, and the absence of hope for Offred. Moira’s strength and spirit were always something that Offred had idolized and admired, and symbolized the kind of person that she wished to be “How can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?” Without Moira to look up to, Offred loses hope of freedom.

Handmaids are required to participate in the barbaric procreative ritual of The Ceremony, which is essentially ritualized rape, as the women had no real choice in taking part. This is an example of how the Handmaid’s are systematically oppressed by their government. The oppression is so embedded in the Handmaid’s lives that they don’t even view themselves as human beings, but rather objects used solely for reproduction “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” This reduction of women to instruments of fertility was the government’s resolution to critically low birth rates – Gilead was created largely to combat this and manufacture the increase of reproduction. Upon the creation of Gilead, women lost the right to vote, to own property, to read, to employment, and to birth control and abortion. This restricted their independence as people, therefore limiting their ability to have any control or power over the government or the men that they are surrounded by.

In Brave New World, however, control is established through science. Human beings are mass produced from a single egg, all identical to one another, not unlike a factory production line. This streamlined assembly line process was made possible by Henry Ford, the man who is referred to in the book as a religious figure of sorts. However, rather than a deity, he is worshipped as the creator of the Brave New World society. Rather than referring to God, citizens of the World State use exclamations such as “Oh, Ford!”, and celebrate Ford Day. The Gregorian Calendar has been replaced by one counting from 1908, the year that Ford’s first Model T automobile was produced, and the year is referred to as AF (“Anno Ford”) 632. Elements of previous religion remain in the symbol of the Christian cross, the top parts of which had been removed to form the letter T.

Once “hatched”, the infants are conditioned to all have the same beliefs and morals, limiting people’s independent thought as they grow older. This manipulation of thought, along with their predetermined social positions through caste systems, is the government’s plan for creating complete social stability.

The control of individuality is massively impacted by the way that relationships are policed in both novels. Relationships in Gilead between men and women are predetermined. This predetermination creates a lack of affection, emotion and chemistry and, overall, a complete lack of any love between them. Just as all Handmaids are each designated to a different Commander, Offred is forced to be paired with her Commander, Fred. The emotionlessness that is supposed to be felt between them leaves Offred with a perpetual feeling of emptiness (“deadness”). She tells us that she is “like a room where things once happened, but now nothing does.” The things she describes that once happened are in reference to her previous, more meaningful relationships that she remembers from her life before becoming a Handmaid in Gilead. Now, she is not allowed that meaning or connection between another human. She has sex only because she has no choice in the matter. The Ceremony, as mentioned in an earlier paragraph, is a ritual performed weekly, intended for the Handmaid to become pregnant by the Commander, so that he and his Wife (in this case, Serena Joy) may have a child through the Handmaid – the Wives are mostly infertile, and are considered pure, therefore granted the “privilege” of marriage. Offred describes the Ceremony as a robotic chore that nobody involved finds any pleasure in. She knows she is only there as an object of fertility “We are for breeding purposes.” This thing that she, like all Handmaids, has been reduced to has taken her over completely. Her body is used only for reproductive purposes, as a sexual device, and so this is all that Offred sees in herself. She is unable to feel comfortable looking at her own body, because “I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” Her narration makes it clear the shame and disgust she feels in what she’s become.

The relationship between the Handmaid’s and the Wives is an unconventional one, to say the least. During the Ceremony, the Wife is present, but is not intimate with the Commander to whom she is married.

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Lack of Identity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/lack-of-identity-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-brave-new-world/
“Lack of Identity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/lack-of-identity-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-brave-new-world/
Lack of Identity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/lack-of-identity-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-brave-new-world/> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2022].
Lack of Identity in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Sept 24]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/lack-of-identity-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-brave-new-world/
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