Rebellion indefatigably confronts evil, from which the rebel may rectify blind servitude or unbounded freedom. As such, we see Ray Bradbury’s science fiction Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) explore the deprivation against individual liberty and distortion of knowledge, through heroic protagonists whom are doomed revolutionaries crushed by systematic regimes.
Fahrenheit 451 is based in a futuristic American society, in which its regime drives its citizens of imagination, intellectualism and self-awareness. Happiness is defined through excess consumption, hence books become a threat to the pursuit of ‘happiness’ as they promote individual thought. Fahrenheit 451 evinces a sensorial insight into American culture, to reflect on the discourses of hedonism and mass commercial consumption following the Cold War. The McCarthy years represented an extreme response to this growing, pervasive paranoia of consumerism in American society, which, through censorship, fostered an all-pervasive climate of mass conformism and apathy.
The Handmaid’s Tale explores the tyranny regime of the Republic of Gilead; a society constructed upon distorted religious fundamentalism. What precipitates the coup that installs Gilead is a massive drop in population and fertility because of environmental damage, particularly toxic wastes. In addition, there is rampant crime, including violence against women. The structure is a collection of diary entries written by Offred, an individual subject to the puritanical religious actives used for social control. The novel depicts an unparalleled and uncontrollable process of patriarchal dictatorship and institutionalised religion, as a satirical critique on the conservative revival and totalitarianism threatening modern America during the 1980s.
Promethean rebellion is a concept explored in Fahrenheit 451, and has been argued by various literary critics. Prometheus was a rebellious titan within Greek mythology, whom rebelled against the tyrannical order of the Gods, and bestowed upon men the divinity of wisdom. Clarisse obtains the status of ‘social misfit’, representing human potential against a world of automatons. However, she becomes prisoner of her own insight and somehow passes the torch to Montag, igniting his curiosity. Guy Montag, the promethean rebel within Fahrenheit 451, represents the freedom of the individual by rebelling against the enslaving oblivion and ignorance inflicted upon society, rather than representing the elevation of man.
Bradbury utilises a technological surplus to dehumanise its citizens, positioning us to see the return to nature and subsequently old values as an unattainable social ideal. Prior to the murder of Captain Beatty, Montag states “We never burned right”, establishing that entertainment is more valued than knowledge, reiterating that the firemen maintained a significant level of censorship and should rather be burning anything apart of a repressive society. Similarly, the fire symbolises power, as Montag defies social conformity, and creates opportunities for the rest of civilisation.
Rebels are anomalies within their societies. Montag is unhappy in his state, but remains within the distinct minority. There is a large population of complacency; where citizens do not search outside the regime. Montag’s wife, with her yearning to fill her final blank wall with a television screen, is far more representative of her society’s cultural-pap-consuming masses than Montag himself. “Nobody listens any more. I can’t talk to the walls because they’re yelling at me. I can’t talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say.” suggests that within the complacent society, Montag remains isolated with his knowledge and hence is inescapable of his own thoughts.
Rebellion against conformity is appropriated within The Handmaid’s Tale to address the relevance of rapid feminism in the 1980s. Offred rebels against the Gilead regime by retaining personal memories and utilising language play. The novel explores the power of language to transform reality in order to overcome oppressive designs imposed on females. Offred’s rhetorical question “… the night is my time out. Where should I go?” symbolises the exploration of her personal memories, which are forbidden in the Republic of Gilead, divulging her resistance to the patriarchal regime through knowledge.
Similarly, the purpose of the novel is to address power relationships, not just the commander’s dictatorship over the handmaids, but Offred’s sexual power over Fred and Serena Joy. Offred’s relationship with Nick is subversive, as the Gilead regime outlaws passionate love. He acts as a means to release her of sexual abandonment and controlled freedom. Alternatively, her relationship with Nick can be seen as draining her rebelliousness, affair paralysed her, complicity, mere satisfaction rather than escapism.
However, Offred’s inability to take overt action against the regime leads to her to be seen less as a heroine but rather a victim; a simple means of physical survival. The Republic of Gilead has removed the burden of freedom from its adherents and replaced it with the certainty of happiness. Here, we should read “happiness” not so much as synonymous with joy but in the utilitarian sense of the satisfaction of basic needs and desires, and the removal of pain. Offred can be seen as surrendering her freedom to authority, as they offer the freedom from uncertainty, danger and fear; uncommon for us who live in a liberal democratic society. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Gilead regime seems to have, dystopian regimes that are not so much imposed from above as sought from below. Faced with the option of escape, Offred is hesitant towards breaking the rules, “It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, a salvation.”, depicting her to be complacent within her enslaved position due to the proactive embrace that Gilead offers.
The value of rebellion in dystopian societies is explicit in both Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The contrast between promethean rebellion and cynical defiance is representative of the context in which each novel was written. The construction and subversion of strict societal roles and conventional truths are dominated through the power of language. The protagonists, Montag and Offred deconstruct political power and conformity. However, the novels differ in regards to social intent and the experiences of society during each .