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The Elements of Dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984

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Dystopian literature questions the power of language, both Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty - four’ showcases a variety of qualities necessary to advocate one’s freedom. Whilst both novelists share the common theme of language limiting both freedom and knowledge the two texts approach language in separate ways.

Writers of dystopian literature emphasise the importance of language on freedom. Both protagonists (Offred and Winston) experience restrictions on their language as the institutions attempt to reduce their thoughts by limiting their ability to communicate effectively. Both Atwood and Orwell stress the importance of language on freedom and without sufficient language we’re unable to experience a full range of emotions. For example, the debauching of language in Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ makes criticisms of the Party linguistically impossible as it reduces the ability to think and speak out against those who are wrong. Without the correct vocabulary we’re unable to express our opinions becoming more taciturn and morose. Additionally, Jean-Jacques Courtine supports how “language is the living memory of man and offers him a space for inner resistance”, in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ the debauching of language forbids Party members to speak their minds and prohibits this “inner resistance” - without sufficient language thoughts become futile as they simply cannot be heard out loud. This links in with Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as Offred’s recurring ‘Night’ sections allow readers to delve into her thoughts but outside these Night sections she struggles to express her thoughts out loud as she becomes cautious of her surroundings. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Offred is forbidden to read or write; even the cushions with “faith” and “charity” are removed from her bedroom making it impossible for her to recap any vocabulary. However, when Offred plays scrabble with the Commander whilst it is “indecent” and “dangerous” it gives her the freedom to escape into a fantasy world far away from Gilead. Atwood exposes the power of words on thoughts and without language we’re unable to distinguish ourselves from life, limiting our freedom of imagination.

Both novelists demonstrate how without language we are unable to free ourselves from reality. In Atwood’s dystopia Offred escapes Gilead through a game of scrabble and in ‘1984’ Winston is able to escape through his diary. Both dystopias establish the importance of thought and language and without these two elements we fail to complete ourselves and are trapped within the fragments of a totalitarian regime. This idea is similar in many other dystopias such as Lois Lowry’s ‘The Giver’, in this dystopia protagonist Jonas was “careful about language” as he “searched for the right word to describe his own feeling” this description reinforces that without sufficient vocabulary we are unable to communicate our thoughts restricting our freedom. Similarly, in ‘1984’ the whole aim of Newspeak is to “narrow the range of thought” and make “thoughtcrime literally impossible” as there will be “no words in which to express it” - Orwell’s dystopia places importance on language and without language we cannot express our thoughts placing a limit on our freedom of expression. This view is further supported by Ludwig Wittgenstein who states: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Witgenstein’s statement supports the view that without the right vocabulary we are unable to express ourselves, placing a “limit” on our world by placing a restriction on the level of freedom one can receive. Both novelists highlight the significance of language on the range of thought and by reducing our vocabulary we fail to express ourselves clearly, failing to experience an imagination beyond the borders of a Totalitarian regime thus limiting one’s freedom to escape.

It could be argued that the only way to achieve freedom is through knowledge, both Orwell and Atwood depict language as the starting point to freedom and without language we fail to expand our knowledge. Just as Orwell states himself: “thought is dependent on words” and knowledge is dependent on information which arouses from language. Atwood’s dystopia demonstrates how knowledge is power, although reading and writing is forbidden in her dystopia, this prohibition doesn’t apply to all. The men in Gilead are free to read the Bible and contextually this links in with First wave feminism where women were made powerless in a patriarchal society that forbid them to have an education and gain knowledge. Atwood shadows this idea by demonstrating how a reduction in language will limit freedom, forbidden knowledge is power and without sufficient language we fail to contain that power within ourselves. This links in with Dave Eggers ‘The Circle’ where “knowledge must be democratically accessible”, by placing a limit on language it reduces one’s ability to gain access to important information which may be needed in future scenarios. Eggers dystopia also highlights how information is power and the debauching of language in both Atwood and Orwell’s dystopia prohibits new knowledge from being learnt ultimately reducing one’s freedom.

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Orwell’s dystopia follows on from this idea, the Party’s attempt to rewrite history aims to remove or vaporise memories from people and contextually this links in with the burning of Jewish books under the early Nazi regime. Both Atwood and Orwell demonstrate the power of information and without language we’re unable to expand our knowledge which places a restriction on our freedom. However, it could be argued that the debauching of language in ‘1984’ isn’t deliberating limiting freedom, but satirically exaggerating an important point. In Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ he had warned that careless language use, particularly over-reliance on ready-made phrases can in fact lead to careless and insensitive thinking. For example, if people used Jargon terms such as ‘erasure of unreliability’ to describe murdering their opponents, then it becomes comparatively easy for them to avoid admitting the horror of their actions, even to themselves. Perhaps the aim of Newspeak and their elimination of words is to prohibit these sloppy thoughts and to make readers in 1949 and post 1949 aware of the problem and how “thought corrupts language” but “language can also corrupt thought”. Orwell demonstrates how although the “destruction of words” limits freedom it can also allow freedom by making one aware of what they’re actually saying. Both dystopias shadow the importance of language by depicting both the limits and the benefits of a “destruction of words”. Although a limit to language in both dystopias prohibits freedom it may secretly give rise to freedom, perhaps there’s a reason as to why Offred isn’t allowed to read - she may be sheltered from her past and won’t be able to move forwards.

Dystopian fiction often idealises freedom whilst simultaneously conveying the importance of ‘names’ on one’s freedom. Both Atwood and Orwell demonstrate the importance of belonging and having an identity, both dystopias suggest that without names one cannot claim individualism. In Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ women are stripped off their identities, almost every woman is referred to as either a Wife, Aunt, Martha, Econowife, Unwoman or Handmaid with the prefix ‘Of’ before their name. Atwood has deliberately placed the prefix “Of” before Ofglen, Ofwarren and Offred’s names in order to demonstrate that they are the property of someone else - they’re objects rather than people. This deliberate use of the prefix “Of” further dehumanises them and Atwood has used language in this way to demonstrate how it can limit someone’s freedom because we immediately associate ‘Offred’ with Commander Fred. Comparably, Orwell also uses names in his novel to depict how identity is easily erased, in Part 3 of‘1984’ Winston is referred to as “6079 Smith W” and it’s at this point in the novel where Winston is desensitised and is referred to by a number. This links in with Zamyatin’s ‘We’ whereby the uniformed inhabitants are referred to as numbers rather than names such as D-503. Both novelists have decided to deindividualize their protagonists in this way to demonstrate how language really can limit freedom. Both dystopias depict how language can be used as a means to restrict freedom, the Handmaid’s names for instance deliberately contains the prefix “of” this prefix acts as a constant reminder of who they belong to - language has been used negatively to erase their identity.

Interestingly, in Atwood’s dystopia Moira still shadows her old pre-Gileadean life and refuses to adapt to this new regime - her real name still lives on. As Jessie Givner states “the desire of Gilead to remove names is as strong as the desire to remove faces” - the “attempt” to discard Moira’s name immediately presents a failure within this totalitarian regime as she becomes the only Handmaid with her own name. Atwood showcases the importance of individual identity and how language can be used in a positive way as well as in a negative way. Both novelists however use names in a deceptive way, Orwell’s ironic references to the ‘Ministry of Love’ and the overused sentence “Big Brother is watching you” perhaps sardonically overplays what the government should be like - an institution that cares for and protects its citizens by “watching” over them rather than depriving them of their individuality. By using such terms Orwell is also making a critic on the rise of powerful dictators of the 20th century - Stalin for example named himself ‘Uncle Joe’ and in the novel ‘1984’ the term ‘Big Brother’ resembles this kind of oppression experienced in the 20th century. Similarly, Atwood has also used deceptive names in her novel such as “Aunts” and “Guardians” - usually an Aunt is a caring figure who looks over you, but in Atwood’s dystopia the Aunts threaten to abuse Handmaids with “cattle prods”. Both writers have manipulated language in this way to depict the limitations such language comes with and how language can be used to mask sinister truths. The terms “Big Brother” and “Aunts” both put on a façade of a caring figure but in reality they torture dissendents of the regime. Furthermore, the limits of freedom are most notable in Atwood’s novel as the Handmaids are forced to face a constant reminder of being the belonging “Of” someone.

Undeniably, both dystopias have explored the extent to which language can debase someone’s identity but both writers have failed to provide a single response to how language limits freedom. Although language plays a pivotal role in both dystopias, both novelists have demonstrated that freedom is limited in a numerous amount of ways by questioning: individual identity, belonging and escapism through thoughts.

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The Elements of Dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 30, 2023, from
“The Elements of Dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
The Elements of Dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Nov. 2023].
The Elements of Dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Nov 30]. Available from:
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