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The Handmaids Tale and Fahrenheit 451: The Power of Dystopia

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“Live in the present, make the most of it, it’s all you’ve got” – Offred. It is from chilling thoughts, like this, that dystopian literature is created. Authors, such as ‘Margrett Atwood’ and ‘Ray Bradbury’ who write for young audiences, are reluctant to leave such individuals without hope and curiosity. Hopeful literature is achieved through dystopian works, as they present the audience with a dysfunctional future society communicating the degradation of civil society and the bitter inheritance left for younger generations. It is from these speculative and dystopian literatures in which warnings are portrayed to modern societies, foreshadowing the dehumanised, authoritarian humanity controlling individuals in future generations. Both speculative texts including ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ are dystopian classics which detail the manner of power and control via the influence of totalitarian regime while the concepts of the individuality and conformity are manipulated.

Both the ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ explore distinct methods of totalitarian regime in order to oppress its citizens. Margret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’ presents a government where the use of power is illustrated and maintained through fear, violence, language, and control of sexual rights. With plunging birth-rates, Gilead is dominated by misogynistic regime that treats females as property of the state. These concepts of power and control are also significantly recognised in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 541’, published on 19 October 1953, and written through the inspiration of World War 2, more specifically the Nazi’s burning of books. The novel portrays the suppression of anti-intellectualism, representing the development of an increasingly oppressive political organization that wishes to deny literature.

Although power and control are strongly recognised within both texts’, the way both authors depict their dystopian regime to deliver such concepts differ between Atwood’s film series with the one explored in Bradbury’s novel. Atwood presents a strongly feminist vision of dystopia. Throughout the series she allows the audience to explore the consequences delivered by an assemblage of conservative religious extremists whom take control and turn Gilead into a sexual revolution. Handmaids argue for freedom from traditional gender roles; however, Gilead solely remains their focus on returning to traditional values and sex roles, furthermore, on the suppression of females by males. Gilead gains power and control by forbidding handmaids to partake in many behaviours including voting, reading and writing. In comparison, Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, includes an authoritarian regime which establishes and maintains power and control in society via force and punishment. This power and control the government has gained enables the regime to enforce intellectual pursuits and strict laws, both prohibiting literatures. Literature is the primary vector to which humans are able to communicate their sense of reality to others, furthermore, the destruction of reading allows the regime to oppress all citizens. As intellectualism and independent thinking are abhorrent in ‘Fahrenheit 451’, the burning of books is a significant behaviour.

Through the authority’s behaviour to eliminate one’s humanity, such concepts including individuality and conformity are strongly depicted.

In both ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ one’s individuality is lost to enforce strong means of oppression and prevent any social conflict that could otherwise foster rebellion. Individuality is lost Gilead, via a political oligarchy which enforces uniformity among citizens to distinguish roles within the state organisation and gain sexual repression. This behaviour to eliminate one’s individuality results in Gilead’s fertile women wearing long red cloaks, covering their bodies. It is suggested by … that the colour red ‘indicates the Handmaids’ fertility, echoing the colour of menstrual blood’ implying their function in society as a ‘handmaid’ (shown in figure 1) (Vanity Far, 2019). This delivers classification to create a sexual, rigid hierarchy and ensures the authorities deliver strong means of oppression. In addition, further elimination of individuality is achieved through the removal Handmaid’s original names. Offred explains this in episode one, where she narrates “my name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden” (season 1, episode 1, 5:35-5:43). Similar concepts are also recognised in ‘Fahrenheit 541’, where Bradbury examines loss of individuality in detail through the significant use of technology. “An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running…but do you know, we never ask questions” (p.29) This suggests Fahrenheits totalitarian state mandates individuals to follow highly regimented daily schedules, hence, the concept of a personal life is destroyed. Fahrenheits government also interferes with one’s education as regime policies limits their critical thinking and judgement skills that hinders and individuals from following their true desire and preventing access from the truths of society. Therefore, in order to repress individualism, both governments destroy freedom to express emotion and literature is abolished, further removing citizens’ ability to distinguish their own sense of reality from authorities.[image: Image result for handmaid’s uniform]

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The imposition and maintenance of uniformity upon handmaids and their behaviours of wearing them significantly demonstrates conformity and strong means of oppression by Gilead’s regime. By wearing these cloaks, handmaids are conforming to Gilead’s way of protecting and expressing fertile women.

Attwood’s series challenges attitudes, values and beliefs in modern society as current American females strongly value the rights they currently have. However, dramatic modifications will occur if politics’ make decisions that shape society into traditional sexual repression. TRUMP Attwood portrays the ‘control of women and children has been a feature of every repressive political regime on the planet and throughout history’.

The handmaid’s striking red cloak worn by fertile women in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is established as a modern global phenomenon, as Attwood ‘sears this image into our souls with its depiction of a near-future dystopia’. ( cloak-handmaids-tale-becoming-symbol-reproductive-rights) Nonetheless, Attwood’s series remains one of the most powerful portrayals of modern societal attitudes, values and beliefs towards female rights and one of the few dystopian films to examine the intersection of politics and sexuality in detail.

Both recognised as cautionary tales, the texts create opportunities for lessons to be learnt. More specifically, ‘Fahrenheit 541’ warns the audience about a society that has unfortunately been significantly influenced by technology and so distracted by television that the civilisation has lost track of reality and independent thoughts. From this, Bradbury allows the reader to explore the message of watching that mindless, endless television; that it is not a substitute for literature and reading.

The dystopian nature of both ‘The Handmaids tale’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ explore the chilling concept of futuristic societies through their strong use of power and control to oppress one’s conformity and remove individuality. As Orwell and Zamyatin illustrate through the fictional parties, Ingsoc and One State respectively, the sole purpose of any totalitarian state is to maintain absolute control over all citizens, so as to eliminate any threat of rebellion, and to allow the Party to maintain immutable power.

Perhaps the reality is that in these dark times literature and film elements are simply not enough. Words and film can be sharp instruments, however, what we need is not just words. But also, actions on a global scale. So perhaps it’s time to don the cloaks and bonnets.

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The Handmaids Tale and Fahrenheit 451: The Power of Dystopia. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 19, 2022, from
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