Dystopian fiction is a popular genre in most high school English curricula, and for good reason.
It’s at once didactic and creative, offering content that always teaches some kind of broad socio-political message while encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.
This is also why many A-Level and IB schools prescribe novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as set texts.
Both novels are incredibly rich in depth and content, touching upon a mammoth range of themes from power, gender, love, freedom, language, social class, human nature, to speculation of the future and so much more.
In particular, they are concerned with the concept of freedom: what freedom means, how its meaning changes over time, who it applies to in a given society, and – brace brace – whether it’s actually something that we would (or should) want.
It’s always rewarding to look at literature in the broader context of our world (even though a more ‘insular’, textualist to reading literature does carry its own benefits), so in this post, I’d want to examine how freedom is portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World through the act of reading, and what their writing means for us today.
First, let’s compare and identify some common grounds.
Reading as taboo in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World
Both Atwood and Huxley’s dystopian societies – ‘Gilead’ and ‘World State’ – are totalitarian in nature, where reading is largely banned, and any sort of literature that’s easily accessible to us today – newspapers, magazines, novels etc. – is considered contraband.
The relationship between political autocracy and intellectual censorship has always been an obvious one. The more someone seeks to know, the more dangerous that person appears to those in authority, because knowledge is power, often in more ways than one.
Naturally, then, in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead where individual freedom is non-existent, the freedom to read whatever one wants is out of the question.
To the Handmaids, deemed ‘fallen women’ whose only function in society is to copulate with married Commanders and give birth in a surrogate capacity, their ‘education’ is limited to whatever the Aunts teach them at the training centres, which basically amounts to brainwashing. Independent reading is a sin.
And even though the Aunts are allowed to read and write, whatever they read is doctored literature, written for the sole purpose of facilitating their indoctrination work.
To quote the protagonist Offred, who recalls the days when she was training as a Handmaid –
[We would hear] the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the mouldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Centre. Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And so on and so forth. We had it read to us every breakfast, as we sat in the high-school cafeteria, eating porridge with cream and brown sugar. You’re getting the best, you know, said Aunt Lydia.
Offred, along with the other Handmaids, weren’t allowed to read, but were only ever “read to” by those in positions of authority (the Aunts) about what’s ‘best’ for them. Individual judgment is neither necessary nor desired, which is why individual reading – the foundation of critical thinking – is not allowed.
All they need to know is biblical scripture quoted out of context, as long as the message gears them up for their ‘responsibility’ in Gileadean society – to give birth, to “be fruitful and multiply”.
In Brave New World, lower-class citizens of the ‘World State’ are conditioned from a young age to develop “an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers”, and to be, in the words of the Director at the “Infant Nurseries, Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Rooms”, “safe from books and botany all their lives”.
On the other hand, Mustapha Mond, the “Resident World Controller for Western Europe”, is one of the very few people in ‘World State’ England to have read “old forbidden books” like Shakespeare, Bible and poetry.
Again, the link between the powerless and the lack of reading is reinforced, with the implication that reading grants intellectual, and therefore political, power.
Interestingly, John the Savage, who lives outside the State in the Indian Reservation, is the only other character in the novel who has read classical literature. The difference between the Savage and Mond, however, is that while the former bases his worldview on the humanitarian values championed in literature, the latter very much abandons them for the hyper-utilitarian alternatives touted in the Brave New World.
But what makes books, magazines and literature so dangerous isn’t just the fact that they embody sources of intellectual knowledge.
Rather, it’s their emotional impact, their ability to move hearts, change minds, convert personalities – to make people feel.
And it is precisely this capacity for fellow feeling that makes reading the ultimate bete noire of totalitarian regimes, which so often depend on extreme selfishness, and one’s paranoiac tendency to protect oneself at the absolute expense of others.
Now, let’s read two symbolic moments in each novel to find out why reading is so powerful and dangerous.
To read is to breathe: reading for survival in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
The weird thing about adultery in The Handmaid’s Tale is that sex just isn’t that important.
In fact, when the Commander asks Offred, his Handmaid (your modern day mistress equivalent), to visit his room at night, it’s not kinky sex he wants. Instead, he wants to play Scrabble, indulge in small talk, and most bizarrely, watch Offred read ‘contraband’ literature.
The power dynamics of their relationship is based not on sexual transaction, but on a sort of tacit, shared intellectual yearning for the written word of the past (which, from our vantage, is of the present).
It’s certainly disorienting to think that one day, in an alternative world order, something as mundane as reading the Vogue magazine would be deemed a tantalising and forbidden act, one that’s akin to cheating on your spouse with a colleague at lunch break.
To zoom in on one such moment –
“What would you like to read tonight?” [the Commander] says. This too has become routine. So far I’ve been through a Mademoiselle magazine, an old Esquire from the eighties, a Ms., a magazine I can remember vaguely as having been around my mother’s various apartments while I was growing up, and a Reader’s Digest. He even has novels. I’ve read a Raymond Chandler, and right now I’m halfway through Hard Times, by Charles Dickens. On these occasions I read quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible before the next long starvation. If it were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished; if it were sex it would be a swift furtive stand-up in an alley somewhere.
While I read, the Commander sits and watches me doing it, without speaking but also without taking his eyes off me. This watching is a curiously sexual act, and I feel undressed while he does it. I wish he would turn his back, stroll around the room, read something himself. Then perhaps I could relax more, take my time. As it is, this illicit reading of mine seems a kind of performance.
Gasp – “he even has novels.” Is Offred shocked by the Commander’s possession of novels because novels are prohibited in Gilead, or because she doesn’t think the man has the human sensitivity to appreciate novels in the first place? To us, it may seem absurd to think that reading Chandler and Dickens should be considered an “illicit” activity, but that’s precisely Atwood’s point. It may be absurd today, but who knows what will be ‘absurd’ tomorrow, or the day after?
Besides, banning books – depending on content and context – isn’t wholly absent from some parts of our world today, so what makes us so sure that reading materials openly available today won’t be wiped off from library shelves and newsstands next week?
By comparing reading to eating and having sex, Atwood makes a clear point about the fundamental importance of reading and having ready access to literature – whether lowbrow or highbrow – for human beings. To go for protracted stretches of time without absorbing a variety of content is, Atwood implies, a torture coterminous with a “long starvation”.
But it’s also because we inherently crave knowledge that those in authority can leverage literature as a means to manipulate, a bait to goad and a playground for voyeurism.
In times of normalcy, practically no one would care for a stale egg and cress sandwich, but give it to someone who’s famished, and suddenly it’ll seem like the best food in the world.
The same logic applies to books: in an age where sources of entertainment are abundant, reading has fallen out of favour with the masses. But take away Netflix, YouTube, and god forbid – the Internet, and we’re sure to see a quick revival in literary interest.
It’s not just the reader who perpetrates, though; the instigator is also part of the collusion.
So in a totalitarian state like Gilead, the Commander and Offred’s bibliographic foreplay is an act of mutual subversion, because it symbolises their shared desire to return to the ‘old’, humanistic way of living.
This is why, in the epilogic section ‘Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale’, we find out from Professor Pieixoto that “Frederick R. Waterford”, the most probable candidate for Offred’s ‘Commander’, had “met his end… in one of the earliest purges [in Gilead]”, as he was “accused of liberal tendencies, of being in possession of a substantial and unauthorised collection of heretical pictorial and literary materials”, which are, of course, those glossy magazines and musky novels that served as intellectual ‘sex toys’ for the Commander and his Handmaid.
The problem with reading, then, is that it opens up a limitless floodgate of passion and imagination, from which only individuality and nonconformity will ensue. And these are hardly the building blocks of a police state, where mute obedience is the ultimate code of conduct.
To read is to rebel: reading for – what? in Brave New World (1932)
Aldous Huxley was a true visionary, which is somewhat ironic, because he was virtually blind for a while after contracting an eye disease at 17 years old.
Brave New World is arguably one of the most forward-thinking literary works of the 20th century, largely because it foresaw the global trend towards fascism and authoritarianism that would sweep through the world with the onset of World War II. The novel is also bitingly accurate on its misgivings about the overreliance of technology, and specifically, of the human tendency to abuse scientific advancement for inhumane ends.
In a self-reflexive gesture, the book casts ‘old’ literature as the foil to ‘new’ science, with each representing polarised ways of understanding human life and existence.
As mentioned earlier in this post, no one in Brave New World – apart from Mustapha Mond and John the Savage – can read or understand literature. After the Savage departs from the Indian Reservation and travels to the World State, he visits Eton (a mock, futuristic version of the public school).
Upon seeing the School Library, he asks Dr Gaffney, the school’s Provost, if the students there have read any Shakespeare. In response, he is met with both embarrassment and disapproval –
“Certainly not,” said the Head Mistress, blushing.
“Our library,” said Dr Gaffney, “contains only books of reference. If our young people need distraction, they can get it at the feelies [sensory cinema]. We don’t encourage them to indulge in any solitary amusements.”
The fact that the Head Mistress “blushes” at the mention of Shakespeare should remind us of the association between reading and illicit sex in Handmaid, as if reading Shakespeare were code for, well, watching porn.
This is, of course, incredibly ironic, given the crass, pornographic nature of those “feelies” that the Provost approves as a source of “distraction” from schoolwork.
But it’s not until later when the Savage meets Mond that he finds out why Shakespeare (and all forms of literary reading) is so frowned upon in the World State –
“So you don’t much like civilisation, Mr Savage,” [Mustapha Mond] said.
[…] “No.” He shook his head… “Of course,” the Savage went on to admit, “there are some very nice things. All that music in the air, for instance…”
“Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about my ears and sometimes voices.”
The Savage’s face lit up with a sudden pleasure. “Have you read it too?” he asked. “I thought nobody knew about that book here, in England.”
“Almost nobody. I’m one of the very few. It’s prohibited, you see. But as I make the laws here, I can also break them. With impunity, Mr Marx”, he added, turning to Bernard [Marx]. “Which I’m afraid you can’t do.”
[…] “But why is it prohibited? Asked the Savage. In the excitement of meeting a man who had read Shakespeare he had momentarily forgotten everything else.
The Controller shrugged his shoulders. “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”
“Even when they’re beautiful?”
“Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”
“But the new ones are so stupid and horrible. Those plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about and you feel the people kissing.” He made a grimace. “Goats and monkeys!” Only in Othello’s world could he find an adequate vehicle for his contempt and hatred.
“Nice tame animals, anyhow,” the Controller murmured parenthetically.
“Why don’t you let them see Othello instead?”
“I’ve told you; it’s old. Besides, they couldn’t understand it.”
Yes, that was true. He remembered how Helmholtz had laughed at Romeo and Juliet. “Well then,” he said, after a pause, “something that’s like Othello, and that they could understand.”
“That’s what we’ve been wanting to write,” said Helmholtz, breaking a long silence.
“And it’s what you never will write,” said the Controller. “Because, if it were really like Othello nobody could understand it, however new it might be. And if it were new, it couldn’t possibly be like Othello.”
“Because our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel – and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr Savage. Liberty!” He laughed. “Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!”
The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, “Othello’s good, Othello’s better than those feelies.”
“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”
The absence of literature is the guarantee of stability – that much is clear. The last thing you’d want is someone with unbridled passions driven to do disruptive things, e.g. Othello.
According to Mond, then, Shakespeare is at once irrelevant, distracting, and dangerous. The Bard’s plays are irrelevant because reading literature won’t make people more productive (which is what a hyper-utilitarian State needs); they are distracting because their linguistic ‘beauty’ diverts people’s attention away from practical tasks; and they are dangerous because literary descriptions encourage strong emotions, which are so often the seed of seditious desires.
In the World State, people aren’t supposed to care about their individuality. The ‘Alphas’, ‘Betas’, ‘Gammas’, ‘Deltas’ and ‘Epsilons’ exist simply as agents of production, and in return for fulfilling their duties, they’re ‘rewarded’ with the accoutrements of survival.
After all, no one really needs literary pleasure or spiritual contentment to survive, which is why Shakespeare has neither use nor place in this ‘Brave New World’.
To frame Mond and the Savage’s conversation within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the former makes his case based on the bottom tier of the Hierarchy – ‘Physiological needs’, whereas the latter sees the world from the uppermost tier, that of ‘Self-actualisation’.
This partly explains why authoritarian governments tend to fare better in Third World countries, where people’s most pressing concerns are of the practical sort, i.e. food, shelter, work.
Tragically, Third World leaders are also incentivised to keep their countries in a perpetually Third World state, because only by keeping the crowds ‘happy’ and well-fed can they also keep them mute and subservient.
This, in turn, helps them sustain power and nip rebellion in the bud.
Anyone who thinks too much or feels too much – both of which are human sensibilities that reading Shakespeare (and literature) activates – is de facto an enemy of totalitarian machinery. As such, this person must be removed from the system, either by the state or by the individual himself.
This is why the Savage ultimately commits suicide; he is fundamentally unable to rid himself of such human desires as love, passion and guilt. By ending his novel on such a harrowing note, Huxley shows us the impossibility of living like a real human in a world that’s intent on dehumanising the very basis of life.
What are your thoughts on how reading and literature are portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World?
Are there other themes in these novels that you find interesting?
Comment below with your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you.
Photo credits: The Perspective