The arts are fundamental to our humanity, as they convey the rich tapestry of human existence, including our emotions and our divergent perspectives, over time. By examining the art of both the past and the near future, they may also serve as a warning for society to avoid the pitfalls of those who have come before and may come after. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ both explore the destructive nature of surveillance and control against one’s individuality, that is unless an individual within a collective power structure realises the imbalance of power and generates a spark of change. Brought to an extreme in the aforementioned texts, the understanding of the human experience and modern-day power is enhanced through the rich portrayal of a lone and curious individual in search of political truth amidst the carefully executed corrupt oppression of the Party and Gilead. These texts conflict with the fundamental human need to understand purpose and generate an individual identity while dealing with the peril of one’s existence living amongst a world of repressive collectivism. This impenetrable paradox is comprehensively explored throughout Orwell’s and Atwood’s depiction of the complex human experience as the forceful isolation assigned on individuals by the Party and Gilead are faced with the need for human connection, igniting both empathy and fear in readers who seek to find glimpses of hope within a hopeless society.
Surveillance in both The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 is deeply entrenched in the novels and is a significant part of how the Eyes and The Party have a grip on the collective human experiences of the citizens in Gilead and Oceania respectively. The omnipresent telescreens in 1984 are the most visible symbol of the Party’s constant monitoring of its subjects. In their dual capability to constantly bombard citizens with propaganda and observe them, the telescreens also symbolise the nature in which the totalitarian government exploits technology for its own ends instead of utilising its knowledge to advance civilisation.
The telescreens are extremely efficient in surveillance, as a ‘nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety […] anything that carried a suggestion of abnormality’ could give you away. The telescreens also act as a panopticon, as it is uncertain that anyone watches behind the telescreen constantly, however, the thought of being watched continuously creates obedience, especially on a device that ‘can be dimmed but not turned off’. In fact, Orwell himself writes that ‘in principle, a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed,’ knowing that the telescreen watched them unremittingly. Similarly, in The Handmaid’s Tale, through a mechanism of diffuse but omnipresent surveillance, handmaids become a collectively owned property, so much so that Offred refers to her pain using the pronouns ‘our’ and ‘we’. This is evident in the quotes ‘our skin gets dry’ and ‘we are one smile’. It is clear that Offred’s individual identity is being subsumed by a collective identity. Her reference to herself in the plural also symbolises her dissociation from her body, as her actions are controlled by an external force; the eye on her ankle, which acts as a passport to mark her as a national resource, being a physical reminder of this. Ultimately, the use of surveillance in both these texts causes the audience to reflect on their current world and the relating human experience.
The authors of both these texts challenge readers to beware of the corrupted powers in our current world which are intent on using language to extinguish individualism for limiting political resistance and gaining absolute control. This is depicted in 1984, in the quote ‘Your name was removed from the registers… You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.’ The anaphora here referring to a general ‘you’ makes clear the extensive threat of vaporization – any party member at any time could be vaporized. The word ‘vaporised’ when juxtaposed against the words ‘abolished’ and ‘annihilated’- which Winston uses to describe the systemic process of ‘extermination’-, appears euphemistic; a tactic used by the Party to manipulate the citizens’ perceptions of their punitive regime. The third person, omniscient narrator allows readers to assess the dichotomy between the protagonist’s mind and his interpretation of those around him: Winston’s solipsism can be equated to the reader’s own solipsism. Further, the audience is given insight into the significance of replacing the entirety of Oldspeak with Newspeak – there exists a word, vaporization, to refer to an event which the government seeks to conceal from existence. Thus, through analysing this, we see the power of words, and the necessity for the party to control words and modes of thinking, to control the populace. Control is further exemplified in the quote, “WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” – the Capitalisation here, and the positioning of the tricolon as centred within the page illustrates their importance. However, audiences are prompted to consider the ironies here – the phrases seem completely contradictory, and thus we see that the values of this society are paradoxical; either the words themselves have become meaningless and society does not care about the accuracy of meaning, or the political doctrines themselves have become absurd and society has become unable to detect the fallacies.
On the other hand, Atwood also challenges readers to beware of the corrupted powers in our current world which are intent on using language to extinguish individualism for limiting political resistance. “As she represses her natural revulsion, she remembers Aunt Lydia’s words about how life in Gilead will “become ordinary”.” This statement made by Aunt Lydia really epitomises the extensive power that the totalitarian state of Gilead truly has, with its ability to completely manipulate the natural human response of disgust at an execution into “blankness”, to transform terror into normalcy. It further infers that Gilead does not thrive by making the citizens believe its system is right, but by making them forget what a different world could be like. Torture and tyranny become accepted because they are ‘what you are used to.’ Control is further exemplified in the quote, ‘A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays inside the maze.’ The analogy here forces the reader to expand their understanding of the ramifications of conditioning someone to the point where they become ignorant and oblivious about their context and place in the universe – rats in mazes think they are free because they can move about when in reality, they are trapped. They are unaware that they are in a maze and consider themselves free. Similarly, the handmaids are free to go anywhere within the town that they want, as long as they stay within the boundaries – their own ‘maze.’ Like the rats, many of them are oblivious and do not have any desire to go elsewhere, nor do they realize how much control they are under. Escape is something that does not cross their minds, as they do not see a need to escape. Ultimately, these texts explore the inevitable result when absolute power is given to the collective, utilising the forms of control used by both totalitarian governments to investigate the consequential forced collective human experience.