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‘Dystopian Fiction Is Less About the Powerful and More About the Powerless’

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‘Dystopian fiction is less about the powerful and more about the powerless’
To what extent is this true in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984?

Dystopian fiction usually revolves over a power struggle between an oppressor and the oppressed, alternatively this can be given the label of powerful and powerless. However, the exposure given to one of these groups is often inclined to be imbalanced. For example, The Giver by Lois Lowry has biased exposure towards the powerless due to the simple fact of the third person limited narrator perspective from Jonas, a member of the aforementioned sector of respective society. This is similar to the 1984 narrator where Winston is never truly aware of what goes on when he wasn’t physically present. But, it could be for this exact reason that in 1984 the dystopian genre inclines towards the powerful, highlighting the hold over the powerless. Contrary to this, The Handmaid's Tale (THT) has blurred lines as to whether the dystopian fiction prevalent in the novels are more or less about the powerful. This is majorly due to conflicting plotlines and enigmatic characters, significant in both of the books. For example, the character of Nick could be characterized for the powerful and powerless. Nick behaves with Offred in a manner which confuses the reader about his loyalties. Ultimately, this essay will aim to prove an option that is a fusion between the two rivals of dystopian fiction offering the complex concept of the powerful powerless.

The powerful in both the books have an overbearing presence practising similar tactics to gain control. Language is used to manipulate the people through brainwashing, not initially by force. It resonates the idea that dismantling the critical thinking structure is more effective as a means of control than forceful obedience, only when this imposition is disobeyed that ‘thought crime is death’. Winston states, “The party could potentially alter the structure of language to make it impossible to have rebellious thoughts because there would be no words to think them.” This could then lead to “Doublethink” for Winston. This streamlining of language breaks the foundation of society completely but also possibly it could be to simplify the thought processes of the victim to the point where expressing the resentment is near enough impossible. “Doublethink” enables party members to constantly deceive themselves and others while, at the same time, remaining convinced that everything they say is the truth. Thus, on the surface, it appears that the text is wholly concerned with the powerful.

In THT, the powerful also practice tactics of gaining control. This is seen in its prime when the handmaids are riled up to savagely dismember a rapist. This disproves the statement as it emphasises the totalitarian control of the powerful. The simple tone of the powerful (Aunt Lydia) conjures up images of horror and disgust within the handmaids. For example, “Her voice trembles with rage and a kind of triumph.” To the powerless, this conveys a sense of duty on their behalf to avenge their dignity. This is imminently shown by the narration from Offred, “It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend.” Such powerful emotions of hatred and pugnacious feeling being rendered from the influence of the oppressor automatically diverts any attention from criticism of her own actions of manipulation and blatant brainwashing. This is because the brainwashing is welcomed with open arms by the powerless and acted on, apparently, voluntarily. The powerless are considered a medium; almost bordering them on a secondary plot-device level, thus making THT about the powerful rather than powerless. This same plot line is found in the ‘2 Minutes Hate’ against common enemy, Goldstein where the powerless only enhance the level of control the powerful have over society. Much like the Aunts in THT, “It will become ordinary,” suggests that Gilead succeeds by making people forget what a different world could be like. Torture and tyranny become accepted because they are “what you are used to.” This almost subsidiary role marginalizes the influence of the powerless thus proving dystopian fiction inclines towards the powerful.

Similarly, in 1984 the tactics deployed by the powerful mean the exposure of such is tilted. 1984 uses tactics such as telescreens with online exercise regimes, memory holes etc. The result of constant exposure to these methods of control is a heightened state of paranoia and behaviour that is dramatically adjusted to work in accordance of the upper class desires. Hence, the documentation of this further tilts dystopian fiction towards the powerless.

The relatable feature that the reader shares with Winston corroborates with the idea that George Orwell produces the novel with the intent of warning future societies of submitting to a tyrannical government. According to Orwell, this submission can occur in a slow progressive form by way of technology. In an article written by The Atlantic, the foreshadowing nature of Orwell's 1984 radios that constantly play anthems of Oceana is proven in North Korea where, “households and businesses are outfitted with a government-controlled radio, with no off switch.” This media manipulation is used in by the powerful. Orwell hence gives a voice to the powerless. Initially, the book is about the powerful, yet upon further introspection, the novel is about the powerless. Mass indoctrination in the theocratic dictatorship of ‘Big Brother’ means that, in 1984, power is overt but in THT, The Wall Of Death that runs around the college is a ‘subtle’ display of power. Significantly, Offred is led away at the end of the book by Hellmouth to an ambiguous destination. The likelihood is that she was led to a hook on the wall, but uncertainty in this proves that she is powerful. She controls her story, the sole reason she wrote the novel was to retell it someday, to God, to Luke. The idea of powerful powerless comes into play here. Thus, from this, we can establish the balance and exposure given to the powerful in dystopian fiction is much more prevalent. The acts of the powerful is what subverts our attention to the plight of the powerless. Hence, they are more highly 'regarded' in the sense that their actions determine the plot of the book, a crucial aspect of influence. Structurally, this is only realised by the reader in the latter part of the novel. The apparent 'power-inversion' that takes place where the protagonists of both novels proceed to take matters in their own hands in the form of rebellion, catches the reader off guard, and raising their hopes. This however, is cut short by the realisation that the situation the two characters find themselves in have corresponding elements within the readers' lives. Subversion of reality and fiction proves to be dystopian fiction concerned with the powerless, a direct inference from Atwood's and Orwell's intention.

The powerless, however, are exploited oppressively for this crisis that they undergo. The prime example for this is Offred’s daughter and how she is separated. Offred often refers to her as both dead and alive. In the first half of the book, Offred refers to her as “the girl […] who is still alive” It is from this the emotional distress inflicted on the lower class is realised coupled with the fact that ultimately, powerless are rendered to think they are inferior when ultimately, their case and number are superior. The powerless are made to feel like this as their identity is almost taken away from them. In this, their source of comfort and the units that make them feel secure is taken away by the powerful to infiltrate them in their state of vulnerability. Yet, Offred's 1st person narrative along with the flashbacks inform the reader of a limited view of her past leaving questions in the reader's mind proving gaps in her identity and hence, existence.

Offred manipulates her sexuality in the subtlest ways. “I hunger to touch something” implies Offred's unsatisfied sexual hunger that then translates into power shown by the scene wherein she walks simply to achieve the power of knowing she caused a soldier to think about her. Thus, it could be argued she has power since she is a woman. However, she has inability to follow through on suggestions questioning this sexual power and the complexities that come with being socially inferior. Contrastingly, Julia in 1984, who is called a 'rebel only from the waist down' provides a different perspective on how women may be powerless. It is interesting, that even in dystopia, rebellion of a female character is judged by her promiscuity. Arguably, through a feminist lens, one could argue that the novels are exploration of patriarchy and women in the roles of powerful/powerless although one thing has been ascertained, sexuality of the powerless acts as an act of rebellion against the powerful.

Handmaids however often kill themselves in order to maintain some final sense of power. Offred suspects a similar ending to her predecessor yet is reluctant to ask about her. She had left a carving into a wardrobe where it stated “Illigitami non carbodrundum” From this, the idea of the powerful powerless comes into play. Offred is powerful in that she has something deeply personal and totally within her control, her sexuality. Yet the powerless aspect of her position within society stops her. Even with Julia this argument holds weight. She has total control in who she chooses to love but it is her position that stops her. She is made powerful as the fiber of her human being, the central core is completely her own; her feelings. Her emotive responses to all that is occurring around her cannot be taken advantage by the powerful. This makes the potential of the powerless a serious contender to the totalitarian state.

The powerless are the ultimate victims in dystopian fiction. This is emphasised by the epithets of the industries within the society. The “Ministry of Love”, a prison facility, is an ironic name considering the lack of love present throughout the whole ordeal shown by the merciless use of phobias as punishments (Rats for Winston etc.) Each of the ministries does just the opposite of what it says, manipulating the masses; The Ministry of Plenty controls the food supply to keep people starved. The Ministry of Truth spreads lies, censoring all print media, revising history such as the case with Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford. Orwell here states a point that could bears resemblance to modern day, the purpose of the novel. The Ministry of Defence in the USA is almost entirely simply the Ministry of War. Thus it could be argued that dystopian fiction exposes the true plight of the powerless underhanded by the powerful.
Dystopian fiction could be argued to be more about the powerful in that the hypocritical nature of the powerful still elude the gaze of Big Brother. This is shown explicitly in the brothels filled with Commanders who are unpunished for their blatant double standards in their attitudes towards sex. The club practices the reverse of the ideas of sexual purity and morality so frequently mouthed by the Aunts at the Red Centre. The brothel to which they attend to is called ‘Jezebel’. Found in the Bible, Jezebel is associated with false prophets possibly referencing the beginning of Gilead, the murder of congress, suspension of the Constitution, and the forceful placement of the Christian Theocracy. This supports the idea that dystopian fiction is more about the powerful as the Commanders are directly placed, almost categorically, within the idea that they are false and hypocritical in nature.

However, a juxtaposition of characters and their origins occur here. The powerless are shown in prostitutes who provide the service. The chain of events that brought Moira there break itself off from the hypocrisy of the ruling class and creates almost a bubble of a plot solely focused on the powerless fighting in a manner that ultimately makes her powerful. She is the only known character to make it out of the Centre. Compared to the narrator, who forgets her origins, Moira is seemingly determined to remember the time before. The intense role she plays in realizing the contrast of atmosphere they are in ensures Moira and her own personal plotline tilts substantially towards the powerless having more prominence than powerful; the powerful powerless.

In conclusion, dystopian fiction is fluid in the manner it wishes to expose the plight of the powerless and the oppressive powerful. Yet a fusion of the two always manages to prove ultimate even if the endings of the two prove otherwise. This is because both books have climax leading directly to the powerful powerless. The protagonists have that moment of control over their own destinies and hence the powerless always hold an upper hand in potential, making them the powerful powerless. The hold power in number, in inner monologue (or as Offred puts it: “control over their ending” and thought and in the intense emotional core they hold. Ultimately this is the power that is most important. It is valid to say that powerful have more exposure due to their ultimate victory, but throughout the novels, the powerful are demonized and the powerless pitied, proof that dystopian fiction tilts towards the latter’s favour. Albeit not outwardly, yet their emotional control and the manner they choose to reply to a situation causes them to be powerful even though their status is otherwise.

Word Count: 2199


Anon (n.d) 2 Kings 9:30, Available at: (Accessed: 6th January 2016).
Atwood M (1985) The Handmaid's Tale, London: Random House.
Boynton, RS (2015) North Korea’s Digital Underground, Available at: (Accessed: 10th December 2015).
Lowry, L (1993) The Giver, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Orwell, G (1949) Nineteen Eighty-four, revised edn., London: Penguin Books.

[ 1 ]. Lowry, L (1993) The Giver, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[ 2 ]. Boynton, RS (2015) North Korea’s Digital Underground, Available at: (Accessed: 10th December 2015).
[ 3 ]. Anon (n.d) 2 Kings 9:30, Available at: (Accessed: 6th January 2016).…...

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