As an English teacher – and student, still, I think! – I love novels that engage with the idea of language itself. For me, literature’s how we enter and understand the world, and dystopian novels often bring that to the forefront. They explore communication, memory, story-telling, and the way that language works to soothe, manipulate, warn, and memorialise. In particular, I’ve been studying The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 with A-Level students, and both novels have some interesting discussions about language’s role in our society.
Setting a novel in the future, as many speculative fictions do, language is a good way to ground a reader in the world. Names, places, common phrases and greetings all create a sense of otherness, the here-but-not-here. Atwood’s entire social hierarchy is created through language. The Commanders carry connotations of the military and Handmaids draw on the religious basis of the society they now live in. The collective Wives and Daughters identify the women in relation to their social relationship to the men, immediately highlighting the extreme patriarchy of Gilead. This, of course, is taken to its extreme conclusion in Offred, the prefix ‘Of’ being affixed to the Commander’s name to name his Handmaid – and the names transferring to the new Handmaid when they are replaced, thoroughly robbing the Handmaid of any individual identity. Atwood’s also more playful with names elsewhere; “Serena Joy”, we learn in the Historical Notes, didn’t exist but is a pseudonym created by Offred with its satirical use of the qualities the Wife should have – serenity and joy at her place in the new order.
What better time to be looking at the way that ideology is promoted through language? There’s been several blog posts lately on the front-page headlines used to report the high court decision that Parliament need to vote on Article 50 – even the language of a headline deserves interrogation, and in propaganda and media, language is used to devastating effect. It would, by the way, make a fantastic English Language investigation -the language of dystopian fiction compared with current tabloids perhaps. Ever noticed how politicians “vow” and describing a problem is often called an “attack”? those words are loaded with meaning, and a novelist of dystopian fiction can use these connotations to their advantage.
Contextually, there’s huge precedent, of course. Consider Nazi Germany’s slogans – One “people, one country, one leader!”, “Work makes you free” or the Soviet union’s “Workers of the world, unite”. Think about some of the newspaper articles or political statements made recently, in the USA and in the UK. There’s a frightening amount of “make our country great”, “take back our country”, and so on. Historical dystopias promise unity and cohesion, but often at the expense of one social group – to begin with. In fictional dystopia, much the same happens. In 1984, Orwell doesn’t spare the Soviet rhetoric – “the party” behaves in unison, as do “the proles”, while party members greet each other as “comrade” rather than by name. Winston’s job revolves around rewriting history, literally destroying previous written records and replacing them with “updated” versions. This is not only propaganda – the updates always portray the Party as victorious and reflect the current war – but is a reminder that history is told by the victorious, and every nation interprets history in their own way: there is no objective version once it has passed. In Gilead, Atwood uses language to present the religious ideologies that permeate the society. The Handmaids routinely greet one another with a pseudo-religious phrase – “Blessed be the fruit”; “May the Lord open”. The shops are named for biblical references, Loaves and Fishes, Soul Scrolls. All Flesh, Milk and Honey. Religious allusion is in everyday language, even Offred’s as she tries to recall the Lord’s Prayer, adheres to the Handmaids’ rituals, and explains herself with biblical references. Once an ideology has so permeated society that its expression is in everyday life, how can it ever be filtered out? A depressing thought, perhaps, when British newspapers are calling its judges “enemies of the people” and using racist rhetoric to describe refugees.
Ensuring the past is prevalent in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as other dystopian fiction. While Winston rewrites History in his state-sanctioned job, Offred is telling her story in order to bear witness to what happens, to make sense of her experience – and her life. With everyone she loves gone, Offred comments at one stage that we’re alive as long as we’re remembered, but there’s nobody left to remember her unless she tells her story. But not simply recounting it. Atwood shows her rewriting, editing, changing story – changing the same story, as when she describes having sex with Nick three different ways, leaving the reader in doubt as to what happened at all.
‘It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances’.” (Ch 25, The Handmaid’s Tale)
Offred often interrupts herself to refocus her storytelling – to tell “a different story, a better story”, and we’re led to believe that this unreliable narrator isn’t telling is everything and is painting herself in a more positive light. In other dystopian fiction, writers use diaries – like P.D. James’ Children of Men which intersperses third person narrative with the protagonist’s diary. Winston in 1984 writes a diary to explore his response to the world he finds himself in. In Atwood’s book In Other Worlds, she describes the narrative techniques as a way for a character to make a journey to the dystopia and back again, their story often the only thing making it back. The dystopian fictions not only bear witness to the societies of the novels but to social anxieties of the writers – the ecological breakdown of Atwood’s Year of the Flood, religious extremism in The Handmaid’s Tale, loss of individual freedom in 1984, atomic destruction in The Road.
The slippery nature of language
Language, then, is explored as both mechanism for control and freedom. If it can control through rewriting history and propaganda and manipulating people’s thoughts, it can also be used to break free – the revolutionaries broadcasting their message, the witnesses telling their tales. Orwell and Atwood make this explicit in their writing. Offred frequently explores the difficulties of language as well as its joys – she plays with language, finds comfort in story-0telling, but also in the paths that different words take her down, for example in chapter 35 when she considers falling in love: “We fell, we were falling women.” Repeatedly, she notes that words have different meanings to different people, and that there’s no way to truly express precisely what you want and have another person understand it in exactly the same way.
More explicitly, both Atwood and Orwell include ‘additions’ to their novels in the form of the Appendix exploring Newspeak and the Historical Notes, from the Gileadean Studies conference. It’s essential to read both of these – several students don’t at first because they feel authentically written by the author and therefore not part of the story. Atwood’s notes from the conference are a further satire on the patriarchal system, this time the ‘gentler’ control that sees the male professor patronising the chair of the conference, making inappropriate jokes about her sexuality and taking credit for reshaping Offred’s narrative into something more ‘suitable – more linear, more ‘sensible. More male. Orwell’s newspeak appendix explores the concept further, the way that the Party have tried to reduce language itself to make thought itself controllable, to ensure that people aren’t able to think non-sanctioned thoughts because they don’t have the language to do so – the ultimate propaganda thought-control. Both these final chapters also fulfil the dystopian trope of the ‘return’ to an apparently better society. The academic nature of both suggests a distance sufficient that the dystopian period can be studied and explained without emotion. Both might suggest a more balanced society – neither dystopia, nor utopia. Just somewhere in between. As Atwood writes in In Other Worlds, “we should probably not try to make things perfect, especially not ourselves, for that path leads to mass graves. We’re stuck with us, imperfect as we are; but we should make the most of us.”