The Handmaid's Tale and Animal Farm: Defamiliarizing Reproduction and Totalitarian Regimes

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In his book, Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide, Professor M. Keith Booker argues that the principle literary strategy that dystopian literature utilizes is defamiliarization. He states that ‘by focusing their critiques of society on imaginatively distant settings, dystopian fictions provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable’ (3-4).

My opinion concerning this idea of using defamiliarization as a tactic in dystopian literature does not differ from that of Professor Booker. Both The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Animal Farm by George Orwell defamiliarize or ‘makes strange’ of social or political issues within each dystopia or ‘bad place’ in order to enhance the reader’s understanding of them. However, both texts illustrate different dystopias and draws attention to their society’s particular social or political issues in different ways. Atwood linguistically defamiliarizes the judgements that the Republic of Gilead makes about women who are unable to or choose not to reproduce through the labels of ‘Unwomen,’ ‘Unbabies,’ and ‘Jezebels’ to draw attention to the underlying social importance of procreation; whereas Orwell defamiliarizes the characteristics and tactics of a totalitarian tyrant by using an animal protagonist of a pig to emphasize the politics of a totalitarian government.

The presumption of reproductive technologies is to alleviate the burden of infertility among women. Yet, in Charia Thompson’s chapter on Fertile Ground: Feminists Theorize Reproductive Technologies, she suggests that the use of fertility treatments pose as a paradoxical tension because despite its assistance in involuntary childlessness there is still the ‘assumption that infertility is the women’s fault’ (55). Although reproductive technologies help fertilize women, the fact that women need help with impregnation creates shame because they are unable to ‘naturally’ get pregnant. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead prohibits the use of ‘machines,’ but the notion of the female’s duty to procreate and the failure to do so is still prevalent in the text. A prominent example that illustrates this social controversy of sex for the sole purpose of reproduction is Offred’s description of the Ceremony. She says, ‘This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty’ (Atwood 117). This quote depicts that sex in Gilead is not meant for pleasure, but designated for ‘business’ or procedural services in an attempt to procreate. This act is also not considered as rape because Offred chose to be a Handmaid; therefore it is not a forceful action, but her duty to partake in the Ceremony for reasons of potential fertility. The limitation of sex for the purposes of reproduction establishes immense pressure for Offred and other Handmaids because if they are unable to fulfill their duties of fertility, they are shunned from society. One of the ways that Atwood emphasizes the consequences of infertility in reproductive-driven Gilead is by defamiliarizing infertile women as ‘Unwomen.’

The label ‘Unwomen’ predominately refers to women who are sterile, but they can also refer to women who are lesbians, nuns, feminists– essentially all women who are incapable of social integration with Gilead’s gender divisions. They are exiled to the ‘Colonies,’ where they are sentenced to labour. What makes this label so strange and fantastical is that Atwood literally labels women who are unable to conceive children as sub-human, therefore inadequate to be considered woman, hence the ‘Un’ prefix in ‘women.’ The inability of a successful pregnancy is deemed as the Handmaid’s fault, with no other factors such as, the Commander’s capability, is taken into consideration. This is why Offred says, ‘But she’ll never be sent to the Colonies, she’ll never be declared Unwoman. That is her reward’ (159). Witnessing the success of Janine’s birth serves as a reminder to the other Handmaids that reproduction is the ultimate goal. It is a Handmaid’s only purpose for the Republic of Gilead and failure to complete that goal makes Handmaids unworthy of being a woman. Furthermore, the ‘type’ of baby that is produced also determines whether a Handmaid had a successful reproduction.

Atwood stresses the importance of procreation through defamiliarizing its ideal outcome of a flawless child by labelling babies who are born with a defect as ‘Unbabies.’ Even ‘improper’ babies are sub-humanized and examined as an insignificant waste of space. No one knows of the whereabouts these babies are disposed of, but ‘to go through all that and give birth to [an Unbaby]: it wasn’t a fine thought’ (140). This label is extremely ridiculous and it attracts attention to the pressures Handmaids face in reproduction, while also creating a perfect child. Offed’s passage refers to the concept that if a child is born with a defect, the responsibility of this falls back onto the Handmaid and her problems of deficiency in her womb. Her fertility complications are the sole cause of the creation of a defected baby. Again, this idea of fault stays clear of other implications such as, the Commander’s shortcomings or the environment in which the Handmaid lives in, it is simply the Handmaid’s failure to reproduce an ideal child. Finally, Atwood defamiliarizes the judgment women face when they choose not to reproduce by labelling them as ‘Jezebels.’

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‘Jezebels’ refer to women who are prostitutes; they powder themselves with make-up and dress in provocative costumes of the ‘time before’ the Republic of Gilead like, cheerleaders or school uniforms. Offred quotes, ‘They said there was no sense in breeding. Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: such wickedness. They were lazy women, she says. They were sluts’ (141). The name ‘Jezebel’ appears in the Bible and refers to the character of the same name, who is associated with prostitution. So, by using the name ‘Jezebel’ to describe women who choose not to procreate, Atwood is emphasizing the idea that these women are not fulfilling the purposes of reproduction because they refuse to become Handmaids and instead participate in sex for pleasure, rather than procreation. It is evident in the above quote that Jezebels are judged harshly by Handmaids for their decisions. It shows that the choice that women make about fertility is what determines whether or not they are considered ‘legitimate’ women. In the case of Jezebels, these women are ‘illegitimate’ because they choose not to abide by women’s ‘natural’ duty to procreate. Orwell uses the same literary technique of defamiliarization in his novel Animal Farm; however the author primarily focuses on the subject of politics, specifically the notions of a totalitarian rule.

As mentioned in lecture, totalitarianism is defined as a ‘society that is under control of a charismatic dictator, who enforces a comprehensive apparatus of surveillance and coercion’ (Judge and Neill Jan 8 2013). To present this definition in Animal Farm, Orwell portrays the specific animal of a pig for its characteristics are similar to that of a tyrant and their tactics. In his book, Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley, Stephan Jay Greenblatt describes this technique of animal representation as a ‘beast fable’ where ‘the characteristics of human vice and folly are embedded in animals’ (62). Napoleon is depicted as a ‘large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire boar on the farm, not much of a talker but with the reputation of getting his own way’ (Orwell 10). This quote demonstrates that totalitarian leaders are manipulative and power-hungry, so it is appropriate that they are represented by pigs because they are typically associated with greed and gluttony. Napoleon’s use of dogs, which are typically associated with loyalty, assistance, or protection, also serves its purpose of representing the totalitarian tactic of surveillance. Orwell defamiliarizes the greedy characteristic of tyrant leaders by depicting Napoleon’s gluttony for food.

To gain access to all the milk and apples, Napoleon delivers an influential speech that persuades the animals to willingly give away their resources. Napoleon expresses, ‘Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back!’ (25). These quotes exemplifies Napoleon’s cunning manipulation by justifying his gluttony for food by stating that it is all for the ‘protection’ and ‘good’ of the farm. Napoleon also incorporates scared tactics of Jones’ return to frighten the animals into agreement. Napoleon’s actions highlights Orwell’s fundamental notion of the manipulative and persuasive characteristics that totalitarian leaders embody. In order for the tyrant to gain complete control of their state, they have to make the public believe that their actions are for the ‘benefit’ of the people. Totalitarian leaders speak in grand and optimistic linguistics because the method of speech deliverance also effects how the public will react, whether they choose to support or reject their ideas. Tyrants also produce fear within the public by giving them the alternative, ‘dystopian’ image of what the state would become if the public did not embrace their views. Another way that Orwell defamiliarizes the power-hungry attributes of totalitarian leaders is through alternations of the seven commandments of animalism.

As Napoleon gains further control, he continues to justify for the ‘sake’ of the other animals, leaving his actions unquestioned. The sixth commandment once read, ‘No animal shall kill any other animal’ (66). However, when Muriel read the commandment for Clover it now read, ‘No animal shall kill any other animal without cause’ (ibid). Especially since not all of the animals are equipped with literacy, the modification of commandments could go unnoticed, unless they were notified through another member of the farm like, Muriel reading the commandment for Clover, for example. Although they are both aware of the changes made to the commandment, neither animal questions the alteration and instead states, ‘for clearly there was good reason for killing the traitors who had leagued themselves with Snowball’ (ibid). The strangeness of farm animals corrupting written commandments that they abide by draws importance to the idea of sly strategy. Once again, this quote emphasizes the justifications totalitarian leaders make when feeling obliged to eliminating a member of the community because they went against state policy, which effects ‘all’ people. It also demonstrates the nature of a totalitarian regime in that if an individual were to express an opposite view, then they are likely to be disposed of by the tyrant. Surveillance is a tactic used by totalitarian leaders to increase their power, so Animal Farm Napoleon uses dogs to his advantage.

The beginnings of Napoleon’s surveillance started when he retrieved all puppies into his own hands and made himself responsible for their education. No animal on the farm knew of their location, but the next time that they convened again was when ‘the dogs bounded forward, seized four of the pigs by the ear and dragged them squealing with pain and terror, to Napoleon’s feet’ (61). The puppies were now watch dogs, there to terrorize and punish those who are or planning to plot against Napoleon’s regime. Orwell defamiliarizes the monitoring tactics of tyrants by highlighting the dogs’ aggressiveness as if they were monsters. Through the dogs, the author stresses the harsh surveillance totalitarian leaders invest in to ensure that no one in the state is in opposition of policy. It instills fear among the public, especially when punishment is put on display for all to see warning individuals of the potential consequences if disobedient. It also serves as a panopticon sort of surveillance expressed by Michel Foucault. In Neve Gordon’s article Foucault’s Subject: An Ontological Reading, he describes Foucault’s argument as ‘the ‘gaze’ [penetrating] the subject, ensuring that the ‘soul’ conforms to the existing rules, codes, and mores’ (6). Individuals are always monitoring themselves in case the tyrant or any other members of their party are watching.

Using Napoleon and his watch dogs is a significant demonstration of the traits and tactics that personify a totalitarian tyrant. Orwell brings awareness and defamiliarizes the manipulative and persuasive behaviours tyrants use to achieve power through the use of animals. The author uses a pig’s characteristic of gluttony to show how greedy and power-hungry tyrant leaders are and the amount of length that they will endure to get what they want. The ridiculousness of farm animals generating commandments illustrates the idealistic rules tyrants create for their state in order to gain attention from the public, only to slowly deteriorate to serve the purpose of the leader. Watch dogs represent the heavy surveillance present within a totalitarian regime, monitoring the public’s actions to ensure that they are not opposing to the regime. Similarly, Atwood uses the concept of defamiliarization, but she uses linguistics to emphasize the judgements women face when they adhere to the notion of reproduction in the Republic of Gilead. Both Unwomen and Unbabies refer to the sub-humanization of women and babies because they are unable to procreate or Handmaids are unable to create ‘perfect’ babies. Jezebels, on the other hand, want nothing to do with reproduction and simply choose not to become a Handmaid and procreate. They are going against notions of fertility and use sex for pleasure instead of purposes of reproduction. As a result of this these women are judged heavily by society. Defamiliarization is a productive literary device in satire because it exposes the underlying problems of social and political notions in society, while at the same time creating a narrative for the reader.

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The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm: Defamiliarizing Reproduction and Totalitarian Regimes. (2020, September 17). WritingBros. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-handmaids-tale-and-animal-farm-defamiliarizing-reproduction-and-totalitarian-regimes/
“The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm: Defamiliarizing Reproduction and Totalitarian Regimes.” WritingBros, 17 Sept. 2020, writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-handmaids-tale-and-animal-farm-defamiliarizing-reproduction-and-totalitarian-regimes/
The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm: Defamiliarizing Reproduction and Totalitarian Regimes. [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-handmaids-tale-and-animal-farm-defamiliarizing-reproduction-and-totalitarian-regimes/> [Accessed 20 Oct. 2021].
The Handmaid’s Tale and Animal Farm: Defamiliarizing Reproduction and Totalitarian Regimes [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Sept 17 [cited 2021 Oct 20]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-handmaids-tale-and-animal-farm-defamiliarizing-reproduction-and-totalitarian-regimes/
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