Friday, 26 April 2013

A comparison of dystopian novels: Women

First a note

Having read a few dystopian books recently I have been thinking about the role that women play in the future. At the bottom of the page I have listed all of the dystopian novels that I am going to refer to in this blog post. I would like to also mention that my A2 English Literature coursework was on the role of women in Orwell's 1984 and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the second piece was on the portrayal of Jo in Little Women (not a dystopian work but the coursework was based on a critical assessment of feminism), though admittedly this was all 3 years ago...

There is a chance that there could be spoilers below.

A comparison of dystopian novels: Women

Firstly I wish to start with a dystopian classic, George Orwell's 1984, in Orwell's world there seems to be very little difference between men and women in the inner and outer party, the only particular difference being that men are not allowed to work in the pornography department. In fact the sexual oppression in 1984 is equally on men and women. This doesn't necessarily stretch down to the lower classes, those not in the party, though there is not really any textual evidence as to the status of women in those societies, with the exception that we know that prostitutes still exists from Winston's tale, but it is also mentioned that visiting prostitutes is banned for members of the party.

Looking at other older dystopias, particularly Huxley's Brave New World and Zamyatin's WE, there is also evidence of the sexes being equal, though this could be refuted simply by the fact that women are prevented from having children, completely in Brave New World, and until the right time in WE. Interestingly in both there is very little done to prevent people having sexual relationships, though WE does control who those relations are between.

Of the more recent dystopias Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Murphy's Reform, Rivers' After the Fear and Collins' The Hunger Games Trilogy, all appear to have equality between the genders, though it is important to note that in most of these there seem to be very few women in positions of power. In this case, Never Let Me Go, should be mentioned as not relating to the government or any positions of power at all, and seems instead to be more focused on the wish to be normal by all characters.

An important feature of these 'modern' dystopias is that they tend to have very strong female leads, this is particularly true of Sola in After the Fear, Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy and America in Cass' The Selection and The Elite. Though America is the only one of the three that never physically fights for her life, they are all competing for something. In The Hunger Games Trilogy, the government itself places men and women (or more accurately to those competing in the Hunger Games themselves; girls and boys), as they choose an equal number of boys and girls to compete. It is also worth noting that it is Katniss who 'saves' the district 12 tributes and not Peeta (though it isn't really his fault he got given a life threatening illness really!). This idea is carried on with the introduction of the rebels, many of the rebel leaders being female, again these are strong characters who are fighting for everyone. After the Fear takes the equality even further in some ways, for Sola, there is no difference between the test for her to become a Demonstrator, and the trsts for the male demonstrators, they are chosen on merit and skill alone. Though Sola is made a bit of a sexual object by a certain character, she is never discriminated against, or forced to do anything, simply because she is female.

America in The Selection is in a slightly different situation. As this book isn't really set outside of the Palace, it is unclear whether or not there is any relevant discrimination against women in general, though they at least appear to be treated as equals in the general population, it does appear that the man in the marriage determines the 'caste' of his wife, and there are different rules accorded to the marriage of Princes and Princesses. Altogether it is not particularly clear on the role of women, in fact it would seem that the role of them purely depends on the man in the role of father or husband, as it is in contemporary times.

Moving on to the more oppressive dystopias towards women, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, is probably one of the best examples of patriarchal society gone wrong. In the novel women are most definitely treated second class citizens, and the sexual oppression towards women is ripe, expected in the times by the women, andis certainly not shared by the men. This is contrasted with Offred, who is a strong central female character, though this is overshadowed slightly by the descriptions of her extremely feminist mother. It is also worth mentioning that even the name of the main character is oppressing, as it is changed from June (which is only a theoryt as it is never explicitly confirmed that that is her real name) to Of-Fred, which makes her seem like a possession not a person.

In Wilson's Whores, there is a reference to Offred (in relation to the character of Ofelia), whether or not Wilson did this in an attempt to draw parrallels between the two or not is unknown, however I would not class these books in the same league. The whole idea of Whores is that women's liberties to do with sexual conduct, health and child birth are all taken away, and women treated badly. Though the main issue with this book is that the writing itself seems to demean the female characters, which is something that the writer probably did not mean.

The last book I wish to mention is Greaves' 2022, a book that can easily be compared to The Handmaid's Tale. This again looks at the removal of women's rights, but it goes about it in a much better way than in Whores. This book isn't just about the removal of a women's sexual rights, but also to do with their right to work, to be independent, to have an education, they are simply expected to get married and have children. One of the things that makes this book work so much better is that the oppression is not just towards womebn but towards other groups too. The book follows a very independent women, Natasha, who wakes from a coma into a very different world, and her trying to come to terms with the changes that have occurred.

The Novels

It is probably worth noting that some of these I haven't read in a while, and that several are counted as Young Adult novels, though in my opinion this does not mean that the dystopias they portray are any less suitable for adults. Reviews of several of the below books (particularly the more recent ones) can be found on my blog.

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Catching Fire (Hunger Games 2) by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay (Hunger Games 3) by Suzanne Collins 
  • The Selection by Kiera Cass
  • The Elite (the Selection 2) by Kiera Cass
  • The Prince (a Selection novella) by Kiera Cass
  • WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Whores: not intended to be a factual account of the gender war by Nicolas Wilson
  • After the Fear by Rosanne Rivers
  • 2022 by Alison Greaves
  • Reform by Thomas Murphy