Censorship in Gilead and Oceania

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A country under totalitarian regime shows no respect for people’s individuality and freedom. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, are satirical novels that illustrate the danger of a totalitarian government and the dystopia that is being constructed. Censorship, defined as “The act of hiding, removing, altering or destroying copies of art or writing so that general public access to it is partially or completely limited” , plays a significant role in helping the authors to create a dystrophic atmosphere in both novels. The governments of Gilead and Oceania make use of censorship in order to achieve total control over the societies, by limiting the power of language, using deception, and denying the privilege of owning objects from the past. In doing so, the governments can psychologically oppress people’s minds and thoughts.

In both novels, the governments use censorship by limiting the power of language to gain control over the citizens.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the government of Gilead does not allow freedom of expression or speech. By restricting the privilege of speaking freely, the government can easily suppress and dictate its people. Handmaids are fertile women whose social function is to bear children for the upper class women. They are forbidden to speak in public, such an example occurs when they go shopping: “I take the tokens from Rita's outstretched hand. They have pictures on them, of the things they can be exchanged for: twelve eggs, a piece of cheese" (Atwood 11). The handmaids can only show a picture of the item when buying groceries; their voices are not allowed to be heard. Offred is the narrator and protagonist of the story, who is assigned to the Commander as his handmaid, she remembers that some songs cannot be sung in public anymore; “especially the ones that use words like free. They are considered too dangerous” (67). Words are forbidden by the government of Gilead because they believe that by removing certain words, the actions associated with these words are also eliminated. When Offred undergoes her monthly medical test, she surprisingly hears the doctor speak of male sterility. “I almost gasp: he's said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law" (61). By removing the meaning of words that the government claims to be nonexistent and untrue; the Republic of Gilead makes everyone accept that all men are fertile and productive. Offred also recounts that reading is prohibited and those people who read will suffer serious consequences. “Reading? No, that’s only a hand cut off, on the third conviction” (344). The government of Gilead is aware of the power of language and perceives literacy to be a threat, thus they limit the use of language in the society as a way to suppress its people. The government can easily gain control over the society when the people cannot speak their minds nor have the right to access information in words.

Similar situations also appear in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Party of Oceania realizes the power of Old English and thus works to develop a new language: Newspeak. Newspeak is determined to limit the expressiveness of the English language by reducing its vocabulary, it is “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year” (Orwell 55). Syme, works for the Ministry of Truth to create a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary, says: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it… Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller” (55). Evidently, this new language helps the Party to achieve its objective of controlling the people. When Newspeak comes into use, people will not think about rebelling or acting against the government, because there are no expressions which are related to those actions. “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted, a heretical thought should be literally impossible” (78). This effect results in strengthening the Party’s control over the minds of their people. As a result, the Party’s control over the society is secure. It is only through words that man is capable of expressing his potentially dangerous wishes since “at least so far as thought is dependent on word” (56). The usage of language is the most powerful expression of individuality; dystopia must function through suppressing individuality. The Party of Gilead and Oceania want their Party members to remain in isolation so that nobody can band together to rebel. Restricting the language of the people is restricting how much of their identities can be expressed, because language is a key aspect in expressing individuality. When the inhabitants of Gilead and Oceania are left with little to no identity, it is easier for the government to gain complete control and manipulation over its people.

Another type of censorship that both governments make use of is through deception. In Gilead, the news broadcasting on television is often feared to be false. Offred wonders “who knows if any of it is true?” (Atwood 101) The government also seems to show only the winning battles. Offred recalls, “They only show us victories, never defeats” (102). This gives the people an impression that Gilead is winning all of its battles and stands as a powerful country. Ultimately, no one would want to side with a country that is often defeated. By covering the defeats, Gilead seems a strong country; therefore the people are more likely to obey to its ruling. On the other hand, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party uses deception by altering history and practicing propaganda. This is evident when Winston, along with Syme and Parsons, is brought via telescreen an announcement informing them that the chocolate ration had been increases to 20 grams a week when “only yesterday… it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to 20 grams a week” (Orwell 253). There is no longer any physical proof stating that the ration was in fact reduced – “the chosen lie would pass into the permanent records and become truth” (253). Winston Smith, whose job at the Ministry of Truth, is “to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones.” (41) When Big Brother, the leader of the Party, makes the wrong predictions, Winston has to “rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother’s speech, in such a way as to make him predict the thing that had actually happened.” (41) Winston’s job also includes modifying and altering news items and other documents that make the Party look bad. After he replaces an original document with the modified one, all the originals are destroyed:This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets . . . Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record (42).

If the Party seems to be always right, then it would gain itself a good reputation and prove to be trustworthy to the people. Thus more people will believe in the Party and Big Brother. If the people have faith in and are loyal to Big Brother, then they will not commit thoughtcrimes or act against the Party. Although their methods of deceit are different, the governments of both Gilead and Oceania achieve their goal of successfully alter the people’s views.

Censorship also exists in the form of taking away objects that invoke the members of the old days; so that the government can psychologically control its people. In The Handmaid’s Tale, when Offred is in the Commander’s study, she is surprised to see a magazine because she thinks “such magazines had all been destroyed.” (Atwood 194) She is surprised again when she saw the feathered dress. She wonders “Where he found it. All such clothing was supposed to have been destroyed” (288). Offred has to give up her belongings when she becomes a Handmaid: “I don’t have those things any more, the clothes and hair. I wonder what happened to all our things. Looted, dumped out, carried away. Confiscated (72).” The government realizes that these objects are dangerous in the sense that they are constant reminders of the old days. Therefore, these items are taken away and not allowed to be sent out into the public. If the citizens of Gilead are not reminded of the past, they will likely to be content with the present regime and will not oppose to it in any way. The same concept applies to Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Winston, as an Inner Party member, is not only constantly under watch, but also does not have the privilege of owning photographs or diaries. Owning such items in Oceania “was not illegal, but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death or at least by twenty-five years in a forced labour camp” (Orwell 8). Referring back to The Handmaid’s Tale, by restricting the ownership of these objects, the people will not likely to be reminded of the old days, because these objects can evoke memories of freedom and choice; therefore, people are very likely to rebel against present ruling. However, by eradicating all possessions from the past, the people will hold on to the very few objects and resources that are available to them now, hence they will value and appreciate them more.

Overall, the regime of Gilead and the Party of Oceania use censorship to gain control, including psychological control, of the people. The two novels are very similar in the way that governments want control and no opposition. Both governments censor information going out to the public, contributing to the theme that information and context gives power. Both governments want to limit the power of the public by not offering information which would be influential. Despite their objective being the same, the two governments have differences in their methods of censorship, In Gilead, information is very limited to the general public, because the government does not want to lose control, and the information is very limited and also very hard to obtain. In Oceania, however, information is not only very limited, but the only information that is allowed to go out is frequently altered. By limiting the power of language, using deception, and denying the privilege of owning objects from the past, the governments have succeeded in fully controlling every aspect of the society. The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four act as warning-bells, forcing the reader to realize what kind of society censorship can create if used excessively.

Work CitedAtwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Canada: O.W. Toad Limited, 1985.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty Four. London: Penguin Books, 1949.

Dr. Wheeler. “Literary Terms and Definitions: C”. Oct 25, 2007. Date visited: Jan 7, 2008. URL