A Comparison of Anthem by Ayn Rand and the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The two novels The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Anthem by Ayn Rand are both set in extremist societies, inspired by communities under control of controversial governing bodies; the Puritans and the Communists. The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the oppression of women, whilst Anthem looks at the oppression of an entire community, but nevertheless the novels both explore the philosophy of objectivism in regards to the lack of identity shown by either protagonist.

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“A Comparison of Anthem by Ayn Rand and the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood”

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Firstly, in The Handmaid’s Tale, oppression is clearly shown through the lack of identity associated with each Handmaid, and arguably any other woman within Gilead too, as well as the traditional values that become compulsory. This society can be seen as symbolic of the Puritanical community from which Atwood’s ancestor, Mary Webster, escaped execution from in 1684, and can therefore be argued to be influential to Atwood’s writing. The protagonist “Offred” never reveals her true name, but it becomes evident that her abilities and skills as a woman are no longer valued as her worth is determined by her ability to conceive and carry children, in a society where there are critically low fertility rates. Therefore, it can be argued that she is no longer seen as a person, but rather just an object to reproduce, which completely erases any trace of the identity she had before Gilead. This is cleverly seen when Offred visits the doctors and realises “he deals with torso only” and he will “never see my face”, where the concrete noun “torso” is successful in showing how the narrator understands that the only thing of importance is the physical state of her body which is the site of a potential pregnancy. 

However, it could also be interpreted as to mean that the doctor only views her as a sexual object and has no concern with her identity, which is a problem women often face in modern society as in a 2014 survey it was found that 65% (of 2000 people who participated) had been sexually harassed. The oppression of Offred’s identity is shown effectively by the adverb “never” which is symbolic of how women are severely restricted in Gilead that is shown as a “dystopian misogynistic society” led by a “totalitarian government” that “appropriates biblical texts to institute and enforce harsh political control” (Karen Stein). Personally, I would agree with Stein as Gilead is presented as a classic theocratic state that enforces religion onto people to supress them, much like Puritans did, as well as arguing that this novel inspires fear that such a time may come to pass, and gratitude that we live in a society where there is such a push for equality.

Similarly, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s Anthem is also portrayed as lacking an identity and therefore appears nameless, much as Offred does, and is instead distinguished by the series of numbers “Equality 7-2521”. As well as being a way to remove people’s identities, it could also be interpreted that the use of numbers is a way of categorising and dehumanising people. In turn it could then be argued that the governing body within Anthem doesn’t consider these people as people in the slightest, but rather as a series of numbers, such as paperwork or branded cattle. This haunting, first person tale of personal hardship is extremely notable for the immediate and continuously interesting use of the pronoun “we” and the determiner “our” but the significant lack of the anti-collectivist pronoun “I”. This does not make an appearance in the text until part 11 as it is the “Unspeakable word” and consequently eliminates any chance of individualism that is seen as a “transgression” by the society that makes clear ties to extreme communist practises. In turn this can be seen as symbolic of the communist Russia that Ayn Rand fled from under the power of Lenin and the harsh regime he put into place to limit individuality, which is reflected by the governing body in Anthem. In relation to the forbidden individualism “The People of Anthem are unable to express themselves as thus the concept of the individual is rendered almost obsolete.”. I would agree with Wilkes as Equality 7-2521’s brother’s “fear to speak… for all must agree with all” and the thoughtful repetition of the pronoun “all” highlights that they aren’t even allowed individual thoughts, and as every action is completed with “our brothers”, there seems to be no use for individualism within a society that convicts people for self-awareness and independence. 

In addition to this, the oppression of society in The Handmaid’s Tale is seen through the lack of relationships that the Handmaid’s have and are heavily restricted in forming. Offred, facing not only the division of her family, is also pushed into isolation through the “ceremonial” rape that occurs monthly within her life, unfortunately reflecting the growing statistic that 1 out of every 6 women in the USA is a victim of attempted or actual rape[footnoteRef:5]. Within Gilead, sex is only to reproduce, reflecting Biblical passages in addition to the ironic adjective “ceremonial” which links the process back to religion and God, when the act of rape is actually illegal and seen as one of the greatest sins. Due to her role in society, Offred is not allowed to form a relationship with anyone, let alone the commander, as she is only there to produce a child for him and Serena Joy. We see the importance of this action of reproduction as “This is not recreation… This is serious business”, with the creative anaphora of “This is” emphasising the reliance of society on the Handmaid’s to produce children so that they can survive. Yet it could also be seen as ironic that sex is now treated as a serious and clinical matter only with the goal of producing children, much like it was in the Puritan era (from 1630) and could therefore be argued to be somewhat backwards. Yet the reader cannot help but feel disgusted that this heinous act is relied upon and is a core part of the society that has already repressed women to the max. 

Furthermore, the Handmaid’s are limited in the relationships they can form with other Handmaids which is dramatically shown by the greeting “blessed be the fruit” which is repeated, although not by choice, throughout the novel. The beginnings of a lexical field of religion are successfully seen by the adjective “blessed” and the abstract noun “Lord” in the response “may the Lord open”, accentuating one of the main themes that underpins the novel. The high levels of religious imagery found in this novel reflect the growing popularity of religion once again, as in 2010 it was measured that 84% of people have a faith, with one third being Christian. This interestingly highlights how normal conversation is not allowed to be made amongst Gilead and instead is replaced by religious references, clearly reflecting the practises of a theocratic state using religion to control people. By preventing the Handmaid’s connecting with one another, they are pushed into further isolation, which evokes pity from the reader but also unease that this world where women’s rights have been reversed to the maximum degree may become a reality. 

In comparison, within Anthem there is also a restriction on the relations that are allowed amongst people, especially between the men and the women who are always separated, apart from one night per year at the “City Palace of Mating” which makes clear links to The Handmaid’s Tale by focusing on reproduction as the only motive for sex. This practise makes clear links to the beliefs of Victorian times (1837-1901), which can in turn be argued to have also inspired Atwood through its harsh restriction of women, although the restrictions began to lessen due to having a female on the throne. The proper noun “Palace” easily has connotations of grandeur and propriety, again linking to the standards of the upper class during the Victorian era, as does the noun “ceremony” in The Handmaid’s Tale; despite this, it juxtaposes the “ugly and shameful” acts that occur inside. 

As “men are forbidden from taking notice of women”, Rand has cleverly shown the progression of society to believing that sex is a matter to be ashamed of, as not only does the effective abstract noun “forbidden” show that men are legally restricted from interaction with the women, but the pre-modifying adjective “ugly” interestingly shows that they do not wish for any involvement at all. In addition, the pre-modifying adjective “shameful” connects to the theme of religion, which cleverly suggests that the only approved relationship is one with God as seen by the continuous singing of hymns such as the “Hymns of Brotherhood… Equality… Collective Spirit”. The tricolon of hymns successfully emphasises Rand’s belief that humanism should be valued above religiosity by showing the oppressive nature of theocratic societies. But this tricolon of hymns could also be the only way that the governing body can continuously remind society of what is expected of them and what is seen as acceptable behaviour to enforce the extreme communist inspired practises.

Furthermore, religion is used as the main oppressor of society within The Handmaid’s Tale, as it becomes obvious that Gilead is a “purportedly Christian”[footnoteRef:7] theocracy, with passages of the Bible being hand-picked from the Old Testament and made into law. These laws glorify marriage, absolve men of adultery, whilst convicting women for the same crime as well as emphasising meekness and humility to dictate the behaviour of the Handmaid’s. In addition, the idea of Handmaid’s also descends from the Bible, revolving around Rachel who states, “Give me children or else I die” and so this passage has been transferred into the reformed Bible to indoctrinate the people of Gilead into believing that it is God’s will for Handmaid’s to be used to provide children for the commanders. The modesty enforced upon women is clearly seen in the appearance of the Handmaid’s through the interesting pre-modifying adjectives “ankle length” and “full” in accordance to the shape of their dresses, which again makes ties to the Puritanical society of the 17th Century that Atwood is descended from. 

However, it can be argued that the Puritans only inspired Atwood in certain aspects of the novel, such as the expected behaviour of women, as the Puritans actually encouraged education, founding Harvard University in 1636 by the vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This contrasts to The Handmaid’s Tale where women are forbidden from reading and writing as well as in the development of Gilead where females were prevented from teaching or even holding a job. There are also references to different religions within the novel, such as Islam when Offred states that “Hair must be covered”, with the forceful imperative “must” declaring that modesty is now a necessity. Later on, Judaism is shown, when it is revealed that “you get hanged for being a noisy Jew”, with the pre-modifying adjective “noisy” vividly being defined as someone who won’t convert to Christianity or will only pretend to, instead of the definition of being audible loud . But whichever religion is mentioned, they are all related back to traditional values of humility and modesty which are forced upon the Handmaid’s. Through the use of this fictional situation Atwood “makes the reader aware of connections, alliances and dilemmas that exist for women on a universal scale”[footnoteRef:10] (Elsie Merle Paget), especially under harsh, restrictive governments that follow extreme religious beliefs.

In contrast to this, whilst there is no apparent God in Anthem, religion is still a prominent theme in the novel, despite being shown much clearer and forcefully in The Handmaid’s Tale. Nevertheless, Rand tends to focus on the negative side of religion which is effectively shown in the first paragraph through the successful anaphora of “It is a sin”, therefore immediately highlighting the religious based judgement and restrictions of this society. Similarly, to The Handmaid’s Tale, there are also lots of biblical references, with Equality 7-2521’s and Liberty 5-3000’s story arguably being symbolic of the story of Adam and Eve. But “where in the Biblical account transgression lead to mankind’s self-awareness, Equality 7-2521’s transgressions lead him down a path which ultimately provided awareness of individuality and ego”. Therefore, it could be argued that Anthem was inspired heavily by biblical references that were altered to fit the communist ideological sphere (as communism did not have a religion) and oppose the beliefs of Lenin (1870-1924) and Stalin (1978-1953), the two most prominent communist leaders of the Soviet Union. Additionally, in Anthem, there is a prominent lexical field of evil in regards to Equality 7-2521 being different from his brothers and his self-awareness as he is told as a child “There is evil in your bones”. The abstract noun “evil” cleverly shows how any action that doesn’t abide by the strict oppressive laws within Anthem is not just seen as misbehaving, but rather as a threat to their society. Additionally the concrete noun “bones” creatively shows how these actions of individuality are ingrained in him and that he hasn’t learned them from someone, as no-one around him would be permitted to teach such things and would’ve undoubtedly end up in the “Palace of Corrective Detention” if they did so. 

Finally, the two novels present oppression amongst the genders in contrasting ways. Within The Handmaid’s Tale, although it can be argued that both genders are oppressed in Gilead, it is evident that women are much more repressed than men and this could be argued to hold substantial weight as the sexist division has consistently been a part of our country’s collective history. As the novel has a female narrator, it becomes clear that men are the dominant gender, through the effective use of continuous simple sentences, “He stands up. We are dismissed.” The effective use of the personal pronoun “he” adds weight to the sentence as it is known by everyone who the man is and what power he holds over the women, not only due to his gender, but also because of his position as a commander and his respective duties and involvement in the laws of Gilead. 

However, it could also be argued that Offred interestingly uses the personal pronoun “he” as the commander is not important to her, and her involvement with him is just a job that must be completed once a month, therefore she does not use his name as she doesn’t hold any particular feelings towards him and arguably has no real opinion of him. Male dominance is “one of the earliest known and most widespread forms of inequality” and can be seen through history, arguably the most notable example being the restriction on women having the vote, which they finally achieved in 1918, as historically, men had been the decision makers of the household, which escalated to them making decisions for the country whilst limiting the power of women so that women would be reliant on their husbands. Furthermore, we see the gender oppression within this novel due to the enforced stereotypes which are also commonly found throughout history, specifically the forced humility and modesty of women in the Puritanical era in the 17th century. [12: Women’s Work, Men’s Property – The Origins of Gender and Class, edited by Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson, published 1986]

However, The Handmaid’s Tale differs to Anthem as within the second novel there is shown to be equal oppression in a less sexist society. Men and women are restricted in similar conditions, and one gender is not shown to be dominant over the other, as well as there being less enforced stereotypes upon the people within the community. We effectively see this when Equality tells us about the women “assigned to work the soil” as the concrete noun “soil” connotes farming which is a more masculine pastime as it involves manual labour and additionally the verb “assigned” cleverly reveals that women are given any job within this society and aren’t just restricted to one area that is seen as less physical work. However, it could be argued that as women are stereotypically more nurturing that they were given the jobs “far off in the field” as they would be able to look after the crops and ensure their growth. The interesting use of fricative sounds is soft so again plays on the idea that women are submissive to men and have a gentler personality, so in turn it could be argued that Anthem does have underlying sexist ideas.

To conclude, it can be argued that oppression of society is shown to a great extent in either novel by exploring objectification and reducing people to a physical being, rather than their identity as a person. The oppression is shown in two different ways, one focusing on a sexist community, the other arguably more equal in terms of gender equality. Personally, I would argue Anthem to show the most extreme version of oppression, through its clear links to communist Russia under Stalin, as the people aren’t even aware of their self-worth and have been raised in a society that focuses on collective advancement rather than personal development. Whereas in the society of Gilead, the oppression has only been recently introduced and so there hasn’t been enough time to indoctrinate the people, despite the limitations of their actions and the enforced rules and expectations, specifically on women due to their status as reproductive objects lacking personalities. Yet, I would argue that the oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale is more effective due to its sexist nature, as not only does the reader see the inferiority of women compared to men within Gilead, but during Offred’s flashbacks they see the equality that there was before, making the sudden change to this repressed community much harsher and frightening because of how quickly women’s rights became reversed to the maximum degree. But in Anthem, there is no clear knowledge of the time before, apart from guesses made by Equality after his discovery of the cave and mountain house, and yet there is still equal oppression. This shows that whilst this society is still shocking to readers, it is less effective than The Handmaid’s Tale as sexist limitations have been a reoccurring part of history and are still being fought against in some parts of the modern world, whilst equal repression is a much less circulated idea.

 

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A Comparison of Anthem by Ayn Rand and the Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. (2021, Dec 28). Retrieved October 1, 2022 , from
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