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Dystopias in “Animal Farm” and “Handmaid’s Tale” Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 19th, 2021


Literary dystopia is the use of satire to depict the negative elements that threaten the socio-political harmony in society, as well as its moral norms. In most cases, the dangers facing society are portrayed as the spillovers of man’s present excessive and sometimes coercive efforts, to create an ideal society. In the process of striving towards the achievement of some form of social perfection, he becomes blind to his shortcomings which, instead of liberating society from its ills, plunges it into the abyss of anarchy. Dystopia is the antithesis of utopia since it criticizes the latter’s optimistic view that a perfect society could be achieved.

Dystopia argues to the contrary that “man’s inherent flaws hinder the possibility of creating a perfect society, except for that which is imperfect” (Thomas). In this regard, the aim of literary dystopias is to caution and warn society against the blind following of ideologies that lead to the breakdown of social order. For instance, it captures the negative impact that communist policies had on countries that embraced Marxist ideologies from the early 20th century, as portrayed in Gorge Orwell’s Animal Farm.

In contemporary times, dystopias portray society’s blindness in the relentless pursuit of technological and economic advancement, which has adverse effects such as the destruction of the ecological systems upon which mankind’s survival depends, and the more serious challenge of global warming. Regardless, societies pay little attention to the downside of their actions. The negative consequences are often dismissed as the collateral damage which is inescapable in the pursuit of progress. This is well depicted in Atwell’s Handmaid’s Tale, when the Commander tells Offred, his sex maid, that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” (Atwell 73).

It portrays and ridicules man’s blind indulgence and excesses that portends doom. This paper examines the use of literary dystopias in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Margaret Atwell’s Handmaid’s Tale to criticize mankind’s blind optimistic pursuit of success, which causes more harm than good and leads to abuse of power.

Animal Farm

In Animal Farm, satire is used to criticize dictatorial and totalitarian regimes that oppress the common masses. It is an allusion to the Russian Revolution in the former Soviet Union, which preceded a totalitarian rule under Stalin and his Bolshevik supporters. It is also a critique of Marxist Communism, which failed to bring the aspired changes to the Soviet Union after the revolution. At the character level, it criticizes the various classes and individuals in society for their respective shortcomings.

As it happens in most coups, totalitarian governments are always designed for the best interests of the people, primarily to provide an alternative and better leadership. Its original intentions are to end suffering and improve the common man’s standards of living. But due to greed, poor leadership qualities, corruption, mistrust, and political conflicts on the part of the ruling class, lead to oppression and brutality as leaders struggle to control national resources and consolidate power.

In the end, the situation is the same as the one they opposed, and at times even worse, as it happened in Stalin’s Russia. It is only the leaders and their supporters who benefit from the new order. The historian Daniel Chiroti, commenting on the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union due to the failed Marxist ideology, said that “when disorder leaves a whole population at a loss of how to react because the old rules of behavior seem to have become useless, the likelihood increases that a tyrant will emerge as a self-proclaimed savior” (Chiroti 97).

In today’s world, the onset of coups is sometimes hailed as a solution to kick out leaders who cling to power, with the promise of new policies that will create job opportunities, fight corruption, end poverty and deliver services to the common man. However, the opposite is true as it happened in Madagascar and Guinea- the former by a flamboyant youngster mayor who promised to make the Indian archipelago a paradise island; and the latter by a junta militia whose sole argument was that the government had failed to deliver services.

In Animal Farm, the farm animals are dissatisfied with the leadership of the farm’s owner, Master Jones. They are overworked and starved as the master enjoys the fruits of their sweat. In reality, this portrays the dependence of the ruling elite on the workers’ labor. In what is a parallel to Marx’s philosophy and attack on the exploitation of the workers by the capitalists; and therefore a call for a revolution, the farm animals are inspired by the counsel of Old Major, an old pig on the farm.

He points out that “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing; he does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plow….he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits” (Orwell and Baker 29). And yet, he is the master over all the animals, for he sets them to work and rewards them with the minimum provisions that could sustain their survival and continued servitude to him.

After the rebellion, the animals had great expectations of a better life and equality. They recognized the unique nature of animals and their difference from men (four legs vs. two legs) and adapted it as their ‘animal identity’ that will keep them together. They also intended to keep away from human elements and indulgences that subjected them to oppression. This is reflected in the laws they enacted, some of which included: “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy; Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend; No animal shall sleep in a bed; No animal shall drink alcohol and No animal shall kill any other animal” (Orwell and Baker 73).

But what should be should be emphasized at this point is the presentation of pigs as the ruling class to portray an element of satire that runs throughout the story. Ordinarily, we know pigs as the filthiest of all animals. Yet, they are elevated to lead other animals, and even to sleep in a bed: which is against their natural liking of dirty dungeons and feeding on filthy refuse. But now they eat the best foods on the farm. This is interpreted at two levels of satirical criticism. First, society should not expect good leadership when it elects individuals of a pig’s nature to positions of power. But it often elects thieves and expects integrity and accountability.

Thus, the animals were wrong in their optimistic hope that the pigs will be any better than their oppressive master. In Germany, Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy to power turned out to be more oppressive than it was expected. When President Hindenburg died in August 1933, he merged the office of the president with that of the chancellor into a new post, the Fuhrer, and in so doing “consolidated the absolute power of a dictator’ (North and Musser 3).

Secondly, the expectations of revolutionary movements are dampened because new leaders lack or depart from the vision that inspired the revolution, such as in Russia when Stalin strayed from the original vision of Marxism, which was to create a classless society. Likewise, in most African countries and other former colonies, the masses had great expectations from their independence. The freedom fighters might have had good plans for their nations, but the political class that established after independence subverted their original goals. And this is what the pigs did on the Farm.

Various characters in the story are used to criticize the collective rot in society, perpetuated by individuals in their respective positions. There was Moses, the pigeon pet of Mr. Jones. He spread propaganda about Sugarcandy Mountain, where all animals went after death. George Orwell writes that:

The pigs had an even harder struggle to counteract the lies put about by Moses, the tame raven….he was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker; he claimed to know of the country called Sugarcandy Mountain, situated somewhere up in the sky, to which all animals went when they died….a place clover was in season all the year-round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges: but the animals hated him because he told tales and did little work- but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place (Orwell 12).

Moses represents religion, whose teachings dictators use to pacify and keep the hopes of the oppressed masses. It coerces them to humble submission and devoted servitude, and to forget their present afflictions in the hope of compensating their suffering with the joys of heaven. It is a sting on the hypocrisy of the clergy who preach endurance while indulging in luxury, like Moses the pet in Animal Farm, and political sycophants in contemporary societies. Normally have great expectations about the future, all of which crumple the moment leaders lose their vision. It is the likelihood of leaders losing their patriotic sense and vision, which makes literary dystopias contradict the optimistic assurance of utopianism.

The puppies that the pigs trained in secrecy represent Stalin’s secret Red Army that he used to defeat Trotsky. The satire is veiled under the idea that the ruling class often employs force to rule over the masses. In totalitarian regimes, the use of force is used to subdue dissents, execute as well exile opponents. It is a criticism of the misuse of power.

And lastly, there is Squealer, the propagandist who could turn black into white. In the Russian context, he could parallel the Pravda newspaper of the 1930s that was used by Stalin to spread propaganda. However, in a general reference to society at large, it is a critique of the media when it is manipulated and used by politicians to advance their interests. This is done through biased reportage and misinformation.

Squealer helped to mask the evils of the pigs by misinforming the other animals on what they were up to. For instance, he reports that Boxer was being taken for treatment after falling sick when he had been sold to a butcher. In the end, the pigs’ character changes to portray the greed for material possessions, an element that is inherent in human beings. The modification of the rule of equality to read “All animals are equal, but some are equal than others” (Orwell and Baker 23) reflect the attitude of self-importance in the ruling class.

Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale criticizes human shortcomings from a slightly different perspective. The novel is concerned with the vices of ideological extremism, which subjects society to moral abuse that the ideologies are meant to address in the first place. The book’s primary focus is on the issue of feminism, and how ideological forces aimed at correcting its negative effects go to the extreme and in effect, lead to institutional oppression of women. The state of Gilead that succeeds an American government embraces an ideology characterized by fanatical militarism and religious beliefs. The bible is used as an instrument of influencing people, democratic freedom substituted with harsh coercion, and women degraded to the role of reproducing like rabbits.

Moral and religious degeneration is predicted by the Gileadean ideology that aims to brainwash individuals into robots who follow its political and religious dogmas blindly. The Prayvaganzas events and computerized prayers (soul scrolls) portend a subversion of religious standards. Atwell criticizes the emergency of political or religious ideologies in society, which people overindulge to the extent of rupturing the social fabric that balances the various elements of life.

The Gileadean regime is similar to the Animal Farm and Russian contexts, in that it also has institutions of manipulation, coercion, and propaganda. There are the omnipresent Eyes, the Guardians, Angels, and Aunts, all of whom play a role in promoting the Gilead regime’s hold over the people. The spying Eyes are similar to Russia’s KGB that monitored dissents. The Aunts are used as agents of propaganda to brainwash women into submitting to the roles assigned them- that of motherhood in servitude to the ruling class.

Accordingly, the elements of literary dystopia in Animal Farm and Handmaid’s Tale portray the downside of society’s quest for progress. The two texts argue that regimes that promise progress use ideologies to control and manipulate people. They also employ force to coerce people into submission. However, Atwood notes, some of the ideologies promoted by the ruling class serve their selfish interests, like the Red Center where women are trained as maids.

It is an edged criticism of society in which religion is misused to cultivate ideas that lead to moral rot. In every each case, satire is frequently used to critique society: “Econowives and Birthmobiles parody modern consumerism; Serena Joy serves as an ironic name for the bitter, repressed religious leader of women’s passivity” (eNotes). It is an establishment of gender inequality that resonates with the pigs’ subversion of the animal rules.


In conclusion, the thematic concern of literary dystopias is to criticize the optimism with which new changes are anticipated and the fervency with which new ideas are embraced. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had prophesized that the exploitative nature of capitalism will lead to its fall, and classless communist societies emerge in its place. These thoughts had the unprecedented impact of inspiring chaotic revolutions that left societies in ruins.

To consolidate the power necessary to rule the vast Russian empire and enforce a homogenous ideology, the new Marxist leaders ruled with brutality only a notch higher than their predecessors. The changes that were dreamt of were lost in the obsession to control power, and the Marxist fervor that fuelled the revolutionary struggle ended with the birth of the cruelest regime ever known to man. The suffering that followed would not have come to pass if Marxism and not raised people’s hopes to utopian absurdity. When it failed, the whole society collapsed.

To expect too much is to sow the seeds of frustration.

Works Cited

Atwell, Margaret. A Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

Chirot, Daniel. Modern Tyrants: the power and prevalence of evil in our age. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1996.

E-Notes.com. A Handmaid’s Tale. 2010. Web.

North, Oliver, Musser, Joe. War Stories 3. Washington D. C: Regnery Publishing, 2005.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: 1st World Publishing, 2004.

Thomas, Philip. Socialism Doesn’t Work. 2007. Web.

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