Strange New Worlds: Comparing The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake describes a world very different from the one we live in today, but not too far from a possible future. The story, told from the viewpoint of Snowman, possibly the only human survivor, recounts the end of days in human history. His description, given to us as flashbacks, tells of a world where technology is power, and those who lack power are doomed to a sub-par existence. This world gone mad is reminiscent of another Atwood novel written in 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale. In this story, the world of today is gone, democracy has been eradicated, and it is the elite few who control the fate of the masses. By comparing these two novels by Atwood, one can see corresponding themes dealing with governmental control, the dangers of technology, the uses of religion, and the treatment of sexuality.
Government control is a serious issue in both novels. In the compounds, where the elite live in Oryx and Crake, every aspect of day to day life is closely monitored by compound security known as CorpSeCorps. The idea behind such tight security might seem as though it is to protect the citizens of the compounds from outside terrorism, but in many ways it is to protect the compounds from the citizens living within. After Jimmy’s mom leaves home when he is a young boy, he becomes a target for investigation for the rest of his life. Even into his college years he is still questioned by security about her. “So they were still tracking his snail mail. All of the postcards must be stored on their computers; plus his present whereabouts, which was why they hadn’t asked where he’d come from,” (Atwood Oryx 197). Her escape from the compound, and the potential damage she could do with her knowledge of what goes on there, makes her a threat that must be stopped, in the authority's viewpoint. Although the only physical action she takes against anyone or anything in the compound is to smash computers and set free her son’s rakunk, she is still pursued by CorpSeCorps security until her execution.
This overprotective zeal of authority figures is mirrored in The Handmaid’s
Tale. In that novel, every aspect of life is potentially being monitored
by The Eye. The Eye is everywhere and no one knows for certain who is
an Eye and who is not. This type of extreme secrecy is reminiscent of
the Gestapo in Germany during World War II. The police can be anyone
and make arrests without warning or proof of guilt. The fact that they
remain unseen by the general public at most times makes them even scarier.
At the end of the novel, as Offred is to be taken away by the Eye, she
finds that it is her lover, Nick, who has come. “I expect a stranger,
but it’s Nick who pushes open the door, flicks on the light. I
can’t place that, unless he’s one of them. There was always
that possibility. Nick, the private Eye,” (Atwood Handmaid’s
293). In both novels the government control has gotten out of hand. There
is no longer a system of checks and balances to make sure the citizens’ rights
are not violated. The governmental agencies have total control maintained
through fear. Taken in light of security upgrades and missteps in the
United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some
people have argued that this level of government surveillance is not
a far stretch from what resulted in real life. Post 9/11 airline security
became tighter than ever, and government surveillance of suspected terrorists
was increased. Many Americans were concerned over the invasion of privacy
and loss of civil liberties that resulted from the increase in security.
Both of Atwood’s stories reflect what could happen if that kind
of government control were to go unchecked.
Technology also creates a division between groups of people in The Handmaid’s Tale. The division in this novel though is not between rich and poor, but rather between male and female. In the Republic of Gilead, women are not allowed to have access to written words; they are not allowed to read. “You can see the place, under the lily, where the lettering was painted out, when they decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us,” (Atwood Handmaid’s 25). Television and radio access are strictly controlled, and anything not government approved is strictly forbidden. Even a word game such as Scrabble, which Offred and the Commander secretly play, is strictly forbidden.
In Oryx and Crake Snowman is left to guide the Crakers into the world
outside the compounds. He is the only source of knowledge that they have
about what things are and where they came from. Crake originally intended
the Crakers to live without religion, to have no idea that there could
ever be any higher being. “So they ever ask where they came from?’ Said
Jimmy…’You don’t get it,’ said Crake, in his
you-are-a-moron voice. ‘That stuff’s been edited out,” (Atwood
Oryx 311). Snowman changes that though. In his attempts to educate the
Crakers, Snowman turns both Oryx and Crake into godlike figures. Oryx
is given the status of the creator of all the animals; she is the mother
earth symbol. Crake is given the status of the creator of the Crakers
themselves. He is their maker. Crake views religion as a means for people
to manipulate each other, and a way that people are manipulated. Snowman,
in spite of Crakes wishes, gives the Crakers a religion that he creates
himself. He develops an entire mythology about the two people who meant
the most to him before, and now he has created a new religion.
In the title Oryx and Crake it is important to note that Oryx’s name comes first. The novel is not just about Jimmy/Snowman and Crake, Oryx plays a vital role as well. Her character is defined by the events she lived through as a child. Oryx was sold as a child into sexual slavery. She survived by giving her body to gratify pedophiles. Sex, in her mind has nothing to do with love or meaningful relationships; it is a tool to placate those around her. It has lost its value and emotional attachment. She does not even feel any bitterness towards those who took advantage of her as a child. When Jimmy asks her about a man from San Francisco who owned her for a time, she tells Jimmy, “He was a kind man…He was rescuing young girls,” (Oryx 316). She never speaks against them.
The Handmaid’s Tale shows sex in a similarly detached way. To
the handmaids, sex is the only way to survive. If the handmaids refuse
to obey or are unable to produce children, they will be sent to the colonies,
which usually equates to death sentences. Handmaids are not supposed
to have intercourse because they love or have any kind of emotional attachment
for their partners; they are supposed to do it because the law and the
state religion have deemed it as their sole function. “I do not
say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating
too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one
is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I
haven’t signed up for,” (Atwood Handmaid’s 94). Although
she remembers a time when sex meant more, for Offred that time is almost
nothing more than a memory.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
Copyright 2006 Dr. Michael O'Conner
All rights reserved.