The Depiction of Female Body and Reproduction in Brave New World and Handmaid's Tale


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‘The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.’

This statement by Margaret Atwood in her new introduction to the 2017 version of A Handmaid’s Tale rings true through two key themes, women’s bodies and reproduction, within her own afore-mentioned novel and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Specifically, in her introduction to Brave New World Atwood notes that all dystopias & utopias ‘must answer the same questions’, including ‘what do they do about sex and child-rearing?’ (Atwood, 2007). Both novels are speculative fiction and express their authors’ fears about the future. Huxley does so by placing aspects he dislikes within his current society on a trajectory to envisage where they could end up: a future wherein viviparous reproduction is replaced with babies manufactured on a factory line – capitalism taken to the extreme. Comparatively, Atwood used historical basis for every mechanism of the authoritarian Republic of Gilead, including many biblical allusions, such as the use of Handmaids. This results in contrasting events: in Brave New World the idea of viviparous reproduction is disgusting, whereas in the Handmaid’s Tale viable wombs become highly prized in a world of low fertility rates. However, despite their many differences, both books have become increasingly relevant to current society.

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How are children produced?

Within dystopia, authors employ varying techniques to disturb their readers. Accordingly, there are many disconcerting moments within Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale, particularly regarding production of children. The former opens with a school trip to ‘the Hatchery’, where babies are made in a process entirely devoid of human care along a factory line – Huxley even uses ‘metres’ as the measurement of in what stage the foetuses are at. With adjective phrases like the gloves of workers in the Fertilizing Room’s being a ‘pale corpse-coloured rubber’, Huxley utilises words from the lexical field of death to convey how wrong the methods of the World State are. He juxtaposes the light being ‘frozen, dead, a ghost,’ with the ‘rich and living substance’ used in fertilization to condemn the unnatural process in the Hatchery. His fictional ‘Bokanovsky’s Process’, the splitting of an embryo into ‘96 identical twins’, clarifies why he made this so unsettling: as a warning against capitalism. The Hatchery’s Director states that this is ‘the principles of mass-production at last applied to biology’: homogenisation of humanity to the highest degree, a thought disgusting and terrifying to Huxley, who strongly believed in human individualism.

In contrast, in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood constructs a society wherein a combination of tragic events has drastically reduced the fertility rate, leading to a dystopic authoritarian control of fertile women’s bodies. The protagonist Offred, whose real name Atwood left unknown because ‘so many people throughout history have had their names changed or have simply disappeared from view’ (Atwood, 2017), is forced to become a ‘Handmaid’: a ‘two-legged womb’, as she describes herself, forced to live with a Commander and his Wife to try to have a child with him. She has three chances at this with different men until she is brutally sent off to the Colonies to presumably clean up toxic waste until she dies. As Alanna A. Callaway points out, the traditionalist pseudo-Christian regime attempts to ‘imbue their mission and status with honour’ (Callaway, 2008), by having the Aunts call the Handmaids ‘sacred vessels’ and ‘ambulatory chalices’. However, this still makes fertile women into objects. Atwood’s use of first person narrative in the form of oral history allows the reader to understand how this has disembodied Offred. Atwood uses metaphor, ‘I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping’, to demonstrate how Offred has become defined by her womb. Furthermore, her diction emphasises how distressing this is, with her use of words like ‘congealed’, connoting how the rest of her body has formed around her womb in a way that partially immobilises everything inside her; the harsh alliteration of ‘cloud, congealed’ further promotes this. Therefore, her entrapment within her role as a fertile woman in an extremely patriarchal society has also trapped her in a body that she no longer has ownership of.

Although the reproductive methods in Brave New World greatly differ from those within The Handmaid’s Tale, they are still dehumanising. Huxley describes a swarm of twins (created by Bokanovsky’s Process) as ‘human maggots’. Partly this may be a joke based on their interest in the decaying body of Linda; however, it also suggests not just a lack of individualism, but that physically they are less than human. In this way, they are like Offred, who laments at how her body is no longer an ‘instrument’: she has lost the autonomy which contributes to her humanity. Moreover, in her introduction to Brave New World Atwood points out that, ‘despite the dollops of sex-on-demand, the bodies in Brave New World are oddly disembodied, which serves to underscore one of Huxley’s points: in a world in which everything is available, nothing has any meaning.’ This disembodiment may be exacerbated by the disconnect between sex and reproduction but is caused by the lack of contrast in the lives of World State citizens: whatever or whomever they want, they get. On the other hand, in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood points out how a lack of human contact, as Offred wants ‘a real body, to put my arms around,’ means she feels that ‘without it, I too am disembodied.’ Together, these novels suggest a balance must be struck for normalcy with sexual relationships.

Furthermore, Huxley and Atwood both describe how women’s bodies become warped by different types of objectification. Employing Marxist critique, one could see how Atwood describes women’s bodies being used as currency, as the Handmaids imagine gaining freedoms through the guards with, ‘some trade-off, we still had our bodies.’ This is particularly dire considering at that point all female-owned bank accounts were cut off, so no woman has access to conventional currency; they become further defined by their bodies as their lack of freedoms intensifies. In Brave New World, Huxley uses the character of Bernard to criticise the objectification of women, as he becomes annoyed when men discuss (the main female character) Lenina’s body; he feels they are ‘degrading her to so much mutton’, and that, even worse, ‘she thinks of herself as meat.’ At this point Bernard is ostensibly the moral centre of the book, perhaps even Huxley’s voice as criticism of his society. However, Bernard later describes other women as ‘too pneumatic’, meaning too curvy. Here he is not just commenting on a woman’s body but actively judging it, in a moment of gross hypocrisy. Similarly, Gilead’s Commanders are known to ‘preach purity in all things’ – clearly an important part of their role as emphasised by Atwood’s use of alliteration. The way that they then use brothels highlights general hypocrisies of those leading strict authoritarian regimes, but specifically male hypocrisy regarding sex and women’s bodies.

In both novels, we can see how male objectification of women results in women seeing themselves as items. As established earlier, Offred feels ‘determined’ by her body (specifically her womb); likewise, Lenina views her ‘pneumatic’-ness as her key defining feature, saying, “Everyone says I’m awfully pneumatic”. The word ‘pneumatic’ is a pun by Huxley, as the word literally means filled with air, but is used in the book to mean a voluptuous woman. This suggests Lenina is physically attractive but completely vapid. When one considers how there is no equivalent word used by women to describe men, Huxley’s misogyny becomes clear. Furthermore, all other female characters have an equal obsession with their physical appearance, as shown by how much they care about clothing. Lenina and her friend Fanny discuss it together, and Linda admires Lenina’s clothing when she meets her, proving this has been a priority for women for many years. All of Lenina’s successes in life rely on her body: she is only ever going on dates with men or talking to her friend about said events. Huxley uses dialogue to demonstrate how unintelligent she is, because she only speaks using phrases learnt during hypnopaedia as a baby. Boring and generic, she represents the rest of her society. Perhaps it is this role as an extended metaphor that prevents her from becoming a fully-fledged character like the male ones. Peter Edgerly Firchow disagrees, maintaining that, like Bernard and Helmholtz, Lenina is a ‘fairly complex character’ simply because ‘she falls in love’ (Firchow, 1994). He then acknowledges that she still ‘does not realise what it is that has happened to her’ – of course, this implies that she remains to be stupid. David Leon Higdon argues instead that, by ignoring the rules of colour-coded dress (she wears green despite not being a gamma) and being in a monogamous relationship (for four months with Henry Foster, despite the World State’s motto of ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’), either she is ‘self-consciously a rebel against her benevolently totalitarian world as are the men, but left undeveloped because Huxley could not conceive of a woman rebel, or Huxley allowed gross inconsistencies onto his pages that threaten the integrity of his closed system and the themes of his work’ (Hidgon, 2002). He feels Huxley takes a ‘mean-spirited revenge’ (Hidgon, 2002) on her, with her hypnopaedia-learnt dialogue, unwanted sexual advances to John the Savage, to her presumed violent death at the end. I would agree more with Higdon’s interpretation – Lenina may not understand her feelings towards John, but Huxley also does not understand the female character he has created.

Moreover, Lenina’s development in both cases is through attachment to a man, not by personal discoveries and intelligence, as the developments of Bernard and Helmholtz are. Although Huxley mentions that clever men and women are banished to islands together, there are no alpha-plus or well-educated female characters that we meet. Alpha-plus citizens are the only ones to not be mass-produced via Bokanovsky’s Process, so only they have a chance at individuality – meaning as far as the reader can see, only men in Huxley’s Brave New World may become individuals. A possible exception may be Miss Keate, a headmistress. However, her role is not as an intelligent character, but to be a sexual object to Bernard, to show how his discovery of John the Savage leads him to gain access to better partners. This objectification is added to by Huxley’s substitution of her first name to ‘Miss’, which happens to no other character. The lack of intelligent female characters is manifest from the beginning of the novel, with the all-male class visiting the Hatchery. This prevention of female education becomes a conscious choice in The Handmaid’s Tale, as most women are no longer allowed to read – even shop names have been replaced with pictures of what they sell. In both cases, women are thus further defined by their bodies not their minds. Atwood uses Offred’s discontent at this, then her fixation on the first word she has seen in years – she spends ‘tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print: FAITH’ – to criticise the Republic of Gilead for enacting this law. Conversely, the subtlety and lack of condemnation of the absence of well-educated women in Brave New World implies this is another product of Huxley’s misogyny.

Additional mistreatment of female characters arises from the blaming of them for anything to do with reproduction. In Brave New World, again this is subtle: it is only women who are sterilised, either as foetuses (‘freemartins’) or through ‘Malthusian drill’, even though it may be easier to sterilise the men, and without side effects – freemartins have ‘the slightest tendency to grow beards’. Similarly, in The Handmaid’s Tale, sterile (relating to men) is ‘a forbidden word’, and ‘there are only women who are barren and women who are fruitful, that’s the law.’ If a Handmaid cannot have a child with her prescribed Commander, it is her fault, even though she is proven to be fertile and the Commander is likely not, and she is punished by a slow and painful death cleaning waste in the Colonies. Consequently, each month Offred checks for blood ‘fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.’ In one of the most unsettling moments of the novel, part of the Handmaids’ training is to shame one of the women, Janine, for having an abortion (now illegal under the Republic of Gilead) after being gangraped as a teenager. One of the aunts asked whose fault is was, and the Handmaids reply, ‘Her fault, her fault, her fault’; the Aunt finishes with the pseudo-religious answer, that God allowed such a terrible thing to happen to ‘teach her a lesson.’ This scene exaggerates a common process within rape allegation proceedings that still occurs to this day: people asking, ‘what was she wearing?’ and other questions that blame the victim. Atwood then uses Offred’s physical description of Janine, ‘she looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newborn mouse’ to explain why ‘for a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her.’ This conveys the lack of empathy and selfishness cultivated within Gilead. The simile, ‘like a newborn mouse,’ provides another example of dehumanisation due to authoritarian regimes, much like Brave New World’s ‘human maggots’. Furthermore, men have no obligation to cover themselves: Offred notices Nick’s ‘bare arms sticking shamelessly out’. On the other hand, women must always be covered; even in summer, the Handmaids have long-sleeved nightgowns, ‘to keep us from hugging ourselves, bare-armed.’ The repetition of ‘bare arms’ highlights the double standard. Furthermore, the irony is that normalising bare flesh can prevent it from being sexualised, as Nick’s naked arms indicate.

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