As you turned the last page of George Orwell’s 1984, were you overwhelmed by a surge of fatalistic angst? The hero (uh, spoiler alert) has lost his quest to overthrow the totalitarian regime against which he had rebelled, and that seems to be that: No hope, no change.
Well, maybe we’ve been looking at that all wrong, Handmaid’s Tale author and speculative fiction doyenne Margaret Atwood recently told the CBC.
“1984 has a coda, and the coda is a note on Newspeak, which was the language being developed to eliminate thought, making it impossible to actually think,” she points out. “The note on Newspeak at the end of 1984 is written in standard English in the past tense, which tells us that Newspeak did not persist.”
So, perhaps the tale of Oceania ends more hopefully than you thought, with the downfall of Big Brother rather than a “decisive victory”?
In her own dystopian classic, Atwood revealed the fall of the authoritarian Republic of Gilead not through her heroine, Offred, winding up triumphant, but through a similar epilogue that frames Offred’s first-person account as an artifact from a failed regime ― an object of study to scholars in the more liberal society that has replaced it.
Atwood has previously described the concluding 1984 essay on Newspeak as a direct influence on her own choice to end The Handmaid’s Tale with an academic epilogue, though the essay is typically read as an appendix rather than as the conclusion to the novel.
“The essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived,” she wrote in The Guardian in 2003. “For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it’s my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.”
From a rather practical standpoint, Atwood explained to CBC, “Doom and gloom all the way through is not motivating to people. If we’re all going to go swirling down the plug hole, why make any effort, why not just stay in bed all day or party?” By revealing that freedom and justice will eventually triumph, the dystopian author offers us motivation to fight.
The reassurance that totalitarianism is unsustainable may reassure some in the current political climate ― though it’s worth remembering the often lengthy time-frame, and the casualties. In Y.A. dystopian sagas, readers can follow along as the protagonists singlehandedly dismantle a crushing regime (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games) or at least nobly die while putting the final cracks in it, all by the age of 18. After the 2016 election, many liberals took solace in comparing opposition to Donald Trump to Harry Potter’s fight against Lord Voldemort, a dramatic yet pacifying narrative in which an oppressive government is overthrown by a single hero.
More realistically, books like 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale focus on the midst of the struggle, on resistance fighters who fail and are forgotten. Offred and 1984’s Winston Smith may see the promised land, but they won’t enter into it. That may not seem like cause for optimism, but it seems in dystopia, optimism is all a question of perspective.