Using The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Minor female characters in the novels are important to discuss when looking at the portrayal of women in 20th century Science Fiction dystopias. Winston, in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, talks of a Prole woman just before he and Julia are caught and sent to the Ministry of Love. Winston compares her, in his thoughts, to a rose, even though she is in her 50’s he says she is like a young woman in bloom.
He finds beauty in her because of her freedom from the party. This woman is a complete contrast to Julia, especially in her physical appearance as she is large and her skin is coarse. However, she possesses all that Winston desires; she has the freedom to have children and care for them, and then the later privilege of caring for her grandchildren.
He sees that through all her hard work, she still manages to sing submissively. She has the freedom of expression and for this, she is a symbol of beauty to him. ‘“She’s beautiful,” he murmured. “She’s a mere meter across the hips, easily,” said Julia. “That is her style of beauty,” said Winston.’ (pg 228) Here it can also be noted that towards the end, Julia is transfixed with beauty on the surface and is still not thinking on the same level as Winston, her thoughts are still purely sexual.
There are many minor female characters in The Handmaid’s Tale and all are used to deepen Offred’s narrative. Offred’s isolation is emphasized by her memories of these women. Her mother plays a vital role in her memories of childhood. She almost blames herself for what she is going through in her present position. She remembers her mother’s feminist actions and debates.
She remembers being unwillingly taken to a pornography protest and being handed a magazine to burn on a fire. She begrudges her mother for her naivety in understanding her daughter, and the way she never realized she would have such an impact on her.
At the same time her thoughts of missing her mother fight those of feelings of begrudging for her. Offred’s best friend Moira is an opposite figure to Offred’s mother, as Offred possesses a lot of respect for her. Moira represents Offred’s hope, whereas her mother represents her doubts. Moira constantly re-appears in Offred’s thoughts, and Offred describes little traits of her best friend such as the way she spoke and her attitude towards others.
When Moira appeared at the Red Centre Offred’s hopes were raised, leading her to risk her well-being by meeting Moira in the toilets. Later on in the novel, the reader learns that Moira also attacked one of the Aunts, in an attempt to escape. This raises the reader’s hope in terms of the regime. We know it is a new regime, which took over in Offred’s lifetime, and to learn of rebellious individuals causes us to hope just as Offred does.
When Offred visits Jezebel’s with the Commander, we learn of Moira’s disappointing outcome. We learn she never became a handmaid and has turned to prostitution at Jezebel’s instead. Even though Moira is still rebellious in her new profession, she is still a disappointment.
Throughout the novel, Offred presents suggestions to the reader that maybe Moira is fighting the regime and searching for Offred. All the hope that Offred held out for Moira disappears at Jezebel’s, making us question the character of Luke. Luke is the other character that Offred suggests could maybe be searching for her.
When we are presented with the disappointment of Moira, we expect a disappointment in him, although Atwood never confirms this. Serena Joy is a character presented in Offred’s present-day narrative who could represent Offred’s fading power. Offred mocks her as she did the Aunts, but not to the same extremes.
There is an element of sympathy in Offred’s narrative voice when she speaks of Serena. She talks of how she used to watch Serena on television when she was younger, and whilst her mother was still in bed. Serena fought Offred’s boredom when she was a child, and now she fights her boredom by being in Offred’s thoughts. However, Serena Joy presents a problem in the narrative.
Offred offers no doubt as to Serena’s existence until the Historical Notes are read. Here we learn that Serena Joy could have been a fictional character, and there can be found no reason why Offred invented her. Maybe the image of this maternal type figure, who knits scarves for others and tends her garden as if it is her child, presented some form of self-satisfaction for Offred, a secret only she possessed, a figment of her imagination that tricked us and presented problems for the fictional historians studying her case. She is a figure-head for Offred’s constant acts of rebellion.
However, neither Judd nor Waterford was married to a woman who was or ever had been known as either ‘Pam’ or as ‘Serena Joy’. This latter appears to have been a somewhat malicious invention by our author. (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, pg 321)
Offred continuously remembers her daughter, who is nameless and is seldom described physically. She could represent Offred’s lack of knowledge about her family or position in society and her lack of individuality. There are no features of her daughter that make her anymore individual to any other child. It could also be interpreted that Offred does not describe her daughter because these are her private thoughts, which she is not willing to share.
She has told the reader about everyone else in her life openly, but her daughter is the one memory she can hold on to, without anyone breaking her privacy. Her constant fear of losing the memory of her daughter haunts Offred,
She comes back to me at different ages. This is how I know she’s not a ghost. If she were a ghost she would be the same age always. (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, pg 73)
There are very few minor female characters of many purposes in Brave New World. Fanny, who appears at the start of the novel, is used mainly to reveal Lenina’s thoughts and rebellion. As the narrative is omniscient, Fanny is created to present Lenina’s personality early on. The same is with Bernard Marx who confides in Helmholtz Watson.
Probably the most important minor female character is Linda, John’s mother. Lenina is constructed to contrast with Lenina. She represents rebellion to the extreme, having got pregnant with the director. She has also become overweight and unattractive overtime away from ‘civilization’, whereas Lenina is extremely attractive. Linda dies in an undignified way when she enjoys a soma holiday for too long. She could be a representation of culture today, and the lack of self-control people lack. Lenina is on the opposite end of the scale to this as she is too self-regarding with many worries of other people’s perceptions. Huxley could be commenting on society, presenting some kind of medium between the two characters.