We're all reading 1984 wrong, according to Margaret Atwood
The author on why the best dystopian novels end on a note of optimism
"One reason why [dystopian novels] have to conclude on an optimistic note is that it's very hard to write a book where you kill everyone off at the end," says Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale, with her typical dry humour. "It has a sort of a downer effect on the reader."
The bestselling book, which has been adapted into a new TV series starring Elisabeth Moss currently airing on Bravo Canada, is not the only dystopian novel Atwood has written, but it's the most iconic, and it follows one of her key rules: Dystopian novels should always end on an optimistic note.
Speaking of dystopias leads Atwood to bring up another novel that has recently reappeared on the bestseller lists: George Orwell's 1984, a book that was set in the same year The Handmaid's Tale was written and which Atwood has admitted to reading over and again, although perhaps differently from the rest of us. According to her, we're getting the ending wrong.
"Even 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 says, revisiting a theory she's held for some time, but that is still not commonly accepted or known. "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. It did not win."
Orwell was accused of leaving readers with no hope at the end of 1984, but Atwood disagrees. (Spoiler alert.)
"Although the fate of Winston Smith in 1984 is very sad — we know he's going to be shot in the back of the head — the world depicted does not last," she says. "So, a lot of dystopian novels are like that. They have a framing devices, like once upon a time all these horrible things happened, but now we're looking back at them from the future. And in fact The Handmaid's Tale ends that way as well."
Sometimes people like closure, but optimism is relative.- Margaret Atwood
She adds that the best dystopian novels always incorporate some relative aspect of hope, no matter how small.
"It's a way of telling people not only how that world came to be, but also that it's over," she says. "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?"
And while The Handmaid's Tale's ending is more uplifting than 1984's, it's still not completely spelled out for the reader until they read the appendix, a clear nod to Orwell.
"It depends on what uplifting means to you," Atwood says. "Sometimes people like closure, but optimism is relative. What I mean is that we have not killed off absolutely everybody — that's an optimistic ending. Glimmers are good. Happily ever after we don't believe anymore, but we can live with glimmers."
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin, q digital staff