Use of Own Reason or Self-Imposed Immaturity in Dystopian Literature?

An Examination of the Female Protagonists of "The Handmaid’s Tale" and "Never Let Me Go" on the background of Kantian Theories

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 19 Pages

English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Immanuel Kant
2.1 The Categorical Imperative
2.2 Kant’s Concepts of Pure Practical Reason, Freedom and Enlightenment

3 Examination of the Two Female Protagonists
3.1 Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale
3.2 Kathy H. from Never Let Me Go

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

At least since Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic Brave New World, first published in 1932, dystopian literature has been quite popular up to the present. As for example, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy Hunger Games is one of the most influential as well as famous current dystopian novels. According to the Oxford Dictionary, dystopia as a literary term is defined as “[an] imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. […]” (Oxford Dictionaries 2012).

The term paper at hand focusses on the individual living in totalitarian societies. Therefore, a closer look will be taken at the two female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred and Kathy. Their characters will be analyzed with special regard to their moral action as well as their use of reason living within a totalitarian system. The examination of the two characters is based on fundamental aspects of Kantian philosophy concerning the understanding of enlightenment, freedom and the use of reason.

Since totalitarian regimes, as presented in dystopian literature, usually are authoritarian and oppressive, it is interesting to consider if such a society leaves room for making use of one’s own reason (cf. Oxford Dictionaries 2012). Therefore the initial question of this term paper is: Do the two protagonists of The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go make use of their own reason in terms of Kant’s definition of pure practical reason, freedom and enlightenment, or do they prefer to live under a self-imposed nonage?

To answer this question, the term paper is divided into four chapters. Following this introduction, the second chapter concentrates on Immanuel Kant’s philosophical theories. After a short expository passage, Immanuel Kant’s basic hypotheses on moral concepts as well as his image of man will be explained, serving as a basis for the examination of Offred’s and Kathy H’s characters.

In the first part of chapter two, the most important aspects of the Categorical Imperative will be illustrated. In the second part of chapter two, Kant’s concepts of pure practical reason, freedom and Enlightenment will shortly be introduced as well as explained.

In the third chapter, the two female protagonists’ characters will be analyzed by focussing on Kantian philosophy as exposed before. First of all, Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale and then Kathy H. from Never Let Me Go will be characterized. There will be an examination concerning maturity and the use of own reason. This examination is based upon Kantian philosophy as explained. Furthermore, the behavior of the two characters will be compared.

At the end, the conclusion sums up the main aspects of the previous chapters in order to give an answer to the initial question, if the two protagonists of The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go make use of their own reason in terms of Kant’s definition of Enlightenment or if they prefer to live under a self-imposed nonage.

2 Immanuel Kant

2.1 The Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant is one of the greatest modern philosophers and moral theorists (cf. Scruton 1982: 1). He lived from 1724 to 1804 and spent his whole life in Königsberg in Prussia (cf. Ludwig 1995: 19). Kant’s greatest achievement, which is also considered to be the most important work of modern philosophy, is his first publication Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781 (cf. Scruton 1982: 7).

Kant’s hypotheses, concepts and theories are very complex (cf. ibid. 11). There are a lot of controversies concerning the understanding of his statements and serious Kant scholars often disagree about interpretations of his texts (cf. Hill 2002: 13). Therefore this chapter can only be a very superficial exposition of those concepts which are of interest for this term paper.

“Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (quoted from Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Moral in Pelegrinis 1980: 139). This is the first formula, also known as Formula of Universal Law, of Kant’s Categorical Imperative (cf. ibid.). To understand the Categorical Imperative, it is important to know how Kant defines the term ‘categorical’. ‘Categorical’ in this case is the opposite of ‘hypothetical’ and means “to be unconditioned by any natural feeling or inclination” (ibid. 110). The hypothetical imperative is bound to specific conditions and therefore is only valid if those conditions are fulfilled (cf. Ludwig 1995: 64-65).



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University of Duisburg-Essen – Anglophone Studien
Dystopian Literature Dystopia The Handmaid's Tale Never let me go Immanuel Kant Enlightenment




Title: Use of Own Reason or Self-Imposed Immaturity in Dystopian Literature?