Louise O’Neill’s “Only Ever Yours”: “The Handmaid’s Tale” combined with “1984” in a 21st Century Dystopian Vision

Recently, I’ve been reacquainting myself with young adult literature, mostly because I know that many adult readers like it, yet there seems to be little direction.

  So often, I feel they have the “young adult” label partly, yes, because they are about young adults, but partly because they are “written down”.  The quality is just not there.  I’ve been struggling with why this is…are my expectations just too high?  Anyway, I decided that anything that I’m not 100% excited about does not make it onto The Lois Level…I leave it for the Saturday morning Book Drop. When you come to this page, I want you to find things to read that are exciting, and I’m not going to wast your time by telling you about anything mediocre.

I am happy to say that my search has not completely been in vain; I have found a book that is published as a Young Adult novel that lives up to my expectations.  And it’s not even one of my favorite genres!

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian novel about a girls school in a post apocalyptic world in which only boys are valued…to the extent that couples only give birth to male children, and females are lab-created to specifications of idealized female beauty. The implication is that there is no scientific method that can control for the innate qualities that make us individuals, so an all female school system has been developed that uses psychology and group dynamics to prepare girls for the three available roles: wives, concubines, and “chastities”,  who are women who live much like religious nuns and educate the girls. 

These are the benefits of each “path”

Wife=status and a leisurely/luxurious lifestyle.

Concubine=more personal freedom, fun, and female camaraderie.

Chastity=some female camaraderie, the opportunity to live out your natural lifespan (wives and concubines submit to ritual suicide at 40), and the only opportunity for a career that involves using your mind in any way.

 If you are a woman past 40, you might find the idea that only young women are sexually desirable amusing, but there you are.  

But I digress. 

I applaud O’Neill in that she is able to nearly perfectly create a world that makes sense to me, anyway with my limited knowledge of science.  Most people have died, there are limited resources for the people who survive.  Individual families have decided that their most important resource as a family is male children, and the rest of it is society as we know it.

Since the girls have no other purpose than to form partnerships with the privileged males, reproduce, and provide sexual and some sort of…political…support for their husbands, the girls’ education is confined to teaching them how to appeal to men and some domestic skills although, even these are taught mostly for form’s and nostalgia’s sake since they have nearly all been automated. 

The girls aren’t even taught to read!

But what they do all have is tablets and smart phones that operate solely on voice, video, and imaging.  They have ranking systems in which the boys are involved, and a private, girls’ only social media. 

So if you are in this very closed society and culture, how do you navigate it?  Do you take on an eating disorder to remove yourself from the race?  It is possible for people to exist within this framework and form normal, happy relationships in spite of it? 

These are the questions addressed by this book. 

I enjoyed reading this book.  I found it well written.  While I couldn’t guess at the conclusion, it didn’t seem like it came out of nowhere either.  Throughout the whole book, freida (sic), the protagonist, can’t figure out why her friend isabel gets special treatment, but when it’s revealed, it makes sense.  Also, as the reader, as horrible as this world is for the girls, you realize that even this reality is a lie, and the real truth is worse. 

Will Only Ever Yours survive the test of time and stay “relevant”?

As far as this book becoming a classic, I’m not sure.  The biggest thing that might date it eventually is the use of what is obviously current technology with social media, streaming television, and smartphones/tablets.  Good dystopian literature overcomes these problems.  For example, when I first read 1984 in 1984 (I was in 11th grade, which was British literature year anyway), the screens seemed to obviously be televisions even though our televisions didn’t have two-way communication. I was fascinated by how much televised media had actually evolved since 1948, when 1984 was published, in a similar trajectory to what Orwell imagined.  The fact that many people had them on ALL THE TIME was disturbing enough to think about, which in the 80’s, people often did and many probably still do. 

Give it 35 years more, and not only do we have 2-way wireless communication, we have Alexa and Siri living with us in our homes.  Life is even more like Orwell imagined because now we have the technology for the government to literally listen in to our homes if they want to through devices we purchase and set up!

There are aspects of 1984 that have become anachronistic (outdated) because of political and technological changes, but enough of the core story has remained relevant to show us that it addresses issues that are much more universal than I wish they were. Also, while it’s depressing, it is one heck of a good story!

Similarly, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is about a time when the role of firefighters is to burn books, the domestic dream is to have 3D television screens on all four walls of one’s home.  When I first read Fahrenheit 451, televisions were going smaller, but there were more of them in each home than in previous generations. The idea of wall-sized screens seemed to be a dystopian fantasy for the masses, if that makes sense.

And what do you have in your den? I bet that TV has a bigger screen than the one you had 20 years ago.

The first time I heard of virtual reality…and a large flat screen TV…I gasped.  This was familiar territory because of Bradbury’s 1953 dystopia.

 So either the devices and media in this book will seem terribly dated, and it won’t really work, or what we read these devices as will have changed into something we haven’t imagined yet that will continue to work, but in a different way, which is what has turned Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 into classics.

Only Ever Yours as Irish literature

Louise O’Neill is Irish.  While the lives of the characters are lived completely indoors (no telling what sort of lie they have been told about that), the setting is in the “Euro Zone”.  As an American, I found it slightly amusing that the characters in this book are slightly jealous of the American Zone (which possibly consists of both Americas) in that they seem to think the Americans automatically have more money.  For government organizations?  I’m not so sure.  Another zone in which a combination of present day China and India dominates, seems to primarily be known for advanced technology. 

What makes this book special is its reflection on what it means to grow from a girl to a woman in a world that is media driven to a degree that I don’t think any other civilization or time could have known.  Will it get better, or will it get worse?

Notes on the flaw (?) in this book

There seems to be an inconsistency in the book in that in some places, the girls are divided into “thirds”, but in others, a girl matches with one of that year’s “inheritors” (boys), and all the remaining girls become concubines except for the rejects, who become chastities.  Some girls want the live of the wife while some prefer the camaraderie and excitement of life as a concubine, but live as a chastity apparently consists of being confined to the school permanently, having your head shaved, and wearing a habit.  The benefit of being a chastity is that you get to live out your natural life span rather than having your live ended when you are no longer considered sexually desirable (around 40).  Even before that time, the expectation is that you will have undergone plastic surgery to appear to be even younger.   

Anyway, rather than taking this point as a flaw, I’ve decided to assume that that there is a lie at some level (that I might have missed) because certainly this society turns on lies.  People have figured out a way to survive in an inhospitable Earth, but as always with these stories, desperation and the survival instinct have resulted somehow in women being reduced to their most basic biological function.

Asking For It, another Young Adult novel by Louise O’Neill dealing with rape culture.

For American audiences (I don’t know about Irish), this topic isn’t new, but if O’Neill approaches it with anywhere near the depth that she does the issues in Only Ever Yours, it’s worth reading.

Free Read

Quick Read

Asking for answers: Author Louise O’Neill on her own sexual experiences” an extended article in the Irish Independent

Free Listen

An amateur video interview with Louise O’Neill on Only Ever Yours

BBC Interview with Louise O’Neill and others “Patriarchy Not Real” (Note: the link is to a Youtube video, but there is no video in the clip.)

Below is Almost Love, O’Neill’s first novel written for adults:


The two most important dystopian novels written in English

Note: “dystopian” is a fictional/fantasy world in which things are bad. “Utopian” is a fiction/fantasy world in which things are good.

If you haven’t read both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, you really need to put them on your TBR list. 1984 is more important, but Fahrenheit 451 is a shorter, easier read.

1984 is not an unreasonably difficult read overall, but there is a book within a book in Part II, chapter 9 called “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”. Even Orwell’s editor tried to get him to remove it because it’s nearly impossible to read and halts the narrative. My advice: skip it. You aren’t doing a formal study of this book, you aren’t in school, and you can understand the story just fine without it. At most, look up a summary online.

1984 is set in London and was written during the post-World War 2 era in the United Kingdom. It’s important to know that even though the UK was on the “winning” side in WW2 and were never occupied, they were decimated by the bombings that occurred there, and daily life in the UK was spartan until the early 50’s.

Fahrenheit 451 is American and was written during the rise of the “Red Scare” (fear of communism) in the United States.

Both books have stayed so current, frighteningly so, that you don’t really need the historical background for either to understand the stories.

Why does female dystopian literature seem so often to reduce women to their sexuality and reproductive biology?

I wonder why so often feminist dystopian literature seems to involve women that have been reduced to their sexuality and reproductive functions.  No one has a dystopian view of the world in which women finally call a halt to the destruction so many males have inflicted on the world and try a different way?  Is it possible to do that without writing a utopia?  I wonder.

Why is it that we don’t have a dystopian (utopian?) world in which women have taken over and males are sexually objectified? What would that world look like?

I wonder about the mentality of women if we don’t think about that. Are we still not supposed to enjoy sex? Why is it such a crazy idea? Bees have a queen and basically a male harem. It’s the male peacock (even saying “male peacock” is redundant) who has the fancy feathers and struts and preens for the plain female peahen.

Since the female is the one responsible for reproduction, she gets to pick who is worthy of the fun.

Now, as fun as all of this sounds to me, I’m pretty certain that it would also be dystopian.

Is it possible that women who have been hailed as writing the literature of the feminist movement have actually perpetuated the status quo?

Please go to The Lois Level on Facebook to share your thoughts on this or any titles you’ve read with a different mindset, and check these classics of feminist dystopian literature below.

Technically, The Stepford Wives may not be considered feminist because it was written by a man, but Only Ever Yours could almost be its prequel. Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is a related tale with similar themes. There are classic movies of both novels too.

I don’t think Woman on the Edge of time is as well known as the other books here, but I read it more than 30 years ago, and it has stuck in my mind all of that time. It’s also still in print. For these reasons, it must be a classic!

After reading the summary on Amazon, I realized that there is a lot more to the story than I remember, but what I do recall is the dystopian vision of women becoming commodities, and a utopian vision of family.

If you are one of the last people who have not read the book nor seen the films nor seen the Netflix series, it’s time to get to know The Handmaid’s Tale. This book, along with 1984, was already a classic, but it has surged in popularity since the 2016 US election.

This is required reading, y’all.

I recommend the graphic novel version as an alternative text. You can read it in an hour or two, so you don’t need to keep this very depressing story with you as long. Some of the scenes are so horrific that I was happy to be able to see them as images rather than words so I didn’t have to put words to them, if that makes sense. Emotionally responses do not need words. Also seeing the events in North America as we know it enhances the sense of immediacy and relevance.

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