Using Dystopia or a dystopian concept is an important and well-used concept in literature and other forms of art. Dystopia in literature refers to a fictional future universe which creates the illusion of a well-functioning and perfect society that is ruled by a specific government (Capella, 2015). Dystopian literature, in a way, criticizes the current situations that we live in and gives a glimpse of what the future might look like; ruled by a totalitarian and often technological control. This essay will comment upon the concept of Dystopian Literature along with focus on the concept of “perfection” in such literature. The essay will also highlight other recurring themes in such literatures.
Dystopian literature is essentially concerned with offering a glimpse at the future; which might be fictional or inspired from real events. A dystopia is an imagined society often witnessed in a state of decline and dehumanizing (Burges, 2020). These novels explore the themes of anarchy, oppression and ultimate chaos (Burges, 2020). These novels are either written to spread awareness and inculcate a sense of realization within the masses or are purely written for the story factor. Either way, these novels have greatly impacted literature as we know it today.
Jill Lepore had stated in The New Yorker (2017) that “dystopianism argues that perfection comes at the cost of freedom”. This statement, while holds in the case of dystopian literature, provides an incomplete picture of the whole idea behind dystopian texts. Yes, dystopian literature does tend to portray a sense of perfection in the society that is achieved due to the laws upheld by the government in power. Very clearly visible in George Orwell’s 1984, where a party called Ingsoc, run by a dictator called Big Brother controls the entire area of Oceania. The author established a sense of discipline and order under the rule of Ingsoc, where every movement and every action is monitored by the government and the masses are brainwashed into accepting whatever information is fed to them (Tyner, 2007). The phrase “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” used in the novel essentially re-states the concept of perfection coming at the cost of freedom. This is also visible in the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley which is based around a different form of totalitarianism. The novel presents the image of a beautiful world that is free from diseases and worries (Penguin, 2017); something that is achieved at the cost of an intelligence-based hierarchy. Here, too, perfection is attained at the prize of the emotional and physical freedom of the citizens. It is also important to note here that the “perfection” in most cases is shallow and often made-up to give an illusion of safety to the residents. The dystopian novels do not fail to highlight (via the underlying themes) that such perfection is unstable and often collapses when a rebellion rises.
However, there are several other arguments and main themes that make a dystopian novel. One argument, as stated by Gerhard (2012), is the subconscious desire of people to be liberated from control. It can be often witnessed in Dystopian novels that liberation from the state’s disciplinary control can allow dystopian citizens to rebel against the authorities (Gerhard, 2012). Some believe that the main purpose of Dystopian novels is to empower the people to reclaim themselves and their homes. One novel where this is witnessed is the Handmaid’s tale written by Margaret Atwood. The novel takes place in a futuristic USA that establishes a massively patriarchal society (Gerhard, 2012). In the course of the novel, the protagonist can regain authority and reconnect with herself. On the other hand, in some novels like 1984 by Orwell, the protagonist fails to achieve freedom despite repeated attempts and is ultimately forced to surrender to the authorities (Saravayskaya, 2020).
Another argument presented in Dystopian novels is that discipline is achieved in a society where people let go of themselves and their identities, i.e. forfeiting individualism. In most of these novels, self-identity of every individual apart from the authoritarian identity is missing. People are often reduced to a number, or a code, or an entity with no rights. Most of these novels show the absence of God and a separation from the environment and others (Anderson, 2013). In dystopian novel Hunger Games by Suzzanne Collins, the world is divided into districts and each year a few participants from each district are selected to fight for survival, a competition that is designed to not only entertain the masses but to reinstate that the government owns the lives of all the individuals (Collins, 2010). The theme that “the government owns the bodies, the minds and the emotions of all residents” is repeated in most novels. In 1984 by Orwell, even thinking is not owned by people themselves and they are forced to identify themselves with the Big Brother.
Dystopian novels use such strong themes and emotions to highlight what the future might look like if individuals don’t take control of the rising conflicts in the present society. These novels present a version of the world that no reader wants to live in, yet it is very realistic in away. While history has shown that societal structures have existed that limited the presence of individuals and their freedom; the dystopian novels show that the future might also consist of them. This way authors also express their fear and hint at the fact that we as a society need to change to survive.
Anderson, J. S. (2013). Dystopia and Individualism. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1020&context=ma_theses
Burges, A. (2020). Twentieth Century Dystopian Fiction. Retrieved from https://www.anthonyburgess.org/twentieth-century-dystopian-fiction/
Cappella, D. (2015). Contemporary dystopian fiction for young adults. Children’s Literature, 43(1), 312–317.
Collins, S. (2010). The Hunger Games (Book 1) (Reprint ed.). Scholastic Press.
Gerhard, J. (2012). Control and resistance in the dystopian novel: a comparative analysis. Graduate Studies and Vice Provost for Research, 1–115. http://dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/10211.4_434/4%2018%202012%20Julia%20Gerhard.pdf?sequence=1
Lepore, J. (2017). A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/05/a-golden-age-for-dystopian-fiction
Penguin. (2017). Margaret Atwood on why we should all read Brave New World. Retrieved from https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2017/margaret-atwood-introduces-a-brand-new-world/
Saravayskaya, Y., Zilberstein, G., Zilberstein, R., Zilberstein, S., Maor, U., D’Amato, A., & Righetti, P. G. (2020). “1984”: What Orwell could not predict. Proteomic analysis of his scripts. Electrophoresis, 1–14.
Tyner, J. A. (2007). Self and space, resistance and discipline: a Foucauldian reading of George Orwell’s 1984. Social & Cultural Geography, 5(1), 129–149.
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