An In-Depth Analysis of Dystopian Genre

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Dystopian genre blossomed in literature during the nineteenth century and developed significantly as a critical response and an antithesis to utopian fiction and shows utopia gone awry. The word ‘dystopia’ can be translated from Greek as ‘bad place’ and usually it depicts something a society with a utopian organization that has at least the main flaw. It is a utopia polarized mirror image. Though dystopia or anti-utopia has mainly manifested and gained popularity as a skeptical reaction to utopian view, it surprisingly shares a lot of characteristics with utopia. The major distinction between these two genres lies in whether the text seems to suggest a positive or a negative outcome to the utopian fantasy. The major themes prevalent in dystopian fiction are mainly those connected to the concept of totalitarian control that the government exercises on its subjects, and the ways in which the people can offer resistance and control in such a system. It becomes evident that a societal structure limits an aspect of human freedom, which turns the story into a nightmare.

In light of dystopian works, individuality is a sin, which is the separation of God from Earth and even from others. The problem in individualism is the inverse relation with the collective community. Individuality becomes a problem because it breaks down community as a God intended. Crucial to the dystopian genre is the “ability to register the impact of an unseen and unexamined social system on the everyday lives of everyday people” (Moylon xiii). In a dystopian society, the individual is inferior to the system (Sanders 14). Dystopian characters have little to no personality in a dystopian society. In order for the totalitarian state to work, individuality needs to be repressed and rebellion against the state in one form to the other is usually a part of the dystopian genre, and t rebel, the character need individual thought and ideas. A free will is never an option in a repressive state. “When the individual feels, the community reels” is a popular quote on Huxley’s Brave New World (63). The only way to get rid of resistance within a society is to remove individuality.

Individuality can be seen in dystopian literature only through the rebellion of the protagonist against the repression set by the dystopian system in Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. Both the works discuss the dystopian background, the inner working of the system and how the protagonists react against the system and what results in this rebellion. A final comparison of the works will provide an overview of how individuality is represented in dystopian literature.

Etymology of Dystopia

Dystopia is an antonym of utopia, a term which was coined by Sir Thomas More in his well-known work Utopia, published in 1516, which shows a portrayal of an ideal society with less crime, poverty, and violence. Dystopian societies can be seen mainly in the works which are set in future. Some of the well-known works include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It often used as an agent to draw the attention towards the real world issues regarding society, environment, economy, politics, psychology, religion, science, ethics, technology etc. Dystopian literature stems from the literary genre of utopian novels so a dystopia cannot be discussed without understanding utopianism. In the article “Three Faces of Utopianism”, written in 1967, Lyman Tower Sargent wanted to better comprehend utopianism. He classified and differentiated different concepts, which were not done by any scholars that came before him. Sargent came up with the following definitions.

  • Utopianism as a social dreaming.
  • Utopia is a non-existent society defined in considerable detail and normally located in time and space.
  • Eutopia or positive utopia is a non- existent society which in considerable detail, normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view a considerably better society than the society than that the reader lived in.
  • Dystopia or negative utopia is a non- existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived. (9)

The distinction between eutopia and dystopia was made until 1952 when J. Max Patrick implemented it (Gottlieb 3). Before Patrick’s recommendation, the word utopia was used for both the good place and the bad one. Till today, utopia is often still used instead of eutopia (Milner 90).

According to Booker, many of the “technological achievements predicted by early scientists like Bacon were being realized” in the nineteenth century, and they “offered hints that science would not have an entirely emancipatory effect on humanity,” as science in a general way goes against the human nature and becomes a source of its suppression and control. The discovery of psychology and philosophy in the nineteenth century about the human nature that it is not as perfect and morally good as it was believed to be in a utopian thinking. Walsh claims that the discoveries made by Freud in psychology had a major effect on utopian dreaming and established a framework for the emergence of an inverted form of utopia as they proved human’s not entirely rational beings instead have instincts and are driven by passion and desires. Kateb also focuses that the utopian decline originated when a man was discovered to be a kind of “mysterious being” i.e. “mysterious to himself and surely to others, not fully explicable by milieu… and capable of some spontaneous behavior.” This kind of newly developed assumptions about the nature of human definitely had a great impact on the fall of a utopian dream.

Major historical events of the twentieth century, rapid growth in the technology and newly changed perception of human make-up cultivated dystopian thinking and gave birth to the dystopian genre. This genre reflected the fear of what might happen in a utopian “planning” of the elements of that society goes awry and even turns against its people.

The definition of utopias and dystopias cannot be considered completely divided. The definitions of utopias and dystopias suggest that the two are opposites, and in theory, this may be correct, but the reality is that the idea of a utopia is often entwined with that of a dystopia. Eutopias are frequently experiments gone wrong (Greene 2). Dystopian fiction is the result of fear in the modern world, the fear of external control of anonymity (Sanders 22). These fears are shown in dystopian literature in the power that the state holds over the lives of individuals because of the societal implemented system. A dystopian novel normally opens in a socially different world than the real one. Most commonly in the form of temporal or geographical displacement, where the imagined world is far worse than the author’s reality.

One of the early dystopias of the twentieth century was written in 1921 unsurprisingly from the Soviet Union itself. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We became the first genuine dystopian novel that gave ground and inspiration for most of the dystopias of the twentieth century. Zamyatin was a true believer in the revolution. In We, Zamyatin talks about a sterile society where people are denied any form of individuality or even creativity is completely subjugated by the state’s apparatus of power. The life of one state which is heavily regulated by a table of what to eat, dress, live, sleep and even procreate, turning them into robots with a monotonous life who cannot think. People are indoctrinated to embrace reason and logic ignoring their personal feelings and ambitions to idealize the collective. When We was introduced first, it was banned in the Soviet Union and was never published there till the 1980s because it was very evident that the merciless benefactor of Zamyatin’s dystopia was Stalin himself and the book was a critique and warning of the Stalinist totalitarian regime. Zamyatin’s followers Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Margret Atwood and Karen Boye, also had their reasons to create dystopias.

Control and Resistance in Dystopia Fiction

When we look into some of the recurrent themes in dystopian fiction, it is evident that they are startlingly comparable to the main characteristics of the utopian vision of the world. There is always a key distinction between utopian and dystopian writings. If the utopian writers believe in a positive outcome of the perfectly structured life of the utopian society, the dystopian writers are not eager enough to conclude the rigid planning of the utopians will go flawlessly. They always reveal a caution that happens to a utopian society when something breaks down in its immaculate order or doesn’t go according to the plan like it is a dystopian citizen who does not want to go with the collective idea of the state and the government that becomes the apparatus for becoming corrupt and the hunger for power too. As Walsh puts it; “If utopia is social planning that produces good results, dystopia is most often social planning that backfires and slides into nightmares” (137). Jessica Langer also maintains in her work The Shapes of Dystopia: Boundaries, Hybridity and the Politics of Power that, “rather than imagining a world in which the criticized aspects of the author’s society have disappeared,” dystopia “instead imagines a world in which those same aspects are overgrown and run amok, displacing them into an alternative universe where life is defined by them” (171).

From the above, dystopia mainly shows the divergence between individual identity, ambition, identity and the collective goals of the state, which suppress the individual expressions. Walsh asserts that “by weakening the sense of individual identity, they make it more likely that an average man will merge his own frail identity with the social whole and cease to demand that he be called by a name instead of a number” (143). The collective mentality of the state and its power directly attack dystopian citizens in both bodies as well as the mind and change them into robots that are supposed to live only for the state.

The evil in dystopia is usually a faceless, all-encompassing state, bureaucracy, or belief system that annihilates or restricts some set of values the readers believe are indispensable to both their own and the characters’ ability to function as fully dignified human beings. (131)

The lives of dystopian citizens are highly regimented and surveilled and they are denied any kind of personal relationships or feelings; sex and marriage are viewed as purely for procreation reasons or just for passing time or as distractions. Children are also brought up and educated by the state and trained to be loyal and fulfill the assigned duties perfectly without questioning the system. Hence, the utopian idealism which was basically intended to guarantee the commonwealth for all ends up abusing its power in the dystopian version of the world, exploiting the human body and mind turning its subjects into slaves.

As the themes of Government control become important in the dystopian literature, some critics examine how this control is materialized through the use of technology that, as proposed by Gorman Beauchamp, can show dystopias as either technologically advanced; “depended upon the massive technological apparatus,” or primitive to keep its citizens in the constant state of “depressed deprivation” either way, the state uses the technology or lack of it to govern and manipulate the human lives (55-56). The concept of routine which is a prescribed schedule that the state instills in its citizens is also discussed in dystopian fiction as a way to tame wild human nature and to transform them into mindless robots. Brett Cook argues that dystopian plot “sets planned social engineering against what passes for human nature,” proclaiming human beings into the status of slaves(Human Nature, Utopia 384).Consequently, other critics, like Michael Amey, analyzes the suppression of human emotions and freedom to the control of the state and underscores how it reduces individual “originality” and increases “uniformity,” shaping dystopian society into one organism where the individuals think and act in the same way, by giving them perfect conditions for the state’s exploitation. Even eugenics and reproductive control play a significant role in the dystopian canon as well, and critics like Mencutekin and Cooke emphasize the importance of it in their works. Control in the dystopian novel that attracts a lot of critical attention is the idea of human manipulation through language. According to Courtine, since “language is the living memory of man and offers him a space for inner resistance,” “power must thus become master of language,” which cannot just manipulate the past of the humankind through language, but also wipe out certain words and definitions associated with “heresy” so that no one can interfere with the supreme power of the state (70). Finally, the state’s control materializes in strict and constant surveillance in dystopian societies that can reinforce the subjugation of people and as suggested by James Tyner, “Produce total conformity” (137).

There are three variants of dystopia that portray the nightmare of anonymity within modern society (Sanders 15-18). The most famous dystopian fiction in which the individuality is repressed is in a totalitarian society. After the Second World War, with Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia as a base, the repression of each individual within a totalitarian system is one of the popular topics in dystopian literature, with the famous works of Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Historical experiences also started to appear in post-war fiction and over-population are the most common causes for the rise of fictional tyrannies in dystopian writings. The fear of conformity, homogeneity, and loss of individuality can be easily linked with “the experience of totalitarianism since all of these fictional dystopias reproduce the grisly outlines of historical tyrannies” (Sanders 16-17). An individual rebels against the totalitarian society.

Social experiences are also reasons to fear anonymity, and the topic of dystopian literature. Technological production, bureaucracy, cities, and mass media overshadow the individual. Dystopias based on social motifs can be seen in two different ways. In the first view, the protagonist deals with impersonal government control. Individual comprehension of the world and influence in the world decreases the complexity of social organization develops. Dystopian characters become “citizens of an administered world” (Sanders 17). The dystopian world is ruled by “governments, armies, multi-national corporations, insurance companies, and other large institutions” that treat individuals like they are not human (Sanders 17). Free will has been taken away and human behavior is also controlled by the system.

The second view deals with the social issues of dystopia which discusses with the opposite of the administered society. This kind of dystopia deals with the intense social and technological changes that the material world moves ahead of human comprehension. The transformed images of humanity are the result of fear of nuclear weapons, machinery, and ecological catastrophe.

Literature Review

Repression and Rebellion in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go by Moniek Jasper talks about how individuality can be seen in dystopian literature through the rebellion of the protagonist against the repression set by the dystopian system in all the novels. Each novel discusses the dystopian background, the inner working of the system and how the character rebel against the system, and how the rebellion reaches to success. A comparison of all the novels is also provided to prove the individuality in dystopian fiction. The repression and rebellion in the study of dystopia can be seen relevant because dystopian society only encourages the people to be monotonous and the uniformity has to be maintained. It can be seen as a negative aspect as individuality is never encouraged.

Dystopia and Individualism by Jacob Scott Anderson is about the popular young adult dystopian literature with societal empowerment approach to narrative pedagogy. It discusses the role of government which threats in order to keep citizens in an obedient manner. The internal threat as an exile, exploiting the need to belong and the government monopolizes the only source of community in the dystopian society. It also gives biblical references to claim the thesis right. The system to plays a major role in the society because it is the system which carves the citizens to be monotonous.

Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide by M. Keith Booker is a book that serves as a model to post-modernist criticism which can be applied in a dystopian fiction. This reference overviews dystopian theory and summarizes and analyzes dystopian works in it. It reviews the critical thought of particular dystopian theorists, that the beginning of the volume provides a theatrical context for the remainder of the book. The references profiles and discusses eight different dystopian works. The entries include a short bibliography, with full bibliographic information provided at the end. The guide covers the full period from Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” to the present day. It plays as a guide which gives a brief idea about the different dystopian fictions.


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