The Locomotive of Society: Comparing The Yellow Arrow and Snowpiercer
In Victor Pelevin’s novel, The Yellow Arrow, there is an evident string of symbols and metaphors which represent the harsh conditions of the Russian people during the early 1990’s. One of the literally largest symbols in the novel was the train itself: The Yellow Arrow, a symbol of the Russian Federation. However, Pelevin’s use of a train allegory is not restricted to Post-Soviet Russia. The critically acclaimed film, Snowpiercer, has a plot that is very similar to The Yellow Arrow. The film also takes place aboard a train with no stops but resembles something entirely different. The settings of Victor Pelevin’s novel, The Yellow Arrow, and Bong Joon-ho’s film, Snowpiercer, have similarities and differences in representing democratic capitalist societies because of their social, economic, and political aspects.
One common trend found in the situations of the Yellow Arrow and the Snowpiercer is the social environment. On the Yellow Arrow, we see a clear distinction between the different cars; where the “open cars” are inhabited by the lower class and the cars with compartments are considered a higher class (Pelevin 25). The passengers who live at the end of the Snowpiercer are also forced to live in terrible living conditions while the upper class live in the luxurious front cars. This type of separation is mainly derived from a person’s wealth and is seen all throughout human history. One philosopher who is well-known in this theory is Karl Marx who states, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other” (Hurst et al. 215). The use of train cars in both works, concisely show this social stratification. Another common social movement is the use of religion in both works. On the Yellow Arrow, a group of passengers are referred to as bedeist, which is a religious group that believe the train is traveling towards a “Bright Dawn” (Pelevin 87). On top of the train, a group is seen worshipping some symbol also a likely ritual of some religion (79). Similarly, the upper-class children on the Snowpiercer are taught to believe in the “sacred engine.” Both examples show how societies tend to develop superstitious religions; especially during times of uncertainty. Despite these similarities, there are some differences. The passengers of the Yellow Arrow aren’t as socially distinct as the passengers of the Snowpiercer. The Yellow Arrow passengers are recovering from a communist system where all people were socially equal. But now we see upward mobility of passengers from the open cars to the compartment cars. On the Snowpiercer, passengers almost never moved up unless they are put in prison. In fact, some of the lower-class passengers are even taken as slaves by the upper-class passengers. Clearly, both works show similarities and differences in social characteristics of each society.
Another aspect of society that is portrayed on the Yellow Arrow and the Snowpiercer is the economy. On Pelevin’s train, passengers were stealing spoons and ash trays for money and some passengers were getting mugged. On Joon-ho’s train, there is also gambling and thievery happening within the lower cars. Furthermore, these examples are noticeably the results of the poor economy aboard the trains. “Crime rates and inequality are positively correlated within countries and, particularly, between countries, and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling for other crime determinants” (Fajnzylber et al. 1). Socioeconomic factors play an important role in the behavior of different classes and genders regardless of which economic policy being used. For example: “It’s the young girls I feel sorry for, our pure girls, those blue-eyed does who have to sell themselves to all sorts of scum in the open carriages” (Pelevin 61). Prostitution and other crimes arise in many societies due to social inequality and economic downfall. Corruption is seen on both trains as well. Yellow Arrow passengers bribe the conductors to get away with their “black-market” (60). Snowpiercer passengers bribe the guards with drugs to get past some of the cars. In various cultures, corruption and inequality can be found in all parts of state and local governments which negatively impact a society’s economy (Fajnzylber et al. 1). Nevertheless, there are some variations in these two economies. As mentioned earlier, the passengers on the Yellow Arrow seem to be capable of economic freedom. For example, certain passengers can have jobs aboard the train and even sell their own artwork. While aboard the Snowpiercer, the rich doctors and tailors only provide services to the upper-class and the lower-class are forced to only eat protein bars made from crushed insects. Pelevin’s train represents the post-command economy of Russia struggling to become a more capitalist market. Joon-ho’s train more closely represents the disadvantages and rigidity of a modern-day capitalist economy.
Politics is another realm explored aboard the Yellow Arrow and the Snowpiercer. Both stories conclude with the main characters departing the train which both show an uprising in opposition to their respective institutions. Yet, the revolts themselves are complete opposites. On the Yellow Arrow, the passengers are reluctant to let go of their communist ways and most do not care who is in power (63). The protagonist, Andrei, no longer wishes to be a “passenger” and seeks his freedom to the democratic cities he sees outside the train. On the Snowpiercer, the protagonist leads the lower-class into a revolution against the oligarchical upper-class in a communist-like revolution. As previously mentioned, the film can be related to the theory of Marxism, and the protagonist, Curtis, the main instigator of the revolution, can be viewed as the epitome of the marxist revolutionary. He is acting not for the good of himself, but for the good of his class, and even when offered a position at the head of the train at the climax of the film, he turns it down, refusing to abandon his principles (Sutton 1). Both protagonists seek and eventually achieve reform against their insufficient societies but in very different ways. In both stories, the passengers on the trains are unable to realize that life outside the train is better than inside. This ignorance is the product of the oppression dispensed by each governing body aboard the train. Therefore, the political situation of The Yellow Arrow models that of post-Soviet Russia where the government is futilely running a country that isn’t aware of its tragic direction. Snowpiercer, though, is criticizing contemporary politics and how people choose to stay complacent with the disregard that their government treats its people.
The settings of Victor Pelevin’s novel, The Yellow Arrow, and Bong Joon-ho’s film, Snowpiercer, have similarities and differences in representing democratic capitalist societies because of their social, economic, and political aspects. The locations of The Yellow Arrow and Snowpiercer can be considered rather unrealistic and this surrealism is perhaps utilized by both writers as an added effect to the strange societal structures they’re trying to portray. However, the concept of the Yellow Arrow and the Snowpiercer may not be all that bizarre. In fact, our society may be more like a never-stopping train than we think.