Here’s to sum up again what we talked about the past lessons:
Definition: A dystopia is a fictional society that is the opposite of utopia. It is usually characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government, or some other kind of oppressive social control.
Typical features of dystopian fiction
- A background story of war, revolution, uprising, overpopulation, natural disaster or some other climactic event which resulted in dramatic changes to society.
- A standard of living among the lower and middle class that is generally poorer than in contemporary society. This is not always the case, however, in Brave New World people enjoy much higher material living standards in exchange for the loss of other qualities in their lives, such as independent thought and emotional depth.
- A protagonist who questions society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong.
- As dystopian literature typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society. Usually, this advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power, while the oppressed population is limited to a rather primitive technology.
- Dystopian fiction typically extrapolates current trends and developments into the future. It is not enough to show people living in an unpleasant society. The society must have similarities to today, of the reader’s own experience. If the reader can identify the patterns or trends that would lead to the dystopia, it becomes a more involving and effective experience.
- There is usually a group of people who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts his or her hope, although he or she still fails to change anything. In 1984 by George Orwell they are the “proles” (short for “proletariat”), in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley they are the people on the reservation, and in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, they are the “book people” past the river and outside the city.
- If destruction is not possible, escape may be, if the dystopia does not control the world. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the main character succeeds in fleeing and finding people who have dedicated themselves to memorizing books to preserve them.
George Orwell 1984
The novel, published in 1948, takes place in 1984 and presents an imaginary future where a totalitarian state controls every aspect of life, even people’s thoughts. The state is called Oceania and is ruled by a group known as the Party; its leader and dictator is Big Brother.
Winston Smith, the central character, is a thirty-nine year old man living in London. He secretly hates the Party and decides to rebel by starting a diary in which he reveals his rebellious thoughts. Through keeping a diary, Winston commits thoughtcrime and knows that one day he will be discovered by the Thought Police and probably killed.
Winston is fascinated by “proles,” the lowest class in the social hierarchy of Oceania. They are the only group allowed to live pretty much as they like without heavy police surveillance. He befriends Mr. Charrington, the prole owner of a junk-shop, who shares his interest in the past and life before the rule of Big Brother.
At work, a dark-haired girl who works in another department approaches Winston in the corridor. She pretends to fall and hurt herself; when he helps her up she slips a piece of paper into his hand. It says “I love you.” Winston is surprised and disturbed by this; any sexual relationship between Party members is strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, he is intrigued. They secretly arrange to meet in the country. He begins a love affair with the girl, who finally introduces herself as Julia. They have to be very cautious and meet in places that aren’t watched: a clearing in the woods, an old church. Winston and Julia eventually rent the room above Mr. Charrington’s junk-shop as a long-term private place for the two of them.
A member of the Inner Party, O’Brien, finds an excuse to give Winston his home address, an unusual event. Winston, noticeably excited, has always believed O’Brien may not be politically orthodox and could sympathize with his hatred of the Party. Winston and Julia go to see O’Brien and he enlists them into the Brotherhood, a secret organization dedicated to fighting Big Brother. He arranges to give Winston a copy of “The Book,” a document that contains the truth about Big Brother and the development of the super-states. Winston and Julia go to their room above the junk-shop to read the book. The Thought Police burst in to arrest them and they discover that Mr. Charrington is a Thought Police agent. They are taken separately to the Ministry of Love. There, Winston learns that O’Brien is in fact an orthodox government agent and has deliberately tricked him. O’Brien takes charge of the process of “re-integrating” Winston, torturing and brainwashing him until he fully believes in the Party and its doctrines. As the final step of this process, Winston is forced to betray his love for Julia, and his feelings for her are destroyed.
Winston is released to live out his final days as a broken man. Soon, the Thought Police will execute him. Winston has submitted completely and loves Big Brother.
Two other famous books that are clearly dystopian fiction:
Aldous Huxley Brave New World
In the “brave new world” of 632 A. F. (After Ford), universal human happiness has almost been achieved. Control of reproduction, genetic engineering, conditioning – especially via repetitive messages delivered during sleep – and a perfect pleasure drug called “Soma” are the cornerstones of the new society. Reproduction has been removed from the womb and placed on the conveyor belt, where reproductive workers tinker with the embryos to produce various grades of human beings, ranging from the super-intelligent Alpha Pluses down to the dwarfed semi-moron Epsilons.
Each class is conditioned to love its type of work and its place in society; for example, Epsilons are supremely happy running elevators. Outside of their work, people spend their lives in constant pleasure. This involves consuming and continually buying new things, whether they need them or not, participating in elaborate sports, and free-floating sex. While uninhibited sex is universal and considered socially constructive, love, marriage, and parenthood are viewed as obscene.
The story is about Bernard, an alpha whose programming is a bit off – he is discontented and desires to spend time alone just thinking or looking at the stars. At one point he takes Lenina on a vacation to the savage reservation in New Mexico. There he discovers John (the “Savage”), son of Linda who had visited the reservation more than 20 years previously and was accidentally left behind. When she discovered she was pregnant (the ultimate humiliation!), she had to remain among the savages. John returns to the Brave New World where he is celebrated as the Visiting Savage. However, he cannot adapt to this totally alien society and, ultimately, he takes his own life.
Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
Guy Montag is a fireman who lives in a society in which books are illegal. His job is not to extinguish fires, but to light them. He burns books, and all the firemen wear the number “451” on their uniforms because that is the temperature at which books burn.
But the role reversal of the firemen is not the only difference between present-day society and the world in which Montag lives. People of Montag’s world take no interest in politics or world issues. The only point of life is pleasure. Montag’s wife, Mildred, spends her time watching the televisions that take up three of the four walls in their parlor, or listening to the seashell radios that fit snugly in the ear. It isn’t until Montag meets a young girl named Clarisse that he realizes that there might be more to life than the electronic entertainment that absorbs everyone. Clarisse makes him think about the world beyond the wall television and seashell radios; she makes him wonder about life.
This newfound curiosity gets Montag into trouble when he takes an interest in reading the books that he’s supposed to burn. When Captain Beatty, the fire chief, realizes that Montag has changed sides, he forces Montag to burn his own home. To save himself, Montag kills the fire chief and escapes the city. A manhunt ensues on live television, but when Montag escapes the authorities, an innocent man is killed in his place to appease the audience.
Montag joins a group of educated, vagrant men who remember great novels so that when the world returns to an appreciation of literature, they will be ready to help out. As they are walking away from the city, a bomb destroys the place that was once Montag’s home. Knowing they will be needed, the men turn back to the shattered city to help rebuild a society that has destroyed itself.
While the novel is most often classified as a work of science fiction, it is first and foremost a social criticism warning against the danger of censorship. It uses the genre of science fiction, which enjoyed immense popularity at the time of the book’s publication, as a vehicle for his message that unchecked oppressive government irreparably damages society by limiting the creativity and freedom of its people. In particular, the “dystopia” motif popular in science fiction – a futuristic technocratic and totalitarian society that demands order and harmony at the expense of individual rights – serves the novel well.
Developed in the years following World War II, the book condemns not only the anti-intellectualism of the defeated Nazi party in Germany, but more immediately the intellectually oppressive political climate of the early 1950’s – the heyday of McCarthyism. That such influential fictional social criticisms such as Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 were published just a few short years prior to Fahrenheit 451 is not coincidental. These works reveal a very real apprehension of the danger of the US evolving into an oppressive, authoritarian society in the post-WWII period.