Are there frequent reoccurrences of motifs and or themes found throughout dystopian literature that can be considered ‘classical dystopian’? To quote Mourby, “as long as human beings have been able to conceive of the future they seem to have been able to imagine things turning out badly”. In the nature of mankind, it seems that for every optimistic tendency, there is a counter balance. Whether that counter is one of satire or one of great concern depends on the outlook of the author expressing the piece. These counters are often portrayed in literature as a way of passing down the thought and fears of those alive at the time. These tales written in a cautious fear of the future are referred to as “Dystopian” or that the characters are living in a “dystopia”. The root of the word “dystopia” comes from “dys – and – topia –from the Greek for ‘bad’ and ‘place’ and so we use the term to describe an unfavorable society” (Adams).
However just because a society may seem in a conventional sense of “bad” it does not inherently mean post-apocalyptic. St. John the Divine, often referred to as the first great dystopian, “devoted eighteen chapters of his revelation to the day of judgement when the seventh seal is broken” (Mourby). In this revelation he speaks of awful acts happening to mankind in the future such as storms of fire and hell. This fear of what is to come is very much in line with the concerns of dystopian works. However relevant, dystopian literature does not always have to reflect such catastrophic outcomes. It can simply be “characterized as fiction that presents a negative view of the future of society and mankind” (Chung).
Often a major component of creating a dystopian society is due to the government imposing upon the natural rights of its citizens. In these societies, things have become controlled and restricted. Dystopian to their core, these societies then pass themselves off as being a “Utopia” or a society in which everything is perfect. Every era in mankind’s existence has had some form of authority present, and someone in contrast to critique them. Because of these commonalities, certain parallels can be drawn throughout dystopian literature. Three of the most influential aspects of a classical dystopian novel – control over an oppressed people, a rebel protagonist that intends to topple the oppressor, and finally the critiquing of social norms or ideologies most prevalent during the author’s life – are exemplified in the novels Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, and The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
First and foremost, there are several distinctive features that can constitute the dystopian subgenre. The Greek routes for dystopia translate into “bad place”. The dystopian world or society that is often written about is one that has the government in controls something that is often seen as an inherent right or something that is ideally available. What truly distinguishes a dystopia is the point of view of any given person. For example, a society where the creation of babies is not allowed could be considered dystopian if an individual desires a child. However, to another person who does not wish to have children would view this rule as irrelevant to their life. Often times “this oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian dictator” (Adams) wherein one person has total rule of a vast majority. However, there are several others including “corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral control” that a society can use to oppress its citizens, (Chung).
The coincidence that dystopian novels often take place in apocalyptic settings is only so that the government can easily control the populous, where the “mastery of nature” occurs. In this the scenery is so harsh that it has “become barren or turns on humankind” (Chung), making life outside of where the governments control unlivable. Living standards are often determined by whatever the government needs of its citizens. This can be done by “the mandatory division of people into castes or groups with specialized functions” (Chung) in a “divide and conquer” method. If the multiple groups are kept separate then there is a divide in society, making it easier for the government to regulate uprisings and other acts of rebellion from their dominions. The predicting of such bleak events of the future draws on the individual’s “fewer that humans would become reduced to cogs in a social machine” (Mourby). In this machine, the ruling body handicaps its members by withholding information, and making information uneasily attainable. What furthers this divide amongst the public is the result of citizens being kept in the dark.
However, the masquerading of these political powers as being benevolent causes the public to become volatile and seek an end to their oppression. These uprisings can be against the government or can simply turn into an anarchical state in which chaos ensues. For many dystopian novels, the plot revolves around a sole protagonist and the struggles that the protagonist face throughout the work(s). Additionally, “in a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist” (Adams) attempting to stop the progress of the protagonist. This protagonist often “feels trapped and is struggling to escape” (Chung) from the oppression in under they live. They at times can see through the so-called “veil” the government projects, to see the truth that they are hiding. Once this is seen by the character becomes curious, they begin to internally ask questions about the morality of the society in which they are in. Another trait that these protagonists have is the development of a love interest. This love interest can often times be the downfall or the success of their cause. To free themselves, their families, and the ones they love, they attempt to expose the hidden flaws to the public in hopes to incite a rebellion. The outcome of these exposures potentially lead to the protagonist becoming a martyr, but can alternatively free the people.
One of the crucial parts found in dystopian literature is the critiquing of a social norm, or prediction of the future that the author sees. Often times dystopian literatures comment on such topics “makes it ‘the zeitgeist of the times'” (Ames 3). The author writes these pieces as a social commentary to expose the truth or open their reader’s eyes to a new perspective. An author decides what is to be vilified and what is to be heralded as the morally just. Often times authors will not agree with a certain government or ruling that they witness during their lifetimes. They then will affiliate a character with “no depth, vulnerability, history, or context that acts as a foil for the protagonist” in their story to that particular side (Spisak). That aligned character then becomes the villain to oppress the citizens of a given setting by using propaganda, or even monitoring. However, dystopias can be written with less serious connotations, as they can simply address minor issues such as reality television or a new social fad. Even though the pages are fiction, in some way they connect to the real world situations during which they were written.
In light of these revelations of dystopian characteristics, one such novel that seemingly follows these guidelines is Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. The novel is set in the dreary post-apocalyptic nation of Oceania, in what was once London, now Airstrip-One. The scenery is a “gray, gritty, depressing London of shortages, inconvenience, ruined buildings and occasional rocket bombs” (Gardner) wherein the government is in total control of everyday life. For this reason, famous publisher Frederic Warburg stated “This is amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read” (Gardner). In many falsehoods, the nation of Oceania has been at war for much of its existence, with a constantly changing enemy and ally. War has simply become a “constant fact of daily life” (Agathocleous) for party members and proles alike found scattered throughout the city. The novel follows the protagonist Winston Smith, and chronicles his day-to-day life navigating the painfully mundane.
Correspondingly, the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins also follows similar structure found in a classic dystopian work. The novel now takes place in the war ravaged and starving nation of Panem. Prior to the formation of this country, the nation of Panem was known as The United States of America. Likewise, to Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian government, centered in ‘the Capitol’ run by President Snow, antagonizes the novel. While the citizens may have somewhat more freedom than those in Oceania, life is still far from ideal. It is described as “a narrative that shows young people competing to the death against each other” (Garrett) wherein twenty-three adolescents are broadcast to be murdered every year. Issued by the government, the Hunger Games are the government’s solution for public penance for previous rebellions. The storyline follows one such young girl, named Katniss, and her perilous task at overthrowing the government and surviving the games.
The control of the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four is so absolute, that it dictates how each individual lives his or her life down to the amount of exercise they receive in the morning. Workers are issued various rations for things in their lives to sustain them. Such things rationed varied from toiletries to even a weekly chocolate ration. Direct lies are given to the people as reported in the book, “The Ministry of Plenty promised that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration. Actually the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty grammes” (Orwell 36). However, this instance of rationing supplies is not the only liberty the government robs in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Another such way the government sees to dictate the public is by the degradation of sex. In the novel such organizations such as the “Junior Anti-Sex League” which works to maintain the overall abstinence of the nation. To quote Winston, ‘Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.’ (Orwell 65) wherein sexual acts are done for procreation exclusively.
In similar fashion to the lies about rations, the government provides many deceptions in numerous instances. As previously stated, war has simply become a fact of everyday life. However, places such as the Ministry of Truth work to “support the Party by publishing lies that cover up the states abusive methods” (Agathocleous 91), by falsifying documents change the past. Therefore, every so often, the enemy of Oceania will change to one of the other two super powers in the world, and documents will be forged to state that Oceania had always been at war with the power they feuded with. Because of this, no regular citizen can validate what is fact and what is fabrication made by the state. One such major occurrence brought up, is the creation of a historical figure for boost in morale. Given the special Order of Conspicuous Merit, Second Class, the exploits of Comrade Oglivy were broadcast to all of Airstrip One. Even though he had never existed, “he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar” (Orwell 48).
In comparison, in The Hunger Games the government has a significant control over the population, however the major focus in this novel is on food. Food is rationed throughout Panem’s twelve districts, but it is far from sufficient to sustain a single person, let alone the families present. The twist on this form of rationing is that there is a lottery system known as “The Reaping” where an individual between the ages of twelve and eighteen are allowed to enter as many times as they want, for a chance of more food. However, what comes along with this is an even higher chance of being chose for the annual sport of killing known as the Hunger Games, wherein two children, one male and one female, are chosen from each district to compete. They are then pitted against one another to the death in an arena broadcast to the entire nation “so that those they love can have enough to eat” (Garrett). The purpose of these games is “the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy” (Collins 20).
Moreover, to keep the citizens in a desperate mindset for food, hunting has been deemed illegal and the wilderness is fenced off. Fenced off for the purpose of “keeping the flesh-eaters out of District 12” (Collins 5) it also prevents the citizens inside of the fencing to venture out and seek out other food options. Law that no one should exit this fencing is maintained by a brutal police force ironically referred to as the “peacekeepers.” However, some serve as direct foils to this law and escapes through the fence when it is not electrified, to hunt game like squirrels and deer. The vigilante hunters act another source of food in hopes that some do not have to risk their lives, but do not make much impact. Because most in districts with higher numbers are poor, they are forced to enter their names multiple times into the reaping, in hopes of earning enough food to provide for their families.
In addition to the rationing of foods and lying, the citizens of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four are prohibited from leaving the nation, and are not encouraged to mingle amongst the caste system. Separated for the tasks of doing jobs Oceania consists of the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the Proles. The Inner Party is “limited to six million, or something less than two percent of the population of Oceania” (Orwell 208) and functions as the brain of the government under Big Brother. The Inner Party wields the majority of the power, while constituting the smallest group, capable of sending secret police known as the Thought Police silence uprisings and potential threats to Big Brother. Then the Outer Party works in the various ministries. They are “made harmless by allowing them to rise” (Orwell 209) through the ranks, however always being excluded from the upper echelon of decision-making. Finally, there are the Proles who are seen as lesser, composing the vast majority of the people. As Orwell stated “Animals and Proles are free” signifying the level at which they are held in the eyes of Party members.
Similarly, the citizens of Panem, suffer from the district system in which large chunks of the nation are divided, under the dominion of the Capitol. Kept separate for fear of rebellion and also divided to serve their direct function. Various districts have “principal industry” such as “District 11, agriculture. District 4, fishing. District 3, mining” (Collins 66). In this same way that the districts serve purposes, they also earn a ranking amongst the caste system. The higher the district, the lower their social ranking and wealth with District 12 being the poorest. The hierarchy begins with the Capitol where the rich live and the governing body, President Snow resides. The Capitol profits all materials collected by the districts, so that they may live their lavish lifestyles.
To act as the foil to the all-powerful government in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith is a thirty-nine-year-old worker of the Outer Party, working to serve Big Brother and the Party. Working for the Ministry of Truth, his job is to “support the Party by publishing lies that cover up the state’s abusive methods” (Agathocleous 91) where he assists the party and their fallacies by forging and replacing documents day in day out. However, Winston as an example protagonist feels trapped and wishes to escape the status quo and live a life of sex and enjoyment. One day at work, he encounters a younger girl whom dresses in the Junior Anti-Sex League sash. Upon further rendezvous with the woman, it is revealed that her name is Julia, and that she too hates the government. Julia functions as Winston’s love interest for the duration of the book. Together Winston and Julia attempt to join an underground group, The Brotherhood, dedicated to overthrowing the Party and Big Brother. Through deceit from fellow Party member O’Brien, Winston and Julia meet their demise and are convicted of their wrong doings. They are taken to Room 101 where there is “the worst thing in the world” (Orwell), where finally Winston Smith meets one of the true protagonist outcomes, and becomes the martyr. Forced to “love Big Brother”, Winston fails to end the dystopian government he attempted to stop.
Likewise, the protagonist of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, seeks to be freed from the bindings of her unfair government. Upon the day of the Reaping and her sister, Prim, are entered into the annual drawing. Katniss is a sixteen-year-old girl from District 12 from the part of “the Seam, usually crawling with coal miners” (Collins 4). Upon Prim being chosen to enter the games, Katniss instead volunteers and takes her place as tribute. Throughout the novel Katniss refuses to follow the rules the Capitol sets forth for her, whether that be in training, or during the games themselves. A bond is formed between Katniss and the male from her District, Peeta Mellark, so that they have a better chance at survival. However, Peeta soon becomes the functioning love interest for the protagonist that assists on her journey. After surviving the carnage that occurred in the games and angering the Capitol by not playing the game, Katniss seemingly wins alongside Peeta. This is true until the game makers go back on a previously stated rule allowing both to win. In a final act of defiance Katniss attempts suicide with Peeta as she recalls, “The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare” (Collins 345). Frantically the government, rather the games end in suicide, declare both Peeta and Katniss victors, and thus Katniss becoming a symbol of hope among the public known as the Mockingjay. This leads to the eventual downfall of the tyrant President Snow. Katniss Everdeen succeeds as a protagonist, where Winston Smith fails.
Continuing in the fashion of dystopian characteristics, Nineteen Eighty-Four was written by George Orwell to reflect the current events and his own personal views. Written in 1949, a year still recovering from the savagery of Second World War, Orwell commented on those ideologies favored by the Axis Powers. All of Orwell’s “serious work had been written directly, or indirectly against totalitarianism and democratic socialism” (Gardner 63), including Nineteen Eighty-Four. For this reason, the oppressors in the novel often relate to real world systems or people. To attack a major instance of totalitarianism, Orwell took aim at the Fascist regimes growing in Europe at the time. The government was “to be reproduced almost exactly in the novel” (Gardner 109) to show the public the threat Orwell felt they presented. Orwell himself once “described Nineteen Eighty-Four as “a satire”” (111 Gardner) of the political views he did not agree with. A parallel between the government in the novel and real world was the total worship of a leader. Another target Orwell took aim at was the Communist leader Joseph Stalin, who had ruled Russia with an iron fist of totalitarianism. Orwell portrayed Stalin’s own actions of falsifying history to suit his agenda in similar fashion to the Ministry of Truth’s primary function.
Coupled with real life events in Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Hunger Games is also tied to real events as a true dystopian work. Collins penned the novel in very recent year 2008, thus most of the comments she makes are still relevant in current times. During the time in which she authored the novel the United States was experiencing financial hardships. To reflect this she sought for The Hunger Games to be “a powerful metaphor for the Great Recession” (Garrett), the event which drastic economic decline happened in December of 2007. While slowly recovering from the recession, another point Collins makes is more of the social aspect. Suzanne Collins “intended The Hunger Games to satirize our culture, where we watch ‘real life’ on TV” (Garrett). With multitudes of television networks devoted solely to the idea of reality television, and on air personalities, Collins attempts to expose that there is a problem with this. She highlights this with having the characters in her story fight to the death in a cruel battle for food, and then having it broadcast as a spectacle. The concept stems from the idea that “if the people are entertained, they are less likely to rise up” (Garrett), implying that the ways in which we are being entertained is to sedate the public for compliance.
In the final analysis, the novels Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins exhibit characteristics of “classical” dystopian literature. They show these in the various examples of a corrupt government rationing a certain supply, being divided by caste system, and by relating to current events at the time in which they were written. The significance of the presence of these traits is that it shows there actually is a format that is often followed by dystopian literature that does not depend on time. The two novels cross-examined in the findings of this paper possess a time difference of almost sixty years between releases. Yet, there are still very prominent parallels between both their plots, and governments. What can be said about these parallels is that “dystopian fiction seems to answer a need in us that goes deeper than any response” (Mourby) that we actually enjoy to contemplate these fictions.
Additionally, through the investigation of this paper it is clear that “such narratives play upon unresolvable fears from reality” (Ames), and those fears which go to the core of humanity, is the fear of being stripped of one’s free will. Those fears are exacerbated when situations turn gruesome politically, financially, or even socially. Just as fears of the Second World War brought a flow of dystopian novels forth during its time period, so too did fears of war and recession in more recent times. When concerns grow, authors feel the need to warn others of imminent threats or potential paths that humankind could take that would ultimately be negative. The dystopian subgenre serves as the public’s escape from realties they are afraid of and cannot defeat singlehandedly.
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