Definition of Dystopia
Dystopia is a literary device and genre used by writers to present a vision of the future that challenges readers to reflect on the current social and political environments in which they live. Dystopian literature often portrays society in cataclysmic decline resulting from environmental ruin, control through technology, and government oppression of individual freedom and expression.
Dystopian fiction is speculative, arising as a response to utopian literature which portrayed ideal societies based on rational thought, fairness, and human decency. Instead, dystopian works typically portray societies that are frightening and dehumanizing as a dark warning of the potentially dangerous effects of political and social structures on the future of humanity.
Dystopia is a significant literary device in its ability to educate readers and warn of the potentially dark consequences for humanity if changes are not made to present day societal and governmental constructs. In addition, dystopian literature is often enjoyable for readers in its engaging and thought-provoking content.
For example, in his novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess creates a futuristic society in which there is a subculture of young characters that participate in intense and extreme acts of violence:
The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence
As a response, the authoritarian government in the novel uses behavioral techniques to “rehabilitate” aberrant behavior among the characters that don’t conform to societal rules. Therefore, individual freedom of choice and action is eliminated.
Examples of Central Themes in Dystopian Literature
Dystopian literature tends to feature common, central themes that allow writers to create alternate realities while imparting deep meaning to their readers. Here are some examples of central themes in dystopian literature:
- government control: dystopian works often reflect extremes in terms of governmental rule, from oppressive totalitarianism to violent anarchy
- environmental destruction: dystopian stories are typically set in “apocalyptic” environments that reflect destruction of life and an uninhabitable landscape, usually as a result of war and weaponry
- technological control: dystopian works often reflect advancements in science and technology that grow out of human control and become domineering and fear-inducing
- survival: characters in dystopian literature are often left to their own means of survival due to oppressive or violent societies
- loss of individualism: dystopian literature often emphasizes the needs of society and conformity at the expense of individual freedom and expression
Examples of Famous Dystopian Novels
Many writers use the novel form to create dystopian literature. This allows for detailed development of the setting, characters, plot, and theme so that readers can enjoy the story but also consider the novel’s levels of social commentary. The popularity of dystopian literature reflects a collective human curiosity about the future and progress of society.
Here are some examples of famous dystopian novels:
- brave new world
- The Giver
- Ready Player One
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- Parable of the Sower
- The Drowned World
- The Maze Runner
- The City of Ember
- Station Eleven
- Never Let Me Go
- The Time Machine
- The Road
- A Clockwork Orange
Common Examples of Well-Known Dystopian Movies
Many dystopian movies are created as adaptations of dystopian literature, although there are original dystopian scripts that are made into films as well. This genre of filmmaking is popular among audiences due to the artistic and cinematic portrayal of alternate realities as well as thought-provoking content.
Here are some common examples of well-known dystopian movies:
- The Hunger Games
- Catching Fire
- Planet of the Apes
- Logan’s Run
- Minority Report
- Soylent Green
- Blade Runner
- The Lobster
- The Matrix
Difference Between Dystopia and Science Fiction Genres
There are a great number of similarities between the dystopia and science fiction genres. However, there are some distinctions between them as well. Science fiction typically is set in the future and often features elements of fantasy. For example, anything is “possible” in the genre of science fiction, including time travel, space travel, the existence of aliens, sentient artificial intelligence, etc.
Dystopia, as a genre, is often grounded in “reality” without elements of fantasy. In addition, dystopian literature typically reflects a lack of harmony in society, revealing its political, cultural, and/or social distortions. This leads to common endings among dystopian works of dark futures as a warning to present day society in terms of making changes. Science fiction literature does not necessarily end with such predictions of doom. However, many works of literature artfully combine dystopian and science fiction elements and themes.
Examples of Dystopia in Literature
The use of dystopia as a literary device allows writers to create stories that are centered around the opposite of a utopian environment–a “perfect” society. Though dystopian literature often portrays an ideal society on the surface, the underlying oppression, violence, desolation, and/or chaos reveals the many ways that humans can be corrupted by power, greed, control, war, and other factors.
Here are some examples of dystopia in well-known works of literature:
Example 1: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
In Atwood’s famous novel, she creates a dystopian country, ruled by an authoritarian patriarchal theocracy based in Puritanical Christianity. All women characters in the novel are subjugated, indoctrinated, and divided into rigid classes of “chaste” and childless wives, housekeepers, and “handmaids” who are still capable of bearing children to relinquish to the wives. Among the many themes explored in Atwood’s dystopia is the dark future prescribed as a result of political control over women’s bodies and reproduction. This leads to objectification, violence, and full surrender of women to patriarchal rule.
In addition to the oppression of women, Atwood’s dystopian work emphasizes the peril of nonconformity and the extreme measures taken to enforce obedience of thought and behavior. The novel portrays a frightening police state in which anyone can be a government spy and threaten someone’s life. Those who don’t conform to the rules and norms of this society, in terms of behavior and thought, are publicly executed or removed as punishment to a radioactive wasteland called “The Colonies.” This dystopia calls upon readers to consider the dire consequences of societal and political control, oppression of women and people of color, and pursuit of uniformity.
Example 2: Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.
Bradbury’s novel is perhaps one of the most famous works of dystopian literature. The novel portrays a future society in which the job of a fireman is to burn books. This reflects an extreme in terms of governmental and political control, based on the theme that censorship of information, learning, and thought is a fundamental necessity for totalitarian rule. Most readers consider Bradbury’s work to be prophetic in its portrayal of a society obsessed with technology and constant entertainment, which drowns the characters’ abilities to think with any sort of freedom or creativity.
Another interesting element of Bradbury’s dystopian novel is how the majority of characters embrace the policy of banning books and their preference to be consumed by technological devices and perpetual media stimulation. This is most evident in the protagonist’s wife, Mildred, who agrees that there is greater public happiness due to the ban of books. Mildred keeps “Seashells” in her ears, which are thimble-sized radios so that she can have the constant presence of music and talk. In addition, Mildred wishes to have a fourth television “wall” so that she can more completely watch her “family” of tv characters. This censorship and interruption of thought and contemplation keeps Mildred and others in this dystopia from facing the empty and vapid nature of their lives.
Example 3: 2BR02B (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
The law said that no newborn child could survive unless the parents of the child could find someone who would volunteer to die. Triplets, if they were all to live, called for three volunteers.
In this short story, Vonnegut presents a future in which the United States’ population has stabilized at 40 million “souls.” On the surface, the fictional world appears utopian in that many societal issues seem to have been resolved, such as poverty, war, prisons, diseases, and even old age. In the story, death occurs only by accident or for those who volunteer to end their life. This poses a moral dilemma for the protagonist of the story, a man whose wife is delivering triplets.
Vonnegut’s story explores the theme of governmental control over human life at the level of basic existence in terms of who gets to live and who dies. The theme is made even more insidious by the presence of the phone number “2BR02B,” marketed as an adventurous and righteous choice for characters to elect to die–volunteering to commit suicide. In addition, this dystopia reflects the sacrifice of the individual for the well-being of society, which ultimately leads to devaluation of human life in its beauty and complexity.