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The Dystopian Novel

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dystopia: (n) an imaginary place or condition in which everything is bad.

This definition from the Oxford English Dictionary would seem fitting in relation to the situations and societies often depicted in dystopian literature. When we think about the dystopian novel, what first comes to mind is often George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four. First published in 1949, it was Orwell's final work. In it he prophesied the advent of a flawless totalitarian society, in which the individual is of literally no significance. However, as it happened, the year 1984 came and went and we did not find ourselves slaves to the Party, although publishers made a killing with endless commemorative reprints. Nevertheless, Nineteen-Eighty-Four remains one of Orwell's most popular works, and we are all familiar with others such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

Why Do We Read these Depressing Books?

The critic Bernard Richards once said 'dystopias are useful; they warn us about what might happen'. This seems fair enough; you can finish a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that you don't live in the repressive state of Gilead in which the sole functions of women are as sex-objects and baby-machines. Even if you happen to be a man.

If we take this view, the dystopian novel is a comforter to the human psyche; we like to read about death and corruption, as long as we know that it can't happen to us. Or do we? What marks out The Handmaid's Tale from other dystopias is the fact that it focuses on a dystopian society in its formation; Atwood's heroine, Offred, has lived through the transition from democracy to totalitarianism, and is herself exploited by the system. Yet, for all its flaws, she finds herself drawn into the corruption of Gilead. Could we all awaken one morning to find our bank accounts mysteriously cancelled? Maybe, and perhaps it is this that compels us to read dystopias; they provide a spark of danger in our otherwise mundane lives.

So What Actually Happens?

There have been many dystopian novels written over the years, but for all this variety there are essentially only two main plots:

Nasty Things Happen but Everything Turns out Right.

This plot is followed in LP Hartley's 1960 novel Facial Justice, in which the heroine, Jael 97, beats the Establishment at its own game and everyone lives happily ever after. This was not one of Hartley's most celebrated works.

Nasty Things Happen but Despite Everyone's Best Efforts the Establishment Wins.

An example of this scenario can be seen in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World of 1932, in which babies are created in bottles, meaningful relationships are obsolete and in the end John... no, best not give that away. Suffice to say that the novel's conclusion is suitably depressing, and that Brave New World is one of Huxley's most celebrated works. It should perhaps be noted that most authors of dystopian novels choose this option; or at least these are the ones that are still in print.

Common Concepts in the Dystopian Novel

As with plot, almost all dystopias deal with the same fundamental concepts. Of these, the most common include:

  • The Status of the Individual
  • The Nature of Power
  • Communication

The Status of the Individual

In a word - low. In every dystopian novel, the individual is of little, if any consequence, the desire being for uniformity within society. In Facial Justice, this is emphasised to the extent that women are obliged to sport artificially identical faces, while in A Clockwork Orange, Burgess' protagonist Alex is exploited by all quarters as a cipher for their respective causes. In Kurt Vonnegut, Jr's short story, Harrison Bergeron, all the characters are artificially 'handicapped' to ensure uniformity in both appearance and ability. This is one of the most important concepts in dystopian literature, and a most unsettling one at that.

The Nature of Power

There is some variation here. The seat of power in a dystopian society can rest with an individual corrupt dictator or a corrupt governmental entity, but the effect is much the same; the individual is crushed and freedom curtailed. Nineteen-Eighty-Four is a prime example of this; the Party, with its figurehead in 'Big Brother', controls every aspect of its members' lives. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the nature of power in Orwell's society is its irrefutability. The Ministry of Truth can literally erase an individual from existence, while the Ministry of Love and its Thought Police can break one's soul. As we close on the broken Winston, utterly devoted to Big Brother, we see that there is no hope for the individual, as the Party is so infinitely secure.


Poor, artificial, stilted; these are all words that could apply to communication in a dystopian novel. In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, this is taken to the extreme of the Party's creation of Newspeak, as one character puts it...

... the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.

Communication is just another method of control in the dystopian society. In this case, the use of this entirely artificial, contracted language means that the meaning of any given word is irrefutable, giving the desired inflection of the Party as well as eradicating any possibly subversive connotations, thus limiting individual thought. And so we come full circle and arrive back at the suppression of the individual, the primary principle in dystopian literature.

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