Definition of Dystopia
Dystopia is a genre in literature that depicts a frightening society or community. The society can be frightening for many reasons, and generally has one or more of the following problems: a corrupt and/or totalitarian government, dehumanization due to technological advances, environmental disasters, eradication of the family, cultish religions, limited resources, and unchecked violence. Dystopias therefore usually have an abundance of human misery, though in some cases there are phenomena at work to make people believe they are not miserable (which is perhaps even more horrifying). For example, dystopian regimes often promote propaganda within the society to make the people think that it is, in fact, a utopia. It is usually the quest to make a society into a utopia—a perfect place—that ironically leads to such horrifying conditions.
The word dystopia is a combination of the Greek prefix δυσ- (dys-), meaning “bad” and τόπος (topos), meaning “place.” The definition of dystopia came about as an antonym to the word utopia, which philosopher Thomas More coined in 1516 for a work of fiction set on an imaginary ideal island nation.
Difference Between Dystopia and Post-Apocalypse
Dystopia examples concern the misery that is involved with being a part of a certain community or society. These types of societies are usually repressed by an omnipotent government. Post-apocalyptic narratives show the breakdown of society after an event kills off most humans, such as a widespread illness or catastrophic environmental event. In a post-apocalyptic story there is usually no government at all, and people live in very small communities or on their own. Some tales do merge the two concepts, however, such as in the case of a post-apocalyptic society that forms and becomes dystopian (for example, the Pixar movie Wall-E).
Common Examples of Dystopia
There have been real examples of dystopias in history, such as Nazi Germany. Cults such as the Branch Davidians and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also qualify as dystopias due to brainwashing and their attempt to create a “perfect” society.
There are also plenty of dystopia examples in film, television, video games, and music. Here are some examples of dystopia in each of the different mediums:
- Planet of the Apes
- V for Vendetta
- District 9
- The Fifth Element
- Mad Max
- I, Robot
- The Matrix
- The Walking Dead
- Doctor Who
- Black Mirror
- Aeon Flux
- Final Fantasy VI and VII
- Resident Evil series
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
- Warhammer 40,000
- Deus Ex
Significance of Dystopia in Literature
It is interesting to note that there are very few examples of dystopian works written before the late nineteenth century. There are a few notable exceptions, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, written in 1726. However, the great proliferation of dystopian works did not begin until the second half of the nineteenth century, while the majority of dystopian examples comes from the second of the twentieth century until the present day.
There are several possible explanations for this phenomena. First is rise of technology associated with the first and second industrial revolutions, as well as the dehumanization of the worker at this time, especially in factories with assembly lines. Second was the very real experience of a dystopia in the Third Reich, which pledged to create a perfect race and society that would go on for a thousand years. The nightmare of Nazi Germany has loomed large in literature for more than a half century in different ways. Third, and most recently, is the terrifying speed at which we humans are extinguishing the world’s resources and contributing to climatic changes that may very well prove to be incompatible with human life.
Examples of Dystopia in Literature
The Party claimed, of course, to have liberated the proles from bondage. Before the Revolution they had been hideously oppressed by the capitalists, they had been starved and flogged, women had been forced to work in the coal mines (women still did work in the coal mines, as a matter of fact), children had been sold into the factories at the age of six. But simultaneously, true to the Principles of doublethink, the Party taught that the proles were natural inferiors who must be kept in subjection, like animals, by the application of a few simple rules.
(1984 by George Orwell)
George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most famous examples of a dystopia in all of literature. The protagonist, Winston, becomes aware of the hypocrisy of the ruling Party, and fights to overthrow it. In this excerpt, he explains how the Party brainwashed the majority of working-class citizens, called Proles, to believe they’re better off now than before.
“Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder it God recognizes His own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs.”
(Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
In this short quote from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 we see many different elements of a dystopian society: the erasure of the real family, the perversion of religion, and the dehumanization that is brought on by technology. There are many more dystopian themes in the novel such as totalitarian rule and brainwashing.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
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.
(The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, women are appropriated by the ruling class to bear their children for them. In a classic case of brainwashing as part of a dystopia, the character of Aunt Lydia explains that there are certain freedoms these women have now that they didn’t have before.
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen.”
(The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy is a popular contemporary example of dystopia. There is a ruling class who lives in the Capitol which forces the rest of the country to send children to compete in the blood-soaked Hunger Games. Here we see the pervasiveness of technology, the unmitigated violence, and the totalitarian government so common to dystopia examples.
Test Your Knowledge of Dystopia
1. Which of the following statements is the best dystopia definition?
A. A society in which everything is ideal.
B. The collapse of society after an apocalyptic event.
C. A horrifying society with much human misery.
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2. Which of the following narratives would qualify as a dystopia example?
A. Lois Lowry’s The Giver: A society has eliminated pain in return for “Sameness,” but in so doing has also eliminated emotion, color, and personal individuality. A boy named Jonas receives memories of what the community was like before Sameness destroyed all of these things.
B. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: A father and son travel across a bleak landscape after some extinction event has killed almost all human life. They confront other survivors from time to time, often choosing to kill or be killed.
C. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: A young boy finds out he belongs to a previously unknown magical community and must stop the growing power of an evil wizard, whose deeds and propaganda were partially modeled after Nazi Germany.
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3. What makes George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm an example of dystopia?
A. It is a satire of the real events of the Russian Revolution.
B. Napoleon, the pig who attains complete power, convinces the other animals that they are better off without human rule, then forces them to work harder for less food.
C. The characters are talking animals who have thoughts and feelings.
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