Dystopias are popular subjects in contemporary novels and films. They are places of great suffering and unhappiness. In a dystopia, the characters are faced with various hardships, environmental ruin, totalitarian governments, or any other array of horrible plot points. In dystopian fiction, readers are confronted with darkness and forced to contend with the similarities between these imagined worlds and their own.
Definition and Explanation of Dystopia
The word dystopia comes from the Greek meaning “bad” and “place”. Readers might also come across other words like “cacotopia” and “anti-utopia” which also refer to the dark landscapes of a dystopia.
A dystopia is a frightening, dark, and undesirable place to live. A state, city, or town that is deemed a dystopia will be plagued by violence, loss, tyrannical governments, disasters (human and environmental), torture, control, and any other all-consuming horror. No matter the source of the horror, dystopian communities often feature in novels, short stories, and film in order to convey a specific message or warning to the audience. Dystopian communities usually also reflect something about the society in which the story was written. For instance, George Orwell’s 1984 written in 1948 at the end of WWII.
Examples of Dystopias in Literature
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World is one of the classic examples of a dystopian society, it is also one of the most compelling. It was written in 1931 and published a year later. It is set in the World State city of London and is populated by men and women are entirely engineered. Each person fits into a social hierarchy. The story’s protagonist is the only one who steps outside the bounds of society. He speaks out against soma and is almost exiled to Iceland because of it.
What is interesting about this dystopia is that it is presented as a utopia. On the outside, if one does not dig too deep, society seems perfect. The society is completely controlled, there is no individuality, and their happiness comes at a steep cost.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” is a memorable short story about a small town in rural America. Every year they observe a process known as “the lottery” in which one member of the community is selected and stoned to death. This person is chosen entirely by chance. The few details that Jackson chose to include in this story (about how exactly this process benefits the community) makes the story feel all the more dystopian.
The story has been maligned and banned since its publication but in recent years has been introduced in syllabi around the world. It is now one of the most famous American short stories in history.
“In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka
“In the Penal Colony,” or “In Der Strafkolonie,” is another interesting and less-often cited example of a dystopia. The story is one of Kafka’s most chilling. It is comprised of only four characters, the Condemned, the Officer, the Solider, and the Traveller. The latter is the main character. He is a European who has recently arrived at the penal colony to witness an execution. The Condemned is set to be executed that day, although he does not know it.
The dystopian elements of the story come into play with the use of a torture machine that is meant to bring about a religious epiphany before death. One short quote adds a lot to the overall atmosphere:
Guilt is always beyond a doubt.
The Officer speaks passionately about this terrible machine and meaningful the experience is going to be for the Condemned. He regards it nostalgically and promotes the values he sees as being associated with it. He wants to ensure that the machine is used in the future. The machine is finally described. It becomes clear that over a period of 12 hours the Condemned slowly dies as his crime is inscribed on his body.
Dystopias don’t just appear in novels, some of the most popular dystopian stories can be found in television shows and films. The Matrix is a great example of a dystopia that requires some digging to get to the heart of. In this story, the main character, Neo, discovers that what he and every other human being on earth experience as reality is in fact a commuter simulation controlled by machines.
Another good example is the 2006 film V for Vendetta. After a disastrous world war, London has been turned into a polices state run by a mysterious male-dominated totalitarian government. The main character, Evey, is thrust into the center of a plot to change everything, led by V.
Elements of a Dystopian Story
Most commonly, dystopian stories focus on one or more characters who are trying to change things. This might be stopping an impending environmental disaster, overthrowing a government, or simply escaping from the clutches of one. Whatever the horror at the heart of the story might be, it plays into the deepest of human fears— a lack of control. Perhaps it has been purposefully taken away, such as in V for Vendetta or perhaps an accident set a series of events in motion that spun out of control, such as in the novel and film The Road and graphic novel, television show, and film Snowpiercer.
There is no singly, the correct way to write a dystopian novel but the majority use suffering and hope in equal measure. The characters in a dystopia, such as The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 would get nowhere if they didn’t believe, at least some of the time, that things can change. Winston Smith in 1984 would become just like every other Party member if he gave in to the inevitability of his life. Offered, in The Handmaid’s Tale, would turn into Ofwarren, submissive and accepting of her life, if she didn’t have her daughter and husband to fight for. These characters have hope in the face of impossible odds.
Dystopias are also sometimes referred to as cacotopias and anti-utopias although the latter is sometimes defined slightly differently. Other related words include post-apocalyptic and post-societal.
Why Do Writers Write about Dystopias?
Dystopian societies bring out the best and the worst of humanity. There are characters who show unbelievable cruelty and bravery. In a dystopian world, the normal rules no longer apply. Death and suffering are commonplace and men and women have to fight every day to conform, survive, or hide. These worlds also give writers the chance to experiment with other genres such as speculative fiction and science fiction.
All human beings fear something, dystopias bring together our worst fears and make them a reality.
Related Literary Terms
- Antagonist— in literature, is a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Anti-hero—is a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Cliffhanger— a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment the plot is concluded.
- Flashback—is a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past. Often used to depict the world prior to when the dystopian society took root.
Other Resources on Dystopia
- Read: 10 Devastating Dystopias from Britannica
- Watch: How to recognize a dystopia, a TED talk by Alex Gendler
- Watch: The Greatest Dystopian Films of All Time
- Read: “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka