Dread Nation Themes

The main themes of Dread Nation are racism and classism, utopia and dystopia, and coming of age.

  • Racism and classism: Despite the end of legal slavery, Black individuals like Jane are still oppressed by the systemic racism and classism embedded in their society. 
  • Utopia and dystopia: Summerland purports to be “city on a hill,” but it soon becomes clear that what is a utopia for white residents is a dystopia for the Black residents who protect the town.
  • Coming of age: Over the course of the novel, Jane develops greater empathy and learns to trust and depend on others.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 11, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

Racism and Classism

Racism and classism are driving themes throughout Dread Nation , shaping the social environment that the characters must negotiate as the story unfolds. Though the novel focuses on a fight with the fictionalized undead, the book takes place during an alternate version of the very real Civil...

(The entire section contains 973 words.)

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Racism and Classism

Racism and classism are driving themes throughout Dread Nation, shaping the social environment that the characters must negotiate as the story unfolds. Though the novel focuses on a fight with the fictionalized undead, the book takes place during an alternate version of the very real Civil War. 

The mechanisms driving the Civil War in the book are the same as those that drove the real thing—racism, white supremacy, enslavement, and the push and pull of state and federal powers. What has changed are the combatants: once a conflict between the Union and the Confederacy, the fighting between states has now taken a backseat to the conflict between humans and shamblers, undead who attack humans indiscriminately. Though the humans face a common enemy in the shamblers, the nation is still deeply divided over the unsettled questions from the war: the racist Survivalist party—currently in power—wants to extend the legacy of slavery, while their opposition party, the Egalitarians, wants to create a more equal society.

By situating this fictional fight on the backdrop of a very real fight between humans, Ireland transposes the era's racism onto a world that explains it through elements of fantasy and horror. In accordance with a government edict, the book's Black children are forcibly conscripted into government schools to train as fighters against the shamblers, even after slavery is abolished. This effectively preserves slavery, even after the book's Black characters are supposedly "freed." 

Though the United States has never faced a zombie apocalypse, laws that unfairly target Black Americans persist to this day. In many cases, these laws economically disadvantage those they target. If a minority group is disadvantaged by government design and held back from the benefits offered to others, this is economically exploitative by definition. Ireland explores this intersection between wealth, class, and race through the institution of Attendants, trained Black combat fighters who pose as ladies companions to wealthy white women. Jane, like her fellow Attendants, did not choose this work, but was conscripted into it. Despite this, she notes that being an Attendant and training at Miss Preston’s is among the best of her very limited occupational options. Ultimately, Dread Nation's system of postwar socioeconomic stratification is built on the same remnants of historic inequity that still drive systemic racism to this day.

Utopia and Dystopia

Throughout Dread Nation, notions of utopia and dystopia exist in direct opposition to each other. To the Survivalists, Summerland is poised to become a booming frontier utopia. They have electricity, plumbing, a border wall, and, crucially, enough distance from other towns to isolate themselves from shambler contagion. Those who believe in Summerland believe not only in its perfection, but its righteousness. Pastor Snyder preaches that Summerland is a "city on a hill," a biblical phrase signifying perfection in accordance with the divine order. According to the white citizens of Summerland, the town is not only good, it is just, and thus whatever's done in pursuit of its realization is divinely warranted.

To those whose labor and toil makes Summerland possible, however, it's a dystopian, racist nightmare. The Black patrols are forced to walk the top of the fence with inferior weapons, awaiting their own inevitable deaths. Rations are cut for everyone on the poor side of town, and patrols are expected to protect the town’s ever growing population with increasingly less nourishment. Shamblers breach the gate multiple times, drawn to the area by the very population moving there to outrun them. Eventually, Jane discovers that the town's beloved electricity is, in fact, generated by a machine full of shamblers hidden within the town. Upon the realization that shamblers lie at the heart of a town designed to keep them out, the line between utopia and dystopia dissolves completely.

In this dichotomy, Ireland illustrates the contradiction inherent in utopian thinking: someone has to do the work to create and maintain a utopian society, which suggests that one person’s utopia will inevitably represent someone else’s dystopia. 

Coming of Age

Jane matures considerably as she progresses through the narrative. When the story begins, Jane is a defiant student at Miss Preston's—skilled in combat but disobedient and undisciplined. As she overcomes the challenges in the book, Jane finds her disobedience and suspicion toward authority routinely vindicated. Those she's in opposition to, by and large, are people who seek to use their power harm or subjugate others: the professor at the lecture, who is happy to test his vaccine on Black people and set shamblers on them; the school administration, who secretly sends students to Summerland to bolster the Survivalist agenda; and the members of the Summerland administration, who treat Black residents as expendable.

After she's betrayed by her headmistress, the already-defiant Jane becomes even more disillusioned by her circumstances. Those around her seem less trustworthy and more suspicious by default. Jane's relationship with Katherine, however, defies this pattern. As the two work together to escape their circumstances, Jane learns that trust, when correctly placed, may mean the difference between life and death.

By the book's end, Jane has evolved to see those around her with a little more nuance. She's hardened but also honed—she's not just tougher than before, she's more disciplined, more savvy. She knows what it's like to command a battle, to outwit a crooked government, and to save herself from human threats, not just undead ones. Unexpectedly, she's also, in some ways, a little bit warmer than she was before. She's had to make space in herself to care about the fates of others and to place her trust in them where she might not have before. She comes to see Katherine as a close friend and confidant, and in what may be an even bigger accomplishment, by the end she's laid trust in Gideon, a near stranger, too.

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