Dystopias in Contemporary Literature

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What is the difference between a utopia and a dystopia?

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The word utopia can be defined as a  society that has perfect or very desirable qualities.  The idea of a utopian world goes all the way back to the Biblical Garden of Eden where there was no sin, no inequality, and no human foibles involved…until the serpent and Eve got together and ruined it for the rest of us.

The word utopia was first coined by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century. Using a fictional explorer, More describes what a perfect world would be like in every way possible from government, houses, food, slavery, and holidays. From that literature, the reader has been searching for the ideal society.

The utopian literature has four major qualities.

  • The society was have equality
  • The society has to be a working communal society
  • There must be a council or some kind of group who works for the good of the society 
  • There must be a message of hope.

My best example of a relatively modern utopian book is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Four people survive a plane crash and are kidnapped.  They are taken to the Tibetan mountains.  A mysterious, Chinese man leads them to a monastery hidden in ‘the valley of the blue moon”---a land of mystery and beauty where life is tranquil and beyond the troubles of the other world.

Dystopia can be defined as a society in which the conditions of life are extremely bad caused by oppression, terror, or deprivation. In literature, the definition might include a literary work which is based on the imagination and not necessarily having any truth or fact.  Dystopian literature has been characterized as fiction that presents a negative view of the future of society and humankind.

The qualities of a dystopian literary work might include these traits:

  • A government body, military force, or evil leader is in place in society
  • There is inequality among the citizens and a class system that is followed.
  • Society is segregated and oppressed.
  • The underlying message promotes desperation and a feeling of doom.

Using these guidelines, a few of the best examples of a dystopian society are Orwell’s 1984 [along with Big Brother]; The Hunger Games series; and The Giver.

There are some stories that are more controversial.  An example of the fine line of difference between the two types of literature would be the story by Ursula Le Guin---“They Walk Away from Omelas.” In the story, the society is perfect.  Everyone is happy; functioning well seemingly without interference from a government body. 

At some time in the citizen’s life, he will be told why society is able to continue in its utopia fashion.  A young boy must be deprived of all forms of happiness, nourishment, and human contact.  He is kept in a dark broom closet where he barely survives as a human being. 

 Some cannot stand the shame and cruelty and leave Omelas and are never heard from again. 

They all know it [the child] is there, all the people of Omelas.  Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there.  Some of them understand why and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness…the health of their children, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

 How can the society be utopic if it is based on the suffering of a child?  It still seems to fall under the category of dystopic.

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Utopias are societies that are "perfect."  Typically, they occur in literature, for example in Aldous Huxley's The Island. The specific attributes of a utopia will vary depending on the culture that creates it. Certain Utopian descriptions will focus on the relationship between man and nature, others on economic relationships, and others on theological matters.

Dystopias are societies that are frightening or malfunctioning in some way. Typically they occur in literature. Famous works of dystopic literature include 1984, which describes a society where the government is both totalitarian and highly invasive, and Farenhieght 451, which describes a society which burns books. Dystopian literature often highlights a societal concern, demonstrating to the reader the potential consequences of a particular behavior or trend.

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