Can You Even Explain What Dystopia Is?

Posted: April 5, 2012 in Dystopia, Film, Literature, Teaching
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I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.  It looks like this:

from Wells’ adaptation of The Trial

Having spent too much time reading online material related to The Hunger Games, I’ve been both intrigued and disappointed at how how the media and the books’ fandom interpret and use the term “dystopia” (and its adjectivizations, of which “dystopic” makes me cringe).  As with the everyday use of “utopia,” the general understanding and usage of the term is often extremely vague and distanced from the actual genre of fiction it comes from.  This definition is a very literal one: dystopia=bad place, or the opposite of utopia (defined simply as “good place”).  Or, as one of the lousy online dictionaries defines it:


a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
Compare utopia.


1865–70; dys-  + (u)topia

I’ll ignore the problematic question of origin/etymology in this definition for now.  The real issue here is illustrated by the fact that these definitions (the casual and the online dictionary) don’t fit classic dystopias that define and helped initiate the genre like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.  Sure, one could argue those lives led by the populaces of the World State or OneState are miserable, and that they are “bad” places, but this is a relatively subjective and very dubious judgment.  Are they characterized by human misery?  No.  There’s more complexity to it than that.

Secondly, and more serious of a problem, I think, is the fact that such a loose definition means a whole lot of texts no one thinks of as dystopian actually fit the poorly defined characteristics.  Slave narratives: dystopias.  Prison memoirs: dystopias.  The Diary of Anne Frank: dystopia.  Okay, so that’s cheap and capitalizing on the lack of “fictional” in the cited definition.  But what about, say, Toni Morrison’s Beloved or perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian?  Both of those novels depict bad places–societies characterized by human suffering–with disease, squalor, and oppression, but they are obviously not what we think of as typical dystopias.

Wikipedia does a much better job of defining the term (as of recently anyway), but good definitions and background on sites like wiki don’t mean much because this isn’t the kind of term most people even bother to look up.   They don’t bother because they already know what it means–what the general genre characteristics are–even if they can’t express them beyond vague phrases beginning with “bad.”

This points to some sort of disjunction between understanding and articulating the term.  A kind of “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” situation, which is true of most genres but seems especially true with respect to dystopia.   My Intro to Fiction students usually can knock out a quick definition (or list of conventions) for parable, fable, science fiction, horror fiction, and even utopia (not that most have ever read a straightforwardly utopian text) when I introduce the term, but they always struggle with dystopia.  This seems odd to me since it is a genre most high school students (in the US anyway) are introduced to in English/Language Arts class, which one would assume is a reason behind the understanding of the term.  However, this basis in experience with the genre runs contrary to the indescribability I find in the classroom when I ask, What is dystopia?  What characteristics define it?

Perhaps it is in the very contrary and varying nature of the dystopian texts themselves, which often address very different issues and questions with different answers, that we lose sight of a definition.  And it is these questions and answers in the texts teachers usually, and rightly, highlight.  But what seems lost is the degree to which dystopian texts are really about the fundamental relationship between masses of individuals treated as masses and the governmental institutions who rule them–a question of biopolitics, actually.  With this we also might lose the genre convention of rebellion or revolution in dystopian fiction, however futile, which is one tied to relations of unequal power that transcend fiction.

Those are some things I feel I need to keep in mind when teaching  and thinking about dystopia, but I still need to work on my own definition because I haven’t seen or come up with one I feel is adequate enough for the complexity of the genre.

For what it’s worth, here’s the definition of dystopian fiction I co-authored with the help of a class after they had read “The Machine Stops,” We, Brave New World, “Bloodchild,” and Oryx and Crake.  It is somewhat specific to the class as it was intended for future students to read prior to hitting the dystopian texts.

Dystopian fiction: Not just stories about any bad place (a fictionalized account of living under slavery in the U.S. isn’t properly a dystopia), dystopian fiction is a subgenre or offshoot of utopian fiction that began appearing in the early 20th century.  Early dystopian texts draw on the experiences of repression in Soviet Russia (Zamyatin’s We (1921) and Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938)), concerns about loss of identity or freedom in industrial, media-saturated society, and the misuse of science and technology by governments (Brave New World (1932)). The (sub-)genre uses some of the same conventions as utopias and inverts others [see the next post for our definition of utopia].  Dystopias are set in societies whose customs and laws are described in some detail, and in some way repress or harm their citizens: at least from the perspective of the protagonist, narrator, and, probably, reader.  They nearly always focus on a single dissatisfied protagonist who is rebelling against societal norms and government structures, even to the point of revolution.

Useful teaching tool:


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