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What Is Dystopian Literature

  • Updated July 27, 2023
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Why is it still a popular genre for young adult books? According to Jennifer Kendall, “A dystopia is a society that is broken down, unpleasant, or in an oppressed or terrorized state. Unlike a utopia, a perfect world, dystopias are grim, dark, and hopeless. They reveal society’s greatest fears.” Dystopian literature is a “genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.” According to Lilly Groom, “Dystopian literature has been around for a long time – people have always wanted to rebel, and literature is the perfect place to do it. And young people have always wanted to rebel too” so no matter what the age dystopian novels appeal to all time periods and most dystopian novels appeal to many generations after them.

Dystopian novels also reflect and critique their particular cultural contexts. A great example of a dystopian novel that both reflects and critiques its cultural context is Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale. It does so through themes such as control, conformity, and extreme loss of identity, which are also common themes displayed throughout most dystopian literature. Handmaids Tale is about a Handmaid named Offred in the Republic of Gilead. Offred wasn’t always known as that, her name was June. In a pre-Gilead time, she was an independent woman with a single mother and female activist as a Mother and a fiercely independent best friend named Moira. June had an affair with a married man named Luke, who later decided to divorce his previous wife and marry June. Luke and June have a little girl together but this was as all before the Republic of Gilead came about. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian state that has formed after the downfall of something known as the United States of America. The Republic came about after when pollution and chemical spills led to rapidly decreasing fertility rates.

The architects of the Republic see this as their chance to begin their rise in power, with the use of the military the President and members of Congress are assassinated. Shortly after, they launch a coup declaring that they would temporarily be taking over power. After this point is where the dystopian society sets in, once the architects are in power they quickly crack down on women’s rights and their role in society. Women are now forbidden to work or own land, amongst many other violations of their basic rights. The first issue with this is not many stop to think, until of course it’s far too late, that maybe the decreasing fertility rates are not only the fault of infertile women, the men can be sterile as well. This dystopian society, however, has a fix for that dilemma as well, “[…] There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially.” Anyhow, everyday women begin losing more and more of their basic rights and individuality until they’re now in two clear-cut categories; “[t]here are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law” (ch. 11)

Luke and June along with their daughter plan to flee across the border to Canada. June has already clearly shown that she is one of the very few fertile women left, making her of great importance and need to this new society that is being born. Unfortunately, they are caught and all three are separated. After June (now will be known as Offred) is captured her marriage with Luke is voided since in the Republic second marriages are no longer accepted or credited. Luke divorced his first wife to marry Offred, technically making this his second marriage. After that, Offred is sent to The Rachel and Leah Re-education Center, also known as the Red Center by its inhabitants. There she is taught the ideology of Gilead and is trained to be a Handmaid. The center is run by a woman known as “Aunt Lydia”, she teaches the girls that such social order, as the one of Gilead, offers woman more respect and protection than the pre-Gilead society that was filled with easily available prostitution, pornography, and violence against woman. Here we see a very obvious theme of control, the women are being taught that even though this may seem like a complete violation of all their basic rights, this is for the best.

If anything, this is a better society than before. They’re being conditioned to believe that this is what’s best for them as woman. That’s the thing with control, if one makes the oppressed believe that what’s happening is in their best interest then the oppressed start to believe that instead of being controlled they’re being protected. Which in turn, makes them want to give up control if that’s the small price they have to pay to gain protection. Women are now assigned colors based on their place in society, the wives are to wear blue, the servants are to wear green and the Handmaids are to wear all read except white bonnets and white wings around their face. Not only are their clothes assigned colors but so are other accessories and everyday items. As Offred is leaving to go get groceries for the house she looks for an umbrella where she sees the “blue [umbrella], for the Commander’s Wife, and the one assigned to [her], which is red” (ch. 2).

Everyone is fit into their box and they’re expected to stay there under all circumstances. Yet, if they dare to do so, there is secret military deployed called the “eyes”, they make sure everyone abides by these rules, especially the Handmaids. The Handmaids are to never appear immodest or forget any of their teachings from the Red Center. The women are no longer allowed to choose what they wear, not even color wise. This is where a mix of the theme of conformity and loss of individuality is clearly seen. All women are expected to conform to their respective categories and social standards with no questions asked. The Handmaids are supposedly what is left of the very few fertile women and now their job is to bear children for the Republic of Gilead. Each household is assigned a handmaid and goes through the same ceremony each month, once a month. Offred is assigned to the Commander and his wife Serena Joy.

Every month when Offred is believed to be fertile the Commander will come in and read the bible. Then Serena will take the Handmaid, Offred, into the bedroom and lay her into her lap and hold her arms down; they will then both then wait for the Commander. Once the Commander comes in he will have intercourse with Offred in the most impersonal and detached way possible. After that, Offred goes about her daily duties as if nothing happened and waiting to see if her period comes down the next month. While carrying out daily tasks, one of her responsibilities is to visit the doctor often for regular checkups. During one of those visits, cracks in the dystopian society can be seen. Offred describes a very strong example of the theme of loss of identity: When I’m naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chilly crackling disposable paper. I pull the second sheet, the cloth one, up over my body. At neck level there’s another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only (ch. 11). The doctor has absolutely no idea who he is dealing with and doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. During this same visit, he offers to have sex with Offred to help impregnate her because “[m]ost of those old guys can’t make it any more, […]

Or they’re sterile” (ch. 11). This is a clear example of the cracks that happen in a dystopian society. Even though it’s no longer okay to say that there may be such a thing as a sterile man and despite everyone trying to conform and abode by the rules of this new society, deep down it’s starting to fall apart. This society like most dystopian societies was built on oppression, lies, deceit, and like with most lies, the truth must come forward at some point. As the novel progresses the cracks in the society start to become larger and larger. Throughout this book, the progress of themes such as control, conformity, and extreme loss of identity were tracked and observed.

Also using those themes one main concept of dystopian literature, the concept that dystopian literature both reflects and critiques its cultural context, was also observed. A society that starts out as a way to keep the population growing and from completely being erased due to the infertility of women caused by pollution and harmful chemicals in the atmosphere quickly turns into a society that severely oppresses women. This society strips away all forms of identity and individuality from these women. The woman are divided into two categories known as the fertile women and the infertile women. The task of the fertile women’s lives is to bear children and to basically single-handedly stop the human population from dying out. This would lead one to believe that they are given the highest position in society, but instead, they are constantly told that they are in a very honorable position which they should be thankful for. All the while they are treated as prisoners with little to no freedom.

On the other hand, one would believe the infertile women to be a bit happier since they are at least treated with more respect and dignity than the fertile women. However, they are so overcome with the sadness of not being able to have children or give their husband children that they constantly walk around in a different state of depression. Like most dystopian novels from the outside looking in everything seems to be perfect and as if everything is in place. It seems as if this societal change hadn’t happened then who knows where the human species would be. This society almost seems as if it were a saving grace to the people within its time. It is only upon further dissection that one starts to see all the cracks in the society. Once the cracks are revealed, it starts becoming alarmingly clear that the society although may have brought around some good, it actually has done more harm than good.

References

Cite this paper

What Is Dystopian Literature. (2022, Oct 02). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/what-is-dystopian-literature/

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