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Dystopia: the Definition and Features

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To fully understand the notion of dystopia, the term utopia needs to be well comprehended as many attempts to define it are to be found throughout a vast number of works. General public tends to use to word as a synonym for ”non-existing”, which can-not be entirely marked as correct. To interpret the word correctly in the literary field, it is crucial to see it in its original context.

In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia in which the so called term was introduced by a fictional traveler as an island, which was literally shaped to perfection by the native people led by general Utopus.

“To accomplish this he ordered a deep channel to be dug, fifteen miles long; and that the natives might not think he treated them like slaves, he not only forced the inhabitants, but also his own soldiers, to labour in carrying it on. As he set a vast number of men to work, he, beyond all men’s expectations, brought it to a speedy conclusion. And his neighbors, who at first laughed at the folly of the undertaking, no sooner saw it brought to perfection than they were struck with admiration and terror” (More 1516).

According to this short excerpt it is possible to say that the word Utopia signifies a perfect realm or reality to live in. Furthermore, by taking into account the Greek origin of the word (Greek ”ou” and ”topos, meaning ”not place”) it is safe to say that Utopia signifies ”a non-existing perfect microcosm”. Therefore, by adding the prefix ”dys” we get ”a non-existing bad microcosm”. Such definition suggests that every human can have his own personal concept of dystopia, as everyones fears are likely to be different. In literature however, dystopia has established a number of features and formulas which make the concept narrower than a plain definition, to the point where it can be considered a genre. [1: Utopia. (2006, April 03). Retrieved from] [2: Trahair, R. C. (1999). Utopias and utopians: An historical dictionary.]

The first traceable use of the word dystopia comes from John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and politician, who used it in the following part of his parlamentary speech in 1868. Mill played wih the word “Utopia” to create its direct opposite in order to criticize the solution of the Irish Land Question and mark it as “the grand economical, as well as moral, evil of Ireland” (Mill, 1846-1847). He called the opposing side dystopian to note that the proposal of cottier-tenant system would be impracticable, and to practice it in its current form would not serve any good. That is to say, it could be very much harmful, which proved to be true as it produced fatal results which led to vast segmentation of land and to soaring rents, which was not limited in any way.

“It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable” (Mill, 1868).

The dystopian genre began to drag attraction in the beginning of the 20th century thanks to a number of influential factors. The first factor would be all new philosophical ideas, as the dystopian fiction ruminated upon a series of developments in thought which came into being in nineteenth century and were connected to works written by Marx, Darwin or Clausius. Connecting dystopian fiction with these works resulted in ruthless political and social regimes which seek to reach perfection in works such as Nineteen-Eighty-Four or Brave New World.

The second factor would be the rapid technological improvement, which resulted in the second industrial revolution, introducing inventions such as electric generator, which led to electric light bulb, electric chair and later, television. However, among those inventions were also technologies such as chemical weapons. On the topic of technology in Dystopia topic, Beauchamp comments that dystopian novel is a “uniquely modern form of fiction whose emergence parallels, reflects, and warns against the growing potentialities of modern technology.” (Beauchamp, 1986)

By overlapping these two factors, we got works such as R.U.R. by Karel Čapek, where the key attribute would be the government of robots. Among other significant examples are Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, where humanity is at large influenced by cloning and chemicals to remain in a state of happiness, and Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell, where society is monitored by big screens and influenced by Newspeak concepts such as Double-Think or Face-Crime. However, the two factors have also overlapped in reality, which led to the World Wars.

The world wars changed the way people perceived the world and the human. As Moylan suggests, it is plausible that: “Dystopian narrative is largely the product of the terrors of the twentieth century. A hundred years of exploitation, repression, state violence, war, genocide, disease, famine, ecocide, depression, debt, and the steady depletion of humanity through the buying and selling of everyday life provided more than enough fertile ground for this fictive underside of the utopian imagination.” (Moylan, 2018)

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As a vast amount of people were witnesses to destruction in large scale, the loss of faith regarding human nature, God and general good was inevitable. However, the sole concept of ”the inevitable” might have been what actually sparked the rise of dystopian literature. The need to find a way to avoid horrors of those past events in future resulted in books such as ”Nineteen-Eighty-Four”, in which the society is watched every second of their lives in order to maintain control and discipline which should ultimately exclude any opportunity for revolutionary acts that could lead to conflict. “The poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move.’ The face always appears with the phrase Big Brother is watching you“ (Orwell 1949).

Common Dystopian Features

One of the most notable features which can be found throughout the spectrum of novels regarded as dystopian would be the one of surveillance. It exists in most of dystopian settings in order to keep the regime safe and unopposed, as it is considered to be perfect just as it is. On this topic, Foucault comments that “the perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly … a perfect eye that nothing would escape.”However in dystopian novels such as “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” surveillance serves as means of oppression, as its protagonist claimed that: “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.” (Orwell, 1949)

As perfect as this supposed regime may be, many authors before have correctly noted, that there always has to exist a critical eye of opposition, which will look at every move of government in order to keep its acts righteous and fair. Althusser supports this notion by claiming that a society, which will be able to realize that it needs to create individuals, who will believe that the importance of keeping government and society in question is crucial, will remain a successful one.

This concept of criticism has also already been addressed in 1849 by H. D. Thoreau, who similarly as Althusser claimed that: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth- certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.“ (Thoreau, 1849)

Along with this quote, Thoreau suggests that “government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.” What he meant was that if a government is an unjust one, common people should break its laws in order to reveal its errors and force the regime towards its objectively better version. While this notion of social criticism is still important today, it is also one of the frequent features of the dystopian genre, alongside with surveillance.

By seeing the notion of criticism and surveillance side by side it is difficult not to see a conflict. On one side we have an individual who makes it his duty to criticize and object upon the acts of government, while on the other side there is a government which uses its omnipresent surveillance and other oppressive instruments to erase any signs of critique or rebellion in order to keep itself perfect. While both of these concepts might be trying to look out to for greater good, none of them are entirely correct, as they would need to cooperate in order to properly work towards a better social environment. In dystopian novels, these two notions are often realized by individual characters or groups of them, and this conflict is one of the main highlights of the novels’ plotlines.

Another very important aspect seen within most of dystopian novels is oppression. Taking the definition of the word “Dystopia” into account, oppressive environment does serve the purpose of creating an extremely unpleasant setting very well. According to Deutsch, oppression by definition “is the experience of repeated, widespread, systemic injustice. It need not be extreme and involve the legal system.” However, the oppression in most of dystopian novels does not only involve the legal and governmental system, but it is very often its outcome. Examples of such oppression can be found in “Nineteen-Eighty-Four, where concepts such as facecrime are created, or in “Hunger Games”, where the government is “taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch — this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.” (Collins, 2008) [13: Deutsch, Morton. ‘The Nature and Origins of Oppression.’ Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005]

The trend of control, discipline and surveillance has stayed with the dystopian genre to present days. However, unlike the dystopia of the 19th century, today’s dystopian novels mostly present an alternative version of a real setting placed in future with the main differentiating aspect being a corrupt and wicked government or an event which ultimately led or might have led to the devastation of the world. A work with such a setting could be also called post-apocalyptic. It is noted that today’s dystopian novels do not explicitly limit themselves to these themes, however most of them circle around these notions with addition of concepts of loss, clear social differentiation and exploration of love. This thesis explores the occurrences of these notions in following chapters which address specific works.

Examples of the first mentioned type of setting would be the ”Hunger Games” trilogy which takes place in “Panem”, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America” (Collins, 2008), or the ”Divergent” series which are set in a future version of Chicago. A valid representation of the second mentioned type of setting would be ”The Scorch Trials” by James Dashner, which takes place in ”The Scorch” which “is the given name for what was originally Earth’s equator”.

Regarding the characters, it is quite difficult to unambiguously categorize them under certain attributes as they vary in age, sex, social interactions and nature. Therefore, this thesis addresses each character individually in chapters exploring the specific works in order to find common aspects.

In order to understand how dystopia is becoming the leading genre of Young Adults Literature in the 21st century, it is of vital importance to properly understand the term of Young Adults literature. Then it is necessary to map the works that were released under this label since the year 2000, to analyze their common aspects and, in a way, measure their success not only in the literary field, but possibly in other fields like film industry and pop culture.

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Dystopia: the Definition and Features. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
“Dystopia: the Definition and Features.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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Dystopia: the Definition and Features [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Jan 30]. Available from:
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