Utopies et dystopiesCours

Utopia and dystopia are literary genres. They have always existed but have been very popular since the twentieth century. Considering the purely imaginary societies in utopian novels as opposed to the dehumanized and unpleasant ones in dystopian fictions, it is relevant to wonder why authors should feel the need to write such disturbing and thought-provoking novels.

I

Definitions

Reading stories provides the reader with an access to imagined lives and worlds other than his/her own. It also triggers his/her imagination and makes him/her wonder and reflect on the characters' personalities, their actions and thoughts. Utopia and dystopia are literary genres, the latter deriving from and being the opposite of the former. 

From the most ancient times, people have been writing and reading books. Works, fiction, non-fiction books and literature offer a wide variety of genres to enjoy.

"With literature, human beings have invented a way of enabling us to try out and weigh up the possibilities of action and thought. It attaches ideas and feelings to beings we recognise and care about. When we find we care, we usually spend some time speculating about the whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs, the truths and untruths of the thought and action."

Michael Rosen explained at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

August 2014

Thus, when one person reads books and gets to know the protagonists and their lives, that person is likely, as a reader, to feel connected to them, to see things from outside them thanks to what they say and do, but also view things from the inside as the reader knows what the protagonists think. That is the tradition of literature that Michael Rosen refers to as "inside and out", and that is what makes literature such a powerful "tool" to instill ideas in the readers' minds.

Utopia

The word "utopia" comes from Greek words "ou" meaning "no" or "not", and "topos" meaning "place". In other words, a utopia is a place one can only dream about, a true paradise that does not exist.

Dystopia

Dystopia is the exact opposite of utopia. It's a genre which depicts a utopian society where things have gone wrong.

Plot diagram to understand how a story is built (works for novels, short stories, and fairy tales).

utopie dystopie plot story
II

The history of utopia and dystopia

A

The origins of the genres

Writers have written utopian stories for centuries starting with Plato, in 380 BC. In the Bible Genesis is a kind of utopian world that turns into a dystopian one after the sin of Adam and Eve. The book that gave its name to the genre utopia is Utopia of Thomas More published in 1516.  

Plato's Republic is considered the first example of utopia in history. In this dialogue, (which follows Socrates' method of engaging conversations) Plato establishes, philosophically, a state that would be seen as a model for societies emerging and/or functioning in Plato's time as well as for societies extending to our times. All changes to the functioning of these societies should follow and fit into the model of the ideal state, the Republic.

The Garden of Eden, in Genesis (one of the 46 books of the Old Testament), is also seen as a utopian society inasmuch as Adam and Eve live a utopian lifestyle, up to the moment they first sin by eating the forbidden fruit. The world then becomes a dystopia due to the corruption of the mankind.

The utopian society that Adam and Eve lived in was lavishly described in a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder. In this small painting, Brueghel represents ostriches, dromedary, lions, goats, birds and many other living creatures all gathered to symbolise the perfect harmony that existed in the world before the Fall of Man. In the background Eve is grabbing the forbidden fruit, and is about to give it to Adam.

origins genre dystopie utopie

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1613 The Guardian, National Gallery.

© Wikimedia Commons

In 1516, Thomas More protested against English life in Utopia, the book after which the genre was named. Indeed, the genre was named after the imaginary ideal kingdom created by Thomas More. In this perfect place, everything is pleasant, there are no money worries for the citizens to be bothered with, and problems do not exist. Everything that happens, happens for the greater good.

As a socio-political satire, Utopia criticizes Europe's political corruption and religious hypocrisy. The problems of the real world (poverty, crime, political corruption) are contrasted with the harmony, equality, and happiness that reign in Utopia.

B

The evolution of utopian/dystopian literature

In both utopia and dystopia, the reader will find characteristics of science-fiction and fantasy, and the plot is often set in a futuristic world where technology has been developed to create perfect living conditions. However, utopian and dystopian novels' focus is not on technology per se, but rather on the way the citizens live and react to the conditions created, that is to say on their psychological and emotional reactions to the society they live in.

1

Utopian literature

The original motives behind utopian literature were political, social and philosophical. As time went by, the genre has seen radical transformations. Yet, a common misunderstanding is that utopian novels are written to project a better way of life. On the contrary, with utopian novels, the aim is to make the reader envision the faults or problems established by such a political framework.

In fact, the author offers the readers the example of a perfectly morally and socially shaped society so as to make them identify the defaults of the world they actually live in. 

Consequently, a utopian novel is the tool resorted to by the author to expose the "flaws prevalent within an existing political structure" and also to make an impact on the reader's consciousness.

2

Dystopian literature

As far as dystopian novels are concerned, as opposed to utopian societies, they introduce the reader to extremely flawed societies. In those fictions, the setting is often a fallen society often resulting from a global war, or some horrific event that caused chaos in the former world. The emptiness resulting from chaos gave rise to a totalitarian government that embodies oppression, restrictions on liberties and freedom, and control by the central government. 

One of the most famous examples of dystopian books is 1984, written in 1948 by George Orwell.

In 1984, George Orwell, who was profoundly marked by social injustice and a forceful opposition to any kind of oppression and totalitarianism, shows his disappointment with the results of socialist revolutions and expresses a strong belief in the importance of the language and history. Double-thinking, "Newspeak" and the Thought-Police are the instruments developed by the Party in order to control the citizens of Oceania. This world-famous book, whose sales were boosted just after the election of Donald Trump and his inaugural address, was adapted into a British film released in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton and inspired V for Vendetta, a comic book series by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd.

Double-thinking

Double-thinking is a concept whose aim is to make the citizens' minds accept two opposite ideas put together such as "war is peace", "freedom is slavery" and "ignorance is strength". It's a mean used by the government to manipulate the people and alter reality.

Newspeak

"Newspeak" is a new form of English that makes Double-thinking possible in 1984.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spence claimed that Donald Trump had been met with the "largest audience ever to witness an inauguration", which was wrong/inaccurate and therefore false information. Still, when one of Donald's Trump advisers was asked to comment on such a false claim, she replied in a way that reminded the Americans of what happens in George Orwell's 1984, that is to say the rewriting of events/facts in the newspapers for the government to be able to control reality.

When 1984 was published, it was a frightening with the futuristic description of what the society would become if technology were misused. It turns out to be less futuristic today with the current age of CCTVs, internet tracking, drones' surveillance, and social networks.

English French
Utopia /juːˈtəʊ.pi.ə/, ( ! a utopian society, not AN utopian society) Une utopie/une société utopique
Literary genre /ˈʒɑ̃ː.rə/ Genre littéraire
To depict Décrire, dépeindre
Plot (=intrigue) L'intrigue
To be set in Se dérouler
To instill Instiller, inspirer, inculquer (plus rare)
Thought-provoking Qui suscite la réflexion
BC Before Christ (avant J.-C.)
To fit into S'inscrire dans, aller dans le sens de
Lavishly Richement, superbement
The greater good (Pour) le plus grand bien
Flaws Défauts, imperfections
A fallen society Une société déchue
Emptiness Le vide
To give rise to Donner naissance à
Double-thinking La double pensée
Newspeak La Novlangue
III

The characteristics of utopian/dystopian literature

A

The ills and problems facing our society

The list of the ills and problems facing human society is an never-ending list. It comprises homelessness, poverty, racism, homophobia, disease, greed,
 avarice, crime, violence, sexism, selfishness, among others. The fundamental issue raised in utopian and dystopian novels is to know whether it is the society's aim to erase those ills and, if such were the case, whether it is possible to eliminate them.

1

Getting rid of society's problems: a utopian society

A society that would be able to get rid of those evils would be a utopia, an ideal society, such as the ones depicted in utopian literature. 

In popular culture, there are images and examples of utopian societies in some Disney's animated feature films where, despite a period of chaos where the hero and anti-hero oppose each other, all nature (human beings as well as animals and plants) get together and rejoice in the princess and prince's wedding.

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Beauty and the Beast, the heroes win and it ends with a wedding.

In utopian worlds, the human beings and nature live in perfect harmony, having reached the point of peace and quietness. Good prevails over the evil forces.

2

Exaggerating society' problems: a dystopian society

On the contrary, in a dystopian fiction, the ills of a society run riot, thrive, and virtue is crushed. Dystopian literature has developed over the second half of the twentieth century up until today, because society was facing problems. Today, dystopian literature reflects the problems of climate change with cli-fi, climate change fiction. There a lot of dystopian worlds in TV or cinema.  

Although there may not be utopian societies in reality, there are and there have been dystopian societies.

Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, North Korea are the most prominent examples of such societies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It is interesting to note that the literary and artistic genre has mainly developed over the second half of the twentieth century. This is easily understandable due to:

  • the first and second industrial revolutions;
  • the dehumanization of the worker that it induced (chain work and assembly lines in factories);
  • the emergence of the Third Reich, whose aim was to create a perfect, flawless race. 

 

The way in which humans are depleting the planet's resources and causing global warming and climate change may well result in questioning and jeopardizing human life on Earth. To address such a topical issue and the consequences of human activity on the planet, a new form of literature has emerged over the past ten years, cli-fi, climate change fiction. As climate emergency requires to think on a global scale, and not just on an individual one, literature has an obvious role to play in raising awareness among the world's populations. Indeed, literature offers the headspace that is necessary to think about such challenging issues.

The Sea and Summer, a book written by Australian novelist George Turner's in 2007 is an early example of cli-fi. The plot is set in Melbourne in the 2030s, as skyscrapers are drowning due to sea-level rise: a setting for a stark division between the rich and the poor. As one of the first in its kind, this novel has become a classic of cli-fi, dystopian fiction.

All in all, what the reality of dystopian societies suggests about human nature is at the chore of the genre. In a dehumanized and frightening society where the protagonists fight against environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression, what is at stake is the survival of the human kind as there is no happy ending in dystopias.

Dystopias in literature are found in Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (though it has an optimistic ending), The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

In films and TV series, dystopias are to be found in Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, Mad Max, The Handmaid's Tale, Black Mirror.

English French
Never-ending

Sans fin

Homelessness (to be homeless)

Être sans abri (le fait d'être sans abri)

Greed Avarice (both in English and in French)
Selfishness Égoïsme
To raise an issue Soulever une question, un problème
To erase Effacer
To prevail = to triumph over Battre
Evil forces Les forces du mal
To run riot Se déchaîner
To thrive Prospérer
To be crushed

fig. Anéanti

Chain work Travail à la chaîne
Assembly line Chaîne de montage
Flawless Sans défaut
To deplete resources

Épuiser les ressources

To jeopardize

Mettre en péril

To be at the chore of Être au centre/cœur de
To be at stake

Être en jeu

To address an issue S'attaquer à un problème
A topical issue D'actualité
To raise awareness Sensibiliser l'opinion (publique)
Sea level rise La montée du niveau des eaux
Stark Difficile, dur
B

 The nature of human beings: good or evil?

In utopian literature, authors present human beings as good. In dystopian literature, human beings are evil or at least capable of great evil. It is often the worst version of human beings that is described. 

On the one hand, according to some assumptions, human beings are basically (in the sense of "originally", that is to say, at the origins of humankind) good.

In Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality human beings are presented as good.

Utopian literature is like pastoral literature as it looks backwards to a Golden Age where human beings lived in harmony with nature, and lived simple, happy lives tending sheep, making love in the sunshine, and playing pan pipes. This perfect world takes no account of evil forces and the original sin. Nevertheless, there is one major difference between utopian and pastoral literatures as in utopian literature, the Golden Age is yet to come. This type of literature is to be put parallel with pastoral painting.

utopie dystopie story

Pastoral Scene in Herefordshire, David Cox, circa 1850

© Wikiart

On the other hand, if according to other assumptions, human nature were to be described as dystopian, then human beings would be seen as being basically evils or at least, having an ingrained capacity for great evil. Most of the Christian branches believe in the Original Sin, the first one committed in the Bible, being disobedience to God's command not to eat the fruit of knowledge. When Eve committed Adam to share the fruit with her, it caused the fall from innocence and mankind's banishment from the Garden of Eden. Since then, every single human being has an evil part deeply rooted inside themselves. The capacity for doing evil things is present in all human beings.

Yet, even though all human beings have this evil side inside of them, the Christian faith also believes that man can ask God for forgiveness and can choose to turn away from sin. Baptism is an act for seeking forgiveness. To that extent, the Bible can be read as a message of humankind's redemption, from God. 

But in dystopian literature, the Original Sin provides the author with the worst version of human evil.

In Lord of the Flies, human beings are inclined to do evil things rather than good ones, and were not for the laws and fear of punishment, they would almost spontaneously give in to their evil natures. This is what William Golding shows in his novel Lord of the Flies, where a group of young boys who had left England during WWII to escape the hard living conditions of the war, end up on a deserted island after the crash of their plane. There, left to fend for themselves and to survive on their own, the boys first develop rules and a system of organization, but without adults to invigilate them and without the laws usually set to control the humans and to avoid anarchic development, the children eventually become violent and brutal. In the context of the novel, the tale of the boys' descent into chaos suggests that human nature is fundamentally savage. The evil ingrained in them is the embodiment of the worst version of humankind. Yet, the passage from educated and civilized children to wild ones isn't that brutal. It takes a while for the children to acknowledge the fact that they have slowly but surely turned into the worst nightmares of any parent, whether it is back in England or anywhere else. At the very beginning of the story, Jack recalls the fact that they are English and that, due to their origin and the greatness of their mother country, they should organize "democratic" elections in order to choose their leader. "We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything. So we've got to do the right things" (chapter 2). This quote serves the double purpose of establishing the boy's willingness to establish order and law, and, as the reader discovers little by little, of inexorably descending into chaos thus giving in to the evil inside of them. 

Later in the novel, one of the boys, Simon, whose good nature remains untouched as he is like a Christ-figure and acts according to his conscience, realizes that the Beast the boys were scared of and trying to hunt down was, in fact, the boys themselves, not any wild animals living on the island. "Fancy thinking the Beast was something to hunt and kill" (chapter 8) Simon's revelation leads the reader to understand that there cannot be a happy ending to the story inasmuch as there is no way the Beast inside the boys can be killed. This proves dramatically true when Simon is killed by the hands of the other boys.

The final idea about human nature is that humans are neither basically good nor bad. They are more like a blank page, hence tabula rasa which is Latin for "blank tablet" and they are defined by their environment: in other words, they are defined by their economic, social, historical and family circumstances.

English French
Golden Age Âge d'or
The bearer of moral code Le garant/détenteur du code moral
A violator of the moral code

Celui qui viole le code moral

Chaos Le chaos
Mayhem Le désordre
To play havoc with Bouleverser
To wreak havoc Faire des ravages
The Original Sin Le péché originel
To seek forgiveness Demander le pardon
To fend for oneself Se débrouiller tout seul
The embodiment of L'incarnation de (vb. to embody sthg)
The double purpose of Le double but de
IV

The artists and the creation of dystopian or utopian works of art

The great writers of dystopian literature are from the twentieth century. The creation of dystopian or utopian worlds can be found in other arts than literature.

A

Dystopian literature: the great writers

Dystopian literature has more than often given the writers the opportunity to question the world around them. The first half of the twentieth century provides us with many indications of a world gone wrong.The twentieth century has been the century of dramatic events and irredeemable changes that have shaped the genre of dystopia. Consequently, authors were inclined to depression or pessimism about human nature or the human spirit which is why this genre can literally be said to have significantly emerged in the last century. The most famous writers of dystopian fiction are William Golding, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. 

William Golding, after serving during World War II and having witnessed the horrors of the war, was disillusioned about human nature as he realized he had a Nazi within himself which was only restrained thanks to the society's rules and laws. He thus wrote the story of boys, who, left to their own, begin to torture and murder themselves. To that extent, Lord of the Flies is, still today, a truly disturbing fiction book. Indeed, it is generally agreed that children are the future of a nation. Hence the importance to grant them with a good education, to organize an efficient educational system, and to teach them the basics for living in a society, the point being to give them the tools to fit into our world. Unfortunately, once they find themselves left to their own on the deserted island, even though they were given the education and tools they needed to fit into the English society, the boys turn into savages. This pessimistic vision of the human nature goes parallel with William Golding's state of mind in the aftermath of World War II. 

This was also true of George Orwell who, as a keen critic of imperialism, fascism, stalinism, and capitalism (which he all considered to be forms of political oppression), became disillusioned with Soviet Communism.

In Animal Farm, Napoleon, the pig attains absolute power, convinces the other animals that they are better off without human rules, and forces them to work harder for less food.

George Orwell wrote as a journalist in Germany after the war. It led him to write 1984, a dystopia about a totalitarian regime.

Another major dystopian novel to try and figure out what could have motivated authors to choose the genre of Dystopia is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932. This novel raises a lot of important questions about individuality, human nature, and the downfalls of technological advancement. 

More than a mere warning about science and progress, Brave New World depicts a world with no God, because "God is incompatible with machines". It is a world in which "history is bunk", literature is outlawed, and the only serious writing is the sleep-teachings used to condition children to function as ideal members of society. Two characters in particular try to reject this: John and Hemholtz. Literature becomes a means of finding one's self, of rebelling against conformity and sameness, and of seeking both truth and beauty, even at the cost of ignorant bliss.

Although today it would seem unfathomable for a world without literature and books to exist, the theme of outlawed literature and censorship is a recurring one in dystopian literature, as it is common to Farenheit 451, as well.

More than books and literature, dystopian literature also tackles the issue of education and knowledge, as keys to understanding the world and trying to make it a better place to live in. Brave New World definitely is a warning about education. Aldous Huxley's "hypnopaedia" (a.k.a. brainwashing) makes it clear that with education comes responsibility. Hence the importance to teach the citizens the same meaningless platitudes and irrational lessons in morality. Babies are brainwashed from the day they are born, thus indoctrination becomes part of you they are.

It would be wrong to suggest that writers chose this genre because they were British and because Great Britain causes depressing thoughts. Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid's Tale and Suzanne Collins, who wrote the trilogy Hunger Games, were respectively Canadian and American.

B

The other forms of dystopian or utopian art and their artists

Nowadays, the dystopia genre is no longer limited to writers and film makers. Indeed, painters as well as architects (as early as the end of the nineteenth century) have seized the opportunity to express themselves through new forms of art that defy the usual codes of their disciplines and allow them to foreshadow a somewhat not so bright future. As such, their art is often based on society's short-sighted choices, as a way to denounce the downward slides of the consumer society and its consequences on the environment, the inevitable result of human over-consumption, over-construction, and over-population of our cities, for instance.

1

Painting dystopian worlds

Painters can depict dystopian worlds. 

San Francisco-based artist Michael Kerbow foresees a terrifying urban future.

  • In Their Refinement of the Decline, the painter defines as a "monstrous structure that's meant to fix the pollution we've created", and which takes inspiration from Pieter Bruegel's The Tower of Babel (1563).
  • In the series of paintings called Portents, Michael Kerbow denounces the excesses of over-building and over-occupying the space we have at our disposal. He depicts surreal and at times nightmarish visions of the future. 
  • A New Religion, from the same series, depicts a futuristic city that looks like a city from a sci-fi fiction book. The title, A New Religion, underlines that this futuristic vision of a city is inevitable and engraved in a prophetic book, if the human beings around the world take no action to put an end to the vicious circle of destruction they are engaged in.
2

Building utopian worlds

Architect can build utopian worlds, which is a way for them to criticize the world of today and to prove that it is possible to create different cities, different houses. 

British architect and urban planner Ebenezer Howard first took interest in city planning as he was working as a stenographer in Chicago, around 1871, at a time when the city was rebuilding after its devastating fire. He witnessed the rebuilding of the city, the interweaving of homes, businesses and parks. He went back to England, read about social reforms and ran with the radical reformers of his time. Later on, after having read Edward Bellamy's book Looking Backward, 1889, Ebenzer Howard decided that he would design and build cities that would provide the citizens with a good life. He then started promoting his ideas and wrote a book whose title was The Garden-City of To-Morrow and formed a Garden-City association.

-

© Wikimedia Commons

Howard's ideal city had fractal geometric perfection. The central part of the city is surrounded by farms, reservoirs, and parks. Around that belt, six more cities form a perfect hexagon, and the cities are connected by a circular railway and canal.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an American architect.

"To help people understand how to make life more beautiful, the world a better one for living in, and to give reason, rhyme, and meaning to life."

Frank Lloyd Wright

1957

Design for democracy, integrity and connection, nature's principles and structures were key notions when it came to providing his clients with environments that were "eloquent as well as humane". Architecture was not only about buildings, but also about enriching the lives of those living in them, and about a sense of harmony between the building, its surroundings, place, time, inhabitants. This is why Frank Lloyd Wright not only designed buildings but also pieces of furniture, rugs, fabrics etc. Architecture as the Great mother art is to serve beauty and according to the architect, everybody deserves to live a beautiful life, in a beautiful place, which explains why he sought to create an affordable architecture, thus addressing cultural anxieties associated with modernity.

building utopian worlds

© Wikipédia

This ideal house, which was built for a Pittsburgh couple, was to celebrate the couple as well as the architect's love of nature. The architect was determined to build over the stream and decided that the family would "live with the waterfall… as an integral part of [their] lives". It is the perfect demonstration that human beings and nature can live in harmony, despite progress and technology. To that extent, this house better answers the definition of utopian art than dystopian one as it is some sort of a dream come true.

English French
To question Remettre en question
In the aftermath of

À la suite de (d'une catastrophe)

Irredeemable Irréversible
To shape Donner forme à
The opening of

L'ouverture de (le début, dans le cadre d'un roman)

Bliss Bonheur, béatitude
Meaningless Qui n'a pas de sens
Short-sighted Sans vision à long terme
Downward slides Les dérives
Over-consumption La surconsommation
The consumer society La société de consommation
To take interest in Trouver de l'intérêt à
Interweaving of L'entrelacement de
Slumless = without slums Sans quartier pauvre
To be knighted Être fait chevalier
Furniture (uncount noun = a piece of furniture)

Mobilier