Dystopian novels explore the unforeseen complications that arise from a utopian system and are written as the antithesis to utopian works (Booker 3). Utopian literature is written to underscore the “prevalence of beautiful people and the absence of ugliness… To the extent that beauty symbolizes physical, mental and moral health and the potential for happiness, we may say that utopia proudly possesses the secret of beauty while dystopias hide the secret of their ugliness” (Parrinder 20). Thus, if utopian literature seeks to explore what an ideal society may be, dystopian pieces seek to uncover the truth about how such societies can go wrong.
Three classic works—Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—arguably helped to solidify the need for certain characteristics to appear in a dystopian work. This solidification of dystopian characteristics exists because of similarities that appear among the three novels, even though they were each published in separate decades. Given the foundational nature of these novels and their impact on subsequent literature, as indicated by their enduring qualities and the amount of scholarly discussion generated about them, it would appear that the existing similarities create the basis for a successful dystopian novel, and without all—or at least most—of the characteristics listed below, a dystopian work may not thrive.
Characteristic One: A Dissident Character
Without such a character that undergoes a transformation—an awakening of sorts that jolts them into awareness—the novels would not progress. These works would not have a narrative arc but would rather serve as a flat, descriptive sketch of what future societies could be.
In Brave New World, this character is John the Savage who arrives from an isolated American reservation to England, a place where caste systems are now created and people are mass-produced, and he is incredibly distraught at the degradation of the drug-and sex-fueled society. In 1984, Winston Smith is the dissident character, and he grapples with his job, which is to rectify past events so that they match up with current Party policy and war maneuvering. Through his exposure to an ever-changing history, one which he takes part in altering, he questions the validity of consciousness and whether the government’s control over “facts” is worse than the ultimate fate. Guy Montag, Fahrenheit 451’s questioning character, is a devoted fireman, burning forbidden books at the instruction of the American government. Through an encounter with teenager Clarisse McClellan, who discusses history, emotions, and how her family engages in the discouraged activity of having meaningful conversation, Montag begins to question the need to burn books and the general violent overtones of the current culture.
Characteristic Two: A Leader or a Leading Organization
Since dystopian novels function as critiques of social and governmental systems, it logically follows that there must be a leader (or an organization) that functions as the regulator of the new norm. To “protect” the deluded masses—and to prevent potential rebellion—both the government at large and persons embedded in society need to be led by a strong leader. Parrinder argues that “a society cannot be truly dystopian if travelers can come and go feely. Anti-utopias and ‘satirical utopias’—that is, societies considered perfect by their advocates but not by the implied reader—must be well-regulated enough to prevent the possible disruption caused by a visitor” (6). While there are individuals on the outside of each society—the Proles in 1984, the men who have memorized literature in Fahrenheit 451, and the savages in Brave New World, the new governments and their self-appointed leaders in large part negate their influence and perform the function that Parrinder describes. Without these enforcers—the Party in 1984, Mustapha Mond in Brave New World, and the new American government in Fahrenheit 451—the novels would not be classically dystopian.
Characteristic Three: The Historical Sketch
A dystopian world needs to be built, carefully crafted so that it is believable and rich with story and details. It is important for some history to be established, some synopsis of how the world as we know it collapsed into a different being altogether. Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury flesh out their works in a number of ways, but each of the three novels has minor characters that offer illumination and insight to the protagonist, as well as to the reader. Further, the authors each include, in some manner, a sketch of historical events that have led to the world being in its current state. Both of these devices—the characters and the historical sketch—comprise the third shared characteristic and allow for the reader to more fully engage in the novels with little questioning and more firm understanding.
For example, in the opening of Brave New World, a government official is giving a tour of what is essentially a child-reproduction factory, where children are hatched by the tens of thousands and subsequently conditioned with likes and dislikes, goals and dreams, as deemed appropriate by their predestined caste. Soon after, Mustapha Mond appears and we begin to learn about this society’s admiration of Henry Ford. 1984 relies on Winston Smith to provide a sketch at the start when he is writing in his forbidden diary, and Fahrenheit 451 gives us a great deal of information from Captain Beatty, as initially Guy Montag is so indoctrinated into the new system his awareness of changed dynamics is limited. All of these characters carry the weight of creating a believable world and history for the reader.
Characteristic Four: Restriction of Emotionality and Autonomy
In each novel the rebellion is against a big government that makes decisions for ordinary citizens, the consequences of which are the losses of freedom, privacy, and personal autonomy. Furthermore, each work encapsulates a restriction of emotionality beyond the superficial and the destruction of the family unit.
Brave New World relies on emotional restriction and a lack of self-determination to refute utopian thought (Booker 171). This restriction even extends to appearance and the creation of castes; citizens are not allowed to be unique. Furthermore, citizens are expected to take soma, a mind-altering drug, engage in random, frequent sexual encounters, and have very limited time alone.
1984 also requires constant companionship, even if it is being viewed through the ever-present telescreen. Everyone is required to have the same emotional level—hatred of the enemy, zealot-like loyalty to the Party—and the same purpose in life: service to the Party. Deviations from the norm are deadly.
Fahrenheit 451 shows society taken down to the most base form of human nature—its very id-like impulses. The emotional disconnection experienced by the portrayed American citizens causes them to revert back to a primal state. With the destruction of books and true education, people are now raised in a state bereft of intellectualism and sensitivity. In Bradbury’s work, intellectual freedom—the ability to debate, reason, and doubt—as well as emotional freedom to feel anything other than mindless pleasure and impulse—is extinguished. Like the telescreen but at a lessor level, the Parlor Wall, similar to a TV, can transmit information from where it is installed, further limiting privacy and freedom of thought.
Finally, each of the three novels further restrict emotions via the changed perception of the family unit. By stopping loyalty and love towards family and friends, more emotional space is freed for dedication towards the new way of living. By creating such palpable disconnections in the novels, the authors strengthen the emotional restriction, thus making the dystopian ideas more distasteful to the reader and more successful as a piece of fiction.
Characteristic Five: Controlling Literature, News, and Entertainment
A fifth characteristic in successful dystopian novels is that of controlling entertainment, literature, and news sources. Without restriction of entertainment and media, individuals could read material, synthesize the information, and come up with their own perspective, which may not agree with the governmental or societal status quo (Booker 171). To prevent free-thinking, propaganda is created and entertainment is tightly restricted (Varricchio 98). The value of literature—Shakespeare, religious writings, poetry—in dystopian novels is highlighted due to the strenuous actions of the governments to keep the pieces out of the public’s hands. In each novel literature, news, and entertainment are doled out and altered as seen fit by the government, and the offerings provided by the government leave little room for true mediation on the material, thus serving the purpose of keeping the citizens from thinking too much and questioning the new norms. Superficiality and lies are fed to the citizens to great effect.
Characteristic Six: a Tragedy
The sixth and final characteristic shared amongst all three novels is that of a tragedy. Each work ends on some note of despair, of having little power to fight against the governmental and societal systems. For instance, John the Savage commits suicide at the end of Brave New World. This act is one of both despair and defiance, a recognition of powerlessness over life though power over death, should one choose to seek it. He has left the world behind to end in ruin, as perhaps he was the only one who could awaken the masses.
1984 ends with the ultimate tragedy, even more so than that of John the Savage’s suicide. Both Winston and Julia are changed by O’Brien’s torture—who they are, their rebellious natures, their animosity towards the Party, and their love for one another. All of this is vaporized like so many of their comrades. Chillingly, the novel ends with the following line: “He loved Big Brother” (Orwell 261). This indicates the permanence of the Party.
Fahrenheit 451’s conclusion is perhaps the most hopeful, despite it ending with the bombing of a major American city. Beatty has been killed by Montag, and Montag’s home has been destroyed by the Firemen due to his wife’s betrayal. Montag is on the run when he comes across the keepers of literature, those who retain great works in memory. While society is literally being destroyed all around them, this one note lends hope despite the circumstances: art and intellectualism still survive.
Each of these classic works contain characteristics that work to make them successful dystopian novels. Given these novels longevity and the amount of scholarly literature examining them, it can be argued that to have a successful dystopian novel most, if not all, of these characteristics must be woven within the piece.
Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1994. Print.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1951. Print.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York City: HarperCollins Publishers, 1932.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York City: Penguin, 1949. Print.
Parrinder, Patrick. “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17.1 (2005) : 6-21. Print.
Varricchio, Mario. “Power of Images/Images of Power in Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Utopian Studies 10.1 (1999) : 98-114. Print.