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The popularity of Dystopian Literature has seen a gradual increase throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, particularly with young adults, as seen through the success of novels, featuring teenage protagonists, such as the Maze Runner and The Hunger Games. What this popularity within the younger demographic shows is that texts such as these clearly demonstrate themes that they can relate to. As individuals grow up in a world where the next generation are constantly bombarded by a continuous stream of pessimistic and transgressive news headlines, it’s no surprise that dystopian literature may act as a brutal acceptance of the fate of our world. In addition, as teens grow up and begin to experience the commitments of adult life, they become more engaged with politics and social issues and become increasingly invested in the powers that governments and institutions hold over their lives.
Dystopian societies are imagined worlds in which there is a common theme of transgression and breaking down of social foundations throughout. Dystopias are often horrendous places, the direct antithesis of a utopia – typically understood as a perfect paradise. They display society as enormously miserable and wretched where both inequality and injustices prevail (Zhurkova and Khomutnikova, 2019). This is portrayed in dystopian texts through multiple contextual themes, such as the environment, science and technology, religion, violence. As Tom Moylan argues, critical dystopias ‘linger under the terrors of the present even as they exemplify what is needed to transform it’ (Moylan, 2019). They commonly place a large emphasis on the dangers that modernity and capitalism have produced and that may possibly appear in the not-so-distant future. Ultimately, dark, made up, dystopian worlds provide a warning of the extensive threats and exposes the risks that capitalism and modernity have created. These texts may also provide us suggestions of what not to do. It gives us a range of possibilities and reasons to avoid crash courses- an alternative to the purely technological pursuit that has occurred so far, (Dündar, 2013).
Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaids Tale, is one example of transgression being inherent in dystopian literature. Awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award and selling eight million copies in English worldwide, the novel details multiple themes such as indoctrination, religious fundamentalism, and genital mutilation (Boyd, Lewis, and McIntosh, 2006). Atwood (1985) creates a dystopian society in which the society, ‘Gilead’, is controlled by male ‘Commanders’ and its elite as they establish and attempt to maintain a new social regime with a new culture, class system, and gender ideologies. Probably the most strikingly transgressive part of this novel is the government’s social control of its population, particularly through the regimes gender ideology. The handmaidens are often used unwillingly as surrogates. This links to Levi-Strauss’ explanation of the origins of women’s cultural subordination, describing it as the ‘exchange of women’ (Lévi-Strauss et al., 1969). In this understanding, women come to be seen by society as simply commodities to be exchanged.
The main character, Offred, finds that the only way she can gain any form of power is by using her physical body to cause the guards to desire her. In this society, in which women are not allowed to read or allowed any other individual freedom, the protagonist is forced to use sexuality to survive in the society. Chapman, University of Houston–Clear Lake and School of Human Sciences and Humanities (1996), note that the women in Gilead are “destabilised, lacking political recourse, and denied information’; they become dependent on the men for ‘survival and are thus rendered powerless by any orthodox measures”. While appearing sexist and almost anti-feminist, Atwood in fact criticises and displays her sentiments against the oppression and objectification of women in contemporary society. Moreover, today, just like in Gilead, many societies manipulate religious scriptures and texts and disparage women under the veil of religion. An example of this is the doctrine of ‘complimentary’ of genders as a key element of Faith practice in evangelical Pentecostal groups. This argues that men get to lead and women to follow, men earn money, women tend to the household (Perales and Bouma, 2018).
George Orwell’s prominent novel 1984 further displays multiple transgressive themes. Like Atwood’s dystopian world, Orwell’s dystopia has an essential theme of social control. The population of the society is constantly monitored by non-stop governmental surveillance by the ‘The Party’, (Orwell, 1949). The use of technology is illustrated through the ‘all seeing telescreens’ and a ‘watchful eye of Big Brother’. Contextually this can be linked to the transgressive uses of controlling a population through surveillance, particularly, the link between the power of technology to monitor a population constantly and easily. This can worsen already-prevailing inequalities within communities as well disproportionately affect people who are more economically vulnerable in society. In Chile, for example, the biometric identification system in the national health system is of concern, due to the possible limitations in accessing basic health and that it could generate for marginalised and impoverished populations (Privacy International, 2019).
As Žižek(2018) strongly stated, humanity is ‘approaching an apocalyptic zero point’. Due to this, many become disillusioned at ruling authorities for not doing enough to curb extensive world issues, such as climate change, racial and gender inequality, migration, and discrimination on minority populations. With all these issues being prevalent in dystopian literature, authors criticise aspects of late modernity and the inherent destructive and exploitative nature of Capitalism. This criticism of capitalism and late modernity is displayed through deeply transgressive themes that are ever present in dystopian worlds. Dystopian Literature is ultimately a warning, that allows readers to think contextually and critically about the themes present in the texts.