The Role of Utopia in Classic and Young Adult Dystopian Literature, by Michelle van Toorn

The Role of Utopia in Classic and Young Adult Dystopian Literature

My thesis, “The Transformation (or Disfiguration) of the Dystopian Genre: From Classic to Young Adult Dystopias”, focuses, as the title suggests, on the dystopian genre within classic and young adult literature. To assess the transformation of the genre from one literature to another, I looked at a classic, in this case Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and the young adult novel The Maze Runner by James Dashner, which was, especially with the release of the film adaptation last year, one of the more popular YA dystopian novels. By the means of three sub-chapters, “Technology and Science”, “Power”, and “Play”, I wanted to determine whether YA literature had corrupted the dystopian genre, since some people, such as Ewan Morrison, believe that YA literature does not contain educational elements (Morrison 2014), and others like Ruth Graham find YA dystopias trashy and not serious (Graham 2014). I concluded that YA dystopias do portray warnings just as the classics do. However, it is true that YA dystopian novels often are heavily focused on action and suspense, and the backstory therefore often lacks detail and complexity, which the classics such as Brave New World do offer. However, saying that YA literature has disfigured the dystopia genre is an exaggeration; instead, one could say YA dystopias have enriched the genre. The classic and YA dystopias complement each other. This way, there are dystopian novels for all ages and tastes, and all will be warned about our possible futures.

While the focus is on the dystopian aspects of the novels, I believe that dystopian novels are intrinsically connected with utopian elements. In other words, a dystopia cannot exist without a utopia. Since utopia forms the basis to dystopian literature, it also forms the basis of my thesis. Defining the term was therefore necessary, and while there are many opinions concerning the term, I stuck close to Thomas More’s Utopia, in which the word was first used to describe an ideal world, and Fátima Vieira’s explanation of the term. Fátima Vieira writes in an article that the term was “based on the discovery that the human being did not exist to accept his or her fate, but to use reason in order to build the future” (Vieira 4). The word has an ambiguous etymology. It consists of the two Greek words ‘ouk’, meaning ‘not’, and ‘topos’ which means place. As Vieira mentions in the article, “utopia is thus a place which is a non-place, simultaneously constituted by a movement of affirmation and denial” (4). However, More coined another word which makes the word even more ambiguous. In Utopia the people think that the island should be called Eutopia instead of Utopia. Eutopia means in Greek ‘good place’, when put together with the word utopia it creates the idea that utopia is “the place that is simultaneously a non-place (utopia) and a good place (eutopia)” (5).

The leaders of dystopian societies often work towards a utopian society. The Maze Runner is a good example; here an organisation called WICKED places children in a deadly maze so as to measure their brain activity, which will help them find a cure for the Flare, a virus that attacks the brain. The intention here is to help humanity survive and ultimately create a better world. The means to achieve this utopian society, however, are dystopian in their nature. In this version of our future world, a utopia is a long way off. In Brave New World the utopian society has presumably already been achieved. The citizens themselves do not complain, but when an outsider arrives, called John the Savage, the dystopian elements of this society come forward. John experiences a lack of freedom and individuality, which are completely normal to the citizens of the State. The Reservation, where John comes from, is a place where individuality and freedom still exist, but it is seen by the citizens of the State as an attraction; a fun place to visit, but never to stay. They prefer to remain in their comfortable homes, with easy access to various forms of entertainment, such as soma and the feelies.

An interesting difference I found between the dystopian classics and YA dystopias, was that the classics often have a similar structure to Thomas More’s Utopia, where each chapter discusses a certain aspect of the society, such as marriage, science, and religion. While Utopia is literally chaptered this way, the classics are not, but they can be divided into sections explaining different aspects. For example, Brave New World begins with an introduction to the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where the World State’s view on childbearing, behaviour conditioning, and cloning is explained. The next section offers a scene where the reader is introduced to the idea of erotic play between children, followed by a section explaining the State’s view on relationships. Such a structure is absent from YA dystopian literature, such as The Maze Runner. The reader learns new things about the society at the same time as the main character. In this case the main character Thomas arrives at the maze with his memory wiped, and he cannot remember anything about WICKED or their goals; he finds out slowly and piece by piece, with a big revelation at the end of the novel where the mysteries are explained.

To conclude, while my thesis focused on the dystopian elements within Brave New World and The Maze Runner, utopian elements are at the root of every dystopian novel. Dystopia and utopia complement each other, and while looking at dystopian novels I found that leaders of dystopian societies often are working towards a utopian society. Their means for achieving this perfect society, however, create a dystopian atmosphere for other people. This goes to show that someone’s utopia is always someone else’s dystopia.

About me:

My name is Michelle van Toorn, I’m twenty-one years old and a third year student of English Language & Culture; I will start the MA Literature and Cultural Criticism next year. I work for the Dutch website and monthly newspaper Boekenkrant, for which I write news articles, reviews, and the occasional interview. When it comes to reading, I have a preference for utopian and dystopian literature, and I therefore decided to combine my love for these genres with my fascination for young adult literature in my BA thesis.

Works cited:

Graham, Ruth. “Against YA.” Slate. The Slate Group, 8 July 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2014.

Morrison, Ewan. “A Dystopias Teach Children to Submit to the Free Market, Not Fight

Authority.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2014.

Vieira, Fátima. “The Concept of Utopia.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature.

By Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 3-27. Print.


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