‘Dystopia is merely a utopia from a different point of view’. Discuss this statement in relation to two pertinent literary or filmic examples.
The following essay proposes to consider the concepts of dystopia and utopia, analysing the ways in which they can be deemed to constitute the same phenomenon understood from a different point of view. For the purpose of perspective, we intend to consider the problem from the standpoint of H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905) and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World (1932). This, quite clearly, represents an especially complex issue to attempt to tackle with paradigms pertaining to both dystopia and utopia being intrinsically linked to political ideology. It is, for instance, impossible to critically analyse Wells’ work, especially his early fiction, without reference to the dominant political ideologies of the epoch, particularly socialism . Likewise, when considering A Brave New World and A Modern Utopia we have to do so with the historical context in which the novels were written firmly in mind. In the final analysis, fictional ideals relating to dystopia and utopia as they appear in these two books are rooted in the great social, economic and political upheavals of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. As a consequence, it is prudent to begin our discussion by undertaking a critical exploration of the meanings of dystopia and utopia as they are understood in modern literature in order to manufacture a conceptual framework in which the remainder of the discussion can take place.
Although utopianism is a concept that is most commonly associated with modern literature, the origins of the notion of utopia has long been an important feature of fiction writing. In the Classical Era, for example, Plato’s Utopia was conceived of as an attempt to fictionally portray a perfect, idealised version of his Republic. Likewise, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) concocts a fictional island society with ideal social, religious and political conditions . These works, like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1615) constitute “the opening of a space of indeterminacy and a certain discursive presence where the material conditions of existence become subject to reconstructive political deliberation.” Understood in this way, utopianism is an essentially timeless concept related to the utopian desire to retreat to a perfect world wholly separate from the imperfections, inconsistencies and injustices that blight the social, legal and political conditions of the real world. However, when we consider the concept of utopia from a discernibly more modern perspective, we can see that utopia is a more paradoxical, multi-faceted phenomenon than it appears in the fiction of Plato, More and other pre-modern writers. Utopianism, as it is understood in modern literature, is underpinned by “the tension between the affirmation of a possibility and the negation of its fulfilment.” Rather than constituting a retreat to an idyllic sphere separate from the real world, utopianism in modern literature and modern political thought is a manifestation of the paradox between the quest for paradise and the realisation that the quest is doomed to failure. This sense of failure, the negation of the fulfilment of utopian desire, constitutes the ideological birthplace of dystopia. The concept of dystopia is, therefore, intrinsically linked to the ideal of utopia with the dystopian narrative being “essentially pessimistic in its presentation of projective images.” Where utopian literature inspires the reader to conjure up an image of paradise, dystopian literature leads the reader towards despondency and despair. It is for this reason that dystopian literature is inexorably linked to fiction writing that is set in the future with science fiction writing representing the most commonly used means of demonstrating the way in which the construction of another realm can lead to the realisation of a nightmare. Thus,...
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