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Representation of Cultural Values Within Dystopian Fiction

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Representation of Cultural Values within Dystopian Fiction

Works of dystopian fiction operate primarily as warnings to society and its values by presenting an exaggerated prediction of the future which will face this society if its issues are not resolved. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta are all dystopian texts set in worlds which parallel, and criticise, the societies the composer operates in. Dystopian texts are not intended to be wildly fantastic, which would make them unbelievable; nor are they supposed to be strictly realistic, in which case they would hold little interest to the reader. Typically, dystopian texts criticise the amount of control which is exercised by the Government and the values of race, class, sexuality and gender in society. These texts express the values and concerns of the contexts in which they are written, and can only be seriously considered as warning society of the dangers of the values of these contexts becoming distorted if they are read as predictions, potentially exaggerated, of the future. The diegeses of dystopian texts parallel the context in which their composers operate. The setting of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four shares many similarities to the depression-era England in which it was written. Orwell uses cultural references to add depth to his characters. During the Second World War, the English Government, in the form of the Ministry of Information, controlled the media through censorship. This is mirrored in Orwell’s novel by the “Ministry of Truth” which “towered vast and white above the grimy landscape.” Furthermore, the head of the Ministry of Information during the war was Brendan Bracken, known amongst his underlings as BB. This alliteration is also present in the text in the form of Big Brother, referred to by his fans as B.B. By including these cultural references, Orwell forced the readers of the time to consider Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comparison and criticism of their own society. The diegetic world of Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale bears the scars of nuclear war, a very real and ever present threat in the context of post-Cold War era America. In the text, the result of this is that “the air got too full…of chemicals, rays, radiation” and “the water swarmed with toxic molecules,” which Atwood describes using scientific language and metaphor. By doing this, Atwood is playing on the general public fear of the dangers of nuclear radiation. The effect of this is to get the audience to relate with Offred and the other characters that live in the exact world which the readers fear will become reality. James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta was created following the 2001, September 11 terrorist attacks in America. In the film, the Government has oppressed society in the name of protecting it from terrorists. Similarly to Orwell, McTeigue makes use of a famous historical figure, in this case Guy Fawkes, to connect with the audience. Fawkes became one of the most infamous terrorists in history after his attempt to destroy the British parliament on “the Fifth of November”, and yet in the movie his face becomes a symbol of freedom amongst the people, and this same date (the fifth of November) becomes a rallying point for society. McTeigue is commenting on the stigma and stereotype which has developed around terrorists and freedom fighters as evil, democracy hating, unintelligent racial minorities. Composers of dystopian texts use these techniques to draw parallels between the diegeses of their texts and their context in order to make the message of their texts personal and immediately apparent to the readers. Dystopian texts express the values and concerns of their contexts, especially with relation to the amount of control which is exercised by the Government and issues of class, gender and sexuality in society. The diegetic society in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is split into three distinct classes: the inner party, the outer party and the proles, where society is strictly controlled by the inner party (i.e. the Government). Using juxtaposition, Orwell explains that “if there is any hope…” of overthrowing the totalitarian Government, the “…it lies with the proles.” At first this appears to be a contradiction, that the lofty, intellectual ideals of freedom and liberty should be upheld by the uneducated, unintelligent lowest class in society. Orwell is criticising the role of the oppressive Government in a Marxist evaluation of the modern class system. A similarly strictly defined class system exists in Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale. As well as this, Atwood also criticises the oppression of women within a patriarchal society. The female characters within the texts are marginalized and objectified as tools for reproduction, and if they fail in this role they are punished. Atwood demonstrates this by italicising Offred’s personal thoughts. In a form of soliloquy, Offred begs the doctor, a man, of course, to “give [her] children, or else [she will] die.” Atwood shows that the women in the text do truly desire to bear children, but only to protect themselves from punishment, not for the natural reasons of open sexual pleasure, feelings of love or even the animalistic urge to reproduce and further the human race. Large-scale oppression, denial and removal of sexual intimacy between people is a common facet in dystopian texts. In McTeigue’s V for Vendetta this takes the form of widespread homophobia. McTeigue shows this with the motif of “mask(s)” throughout the film. As well as the obvious Guy Fawkes mask which V and his followers adopt, Gordon also claims to wear a mask. His, however, is metaphorical, and disguises his latent homosexuality. He has to do this because homosexuality is seen, within the text, as a crime punishable by death. Each of these texts warns about stigmas and practices which have become or are becoming popular in society and acts to criticise society for allowing these values to become warped. Dystopian texts are not intended to be taken as strictly factual or realistic predictions of the future, but rather as warnings of the kinds of issues which will develop in society if they are not resolved in the early stages. Issues such as Totalitarian control by the Government, oppression of sexual and gender minorities and brutality through martial law are all explored within dystopian texts. These issues are very much products of their contexts and, as such, works of dystopian fiction are not realistic as predictions of the future of their societies.

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