A dystopia is a flawed society in which the population lives in constant fear of the world around them. In the book Utopia/dystopia, a dystopia is described as “utopia’s twentieth century doppelganger” (Gordin, Tilley, Trakash 1). It can look similar to a utopia, but it is not the opposite of one. This is a common misconception, especially in literature.
A utopia is a perfect society with no flaws, mistakes, or heartache. “A true opposite of utopia would be a society that is either completely unplanned or is planned to be deliberately terrifying and awful. Dystopia, typically…is neither of these things, rather, it is a utopia that has gone wrong or a utopia that functions for a particular segment of society” (Gordin, Tilley, Trakash 1). A dystopia cannot exist without a utopia to compare it to.
Historically, a dystopia was only a literary word, describing “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives” (Merriam Webster Dictionary). It describes a place where there is injustice amongst the citizens, constant fear, and turmoil. Unfortunately it can be argued that presently, society is more of a dystopia than a utopia, but contradicting Merriam Webster, it is not an imaginary place. Today is real, and so is the dystopic society that many people currently live in – a society with flaws, conflict, and little perfection.
When a dystopia is described in literature, the author generally sets the story in the future or in an imagined setting. They generally include anti-humanitarian acts, environmental disasters, an apparent decline in the happiness and safety of the population, an unstable government, despair within society, and economic turmoil.
Other less apparent, but still prominent, characteristics of a dystopian society are tactics of fear (such as the feeling of constantly being watched, and doubt in the character of those in charge), the removal of freedom of speech, thought, and/or the right to information, and an obvious decline in the health and sustainability of nature (Dystopias: Defintion and Characteristics).
As described by George Orwell, a dystopia usually is a society with a hierarchy, dividing the classes and creating a Caste system. This system gives an upper, middle, and lower class. This separation of class creates unbalance, giving power to the upper class, and leaving the middle and lower class with little hope of rising to a higher class. The middle and lower classes generally are struggling and have little to no means to change their situation.
Orwell also argues that in this hierarchical society, there is a democratic and strict government which limits freedom and individuality, but a high appreciation for the penal system. This system is not forgiving; instead it consists of harsh torture, both physically and psychologically. Lastly, the “state [uses] propaganda programs and educational systems that coerce most citizens into worshipping the state and its government, in an attempt to convince them into thinking that life under the regime is good and just” (Dystopia).
In literature, a dystopia can only be effective if the reader believes it. Many times, a dystopic story will include technology or species that do not exist, natural or social/political disasters that have not yet happened, or other impossibilities. As long as there is some correlation of relation to the reader’s life where they can notice similarities (Dystopia), the dystopia will be effective not only in the story, but also instill the same fear in the reader, which will bring the dystopia to life.
"Dystopia." Dystopia - George Orwell Links. Charles George Orwell Links, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2013.
"Dystopias: Defintion and Characteristics." ReadWriteThink. ReadWriteThink, 2006. Web. 9 Jan. 2013.
Gordin, Michael D., Helen Tilley, and Gyan Prakash. Utopia/dystopia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 9 Jan. 2013.