Covid-19 and Dystopian Literature

Now, as a student of both English and History, I’m not surprised that both topics have the ability to predict the future. We are living in unprecedented times, and probably facing the biggest crisis most of us will face in our lifetimes. The first thing I thought of, when I watched Boris enforce a quarantine, was that what was occurring in the world was like something I have read in a book. Those books are usually part of the Dystopia family, a genre that explores what will happen to the world, and humanity in the far future following some sort of apocalyptic event… in other words, it looks at a world where everything has gone to BLEEP.

A simple definition of the genre is the opposite of utopia, an idea outlined by Thomas More in his work, ‘Utopia,’ written in 1516. If utopia is the perfect world, dystopia is the direct opposite. There are different types of dystopia, and the genre evolves in response to different crises at the time, much like the one we currently find ourselves in. We get ‘Farenheit 451’ following Hitler’s abominable book burnings, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ follows fears about communism and the oncoming Cold War in the 1950s, and so on… People have also picked up on the fact that Dean Koontz’s ‘Eyes of Darkness,’ written in 1981, predicted the rapid spread of a virus originating from Wuhan in 2020. Now is the time to take literature seriously. This may not be the most cheerful subject in these times but prepare yourself for a whistle-stop tour of the Dystopian genre!

George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ published in 1949, has been in our minds for some decades now, due to rises in technology and its ability to become more invasive… and humanity’s ability to be lazy. Conspiracy theories about Alexa’s secret government connections hark back to Orwell’s “telescreens,” and even Facebook showing me ads for things I’ve mentioned in conversation contributes to the idea that we are always being watched by ‘Big Brother’… and I don’t mean Davina McCall’s smash hit on Channel 5… even though the title of the show is lifted from Orwell’s own mind. The idea of being controlled and constantly watched sits firmly with the idea of Totalitarian Dystopia, a world in which we have no control, and where the concept of freedom is a distant memory.

Aldous Huxley followed up Orwell’s harsh world in 1932 with his softer dystopia ‘Brave New World,’ in which people are willingly controlled by a drug named “soma,” distracting characters like Mustapha Mond and Lenina Crowne from tension, worry and pain. They really don’t like the idea of talking about their problems, and instead dose up on drugs to suppress their inner pain. Sound familiar? The UK had hit a major economic depression in the year prior to the novel’s publication, perhaps explaining Huxley’s exploration of the conflicting interests of the individual and society, propelled by the growing widespread fear of Americanisation. In a novel that puts together drugs, Shakespeare, suicides and orgies, in retrospect it seems to have predicted the birth of contraception and the free love that swept the world in the 60s, and still does today.

Anthony Burgess cranks up the violence in his 1962 work, ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ The novel follows Alex and his “droogs,” gang, as they go around pillaging, rioting, stealing and generally just acting like a bunch of BLEEPs. Like dystopian novels before his, Burgess responded to the current context and situation, more specifically, the mass delinquency that followed the Second World War. Young men found themselves with little to do, and at the time, hippies and skinheads were blamed for encouraging violence in the post war period. Burgess tapped into that, and within the novel explored how said teens can be controlled, using the fictional “Ludovico’s technique,” which is effectively a barbaric procedure to reduce people to brainless bags of meat. I did say this wasn’t going to be cheerful. Burgess raises the question as to whether it is ok to treat anyone in this way, regardless of their crimes and behaviour.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ enters the world with a bang in 1985, coming from the mind of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The novel really is the big one if you want to look at sex and gender in dystopia. Atwood appears to have responded to the current form of feminism, which we retrospectively dub as Second Wave feminism. This focused on the woman’s role in the home, and how actions are specifically gendered. It also asserted that the patriarchy originated in the home, due to the dominant father figure, and that this ideology was imprinted on the children, which they then carried on, and into the world outside. Those who have read the novel will know that it centres on women’s ability to bear children, which is primarily a domestic issue. In response to Donald Trump’s authoritarian presidency Atwood rolled out a sequel, ‘The Testaments’ in 2019. This was probably one of the first incidences in which a dystopian novel had a female protagonist, an idea that really takes flight in the 21st century.

I’m going to briefly touch on Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel ‘Noughts and Crosses,’ which has just aired on the BBC. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s an example of how the Dystopian genre can adapt to anything, as it describes a futuristic world in which racial segregation is enforced in favour of the African upper-class. It’s noteworthy for this, as well as its inclusion of a female co-protagonist in Sephy Hadley. Give it seven years and Suzanne Collins will give us female fighter Katniss Everdeen in ‘The Hunger Games.’

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 depression fest ‘The Road’ responds to our current economic crisis, as the constant use of the word “grey” really drills home the fact that the Earth is dying. A man and boy, who remain nameless as, what’s the point in identification and attachment now, trek through America to safety, hiding from fearful landscapes and human cannibals along the way… whilst having an existential crisis. It examines the human condition following an apocalyptic event, looking at starvation and malnutrition… loo roll is the least of these peoples’ worries. As if my Year 13 wasn’t stressful enough.

This is really a small selection of novels birthed from the genre… I would do more, but I don’t want to depress anyone further.

So really, the point of this post has been to show people that artists are influenced by what they say and what goes on in their times. The only thing left for us to wonder is, what novels, poems or plays will we get that have drawn inspiration from the 2019-2020 Coronavirus pandemic?

Stay safe, stay inside. Read something cheerful.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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