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The Significance of Dystopian Novels

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Camus wrote that “the world is ugly and cruel, but it is only by adding to that ugliness and cruelty that we sin most gravely”.

Dystopian novels can be both a mirror and a magnifying glass, reflecting our world and exaggerating aspects of it to create their nightmarish realities. However, much dystopian fiction does not intend to simply add to the ugliness and cruelty present in the world. In fact its aim is entirely opposite- to warn against the grave “sin” Camus describes. By observing a fictional universe, we are shown what could become of our own existence if these warnings are not heeded. The barren desolation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the totalitarian oppression of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are merely extensions of modern humanity. In spite of the dystopian nature of both novels, also present are the key themes of love and humanity. It is this degree of hope that allows both works to be taken as warnings, rather than nothing more than nihilistic prophecies of doom. Both written in the West in the modern era, the novels, and their readers, concentrate on the key issues of the day, such as the environmental problems facing the world and humanity’s increasingly questioned relationship with God. Contextualised by both novelists’ nationalities and the right wing, global policing of American politics in the decades surrounding both texts’ creation, there is a viable political reading of the novels as critiques of the dominating political structures under which they were written: in the case of The Road, a critique on the consumerism and environmental abuse inherent within these systems, while The Handmaid’s Tale concentrates on the abuse of power and reduction in human rights.

The exploration of God, religion and their places in the 21st century is present in both novels. The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be a warning against the authoritarian societies spawned from extremist monotheism, as seen in modern Iran for example. Atwood’s Gilead, and its perversion of religion to control, points out the dangers that can be created when religion is abused. Atwood herself says “such dictatorships gain initial acceptance by justifying their actions in the name of their subjects’ most cherished beliefs”. However, it is not religion itself that seems to be criticised by Atwood, but humanity’s practice of twisting ideologies for its own means. There is much conflict within the novel between the use of religion to exploit and control and the humanitarian aspects that underpin religion: for example the intentional misinterpretation of Biblical passages to vindicate the Gileadean regime’s more arcane practices, such as surrogate motherhood and public executions, is in direct conflict with the hope and love shown by Offred that help her to survive her oppression.

The exploration of religion in The Road is altogether more complex and unclear. The book is full of religious imagery and references to God, but could be viably interpreted by atheist and believer alike. Echoing the Waiting for Godot, a strong existentialist thread runs throughout the novel, presented within the Beckettian, minimalist speech, the frequent use of ellipsis and the seemingly forsaken world, but this is countered by the Messianic figure of The Boy and traditionally Christian themes of pilgrimage, love and hope. The devastated world in which the novel is set could also be a comment on God; either in support of his existence or against it. The “barren, silent godless” land seems to refute the concept of Natural Revelation, the idea that God’s majesty is manifested and proven through the beauty of his creation, the natural world. The harsh and unrelenting landscape does not fit into the image created by the Christian scriptures, saying as they do that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalms 19.1) and that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities- His eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1.20). However, a believer may point to Nature’s eternal power that is shown in the book both through the final section and the fact that the world has outlasted the human race, as evidence for Natural Revelation. Certainly, the allusions to God are deliberately cryptic (e.g. “If he is not the word of God God never spoke”) – McCarthy does not seem to reveal a moral stance on religion, only an exploration of humanity’s need for divinity. Perhaps the closest we come to his own ideas is when reading “there is no God and we are his prophets”. God is a human necessity, whether He exists or not.

Dystopian fiction is often set in a world that has suffered some sort of disaster, a physical manifestation of the moral corruption that has taken hold. Both novels take place after environmental disasters of human creation, but the details remain largely unspecified. This refusal to delve deeper by both authors may be a comment that there are in fact too many possible causes to warn against, be they nuclear, related to climate change or otherwise. It may be that this lack of explanation is also a comment that such a disaster is inevitable and cannot be prevented or warned against. Through her description of the hellish “Colonies” and the crucial drop in humanity’s fertility that underpins the Gileadean coup, Atwood is making an environmentalist point. Her comments paint a clear “portrait of what life will be like in the future if people continue to ignore the increasingly permanent damage being done to our ecological systems.” However, it is in The Road that mankind’s relationship with nature is more deeply explored. Throughout the book, natural phenomena are described as hostile towards the characters, with pathetic fallacy employed frequently- “the cold, autistic dark”. Yet this animosity is of humanity’s own creation: it is due to mankind’s own actions that the environmental issues have arisen. The ending of the novel seems to be entirely incongruous: the poetic language and beautiful natural imagery are in stark contrast to the novel’s bleak outlook. It is here that we are shown nature’s true significance: it is “older than man” and humming with “mystery”, giving it a status far higher than humanity. An environmentalist could interpret this as an instruction to mankind to treat our environment with respect even greater than that which we hold for ourselves.

This is linked to the idea of Consumerism and mankind’s tendency to take without thought of giving back. The Road takes place in a world devastated by this consumerism: the capitalist societies have collapsed having exhausted their supplies of natural resources, but even then, The Man and The Boy are forced to live by scavenging from the land, taking what they can. Men have even taken consumerism to its most violent extreme, turning to cannibalism to survive. One of the strongest representations of consumerism is manifest in the shopping cart: dilapidated, with its wheels falling off, it represents the failings of consumerism and the impossibility of its sustainability. However, it is equally strongly symbolised in the can of “Coca-Cola” that The Boy drinks. By referencing one of the corporations synonymous with consumerism, and then describing it in such positive terms, McCarthy is admitting the lure of the consumerist way of life. “Really good” and “bubbly” are two of the most positive descriptions in the entire novel, but the fact this experience is so transient and superficial is a further comment upon the limited nature of consumerism. That strands of consumerism still persist, even in a world that has been devastated by that very lifestyle, could be seen as both a warning and a pessimistic lamentation: we, the readers, are warned to change our consumerist ways, but are also exposed to the inevitability of our destructive flaws, leaving two equally viable but diametrically opposed responses to Camus’ quotation and the given response.

One theme which both novels deal with very openly is the relationship between parent and child. The bond between father and son is the very essence of The Road, and Offred’s relationship to her daughter is key to the survival of her personal identity. The beauty and intimacy of the link shared by The Man and The Boy is almost inexplicably powerful. The child is entirely dependent on his father for protection and survival and it is only through him that The Boy has any contact to the world of the past, however tenuous that contact is. However, The Man is equally reliant on his son- his entire purpose is to care for this child. He even tells his son, “if you died, I would want to die too”. The purity and simplicity of this dynamic, in the face of such a brutal and loveless world, is not only a powerful exploration of love but also a message to the reader: appreciate this love and treasure it above all else, for when all else has gone, it will still endure.

The same value is emphasised in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred uses her memories of and love for her child to preserve her individuality amid the oppression of Gilead. She has a reason to survive and rebel against the regime: to find her daughter. Even when she doubts whether the child is still alive, the love for her daughter and Offred’s need for her reason to continue proves stronger than her doubts. This is another message of hope conquering the seemingly insurmountable adversity. However, the contrasting ways that the two novels deal with this theme reveal a lot about their author’s intentions. While this Parent/Child relationship is the central subject of The Road, with any moral and social discussion that is uncovered playing a secondary role, it is the opposite in Atwood’s novel, in which the questions posed relating to the morality of mankind seem more important than the human issues that are included. With parental relationships so central to both novels, it could be said that only a parent’s reading will fully experience both works and that those without children are unable to access the novels on certain levels.

The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian literature in its truest sense. Echoing as it does Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, it follows in the tradition of using its creation as a means to open a moral discussion; we are forced to look at our own ethics and practises and reassess them. Atwood’s strict adherence to her factual bases (“I couldn’t put anything into the novel that human beings hadn’t actually done”) show that her intention is for us to inspect modern life and our own behaviour. The fact that Offred seems to escape the regime offers hope for the good in humankind, although the flippancy and gender of the lecturer in the Historical Notes seems to point out society’s tendency not to learn from mistakes. All these aspects mark the novel out as a warning. While there can be no doubt that the world described in The Road has dystopian traits, there is less of the traditional critique of society that is common in dystopian novels. McCarthy himself admits that, more than anything, the novel is a “love story”to his son: an exploration of the Father-Son relationship and a very personal journey encompassing God, consumerism and the possible futures of humanity. While this may not be an explicit warning in the same way that The Handmaid’s Tale is, in that specific practises and customs are not pointed out as dangerous in quite the same way, The Road can still tell us how much we have to lose. The character of The Boy, with his compassion and innocence, show us as readers the good that we must champion, especially when juxtaposed with the almost infinite desolation and corruption that fills McCarthy’s novel.

Both novels, in different ways, are markers to their readership, asking questions and suggesting answers as to how disasters, both physical and moral, can be avoided and humanity’s inherent goodness preserved.

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