1984, Foucault & More

by Annelise Royles

Hello, fellow English nerds! If you are like me and love how the many elements of literature come together, then you will thoroughly enjoy this series on dystopian literature. Entrenched in history, politics, and philosophical thought, dystopian literature allows fruitful analysis of beautiful and chilling works of art that inform us readers about the society around us.

The dystopia is a curious genre of fiction because it employs the most extravagant literary devices (such as allegory) in fictional literature to create a novel grounded in truth. A bit of an oxymoron, I know, but simply explains this phenomenon specific to dystopian fiction, “which exaggerates our modern context so that we can challenge it. Providing for its readers a glimpse into a horrifying but fully possible future...” (Rachel Wilkinson 22).

So what is a dystopian novel? Dystopian fiction usually focuses on a fictitious political regime and how it operates. In so doing, the writer examines societal living and provides a case for the reader against political structures such as totalitarianism. Most of canonized dystopian literature is shaped by the dark political shadow cast by totalitarianism in the 20th century; these works include Animal Farm, Lord of the FliesBrave New World, and 1984. Moreover, one of the main focuses of the dystopian novel is the herd mentality, which taps into the fear that societal subjects will passively normalize oppressive practices. This series will travel through time and explore the dystopian genre’s tropes and how they shift with different societal and political paranoia.

Using 1984 as a guide, here is a list of tropes I have noticed in dystopian fiction/interesting details and choices that can bring more meaning to the dystopian novel. Some of them will be painfully obvious and have already been discussed in this post, but bear with me.

  • Roots in Reality

Many elements in dystopian novels rely on current societal realities as an anchor to provide a more effective narrative. For example, 1984’s setting in London makes all of Oceania’s policies and philosophies allows the narrative to exist under the illusion that it is nonfiction. Importantly, the inclusion of certain details stems from the dystopian fixation on totalitarianism in places Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, where the world gawked at extreme societal experiments. 1984 follows this trope with the inclusion of the Ninth Three Year Plan, which aligns with the 1928 First Five-Year Plan in Soviet Russia and the Third Seven-Year Plan, implemented in North Korea in 1989. Many more of these plans existed in both countries, and any reader with knowledge of totalitarian governments would quickly be reminded of Oceania’s roots in reality. Another example of echoing diction in 1984 is Winston’s use of Victory Cigarettes and Victory Gin, which reminds readers of Victory Gardens, which were promoted during World War II. Clearly, Oceania is in a constant state of war, and Orwell evokes the imagery of a historically gruesome war that exists outside of Orwell’s novel and in reality.

  • Third Person Vs. First Person Narrative

The dystopian narrative often has a third person omniscient narrator who guides the reader through the novel’s setting. This narrator often fixates on one character, such as Winston in 1984. Although main characters such as Winston may guide the reader’s exposure to Oceania, but the narrator tells the reader important information. For example, when Winston sees the Ministry of Truth in his way to work in the beginning of the novel, the narrator explains the details of the Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Love, and Ministry of Plenty (4). Winston does not communicate this directly, but the narrator explains these details of the society in 1984 to the reader. Orwell’s choice to educate the reader through an unbiased narrator reveals that Oceania is the main character of his novel, and Winston just provides a way to showcase that society. First person narration, on the other hand, appeals to the pathos of the main character and emphasizes how the society at large effects this singular person. Its perspective narrows the perception of the dystopia in question and makes it more personal to a character to whom the reader is attached. Take Offred, for example, in The Handmaid’s Tale. Through her first person narrative, Offred makes a large societal “revolution” and restructuring more tangible to the reader. Her personal experience as a handmaid allows for the reader’s sympathy that makes the entire philosophy behind the handmaid more poignant.    

  • Super Obvious Symbolism

Subtlety may not be dystopian literature’s strong suit, but its clear metaphors make its powerful message clear and have serious implications regarding the long-lasting power of the dystopian narrative. The Orwellian concept of Big Brother may be low hanging fruit, or a symbol with extremely obvious meaning, but that allowed the concept to maintain its cultural value. This pop culture element has an interesting relationship to the dystopian because all of the ideas in a dystopia should be at the reader’s fingertips. So, the symbolism should be simple to grasp, the language should be simple, and the imagery should be realistic. Even concepts that have not reached cultural significance such as the Ministry of Truth in 1984 do not hide any subtle meaning. This does not mean that this Orwellian entity lacks meaning, as it speaks to the dystopian idea of subjective and altered truth.

  • Foucauldian Overtones

As previously mentioned, philosophy is keystone to dystopian literature, and the musings of Michel Foucault often inspire the grim imagery included in dystopian literature. Foucault’s famous Panopticon depicts a world where one internalizes societal rules out of fear that one is always being watched. This internalization is Foucault’s definition of discipline; society teaches the subject how to behave properly. One does not actually need to be watched, but the possibility must always remain that one can be seen at any and every time. This idea presents itself in the first few pages of 1984, where “[t]he telescreen received as transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it...There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment...You had to live--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3). Foucauldian philosophy pairs well with the idea of the herd mentality and connotes the people’s submission to any force capable of discipline.      

  • Us Vs. Them Mentality

Fictional dystopian regimes often pits its people against another entity to bring them together; this is not a foreign concept and is even outlined in The Prince. Nonetheless, these figures or groups represent everything considered immoral and unjust. In 1984, for example, Emmanuel Goldstein is “the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity” (12).

That is all for now! Stay tuned and, if you would like, read the novel I will ruminate next week, A Clockwork Orange. Think about how Burgess follows or rejects these common tropes, and add to the list of common devices in the dystopian genre!

— Annelise Royles is an English major at Kenyon College. She edits for Persimmons Literary Magazine, which was founded and still operates on Kenyon’s campus. A few of her favorite books include A Clockwork OrangePassing, and Middlemarch.