This investigation outlines the fine line between utopias and dystopias. It assesses the topic of when and how the shift from a utopia to a dystopia can occur, analyzing the characteristics that make up a utopia and a dystopia. This investigation will examine two utopian/dystopian narratives. In both books, we will see characteristics of a dystopia, and be further exposed to two different lives under a “utopian” community. We will examine The Giver by Lois Lowry and Anthem by Ayn Rand. The books will be evaluated for their setting, protagonist, governing group, and how they expose the themes of erasing identity and individuality, therefore, answering the question of “to what extent do the actions of utopian societies in their attempt to create a perfect world rather create a dystopia?” Many characters in the narrative may not see the imperfections of the society. The protagonist is outlined by his/her ability to recognize the imperfection of the utopia, highlighting the faults in his/her community. This is where we see the shift from a utopia to a dystopia. When we see the faults of this “perfect’ world, we realize that the world presented to us in the novel is an imperfect and vile world, also known as a dystopia.
The world utopia is based on two contrasting latin roots “ou-topos” meaning
no place, or “eu-topos” meaning good place (Ferns 2). Either definition of utopia can apply to the works that are considered utopian literature. Looking at the first definition of utopia, meaning “no place”, we can analyze that in utopian literature, there is no obvious setting or timeline of when the story is taking place (Spencer). Utopias seem to exist in past time when the world was seen as perfect by many optimists. Utopian communities are often isolated from the rest of the world, and everyone in the community is committed to the lifestyle and is controlled by a governing group (Spencer). Furthermore, utopias are fictional locations that only exist in the minds of their creators. On the other hand, the other definition of utopia challenges that idea. The other definition, defines utopias as “a good place”.
That can be seen in many works, where the community is perfect because it is under a controlled environment. In such books, as stated before, the community is controlled by a hierarchy of people, a government to maintain the peace and equality. They control every aspect of the community, from the living conditions to the lifestyle of its citizens (Ferns 2). The council instills fear into the heart of their citizens, to make them obey what is said by the council. They grow dependent on the council, and never think to disobey the laws because they think they can not survive without the aid of the council. In addition to controlling the aspects of life in the community, the council tries to control the feelings and reactions of the citizens. By erasing the idea of uniqueness and identity from the citizens, they continue to make them dependent upon the system. In such utopian communities, the members are not allowed to choose their spouses, professions, or children, therefore, eliminating the prominent characteristics of individuality (Matteo).
In some works of utopian literature, the word “I” is not included in the text; instead, it is replaced by the word “we”, when someone is referring to themselves. Eliminating the choice of identifying yourself as a unique person decreases the sense of power given to the people. Under the controlled environment, the utopia suits the definition quite thoroughly. However, once the protagonist realizes and demands his/her rights, is when we see a major transition in the theme occurring in utopian literature, producing a shift from a utopia to a dystopia. A dystopia is defined as an imperfect and troublesome imaginary place. Similarly found in most utopian literature, at the beginning of the novel, we perceive the world as both perfect and good. We continue to think this way until we realize the faults of the community and understand the idea that often all utopias are dystopias, granted that the reader and the protagonist are ignorant to the fact. We soon comprehend the characteristics that outline a dystopian society. These include controlling every aspect of life, eliminating Individuality and identity, and being secluded from the outside world, all of which are major characteristics of a dystopian society.
Protagonist in Dystopias
Dystopias can be identified by the protagonist through his/her actions in the story. In a dystopia, usually we view the environment from an aspect of only one of the members of the community. At the beginning of the book, the author fools the readers into thinking that the community is normal, as that of an ordinary person’s life. However, as the reader continues on, they are interrupted by the sudden implication of abnormal aspects of the protagonist characters. These examples can exert from their family, job, feeling, and events in their everyday life. Dystopias often mention the restriction that are forced upon the protagonist, and how he/she rejects them (Spencer). The author finds a way to hint how strong the control of the governing council is forced upon the members of the community. The protagonists of the story are always characteristized as different from the rest, and therefore they view their community differently (Spencer).
Frequently seen in utopian literature, the protagonist is given a unique ability that distinguishes him/her from the rest of the members. That ability can vary from the ability to see, hear, taste, or feel differently, causing them to appear intellectually superior to the citizens of the community (Ferns 30). Anything that gives the protagonist something special in personality is considered bad in the community, and is discouraged. In most works, the protagonists are given those ability to increase their sense of individuality, causing them to revolt against their community. We find that the protagonist is unsure of his/her feeling toward the governing system, which is affected by the people around him/her.
Commonly in utopian literature, the protagonist comes in contact with characters who are completely under the control of the governing system, and also those who go against the council for their personal needs. That causes the protagonist to begin to question his/her society, which is a major theme between all dystopian works (Spencers). In addition, in most works of dystopian literature, usually the protagonist decides that the community is restricting him/her of something he/she wants to accomplish. The protagonist might perceive the community’s control as normal, yet when he/she finds something so meaningful to them that is discouraged by the community, they respond by revolting and leaving the community. Standing up and revolting against the system is something that needs much strength and bravery, which is what is showcased by the protagonist.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
One well known example of a dystopian novel is The Giver by Lois lowry. In the book we are introduced to the main character Jonas and his behavior with his family. At first he seems to live a normal life. However, when he describes how his family came together was when he noticed that abnormalities began to appear. Lowry writes, “Two children–one male, one female–to each family unit. It was written very clearly in the rules” (Lowry 14). Jonas describes how his parents were picked to marry by the House of Elder (governing party), and how his sister and he were given to them. In other words, in his community people have no choice in who they marry or who their children will be.
From choosing a spouse, to having children, and other factors such as career choice, all were decided by the House of Elders. We perceive Jonas as the protagonist because it is apparent that he differs from his community. Lowry highlights his difference using his eyes as a symbol of significance and disorder. We are told that Jonas’ eyes are different in how they perceive things, and how he is the only one that can see different colors. Lowry refers to the subject in a reflection by Jonas:
“Almost every citizen in the community had dark eyes. His parents did, and Lily did, and so did all of his group members and friends. But there were a few exceptions: Jonas himself, and a female Five who he had noticed had the different, lighter eyes” (Lowry 25). This reflection was Jonas’s explanation of his eyes, after his sister pointed out how his eyes differed from the rest of the family. We see that Jonas has special characteristic of a dystopian protagonist. He stands different from the rest and, therefore, conflict is created because he realizes his individuality. We then go through Jonas’s twelfth ceremony, in which he is given the job of the receiver of memory. He must go to an old man known as the “Giver” and receive the memories of the community.
These memories range from snowstorms, to wars fought, to simple happy moments. Some were very comforting, while others haunted Jonas. The story then drifts to a scene where a little baby that his father is taking care of named Gabriel. He was an ill child, but Jonas’s father could not bare to euthanize him. He took care of him, and Jonas helped by giving him sweet memories to make him fall asleep. Lowry writes, “After Gabe had slept soundly in Jonas’s room for four nights, his parents had pronounced the experiment a success and Jonas a hero” (Lowry 131). Seeing his effect of being able to comfort Gabriel, Jonas starts to think that the people of his community should see these memories.
However, the House of Elders discouraged the idea it due to the fact that it might frighten some people. In order to release the memories, Jonas would have to pass away or leave the community. In an attempt to revolt against the House of Elders, Jonas and the “Giver” planned a scheme for Jonas to runaways and leave the community, therefore releasing all the memories to the public. Unfortunately, their plans get interpreted as Jonas fled the community early, trying to help save Gabriel. Gabriel was sent to be euthanized the next day, in attempt to please the “Giver” and save Gabriel, Jonas fled. They leave the community and begin to experience the memories transferred to Jonas, hoping to live a normal life with a different community.
Anthem by Ayn Rand
A well known canonical dystopian novel is Ayn Rand’s famous book Anthem. In the book we are first introduced to Equality 7-2521 as he writes about his life in his community. It appears to be a perfect utopia. Each person is not given a name, but instead a faction that accommodates a word representing peace and equality, and a number.The citizens are not encouraged to be individuals but instead one whole community. We are introduced to the vows of the World Council said by the people everyday, “ We are one in all and all in one. There are no men but only the great WE, one, indivisible and forever” (Rand 19). The book begins by Equality 7-2521 referencing to himself as “ We equality 7-2521”, he talks about being scared, because he is in the tunnel alone; in his community, citizens are not allowed to be alone. They are encouraged to always be in a group of people. By the small hints, we see that individuality and having your own identity is something that is not encouraged.
As we get to know Equality 7-2521 more, we realize that he is curious and very intelligent- two things that are not encouraged as well. At the beginning of the book the teacher, shames him for being too smart and too tall. Ayn Rand writes, “It is not good to be different from our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them. The teacher told us so, and they frowned when they looked upon us” (Rand 21). He is taught that being different is bad. He sees his intelligences as a curse, until he realizes the value of his individuality. After working alone for so long, he discovers electricity and circuits his own light bulb. All this is done in secret because he was assigned the job of street sweeper. It would be a crime to think and do something that was not his job; it is also a crime to be alone. He keeps the bulb quiet for many days but finally decides that the House of Scholars would love the invention so much they would not punish him for breaking the law. He waits until the right day and shows his invention to them.
They become angry, threaten to kill him and demolish his invention. Rand describes their outrage, “‘A Street Sweeper! A Street Sweeper walking in upon the World Council of Scholars! It is not to be believed! It is against all the rules and all the laws!’” (Rand 69). The World Council is outraged that someone who was given a job so low in status, can create something that scholar could not think of yet. That special ability of intelligence that Equality 7-2521 has, breaks the set up of the system (i.e. that everyone is only capable of the job given to them by the council). Excelling past a person’s determined status encourages others to do the same, creating rebellions. Equality 7-2521 decides that its not worth it to confront the council, but rather easier to flee the community with his invention into the uncharted forest. After many days alone he is happy to see the face of a girl that he loved.
Another rule he broke was talking to a peasant girl named Liberty 5-3000, yet he renames her The Golden One. Even though this is considered a sin, Equality 7-2521 gave her a name because he loved her. Rand writes “ We have given them a name in our thoughts. We call them The Golden One. But it is a sin to give men names which distinguish them from other men” (Rand 41). The two of them fall in love, and after Equality 7-2521 leaves, Liberty 5-3000 chooses to follow him into the uncharted forest. After leaving the community, they once thought was perfect, they start to experience new adventures they did not know existed. For the first time, they see their own reflection, live together, read books, and most importantly they start use of the word “I”.
Settings in Dystopias
In both novels, we can see characteristics of setting in dystopian literature. Firstly, in both novels the setting is not identified. In The Giver, Jonas speaks about the different house that are in his community, but he never reveals exactly where they are. He does not mention what is beyond his community and only let us know that there are other communities based on a conversation. In the beginning of the book, we are introduced to his sister Lily who speaks of how she is angry because another kid from a different community was not following the rule at her school. Lily reflects, “I guess I wasn’t paying attention. It was from another community. They had to leave very early, and they had their midday meal on the bus.” (Lowry 11).
In a way, Lowry is setting the scene of his home. She reveals that there are other communities around, yet we never get to know if the community is a country, state or even a village. Similarly, in the book Anthem, the setting is not identified. Equality 7-2521 talks about having his community and an uncharted forest, yet he never identifies the exact location. He reflects on what is beyond the pale of his community, “ Beyond the ravine there is a plain, and beyond the plain there lies the Uncharted Forest, about which men must not think” (Rand 30). Equality 7-2521 knows that there is something beyond his home, yet he is not permitted to question or explore it. Therefore, we perceive that the story occurred a long time ago, in an unknown place, and the world has developed since then. However, in both novels the exact setting is not fully known, a clear characteristic of dystopian narratives.
In addition to the unknown settings, both books have a revolting protagonists. We see it when the protagonist is influenced by someone who secretly goes against the council, or to protect someone that they love dearly, or because they are different than the rest of the community in some way. In The Giver, Jonas demonstrates all of these influences to leave the community. After becoming close to the “Giver”, he learns about the last receiver in the community and her story. He is influenced by the ideas of The Giver, of how the community should know its secrets. This causes him to believe that leaving the community would be the best, for therefore he can release the memories to the public. The Giver explains, “Rosemary had only those five weeks worth, and most of them were good ones [Memories]. But there were those few terrible memories, the ones that had overwhelmed her.
For a while they overwhelmed the community. All those feelings! They’d never experienced that before.” (lowry 147). The Giver explains how if Jonas left or died, all the memories were to be given back to the people of the community. Something that they might not be able to handle, but nevertheless, believed is crucial to expose to them. With the Giver’s influence, Jonas revolts against the House of Elders, and leaves the community, releasing all the memories. Secondly, another reason that Jonas revolts is to protect someone he loves. Jonas abandons his set plan with the “Giver”, and leaves the community earlier than planned to save Gabriel from being euthanized. Thirdly, Jonas demonstrates the third characteristic of a dystopian character, as we get the hint that Jonas is special in some way. Lowry describes his eyes as something special, that he can perceive things that other can not see. In a way, he has a different view of society and people than the rest and is more knowledgeable.
He is given the job of the receiver for that reason, that with those memories he can see beyond and connect ideas together. Jonas was suppose to be good for the community, instead, he revealed the truth of the troubled nature of their existence. In Anthem by Ayn Rand, Equality 7-2521 also demonstrates the reasons for a revolting protagonist. First, he demonstrates the reason of leaving his community to protect something he loved. Equality 7-2521 was criticized and ordered punished for his actions and his invention. The council ordered him dead, and his invention destroyed in the name of good for the community. Rand writes, “ ‘You shall be burned at the stake’ said Democracy 4-6998” (Rand 72). This illustrates the seriousness of Equality 7-2521’s action to the World Council, that it is considered evil and he should be punished harshly.
Therefore, Equality 7-2521 revolts and runs to the Uncharted Forest to protect his precious invention. Secondly, Equality 7-2521 also explores the third aspect of a dystopian protagonist, which is that he is different from the rest of his community. As stated above, he is yelled at for being smarter than the rest of the boys. A dystopian protagonist often has a special ability that others in his community do not. In this case Equality 7-2521 has the power of Intelligence. He is intellectually superior to the rest of his community, illustrated by his ability to discover electricity and circuit a light bulb, something that the House of Scholars could not accomplish themselves. Clearly, both protagonist fit the perspective of the characteristics of a dystopia protagonist. Interestingly, the books were written about a decade apart, yet share such great similarities in characterization.
The Governing Party
In both books, we see a controlling governing party that controls the whole community. In The Giver, Jonas describes how the governing party control the aspects of family. He explains about how the House of Elders, selected his parents and sibling. In his community it was normal for the House of Elders to put families together, eliminating the element of choice from the rights of their citizens. Each person is chosen a mate, and never sees their biological children. They make the children, and afterwards other children are given to them by the House of Children. Then we are introduced to yearly ceremonies, in which we are told that this year Jonas will be receiving his job. His father discussed of how the committee selected a person’s job. “The committee always makes the list in advance, and it’s right there in the office at the Nurturing Center” (Lowry 17). Jonas’ father describes the draconian method in which a person’s profession is determined.
Similarly, in Anthem we see the same effect of the governing party or a council. Equality 7-2521 talks about liking the Golden One, yet he cannot approach her because the council even controls the person to whom you procreate with. He explores the matter, when discussing how mating occurs in his community: “Each of the men have one of the women assigned to them by the Council of Eugenics” (Rand 41). He explains how each person is chosen a mate and forced to marry and procreate with that person. Secondly, it is illustrated when discussing career and employment in his community. In Equality 7-2521’s community a job is selected by the World Council. He is given the job of street sweeper, which he hates. He thought that his intellectual powers would be useful in the House of Scholars. In both books, the government controls every aspect of the community citizen’s life.
Erasing of Individualization and identity
In observing the overall themes of the books The Giver and Anthem, the theme of erasing individualization and identity is present. In The Giver, we see the loss of identity by the impersonalization in Jonas’ family. The idea of how his parents and sibling are not biologically related to him gives him less of an identity. He does not know who his biological parents are, or if he’s related to anyone. He is forced into this family, who were picked by a group of people that do not exactly know him. Not knowing his background, Jonas can never know his true identity. Erasing of individuality and identity is also a major theme in Anthem. From the beginning of the book, we notice that Equality 7-2521 never uses the word “I” when referring to himself.
He uses the word “we”, elaborating on the matter that “I” and being alone was forbidden in the community and seen as an evil sin. Not being able to identify oneself from the rest is a major sign of erasing of individuality and identity. He speaks of the matter when writing about the sin of being alone, “ The laws say that none among men may be alone” (Rand 17). Not being able to say the word “I” or having personal time alone, a person can not personalize anything about themselves. Similar to The Giver, Equality 7-2521 does not get the choice of what job he is given, what mate he selects, or any major aspect of his life. Not having control of your life choices, and not being able to use the word “I” is how dystopian councils erase individuality and identity in the community.
In conclusion, in order to outline the fine line between utopias and dystopias, we must understand the factors that cause a utopia to ultimately appear as a dystopia. This is shown through the conduct of the protagonists and also the great extent in which governing characters of a utopian society attempt to perfect the world by controlling every aspect of a community. Moreover, to be able to understand and compare The Giver and Anthem, we must first understand what a utopia is and also, be able to understand utopian literature and dystopian qualities and the similarities between them. To understand utopias, we have to see which definition of utopia did the author use to explain their utopia. Either the definition of “no place’, or the definition of “good place”. We see in The Giver, that Lowry explains the utopia as a good place. Jonas’s characteris shown to have a good life, until he discovers the truth about his community.
This reveals how his community turns into a dystopia for him, and he decides to leave his so perfect home. However, we see that in Anthem the definition of “no place”, was used in context. Equality 7-2521, never seems to be happy with his world. Rand creates a sad, and dark atmosphere to the setting as well as the plot in which we see his community in an unknown place, with no good forces at all. While Equality’ 7-2521’s perfect utopia is equal and all, it turns into a dystopia when he discovers that he is no longer accepted home. Both stories are great example of utopias turning bad, and becoming a dystopia. They start as perfect worlds, but when readers look closer, we see the flaws, allowing us to see the alteration of the utopias becoming dystopias. Overall, in examining at the characteristics that are similar in utopias, it is reasonable to conclude that to a great extent, The Giver and Anthem are similar utopian novels.
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