Welcome to my second post on The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this post I will be covering the following topics:  Marx’s concept of alienated labor as exemplified by the women in the Republic of Gilead, the use of religion in manufacturing the consent of men and women, and, briefly, the meaning of the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale”.

            Offred:  The Exploited Worker

Marx argued that, in a market economy, workers are alienated from their labor.  What does this mean?  On one level, Marx was concerned with the fact that the work a worker did was less valuable than the product being produced.  The example of a McDonald’s employee should illustrate the point.  Billy makes the cheeseburger, which sells at a dollar a burger.  Of course, for McDonalds to make a profit, the corporation has to cover the expenses of the raw materials (the bun, the cheese, the meat), the cost of transporting those products, the overhead of running the physical plant (water, sewage, taxes, electricity, rent, etc) and the cost of paying Billy’s salary.  For all of this to happen, the time it takes Billy to make one burger, deliver it to the customer and ring up the sale, has to be less valuable than the burger itself.  If Billy was hired and only worked long enough to make one burger before being fired, the amount of money he would get paid would not be enough to buy the burger he just made.

Not only is Billy’s work immediately worth less than the product it produces, as he works faster, his labor decreases in value.  Let’s assume that when Billy starts working, he makes twenty cheese burgers an hour and that he is paid an hourly wage of seven dollars.  Over the week, Billy’s productivity increases to forty cheese burgers an hour.  His pay, however, doesn’t go up simply because he is more productive, and, of course, the price of a cheese burger doesn’t go down either.  What does this mean for Billy?  In monetary terms, the value of his labor has decreased.  Who benefits from Billy’s devalued labor?  McDonalds.  As Marx explains,

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labor not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.


So, why do workers, like Billy, work at a loss?  Few workers make this unfair exchange simply because they enjoy their work (university professors being one of the notable exceptions).  Instead, workers work so that they can pay for the commodities that they need and want and so that they can fulfil their obligations as family members and citizens.  In other words, they work unwillingly. Again, Marx explains this quite clearly:

[T]he worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labor is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned like the plague.  (

Put in other terms, if Billy could afford everything he wants without working for McDonalds, he would quit tomorrow.  On the other hand, a lucky few of us enjoy our work so much that even if we had the money to retire tomorrow, we would keep on working because our work is “the satisfaction of a need”.

Most workers, however, are alienated through labor on a number of levels.  On the one hand, they are generally not the owners of the products that they produce.  To the extent that they do enjoy the commodities produced, they do so through an uneven exchange of their time and labor for those commodities.  Furthermore, because they grudgingly have to pay through their labor, the time they spend working is no longer their own.  It belongs to someone else.  During the work day, the worker belongs to the corporation or boss that pays him or her.  While there are laws limiting the power of the boss or corporation, the worker is still disempowered.  This helps explain why waiters at some restaurants sing Happy Birthday to customers about whom they don’t know and don’t care.  Beyond that, however, the worker not only produces a commodity, he or she is a commodity.  Customers thus feel that they are not merely entitled to the services or goods for which they are paid, but also to certain form of behavior from the workers providing those services and products.  When businesses say that the customer is always right, they do not mean that the customer is always right in relation to the business but rather in relation to the worker serving the customer.  Of course, in America, every worker is also a consumer of the labor of others.  These daily experiences of consuming others unwilling labor divides workers from other workers.   From Marx’s perspective, all of these experiences create four different types of alienation:

The worker is alienated from his or her essential nature.  He or she works to live instead of living to work.  In other words, he or she begins to lose his or her essential humanity and become machinelike.

The worker is alienated from the product produced by his or her labor.  He or she does not own the product, in some cases can not afford to consume the product and frequently does not have a vested long-term interest in the product.  Usually the worker also does not have much if any personal input into the design of a product.

The worker is alienated from the means of production.  The corporation determines how the product or service will be produced, and the worker has little if any say in these decisions.  These decisions range from where one works to how long one works to even what types of clothing one may wear at work or when one can take a bathroom break.

The worker is alienated from his or her fellow workers.  The only reason why the worker spends any time with his or her coworkers is because they’re all paid to be their working.  Their encounters are artificial interactions brought about by the exchange of capital.  Furthermore, at the workplace, the social relationship that might naturally exist between these individuals is actively discouraged by the demands of production, and the workers find themselves in competition with each other.

By now you should be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Offred and the other handmaids.  You may have noted that in our last post I said that Offred could not be considered an employee of the Commander.  While this remains true—she isn’t an employee—she is very much an alienated laborer. For her and the other Handmaids, their labor consists of going into labor and thus producing the products—children.  These children, of course, are not theirs as becomes evident when the handmaid named Janine gives birth.  The child born by Janine is named by the Wives, because, “It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here” (163).  Indeed, the fact that Janine produces the child, but does not have any claim on the child is further indicated by Offred’s observation that Janine will “be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn” (163).

What Janine’s experience illustrates is that Handmaids are neither lovers, nor mothers.  They are wombs charged with reproducing as many children as they can have.  As Offred explains, “We are for breeding purposes […].  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (176).  Significantly, the language Offred uses suggests her role not as a laborer, but as a product.  She has become alienated from her essential humanity.  This transformation from person to product is predicted rather ruthlessly by Aunt Lydia, who is responsible for the indoctrination of the Handmaids.  She tells them, “A think is valued […]only if it is rare and hard to get.  We want you to valued, girls.  […] Think of yourselves as pearls” (145).  While Offred presumably does not see herself as a pearl, she has begun to see herself in utilitarian terms of purpose, instead of seeing herself as individual.  She rationalizes the removal of her identity, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name which nobody uses now it’s forbidden.  I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter” (108).  Unfortunately for her, the process of becoming a product is not far enough advanced for her quite to believe what she tells us, and she withdraws her assertion as soon as she makes it.

Given the division of labor, and the fact that the Handmaids come to see themselves not simply as producers, but rather products, it is logical that the care of the children produced by these wombs belongs to somebody else.  Products cannot care, after all, for other products.  Someone else must consume the products.  This explains, in part, why Offred’s daughter from her marriage to Luke is taken away from her to be raised by somebody else.  Offred is estranged from the child she has produced.

Through this whole process, it should be noted that while the Handmaids suffer a deterioration from being humans to being product-machines, the infants they produce experience an amelioration from being products to being humans.  Offred’s daughter, placed with a new family, is perhaps viewed as a person in a way that Offred is not.  That said, because Offred’s daughter is a woman, she too will be consumed, either as a Wife, an Econowife, a Martha, or a Handmaid, or she will be disposed of as an Unwoman.

Like Marx’s envisioned workers, Offred is also alienated from the means of production.  Sex occurs when she is most fertile.  Because sex is work, it is not meant to be pleasurable.  Offred notes, “This is not recreation, even for the Commander.  This is serious business.  The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (122).  Indeed, in spite of the apparently “intimate” nature of the relationship between Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, from very early on Serena Joy informs Offred, “As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction”(21).  The fact that the Commander also sees these sexual encounters as business, not pleasure, is indicated by the fact that he prays for “a blessing, and for success in all our ventures” (117).  Sex is a venture, and from Offred’s description, one that both the Commander and she would prefer to successfully complete as quickly as possible.  For Offred, the possibility of impregnation signifies a brief respite from her work.  She will be well treated during the pregnancy and not be required to perform her duties during the few months following the birth before she is transferred.

Although Offred only benefits in limited terms from any pregnancy, like most workers she has partially consented to the ideology under which she suffers.  She notes to the reader that she is not being raped because “nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed-up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some, and this is what I chose” (121).  She has also bought into the ideology of the Republic of Gilead in as much as she has come to see herself as others see her.  Offred informs us that, “Every month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure.  I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”  (95).  The sense of failure she expresses, of course, has nothing to do with her own goals and desires.  There is nothing to suggest that she wishes to have a child at this time in her life.  Her life has become not an end of its own, but rather a means to an end, which is precisely how Marx defined the alienating effect of labor.

There is, however, an ironic twist in Offred’s role as “an ambulatory womb”.  Offred’s mother earlier made use of her father in much the same way that Offred is used by the Commander.  Offred remembers her mother saying, “A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.  Not that your father wasn’t a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t up to fatherhood.  Not that I expected it of him.  Just do the job, then you can bugger off, I said […]”  (155).  The difference between the position of Offred’s unnamed father and herself is perhaps only that he has more options that she does, and agrees to do “the job” because it is something he wants to do.  Like Offred though, he is not expected to be invested in the baby-product that is born as a consequence of his “work”.  If Offred is an ambulatory womb, then her father was, at least from her mother’s point of view, merely an ambulatory penis.  In both cases, the “worker” is alienated on several levels from the process of (re)production.



“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m Through”

– Sylvia Plath

Female characters play a significant role in dystopian literature.  In early dystopian fiction this role has frequently been limited to being the catalyst for rebellious behaviour.  In other words, women provide the initial impetus for characters like D-503, Winston Smith, and John Savage to act.  To a certain extent this pattern is merely an extension of a long tradition in Western literature.  From the Illiad, with its account of heroics inspired by the kidnap of Helen, to the romances of the Middle Ages, with knights going off to rescue damsels in distress, to the more recent tales, like the Star Wars adventure set in motion by the captured Princess Leia, women have long been depicted as providing the motivation for male action.   The Handmaid’s Tale and The Stepford Wives challenge this stereotypical representation of women by making women not the cause of the story, but rather the story itself.  Beyond that, both of these dystopias will suggest that for women, dystopia consists of the construction of a patriarchal-masculinist utopia.  In this first post on The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ll be focussing on providing a feminist understanding of how patriarchy operates in our world.

Dystopian societies in fiction are frequently divided into hierarchical classifications that differentiate between the types of power that each group possesses.  In 1984 and Metropolis these divisions are at least partially modeled on the Marxist categories of workers and owners.  In Brave New World and Gattaca, on the other hand, while there are still the categories of workers and owners (Vincent, in Gattaca, can be interpreted as making the transition from “worker” to “owner”), groups are “scientifically” differentiated according to their biologic and genetic characteristics.  While this latter form of classification may seem further removed from our reality than the class system presupposed by Marxism, the truth is that the oldest and most universal demarcation between those with greater power and those with lesser power is based on whether a person has an XY chromosome and is thus classified as a male, or an XX chromosome, and is classified as a female.

Although there is no natural explanation for why women are routinely disempowered, there can be little debate that being born female in many cultures relegates one to a separate and unequal status.  As Kate Millet notes in her influential book, Sexual Politics:

[A] disinterested examination of our system of sexual relationship must point out that the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon Max Weber defined as herrschaft, a relationship of dominance and subordinance.  What goes largely unexamined, often even unacknowledged (yet is institutionalized nonetheless) in our social order, is the birthright priority whereby males rule females.  Through this system a most ingenious form of “interior colonization” has been achieved.  It is one which tends moreover to be sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, more enduring.  However muted its present appearance may be, sexual dominion remains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power (Millet 1972, 24-25, italics mine).


The absence of any “natural” justification for this subordination of women is commented on by the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who argues in her book The Second Sex,

One is not born, but becomes a woman.  No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society:  it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine. (1952, 249)

What does she mean by this claim?  She means that while the presence or absence of certain sexual organs may be defined by genetics, the way one is treated because of the presence or absence of those sexual organs is culturally determined.  One is born male or female (in her opinion), but one becomes a man or a woman because of culture.  This perhaps helps clarify why our culture has terms like “girly men” and “manly women”.  People so labeled have not “become” entirely what is expected of them.

Put another way, as feminist theorist Elaine Showalter points out, “gender is not only a question of difference, which assumes that sexes are separate and equal; but of power, since in looking at the history of gender relations, we find sexual asymmetry, inequality, and male dominance in every known society” (1989, 4).  Thus, according to de Beauvoir, Millet, Showalter and other feminists, the discrepancies that exist between men and women in terms of power are not—contrary to what readers of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus might believe—natural,  but rather social; not innate, but rather constructed.

Although there is nothing natural about the limitations placed on women, western societies have worked to rationalize the inequities of the gender system by appealing to “natural law”.  As feminist critic, Monique Wittig explains,

The ideology of sexual difference functions as censorship in our culture by masking on the ground of nature, the social opposition between men and women.  Masculine/feminine, male/female are the categories which serve to conceal the fact that social differences always belong to an economic, political, ideological order. (Wittig 1992, 2)

In other words, the terms male and female become a means of obfuscating the fact that women are frequently denied the rights granted men.  The fact that more women don’t protest this unfair treatment is not surprising.    As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points out,

Being included, as a man or woman, in the object that we are trying to comprehend, we have embodied the historical structures of the masculine order in the form of unconscious schemes of perception and appreciation.  When we try to understand masculine domination we are therefore likely to resort to modes of thought that are the product of domination.  […]  The dominated apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear as natural (Bourdieu 2001, 5, 35)

In simple terms, women (and men) have been conditioned to accept the inequities between the sexes.  As, Huxley would say, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do.  All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny”(1989, 15).  Atwood provides a slightly different take on conditioning by noting the human capacity to adjust to the demands of society.  Her character, Aunt Lydia, informs the women she is educating that “Ordinary […] is what you are used to.  This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.  It will become ordinary” (45).  In the case of gender differences, society both works to make the social destiny of men and women seem inescapable and, at the same time, natural and preferable.  In other words, the gender roles we’ve been assigned since birth have become “ordinary”.

Atwood pictureMargaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future American society, the Republic of Gilead, which has returned to “traditional values” and thus cost women many of the freedoms that they gained during the 20th century (9).  The patriarchal nature of this society is indicated by the fact that women are distributed to the men.  The dictum upon which this distribution is based is summed up in the slogan of the Republic of Gilead, “From each […] according to her ability:  to each according to his need” (151).  Women are judged only by their abilities at fulfilling certain social functions.  They are never to be the recipients of the abilities that they and others possess.  Men, by contrast, are judged only according to their need and are always the recipients.

Not all men, of course, benefit equally from this distribution of women. When Offred, the protagonist, first encounters her Commander’s chauffer, Nick, for example, she notes that he is of “[l]ow status:  he hasn’t been issued a woman, not one.  He doesn’t rate;  some defect, lack of connections” (24).  The fact that Nick is judged not to need, or warrant, a wife, is consistent with the inequitable distribution of power in our society.  As Arthur Brittan has observed, “Although a large number of men may benefit from patriarchy and heterosexualism, this does not mean that they all benefit equally; similarly, not all women are equally oppressed” (1989, 139).

The status of each of the women available for distribution is indicated by the nomenclature used in the Republic of Gilead.  Each of the handmaids, along with being given the Biblical title of handmaid, is also given a temporary title that indicates her relationship to the man who own her.  Consequently, the protagonist is called Offred because her owner is Fred.  Once she is transferred, her title will change to match her new owner.  Similarly, other women, who belong to different social groups also have different titles, all of which are indicative of their relative positions in society.  The women who are married to the Commanders are called “Wives”.  The consistent capitalization of this title signals that the word “Wife” means more in the Republic of Gilead than it does in our society.  A Wife is not simply a married woman—she is a woman who is allowed to marry, unlike the other women in society.

On a lower station from the Wives who are married to the Commanders are the Econowives, who are married to lesser men.  The Econowives, as Offred explains, “are not divided into functions.  They have to do everything; if they can” (32).  Beneath these multipurpose wives are the handmaids, who are responsible for reproduction and the female servants, or Marthas, who are responsible for the housework.  In addition to Aunt Jemimathese women, who are clearly connected to specific households, if only on a temporary basis, there are also the Aunts, who have the responsibility for educating and indoctrinating the handmaids.  The title of “Aunt” works on two specific levels.  On the one hand, it is suggestive of an older, wiser, family member, someone whom the handmaids are meant to admire and turn to for advice.  On the other hand, the title evokes the use of the word “aunt” as part of the history of slavery in the United States.

Throughout the story, the relationship of Offred to her Commander remains obscure.  The initial relationship is not, technically, sexual, although they do have sex.  Offred describes a sexual encounter between him and her in the Ceremony in these terms:

The red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher.  Below it the Commander is fucking.  What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.  I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing.  Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.  Nor does rape cover it:  nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.  (121)

Consequently, she is not—until later in the story—his mistress (210).  As the relationship is established in the beginning, she cannot be a mistress.  The word mistress presupposes a woman involved in a  sustained intimate relationship with a married man whose wife is typically either ignorant of the affair, or who, if she is aware of it, disapproves of the affair.  The relationship between the Commander and Offred is clearly not intimate, even in a sexual sense, nor is it even particularly enjoyable for either of the parties involved.  As Offred explains, from the Commander’s perspective, “The sexual act, although he performed it in a perfunctory way, must have been largely unconscious for him, like scratching himself” (207).  Offred’s experience of the sexual act is also distant.  She objectively records that,

What is going on in this room, under Serena Joy’s silvery canopy, is not exciting.  It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena.  Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary; they would be a symptom of frivolity merely, like jazz garters or beauty spots: superfluous distractions for the light-minded.  (122).

Not only is the act devoid of all passion, the act is done with the permission of the Wife, Serena Joy, and indeed, occurs with Offred’s head lying on Serena Joy’s lap.  These facts alone make it evident that Offred is not intended as a mistress for the Commander.  In any event, lest there should be any confusion about her role, Offred disabuses the reader of the “fantasy” of the kept woman:

We are for breeding purposes:  we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans.  On the contrary:  everything possible has been done to remove us from that category.  There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love.  We are two-legged wombs, that’s all:  sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (176).

Offred is not, then, a prostitute or kept woman.   She is not the Commander’s employee, for she receives no wages and can never quit her duties to the Commander.  As the slogan, “From each […] according to her ability:  to each according to his need” suggests, there is no question of her being compensated for fulfilling the Commander’s needs (151).  Of course she can refuse to fulfill her role as a handmaid, but to do so risks exile to the colonies.

Offred is not family either, although the social group to which she, the Wife, the Marthas and the Commander belong is meant to resemble a family.  Indeed, during her earlier indoctrination, Aunt Lydia explains,

For the generations that come after […] it will be so much better.  The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round.  There can be bonds of real affection […] under such conditions.  Women united for a common end!  Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task.  Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household?  It isn’t reasonable or humane.  Your daughters will have greater freedom.  (209-210, italics mine)    

Although the future envisioned by Aunt Lydia is one of family, even she is uncertain of how this family will be constituted, for while the handmaids “will be like daughters”, they clearly won’t be daughters of the families to which they are assigned.  In any event, Offred’s membership in the family is undercut by the fact that she will be reassigned as soon as she has performed her duty to the Commander’s family by producing a child.

The relationship then, that Offred has to the Commander is one of property to owner.  Early on, when her society begins the transition to the Republic of Gilead, Offred’s friend, Moira, tells her, “Women can’t hold property anymore.  […]  It’s a new law” (231).  The reason, of course, why women cannot own property is because they are themselves property.  Logically, property cannot own property, or hold down a job, or have any of the freedoms granted to a citizen.  Offred is keenly aware of the fact that all women are property in the Republic of Gilead.  Reflecting on the structure of her little community, she muses,

I wait, for the household to assemble.  Household:  that is what we are.  The Commander is the head of the household.  The house is what he holds.  To have and to hold, till death do us part.

            The hold of a ship.  Hollow.  (103-104).

The hold of a ship conjures for the reader the image of the hold of a slave ship.  To a certain extent, though, Offred is even less than a slave, whose freedom is tacitly stripped away.  She explains, “I wait.  I compose myself.  My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech.  What I must present is a made thing, not something born” (86).  To place this again in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous phrasing, “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (1952, 249).  Offred has become a womb.

Works Cited.

De Beauvoir, Siomone.  1952.  The Second Sex.  New York:  Bantam.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  2001.  Masculine Domination.  Trans.  Richard Nice,  Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Brittan, Arthur.  1989.  Masculinity and Power.  Oxford:  Basil Blackwell.

Millett, Kate.  1972.  Sexual Politics.  London:  Abacus.


Showalter, Elaine.  1989.  Introduction:  The Rise of Gender.  In Speaking of Gender.  New York:  Routledge, pp. 1-16.


Wittig, Monique.  1992.  The Straight Mind and Other Essays. New York:  Harvester.



Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II

From a distance we are instruments
Marching in a common band
Playing songs of home, playing songs of peace
They’re the songs of every man
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

– “From a Distance” as sung by Bette Midler

Welcome to my third post on dystopian literature.  In this post, we’re going to begin by examining the religious imagery in We.  A casual reader of Zamyatin’s We, might at first conclude that religious imagery and religious themes play a limited and insignificant role in the novel.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, while Zamyatin’s novel is set in a secular, post-revolutionary, rationalist society, much like the one envisioned by Soviet communists, religion remains a significant, apparently indestructible frame of reference for D-503 and the other citizens of the One State.  The survival of religious imagery in a state officially dedicated to reason and the elimination of the imagination is surprising, and can perhaps only be explained by either assuming that humans are endowed with an inherent sense of religious awe (the religion gene, if you will) or that the One State fosters a secular form of religion because faith in the state is necessary to the continuation of the state.

A Historical Case for the Existence of Secular Religions

We need to ask, is a secular religion even feasible?  While the term secular religion seems, at first glance, an oxymoron, further consideration of the history of communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union suggests that there are a number of shared features between communism and traditional Christianity.  While Christians seek salvation from sin, Communists seek salvation from class warfare and social injustice.  Both Christians and Communists believe that history will eventually end.  Christians envision this end to history occurring when Christ comes to reclaim the earth and establish his kingdom.  Communists, following the writings of Marx, argue that after an intense class struggle, a new classless society will be formed.  Because class conflict, which Marxists consider the engine of history, will have stopped, history will also cease.  Christian and Communist leaders alike have frequently made the case that sacrifices and suffering now are necessary to the attainment of either the Kingdom of Heaven or the workers’ paradise.  Christians often speak of the unity of Christians, and Christian leaders frequently exhort their followers to act like brothers in Christ.  Communists believe in the unity of the workers, and of course, Karl Marx famously ended his Communist Manifesto with the phrase “Workers of the world unite”.  Just as some Christians venerate saints and decorate their homes with icons and statures, so, too, Soviet Communists venerated Lenin and Stalin and decorated their own homes with the pictures and statues of revolutionary heroes.  Pilgrims from both faiths frequently make visits to the tombs of their fallen leaders.  Both Christians and Communists have texts that they refer to for guidance and which they believe provides insight into future events:  the Bible for Christians and Das Kapital for Communists.  Communism, of course, is not the only secular movement to adapt and assimilate religious imagery.  Nazism, with its pomp and circumstance also contained major religious motifs.   For an example of this religious imagery in action, examine the picture of Hitler to the left.

Hitler as MessiahIn particular, note the “heavenly light” surrounding Hitler and the bird, possibly a dove or eagle, above him.  The bird is a common motif in Christian artwork, where it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Lest you should think that I only see how religious iconography is co-opted by anti-religious states to foster a secular state religion, let me share some personal examples of how religious imagery is used for better or worse to develop our American identity.

A couple of years ago I told my then Spanish flat-mate about “The Pledge of Allegiance”.  His eyes grew large as I described children in schools across America, hands on their hearts, facing the flag each morning, chanting in unison.  When I finished, he said, “So it’s like you have an entire army of small children.”  I explained to him that the function of “The Pledge of Allegiance” was not to turn little children into a miniature militia or “uber patriots”.  My response rings hollow even now.  What precisely did we mean when we said:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag

Of the United States of America

And to the Republic, for which it stands,

One nation, under God,

With liberty and justice for all.


What exactly is entailed by this oath of “allegiance”?  In other words, what are we agreeing to?  More specifically, what are we promising about our attitudes and our behavior  in relationship to the flag and the nation?  Does such an oath bind us to support every war that our country engages in, even if we question the morality of that war?  What about that “one nation, under God” bit?  How can we be sure that our nation is under God?  Does this statement presume that we and our nation are more important to God than other people and other nations?  If so, why us instead of them?  Does our assertion that we belong to one nation mean that we’re going to all give up our differences, and act as one?  Are atheists, who don’t believe in God, part of this one nation?  Is an oath identifying a God they don’t believe in any way binding for atheists?  It has to be noted here that the phrase “one nation, under God” was added during the Cold War specifically to differentiate “God-fearing” Americans from the “ungodly” Communists.  What are we to make of the final ringing “With liberty and justice for all”?  Are we to assume that that “One nation, under God”, actually does provide “liberty and justice for all”?  It seems hardly likely in a nation where more black men are in prison than at college, and where competent women still hold substantially fewer powerful positions in society, and are paid less than their male counterparts.  What limits our ideal goal of liberty and justice for all?  Should we take an oath swearing to support a nation that is supposed to provide “liberty and justice for all”, but will never be able to achieve that Utopian ideal?  But of course, the Oath of Allegiance is not meant to be analyzed, any more that the unanimous elections held in the One State are meant to be analyzed.  Both are symbolic gestures that speak to our (unanalyzed) position as members of the community.  Both gestures indicate that the state is dependent upon, and yet more important than the individual.

An earlier memory from my childhood comes to mind.  My father, brother and I are in our car traveling across the US, listening to a Christian song.  The song begins by telling of a statue in New York harbor that represents freedom to the world.  The singer’s voice swells to proclaim, “I’m so proud to be called an American.  To be named with the brave and the free….”  The theme changes slightly.  There is a cross on a hill called Calvary.  The singer is proud to be known as a Christian, to be named with the redeemed.  What could be better, I ask you, than this fortunate combination of church and state?  Who could not be proud of being both an American and a Christian?  I was fifteen at the time and was uncritical of this particular equation of being Christian and American.

My identification with Christianity may have even been stronger than my identification with my nation, though they were so closely intertwined that it is difficult to separate them.  I remember quite clearly as a child singing and marching to a song that went:

I’m too young to

march in the infantry

ride in the cavalry

Shoot the artillery

I’m too young to

Fly over the enemy,

But I’m in the Lord’s army.

Yes, Sir!…

This song presents faith, one could argue, both in terms of a modern military and in terms of an unquestioning patriotism.  Similarly, this combination of faith, militarism and patriotism is evident in an email I received on the eve of the war with Iraq:

Subject: PRAY BEFORE IT STARTS A torch has been lit today to be passed along to your e-mail friends…asking them to pass it along….and along….and along. We can do something about the threat of war; both in Iraq and with terrorists. In the Old Testament, God’s armies were always led by the priests. When the waters parted in the Jordan, it was the priests’ feet which first hit the turbulent river. In the New Testament, Christians are also referred to as priests…all Christians. We must, therefore, go in first. As the possibility of war approaches with Hussein and Iraq, we are asking the priests to step in first…..ahead of our military. Let us be setting up camp for our soldiers’ entrance into the conflict. How? By prayer. Let us be sending in “prayer missiles,” “cruise and scud prayers” to target enemy plans. “Patriot prayers” to shoot down incoming threats. We should be praying for two things: (1) that the enemy leaders become confused, disoriented, and distrustful of each other; that their entire system of attack fall apart, and (2) that in God’s wildest ways, these enemies would become aware of His deep love for them and the war Jesus has already fought for them, personally, on the cross. God had Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to 300 men. He then equipped them with nothing but trumpets, pitchers, and torches. What an odd combination to fight off well-armed soldiers. When Gideon gave the command, the Bible says the enemy fled crying and turned on each other…all because God messed with enemy plans. Prayers were started for this about a month ago. On CNN last weekend a report came out that although Hussein has nothing to lose, his generals do. Is confusion beginning to develop? Please pray for God to set the stage for defeat of all those who intend to do harm. When our men and women of uniform arrive on the scene, may they be surprised at how God had camp set up before they ever got there. Would you please do two things? (1) pray, and (2) pass this along to those you know will pray. May we build an e-mail army of over a million in force…beginning with you.

In light of these examples, it is possible to argue that religious imagery plays an important part in shoring up every social structure, even those (perhaps especially those) which claim to be secular.

Perhaps the function of religion in the One State is to establish faith in the absolute truth of the governing ideology.  The success of this imagery is evidenced by D-503’s refusal to question the ideology of the One State.  Even when he admits his own rather innocent crimes, he does so without any hint that the One State might be to blame.  Instead, when he envisions the possibility that O-90 might betray him, he decides that,

In my last moment I shall piously and gratefully kiss the punishing hand of the Benefactor.  Suffering punishment is my right in relation to the One State, and I will not yield this right.  We, the numbers of our State, should not, must not give up this right—the only, and therefore the most precious, right that we possess. (Zamyatin 1972, 114-115).

This right—which D-503 a little further recognizes does not exist, numbers can have no rights—is premised on the proposition that the One State is always right and the offending number always wrong.  The religious nature of the punishment is made clear earlier, when D-503, watching an execution notes:

According to the descriptions that have come down to us, something similar was experienced by the ancients during their “religious services”.  But they worshiped their own irrational, unknown God; we serve our rational and precisely know one.  Their God gave them nothing except eternal tormenting searching; their God had not been able to think of anything more sensible than offering himself as sacrifice for some incomprehensible reason.  We, on the other hand, offer a sacrifice to our God, the One State—a calm, reasoned, sensible sacrifice.  Yes, this was our solemn liturgy to the One State, a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.  (Zamyatin 1972, 45-46).

The function of these public executions is not merely to intimidate citizens; the executions also serve to bind the individual citizens into a community.  The citizens become accomplices to the State terror, and naturally they must justify their actions and inactions by agreeing to the fiction that the State is always right.

On another level, a state religion / ideology is an extremely powerful tool for defining “Truth”.  As the philosopher Michel Foucault has noted,

Truth is a thing of this world:  it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth:  that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish between true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.  (1980b, 131)

In the One State, these highly publicized state religious performances are among the mechanisms used to distinguish between true and false statements, ideas and practices.

Along with using religious imagery as an instrument of control in his fictitious society, Zamyatin also seems to be using the novel as a religious allegory.  D-503—enclosed in the safety of the Green Wall, watched over by the Guardians, whom he compares to archangels, obedient to the Table of Hours, watched and judged by the Benefactor—is a type of Adam.  Like Adam, D-503 is seduced by a woman, I-330, who introduces him both to illicit sexual activity and to critical thought.  The destruction of the Green Wall invites comparison to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.  Even the name of the rebels, the Mephi, is a reference to Mephistopheles, a demon who offers knowledge and power to the legendary Dr. Faust. What Zamyatin is providing then is a parable of the fall of man.  Unlike the author of the Genesis account, however, Zamyatin’s sympathies lie with the rebels.  For him, God / the Benefactor, is a tyrant who deprives people of their freedom and individuality.  So important is this idea of freedom that Zamyatin has I-330 explain that revolutions against authority must be infinite (1972, 174-177).  In other word, each time a revolution has succeeded and established itself as an omniscient authority, the citizens must once again revolt.  This call to constant revolution on the part of Zamyatin is echoed in his essays.  Indeed, in his essay “Tomorrow”, he notes,

“The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy…”.  We is Zamyatin’s contribution to this “heresy”.

Continue reading “Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” II”

Life Under the Bell Jar: Surveillance and the New World Order in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”

“There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite.  The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes only once, while a book explodes a thousand times”  – Yevgeny Zamyatin

In this second post on dystopian literature, I’m going to be introducing you to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential Russian novel, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We, exemplifies the type of book that explodes a thousand times and continues to have repercussions.  As one of the earliest and most influential examples of modern dystopian fiction, it is appropriate that we begin the semester with this novel.  As you read other, more familiar dystopian novels and as you familiarize yourself with dystopian films, you will begin to see how Zamyatin’s novel has shaped the genre as a whole.  I will briefly enumerate some of the places where Zamyatin’s influence on later dystopian fiction can be seen at the end of this post, but first I want to provide a very brief introduction Zamyatin himself.

Yevgeny Zamyatin 1844-1937

Like his protagonist, D-503,Yevgeny Zamyatin was, by training, a naval engineer.  More importantly, Zamyatin was a revolutionary and an author.  As a fiercely independent author, who refused to compromise his artistic principles, Zamyatin faced censorship first from the Czarist government and then, after the Revolution, from the Bolsheviks.

In We, Zamyatin predicted the social repression of Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Unlike D-503, who becomes a machine of the One State, Zamyatin was permitted to leave the Soviet Union.  He died in exile in France.  We, which was initially banned in the Soviet Union, was finally published there in 1988.


We, set in an unidentified future, describes life within the One State. The One State consists of a single city entirely enclosed by the Green Wall.  Inside the city, citizens live and work in glass buildings, which makes possible constant surveillance.  Instead of having a name, each citizen is identified by a letter followed by numbers.  Alphanumeric codes beginning with consonants identify males, while alphanumeric codes beginning with vowels identify females.

Life in the One State is regulated right down to the number of chewing What is Taylorismmovements each citizen must make before swallowing food (Zamyatin 1972, 102).  Citizens live their lives in accordance to the schedule established by the Table of Hours.  The long term consequence of the absence of personal time is that citizens cease to see themselves as individuals and instead view themselves as cogs in the machinery of the One State.  As the protagonist, D-503, explains:

Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the same hour and the same moment, we—millions of us—get up as one.  At the same hour, in million-headed unison, we start work:  and in million-headed unison we end it.  And, fused into a single million-handed body, at the same second, designated by the Table, we lift our spoons to our mouths (Zamyatin 1972, 12).

Conformity in the One State is strengthened by the absence of goods that might help citizens personalize their lives.  Everyone wears unifs, or uniforms, and everyone apparently has access to the same frugal material goods.  Food is a synthetically produced petroleum product.  (Note that the use of petroleum as the source of food suggests how very machinelike the citizens have become).  Of course, the conformity of the citizens means that the State produces few artists or thinkers.  A few poets, like R-13, are maintained to create propaganda for state occasions (which, ironically fits with the role assigned to poets in Plato’s Republic, and, with the limited role writers and artists were expected to play in the Soviet Union) but it is evident that very little creativity actually goes into the poetry they produce.  Indeed, music in the One State is composed according to mathematical formulas and is produced by a machine called a musicometer (Zamyatin 1972, 16-17).

Along with giving up possession of material goods, the citizens of the One State have also, for the most part, given up any claim on each other.  Families no longer exist.  Indeed, the Lex Sexualis mandates that “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  D-503 describes the organization of sexual activity as follows:

You are carefully examined in the laboratories of the Sexual Department; the exact content of sexual hormones in you blood is determined, and you are provided with an appropriate Table of sexual days.  After that, you declare that on your sexual days you wish to use number so-and-so, and you receive your book of coupons (pink).  And that is all.  (Zamyatin 1972, 22).

Along with regulating sexual activity, the One State also determined who could have children through Maternal and Paternal Norms (Zamyatin 1972, 14).  The purpose of these laws, of course, was to ensure that children met standards established by the state.  Even when two numbers did meet the Maternal and Paternal Norms,  the resulting child belonged, not to them, but to the state.  The One State’s policy of separating children from their biologic parents and raising them ensured that each citizen would, from birth have the same experiences and upbringing.  Obviously this would permit the state to inculcate shared values and perceptions.  Beyond  that, the state’s assumption of the role of parent assured that loyalty was primarily directed toward the state.  The fact that D-503 sees himself in a familial relationship with R-13 and 0-90 suggests, however, that the state has been unsuccessful in eliminating vestigial ideas of family.

I want to digress here to note that control of the family, or even the elimination of the family, is a major concern in many dystopian narratives.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, takes the abolition of the family one step further than Zamyatin’s We.  In Brave New World, children are not even biologically conceived.  Instead, infants are “constructed” in enormous factories, and, instead of being born, they are decanted.  So far removed has the society of Brave New World become from reproduction and family that the words “mother” and “father” are considered vulgar and obscene.  Sex, in Brave New World, has been reduced to a merely recreational activity, and, in order to discourage attachments that might pose a threat to the state, monogamy is treated like an aberrant behavior.    Similarly, in George Orwell’s 1984, family structures have been significantly reduced.  Instead, in both 1984 and in the movie Equilibrium, the state becomes the titular family member:  in 1984, Big Brother and in Equilibrium, father.  Significantly, female familial titles are frequently absent in dystopian fiction.  This absence signals that dystopian fiction is frequently (although not always) patriarchal in nature.  The patriarchal fantasy is realized as a male society in which females are marginalized.  Often times, however, as in the cases of 1984’s Winston Smith, Brave New World’s John Savage and We’s D-503, the lack of family becomes an obsession for the main character.  Thus, when D-503 realizes that he may have been tricked both by the One State and the rebels, he thinks to himself,

If I had a mother, like the ancients: mine—yes, precisely—my mother.  To Whom I would be—not the Builder of the Integral, and not number D-503, and not a molecule of the One State, but a simple human being—a piece of herself, trampled, crushed, discarded… (Zamyatin 1972, 216)

This wistful statement indicates D-503’s desire to be more than a pawn.  Instead, he longs to be unconditionally loved for himself.  In most dystopian societies, however, individuals are not viewed as inherently valuable.  Any value assigned to them stems from their function within the State.

In light of the degree of enforced conformity, it is unsurprising that the citizens of the One State view freedom as evil.  As D-503 explains,

Freedom and crime are as linked as indivisibly as… well, as the motion of the aero and its speed:  when its speed equals zero, it does not move; when man’s freedom equals zero, he commits no crimes.  That is clear.  The only means of ridding man of his crime is ridding him of freedom.  (Zamyatin 1972, 35)

The only possible way, of course, of removing freedom is to transform humans into machines.  To accomplish this, humans must lose their souls.  For many citizens of the One State, the dehumanizing effects of constant surveillance combined with the required collectivism prevent a soul, or individual identity from ever developing.  D-503, however, is apparently naturally resistant to this form of dehumanization.  His subconscious resistance is marked in the very first lines of We, where he promises to tell his readers what he thinks, and then, embarrassed by this reference to himself, corrects himself to say that he writes what the society in its entirety thinks.  As the narrative progresses, D-503’s sense of his individuality grows.  Eventually, seeking help for what he assumes is an illness, he is informed by a doctor that he, in fact, has an incurable soul.  The doctor’s claim that possession of a soul is incurable is in fact only partially true.  Initially the only means of removing a soul is by killing the patient.  Later, the doctors of the One State discover that by surgically removing imagination, citizens can be perfected to the status of machines (Zamyatin 1972, 180).  D-503 describes those who undergo the operation, noting that “These are not people—they are humanoid tractors” (Zamyatin 1972, 189).  Significantly, while D-503 acknowledges that these “humanoid tractors” have achieved machinelike perfection, he and the other citizens of the One State are unwilling to undergo the surgery.  As he explains, “I saw it clearly:  everyone was saved but there was no salvation for me.  I did not want salvation….” (Zamyatin 1972, 186).  In the end though, D-503 is forcibly “saved” by the state.  The language in his final entry is an appropriate reflection of an individual devoid of imagination and emotion.

In my next post I will be discussing the methods, particularly that of surveillance, used by the One State to end freedom.  I will also be focusing on the use of religious imagery in We.


It should be obvious from what I’ve written that subsequent dystopian fiction and cinema is heavily indebted to We.  I’m going to enumerate just a few of the things that subsequent authors and movie producers have borrowed from Zamyatin’s work:

  • 1984’s Big Brother is modeled on The Benefactor.
  • Zamyatin’s conception of a walled-in society is mimicked in the movies Logan’s Run and The Truman Show.
  • The concept that the State, not parents, own children is also evident in the novels Brave New World and Walden Two, and, to a lesser extent, in The Handmaid’s Tale.
  • Social engineering, or the conditioning of humans, is the major theme of Walden Two and Brave New World.
  • Eugenics plays a role in the novel, Brave New World, and in the movie, Gattaca.
  • The use of numbers in place of personal names is evident in George Lucas’s movie THX 1138.
  • Margaret Atwood’s use of journals in The Handmaid’s Tale to narrate her protagonist’s story, and George Orwell’s use of journals in 1984 mirror Zamyatin’s use of journals  in We.
  • George Orwell copies the love affair between D-503 and I-330 in 1984.
  • Surveillance is one of the major themes in many dystopian movies and novels including 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Truman Show and Equilibrium.
  • The replacement of human emotion with cold rationality is a theme in Equilibrium (where the state medicates everyone to prevent them from feeling anything) and in Alphaville, where illogical behavior is punishable by death.
  • D-503’s equation of freedom with crime resonates with the ideas of other characters in science fiction.  The Judge Dredd comic strip, for example, focuses on a futurist society where armed “judges” are authorized to act as police, judges, juries and executioners.  One of the judges, Judge Death, studies criminals to identify what they all share in common.  He eventually realizes that the only commonality among criminals is that they are all alive.  From this he concludes that total justice can only be achieved by completely exterminating all life everywhere.


    Judge DeathJudge Death as depicted in Judge Dredd Megazine #207

Source:  Wikipedia








Work Cited

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. Avon Books, 1972.

Defining Utopias and Dystopias: Where Dreams become Nightmares

Michael Amey


(Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster/Salon)

The divisive election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has sparked renewed interest in dystopian fiction, and books such as Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have, at least briefly, once more become best sellers.  The popular streaming video site, Hulu, has even released a televised adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Because of this renewed interest, we Spoilers thought it would be valuable to start blogging about dystopian narratives and about how these narratives intersect with current political and social trends.  As part of that project, I’ve decided to make available lectures that I wrote for an online course on dystopian narratives for the University of Maine in Presque Isle.  What follows is an adaptation of what I wrote to introduce students to the dystopian genre.

In this post I’m going to be establishing the theoretical foundations for later posts by providing you with some definitions of our genre, dystopian fiction, and describing how dystopian narratives function, and why they are such a major genre in the 20th century.

Thomas More -portrait by Hans Holbein, the Younger

Before we can properly understand the term “dystopia”, however, we first need to understand its older, antithetical twin, “utopia”.  The English diplomat, scholar and Catholic martyr, Thomas More, invented the word “utopia” as the name for a fictional ideal society.  More’s book, Utopia, published in 1516 in Latin, purports to narrate the experiences of a European traveler in the hitherto unknown country of Utopia.  Utopia is depicted as a well structured society where efficient laws and customs have done away with the problems that More perceives in Europe.  Thomas More appears to have invented the word “utopia” to convey the meaning of two Greek words: eutopos, meaning “a good place”, and outopos, meaning “no place”.  Thus More’s Utopia is a good place that does not exist anywhere.  Since 1516 the word “utopia” has entered common parlance and refers to a perfect society.  The term also has certain negative connotations in that utopias are generally viewed as unachievable.  Thus dreaming of a utopian society may suggest idealism on the part of the dreamer, but may also imply a certain naiveté.

The utopian ideal existed, of course, long before More invented the word.  Plato, for instance, created a blueprint for what he envisioned as a perfect society in his Republic.  Following the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, utopian schemes and utopian fiction became fairly commonplace in the 16th and 17th century (Thomas 1987, 20-46).  Keith Thomas, in his essay on “The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England” provides the following examples of early utopian works:  Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602; published 1623), Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624; published 1627), Gabriel Plattes’s A Description of the famous Kingdome of Macaria (1641); Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma (1648) and Jame Harrington’s Oceana (1656), to name but a few (Thomas 23-25).

From these various Utopian narratives Keith Thomas has derived the following description of Utopian narratives:

Characteristically, the literary utopia describes an imaginary society which is, at least by implication, better than the one in which the author lives.  This society is portrayed as actually in existence, usually in some remote location.  Its workings are evoked in detail, with special attention to the political structure, the laws and religion, the system of education, the economy and the working habits and living conditions of the population.  The activities of the citizens are regulated in meticulous detail; and the society exists in a timeless state of unchanging equilibrium. (23-24)

We’ll want to keep this definition in mind later when we’re describing the characteristics

John Stuart Mill

of utopian and dystopian narratives in greater detail.  For now, however, lets move on to discuss the term “dystopia”.  John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political philosopher and writer, coined the term “dystopia”.  Essentially, by dystopia Mill meant the exact opposite of utopia, in other words a completely undesirable state or society.  A synonym for dystopia, which you may come across in your secondary reading, is anti-utopia.

Early examples of literature depicting dystopian societies would include parts of Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726, some of the science-fiction of H. G. Wells, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited published in 1872 and 1901 respectively.  Notice that Butler has borrowed from More’s term “Utopia”, meaning no place, and that the name of his society is “No Where” spelled backwards.  In the 20th century, a great deal of science-fiction is in fact also dystopian fiction.

But lets return to our definitions:  utopia is an ideal society or state, and dystopia is an undesirable society or state.  How are these ideal and un-ideal societies represented in literature?  I’m going to begin by delineating some of the characteristics of utopian literature.  My reasons for doing this are simply to provide you with a contrast by which to compare dystopian literature.  So after we’ve examined some of the characteristics of utopian literature we’re going to look at some of the characteristics of dystopian literature.  Hopefully you’ll start to see some patterns emerging.

First, according to Alan Swingewood, “Utopian novels tended towards an uncritical portrayal of a world made perfect for man through science and education”.  In other words, utopian narratives are optimistic that human knowledge is growing, and that problems within societies can be resolved through human means.

Secondly, utopian fiction stresses the collective nature of the perfect society, often with the result that individuality is either suppressed or ignored.

Thirdly, given what I have just said about individuality being ignored, it is no surprise to learn, as Swingewood states, that “utopias have no problematic hero, their structures are not dominated by a deep sense of conflict between individual and society”.  I would take Swingewood’s observation a step further and suggest that while utopian fictions have protagonists, they cannot have “heroes” insofar that heroes implicitly are involved in conflict, and a perfect society cannot have a conflict.

Fourthly, as Swingewood points out, “The question of how these societies evolved to such perfection is never raised.”  Swingewood goes on to state that these fictions ignore the problem of social change.  Perhaps authors of utopian narratives ignore the problem of social change because it is impossible to conceive of the social change, short of a miracle, which would be necessary for creating a utopian society.  Besides, alterations in society inevitably spark off chain reactions.  These chain reactions seem to be antithetical to the static idea of a utopian society.

Fifthly, utopias are frequently didactic in nature.  Although, as I indicated in point number four, utopian literature does not typically discuss how their utopian societies came into existence, now that they are in existence they are vehicles for suggesting ways of improving our own society.  As such these novels implicitly offer implicit, and sometimes explicit, criticism of the societies in which their authors live.  Typically the authors introduce strangers into their fictional societies who, being impressed by the perfect societies they have encountered, but ignorant about how these societies operate, end up with guides who explain everything to them.  For example, in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward:  2000-1887, the protagonist, Julian West, is put into a hypnotic trance in 1887, and is not awakened until the year 2000.  The doctor who awakens Julian in the 21st century serves as his guide to this new order.  As is the case in most Utopian novels, Julian, as the outsider spends a lot of time asking questions, while Doctor Leete, his guide, provides lengthy explanations.  This small passage on economics should illustrate the pedagogic nature of the novel:

“How is this distribution managed?” I asked.

“On the simplest possible plan,” replied Dr. Leete. “A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers. Perhaps you would like to see what our credit cards are like.

“You observe,” he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, “that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answers to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another. For this purpose they are all priced in dollars and cents, just as in your day. The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.”

“If you wanted to buy something of your neighbor, could you transfer part of your credit to him as consideration?” I inquired.

“In the first place,” replied Dr. Leete, “our neighbors have nothing to sell us, but in any event our credit would not be transferable, being strictly personal. Before the nation could even think of honoring any such transfer as you speak of, it would be bound to inquire into all the circumstances of the transaction, so as to be able to guarantee its absolute equity. It would have been reason enough, had there been no other, for abolishing money, that its possession was no indication of rightful title to it. In the hands of the man who had stolen it or murdered for it, it was as good as in those which had earned it by industry. People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence and disinterestedness which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.”

“What if you have to spend more than your card in any one year?” I asked.

“The provision is so ample that we are more likely not to spend it all,” replied Dr. Leete. “But if extraordinary expenses should exhaust it, we can obtain a limited advance on the next year’s credit, though this practice is not encouraged, and a heavy discount is charged to check it. Of course if a man showed himself a reckless spendthrift he would receive his allowance monthly or weekly instead of yearly, or if necessary not be permitted to handle it all.”

“If you don’t spend your allowance, I suppose it accumulates?”

“That is also permitted to a certain extent when a special outlay is anticipated. But unless notice to the contrary is given, it is presumed that the citizen who does not fully expend his credit did not have occasion to do so, and the balance is turned into the general surplus.”

“Such a system does not encourage saving habits on the part of citizens,” I said.

“It is not intended to,” was the reply. “The nation is rich, and does not wish the people to deprive themselves of any good thing. In your day, men were bound to lay up goods and money against coming failure of the means of support and for their children. This necessity made parsimony a virtue. But now it would have no such laudable object, and, having lost its utility, it has ceased to be regarded as a virtue. No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”

As the above passage might suggest, one criticism of Utopian fiction is that it can be rather dull and pedantic.

So, a quick review of what I’ve just said.  Utopian literature is 1) optimistic about progress and society, 2) stresses collectivism over individuality, 3) does not have a problematic hero and is not dominated by a sense of conflict between the individual and society, 4) does not explain how the perfect society has come into existence, and 5) is didactic in nature and critical of real society.

Now lets examine the characteristics of dystopian literature.

Firstly, dystopian fiction is extremely critical of society, and in dystopian fiction science, society, and typically the government, all conspire to destroy individuality.  Individuals are typically treated as cogs in a machine.  For example, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, people no longer have names, and, instead, are identified by an alpha-numeric sequence.  The protagonist, D-503, lives, as do all of the citizens of the One State, in a glass apartment so that he is under constant surveillance.  Similarly, the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have been reduced, to use the protagonist, Offred’s phrase, to “ambulatory wombs.”

Secondly, dystopias are usually narrated from the perspective of a socially marginalized The Handmaid's Tale lipsor disempowered character, who is resisting oppression.  In other words, dissidents, like Winston Smith from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and disenfranchised members of society, like Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, describe the society to the reader.

Thirdly, a major element then of the narrative is the conflict between the individual and society.  Clearly, dystopian fiction frequently does have problematic heroes.

Fourthly, dystopian fictions warn about the excesses of social power.  They are also explicitly critical of society and humanity.

Fifthly, strangely enough, while dystopian fiction is critical of society and humanity, it can be argued that dystopian fiction is also optimistic about humanity.  Dystopian narratives are meant as warnings, so implicitly their creators must believe that their dystopian visions are preventable.  Society has not yet crossed the point of no return.

So again, in summary, dystopian fiction:  1) is extremely critical of society and pessimistic about society, government, technology and science, 2)  is, as M. Keith Booker points out, usually narrated through the voice of an alienated individual, who is struggling to assert his or her individuality against the oppressive power of a dehumanizing social system, 3) focuses on the conflict between the individual and society, 4) is didactic in nature, and warns of the excesses of social power, and 5) is marginally optimistic about the possibility of preventing the dystopian vision.

In short, where utopian fiction is optimistic about society, dystopian fiction is pessimistic.  Where utopian fiction focuses on the possible advantages created for society by science, technology and good governance, dystopian fiction describes the potential dangers of science, technology and governance.  Where utopian fiction concentrates on the collective nature of society, dystopian fiction deals with the alienated individual’s resistance to society and conformity.  Utopian and dystopian fiction do, however, share some common features.  Both are ultimately optimistic in nature given that they are premised on the possibility that society can change.  They are also both didactic in nature, although utopian fiction exhorts the audience on how to build a better society, while dystopian fiction provides a warning about the dangers of society.

A final point needs to be made about depictions of utopian and dystopian societies:  they are by necessity relative.  Not everybody will agree on what constitutes a perfect or imperfect society, and a society that seems utopian to one individual may be dystopian for another.  Historically Nazi Germany exemplifies this point.  On the one hand, Hitler’s regime appealed to many Germans because it created jobs, promoted a sense of national pride, stabilized the economy and provided law and order.  From this perspective it is easy to see why many Germans, following the humiliation caused by the First World War and the suffering caused by the depression, saw Nazism as utopian.  On the other hand, as we all know today, under Nazism, freedom of expression was suppressed, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and other groups were tortured and exterminated, and Germany was led into a devastating war.  So, from another perspective Nazism was an example of a dystopian system.  One more point needs to be made – no society can achieve an absolute level of perfection or imperfection, nor would we ever be in a position to determine if society had achieved such an absolute level.  Dystopias and utopias thus exist on a continuum, an ever-expanding scale that measures the status of the society being examined against its relative position to other societies.

Having said all this, what is the relationship between dystopian and utopian fiction?  John Griffith’s statement seems to sum it up:  “The writers of the Utopias of earlier days were teaching Man how to build heaven; today they are content to teach him how to survive in hell”.  Griffith’s metaphorical comparison of utopia to heaven and dystopia to hell raises some interesting questions.  Certainly in many respects one could argue that heaven is utopian and hell is dystopian.  For the purposes of these blogs, however, we are going to divide utopias and dystopias into two categories:  supernatural utopias and dystopias, and natural utopias and dystopias.  Supernatural utopias and dystopias would include heaven and hell, and the good and evil lands described by fantasy authors.  Examples of those would include Tolkien’s Undying Lands and Mordor.  The major characteristic of supernatural utopias and dystopias is that they are inexplicable in natural, human terms.  By contrast natural utopias and dystopias, which is what we’ll be discussing, are explicable in human terms.  Because I think that the difference between natural and supernatural utopias and dystopias is important, I’m going to describe those differences in terms of the heaven/hell versus utopia/dystopia dichotomy.

As we’ve already noted, utopias and dystopias are socially produced, while heaven and hell are supernaturally produced.  Because utopian and dystopian societies are products of socially constructed they are also limited in time.  They have a beginning and probably will have an end.  Heaven and hell, by contrast are eternal.  Because utopian and dystopian societies are social constructs, they are also mutable – they can be changed.  Heaven and hell by contrast are unchangeable.  Heaven can never be made less perfect, nor hell be improved.  Finally, living in a utopian or dystopian society is a result of random chance.  One does not choose to live in a utopian or dystopian society, and living in a utopian or dystopian society does not reflect on the morality or immorality of the individual, and is neither a punishment nor a reward.  By contrast, heaven is a reward for good behavior, while hell is the punishment for bad behavior.

Having compared and contrasted utopian fiction and dystopian fiction, and compared and contrasted supernatural and natural utopias and dystopias, I think we can safely start focusing on dystopian literature, keeping in mind that dystopian literature is always in a referential relationship with both utopian literature and reality as we live it.

In the final part of this post, I’m going to examine the rise of dystopian narratives in the 20th century.

In the 20th century utopian fiction has all but disappeared, and has instead been replaced by dystopian fiction.  Indeed, when I first began planning this course I went to a science-fiction bookshop and asked the proprietor what he had in the way of dystopian literature.  He stated that nearly all science-fiction is dystopian.  While he may have been trying to flog as many of his wares as possible onto a naïve academic, his point about science-fiction being dominated by the concept of dystopia has merit.  Not all science-fiction is dystopic according to the more rigid definitions I provided earlier in the lecture, but much of it is responding to the idea of an imperfect society.

This raises an interesting question:  “Why is dystopian literature more common than utopian literature?”  There are undoubtedly many plausible explanations for this phenomenon.  The reasons I’m going to suggest naturally do not include all of these hypotheses, and indeed, my explanations for the sheer quantity of dystopian literature may in fact be wrong.  You will eventually need to evaluate the evidence and come to your own conclusions.  Basically I’m going to divide the catalysts of modern dystopian literature into two groups:  1)  Narrative or Structural Causes and 2) Social / Historical Causes.  By the term “narrative causes” I mean the elements or building blocks of a story that are necessary for it to be successful, particularly for 20th century audiences.  Perhaps the most important ingredient for modern stories is conflict.  Any of you hooked by the Harry Potter series will recognize that each book revolves around a conflict.  Conflict is important not only in driving forward plots and maintaining audience participation; it is also inextricably linked to our sense of history and reality.  We measure history according to when conflicts occurred, whether those conflicts are conflicts between individuals, societies, or nature.  Thus we refer to how many of the Irish left Ireland following the potato famine (a conflict between nature and society), about what happened after Al Gore was “defeated” by George Bush in the 2000 presidential election (a conflict between individuals and political parties), or what happened following September 11th (a conflict between societies, cultures and ideologies).  Imperfection and conflict seem necessary for us to relate to reality.  As Keith Thomas notes about 17th century utopias, “When peace, harmony and perfect knowledge had been secured, history would by implication stop.  No one considered the possibility that if people were freed from pain and worry they would become bored, living a life of indifference or finding some new source of unhappiness” (45).  A more recent dystopia, The Matrix Reloaded illustrates this point by having Neo informed that a perfect Matrix was made for humans but that they didn’t do well in it.

The problem posed by utopian fiction is that in a perfect world, conflicts simply do not arise.  Without conflict the narrative or fictional history quickly grinds to a halt.  Presumably in an absolutely perfect world, even differences in opinion don’t arise.  The early writers of utopian fictions, like Thomas More, resolved this problem by introducing a stranger, a traveler, into these otherwise static societies.  The conflict, or point of tension that produced the narrative and helped it flow was the difference between the stranger’s preconceptions about humanity and society and the “reality” of this newly discovered perfect society.  Such utopian literature, however, is didactic, and to modern audiences comes across as preachy and unrealistic.  In any event modern audience distinctly prefer more overtly conflict driven narratives.  For this reason, Dante’s Inferno remains more popular than his Paradiso and Milton’s Paradise Lost remains more popular than Paradise Regained.

For authors, perfection also seems harder to envision than imperfection.  Again, descriptions of heaven and hell illustrate the point I’m making.  Descriptions of heaven from the Middle Ages on to the present are much scarcer than descriptions of hell.  This seems to be due to the fact that, as Saint Paul stated, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  These constraints on describing heaven are equally applicable to describing the perfect society.

Dystopian literature is also easier to write because at a basic level the author merely takes the problems she sees in her own society exaggerates them and projects them into a fictitious future.  Since virtually everybody can find fault with their society, identifying problems for dystopian literature is not a problem.  By contrast writers of utopian fiction have to create, out of the fabric of their imagination, an entirely believable perfect society.  Given that their fictitious perfect society implicitly criticizes the society they live in, they are less able to draw on their society for the inspiration of their dystopias.

So in summary, the narrative causes for the supremacy of dystopian fiction over utopian fiction is that:

  • narratives need conflict to propel them
  • perfection is difficult to imagine or describe


The social/historical causes of dystopian literature may be summed up in what I term the crisis of modernity.  Firstly, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an unprecedented amount of technologically and structurally advanced warfare and violence.  The First World War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and subsequent wars differed from earlier wars and violence not merely in the quantity of suffering they caused, but in the way that this violence was made more efficient and more impersonal.  The concentration camps of the Holocaust were managed as factories of death, with serious consideration given to the “rate of production” of people killed.  The First World War, the Second World War and the Holocaust in particular shattered the West’s myth of progress.  These conflicts had a great deal of influence on literature and the arts because technology had also made it possible for civilians to intimately observe the wars and violence via newspapers, cinemas and televisions, and thus become familiar with wars and violence in a way that previous generations of non-combatants had not.  The horrors of warfare, and the effect that warfare and violence have on societies has been depicted in Orwell’s 1984 and the film version of Starship Troopers.

Secondly, while war has always been a part of human history, it is only in the twentieth century, with the development of nuclear weapons that humans have posed a serious threat to the continued existence of not only their own species, but of the entire planet.    A number of dystopian fictions like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Planet of the Apes, and The Mad Max series are set in post-nuclear holocausts.

Thirdly, the twentieth century has seen the rise of powerful national governments that have threatened individuality.  These governments are certainly evidenced by fascist and totalitarian regimes, which have transformed the media into an instrument of propaganda and misinformation, and have used other technologies to maintain control over their people.  Even in democratic nations such as the United States and Britain there is a tendency by governments to exert control through the media and other technologies.  These governments can be further dehumanised by the their own bureaucracy, a tendency we find depicted in the Kafka’s dystopian style fiction.  Dystopian narratives that deal with authoritarian governments also frequently reveal a concern with the degree of surveillance exercised by the government.  The danger of a technologically advanced government spying on its citizens is depicted in the novels 1984 and We.  These concerns seem timely given the amount of information that Western governments are able to collect about their citizens by checking computer usage, credit card transactions, satellite images and even CCTV.

Fourthly, humans seem to be having difficulty coping with the rapid pace of technology.  Technologies such as genetic modification, cloning and cyber technology offer great potential for the improvement of society, but also raise unique moral issues and pose a threat to society.  A serious concern is that we are unleashing technology that we cannot entirely control without fully knowing what all the results and ramifications might be.  It may be impossible, for example, for us now to rid the world of genetically modified foods, should they prove dangerous to humans.  We are very like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia, who has called up spirits to help him clean the house, only to find that he cannot control those spirits.  The Matrix series, The Terminator series, Gattaca and Brave New World are all dystopian fictions based on the premise that technology poses a threat to the individual.

Fifthly, there is an increasing awareness of the hegemony or control of certain social groups at the expense of others.  Our awareness of marginalized groups is to a great degree due to the influence of movements such as the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and Marxism.  The emergence of these movements, and the way they have demanded a re-evaluation of history, combined with post-modern scholarly skepticism about authority, has made it possible for authors of dystopian literature to depict and scrutinize hierarchies, ideologies and authority.  This scepticism of authority and concern for the disempowered is picked up in Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia, The Hand Maid’s Tale, and Fritz Lang’s black and white film classic about the plight of workers, Metropolis.

The different social and historical elements I’ve just listed all contributed to the dominance of dystopian fiction in the 20th century.  The list I have provided, however, is by no means exhaustive, as you will see next week when we begin looking at specific examples of dystopian literature.

Suggested Readings and Movies as well as Works Cited in this Blog



Anderson, M. T., 2002.  Feed.  Candlewick Press.

Atwood, Margaret.  1998.  The Handmaid’s Tale.  Anchor Books.

Barry, Max.  2003.  Jennifer Government.  Doubleday.

Bradbury, Ray.  1995.  Fahrenheit 451.  Ballantine Books.

El Sadaawi, Nawal.  1991.  The Fall of the Imam.  Heinemann.

Foster, E. M.  1970.  “The Machine Stops,” The Eternal Moment and Other Stories.

Harcourt., pp. 3-38.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  1998.  Herland.  Dover.

Golding, William.  1959.  Lord of the Flies.  Perigee.

Huxley, Aldous.  1989.  Brave New World.  HarperCollins.

King, Stephen.  1982.  The Running Man.  London:  New English Library.

Le Guin, Ursula.  1978.  “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omalas.”  In The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  London:  Victor Gollancz, pp. 275-284.

________.  1999.  The Dispossessed.  Originally published 1974.  London:  Millenium.

Lewis, Sinclair.  2005.  It Can’t Happen Here.  Signet Classics.

London, Jack.  1981.  The Iron Heel.  Lawrence Hill Books.

More, Thomas.  1965.  Utopia.  trans. Paul Turner.  Viking Press.

Moore, Alan and David Lloyd.  2005.  V for Vendetta.  Vertigo.

Orwell, George.  1981.  1984:  a novel.  New American Library.

________.  1996.  Animal Farm.  Signet Classic

Skinner, B. F.  2005.  Walden Two.  Hackett Publishing.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  1987.  We.  Avon Books.



Hobbs, Thomas.  Leviathan.

Huxley, Aldous.  1966.  Brave New World Revisited.  London:  Chatto & Windus.

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  1984.  The Prince.  trans.  George Bull.  Bantam Classics.

Marx, Karl.  2002.  The Communist Manifesto.  Penguin.

Packard, Vance.  1958.  The Hidden Persuaders:  An Introduction to the techniques of mass-persuasion through the unconscious.  London:  Longmans, Green & Co.

Plato.  1955.  The Republic.  trans.  Desmond Lee.  Penguin Classics.

Postman, Neil.  1986.  Amusing Ourselves to DeathPublic Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  London:  Heinemann



Animal Farm.  1952.  Dirs.  Joy  Batchelor and John Halas.

Animal Farm. 1999.  Dir. John Stephenson.

Equilibrium.  2002.  Dir.  Kurt Wimmer.

Fahrenheit 451.  1966.  Dir. François Truffaut.

Gattaca.  1997.  Dir. Andrew Niccol.

The Handmaid’s Tale.  1990.  Dir. Volker Schlöndorff.

Harrison Bergeron.  1995.  Dir.  Bruce Pittman.

Logan’s Run.  1976.  Dir. Michael Anderson.

Lord of the Flies.  1963.  Dir. Peter Brook.

Lord of the Flies.  1990.  Dir. Harry Hook.

The Matrix.  1999.  Dirs. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski

Metropolis.  1927.  Dir. Fritz Lang.

The Minority Report.  2001.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.

Nineteen Eighty-Four.  1984.  Dir. Michael Radford.

The Running Man.  1987.  Dir.  Thomas Del Ruth.

The Stepford Wives.  1975.  Dir. Bryan Forbes

THX 1138.  1971.  Dir. George Lucas.

V for Vendetta.  2006.  Dir. James McTeigue


Critical Literature

Baker-Smith, Dominic.  1987.  The Escape from the Cave:  Thomas More and the Vision of Utopia.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 5-19.

Beauchamp, Gorman.  1983.  Zamiatin’s We.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 56-77.

Bergonzi, Bernard.  1987.  Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Literary Imagination.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 211-228.

Bittner, James W.  1983.  Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:  An Ambiguous Utopia.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 244-270.

Bucknall, Barbara J.  1981.  Utopia and Dystopia.  In Ursula k. Le Guin.  New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., pp.  102-128.

Booker, M. Keith.  1994.  The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature.  London:  Greenwood Press.

Firchow, Peter Edgerly.  1984.  The End of Utopia:  A study of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.  Lewisburg:  Bucknell University Press.

Griffiths, John.  1980.  Utopia and Dystopia.  In Three Tomorrows:  American, British and Soviet Science Fiction.  London, MacMillan Press, pp. 98-118.

Matter, William.  1983.  On Brave New World.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 94-109.

Roemer, Kenneth M.  1983.  Mixing Behaviourism and Utopia:  The Transformations of Walden Two.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 110-124.

Rudnik-Smalbraak, Marijke.  1987.  Women and Utopia:  Some Reflections and Explorations.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 172-187.

Steinhoff, William.  1983.  Utopia Reconsidered:  Comments on 1984.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 147-161.

Swingewood, Alan.  1975.  Anti-Utopia and Revolution.  In The Novel and Revolution.  London, MacMillan Press, pp. 142-168.

Thomas, Keith.  1987.  The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 20-46.

Woodward, Kathleen.  1983.  On Aggression:  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 199-224.

Zipes, Jack.  1983.  Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury’s Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 182-198.




On Writing College Essays: Suggestions for Student Writers from a Traumatized Professor

Michael Amey

I hate grading, and I’m not alone in my aversion. Indeed, while I caution my students against offering up universal “truisms” in their essays, I think I can safely offer up one truism – all of my colleagues in the English department detest grading too.  We resent the mind-numbing task of untangling bad syntax, the desperate search for missing theses and topic sentences, and the endless scrolling up and down the page to check if the jumbled list of sources in the Works Cited page – assuming a Works Cited page exists – bears any relationship at all to the citations in the essay – assuming any citations exist.  We seethe when what we took for a good, or even mediocre, essay turns out to be plagiarized.  After all, the time we spent reading material that our students told us they wrote, but that was in fact written by some nameless hack on the internet, is time we’ll never get back.  We’ve been robbed!  Perhaps the greatest insult of all, however, comes at the end of the semester, when, after hours teaching and grading, our students return to haggle with us, with statements like, “But I worked really hard,” and “I attended all of the classes” and “Could you raise my grade five points so that I can have a B instead off a C?”  This last minute bargaining reveals that these students have misunderstood the entire purpose of attending our classes and of the grades they earn.  To state the obvious – the purpose of attending classes is to learn something and the grades merely indicate how well each student has demonstrated his or her acquisition of what is being taught. So, the entire process of grading is, for many teachers, traumatizing, demoralizing, and exhausting.

I’ve shown you the dark side of grading; the reason why your instructors move in a fugue of depression in the last weeks of the semester.  To be clear, though, not all grading is like this.  Sometimes, rarely, we receive an essay so polished, so thought provoking, and original that we sit there wishing that we had written it.  Often we share our delight over these essays, just as we commiserate over the poorly written ones.  The problem, though, is that by the time we’ve read over a hundred research essays that include phrases like “Since the dawn of time…” and “Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as…” we may be too burnt out to appreciate fully the gift of brilliant writing that a handful of students have given us.

So, here is the thing – I can either accept the status quo and acknowledge that my students and I are going to remain frustrated with each other and with the essays that they have to write and that I have to grade, or I can attempt to help as many students as are willing to work (seriously work) with me become the kind of writer that I strive to be.  That is, of course, the entire reason why I teach, but sometimes that fact gets lost in the fatigue of the semester.  So with that in mind, I’m going to do my best to set out here a very basic, and, by necessity, incomplete summary of what you need to know about essays and how I grade them.  My hope is that this summary will provide you with a starting point for better writing in my classes, and perhaps other people’s classes.  With that in mind, I have broken this down into categories so that you can easily return to the points most relevant to you.


To parody Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that grades are a quintessential part of an education.  Actually, what I just wrote isn’t true – author Alfie Kohn has written at length about how grading is actually detrimental to the whole process of education.  I happen to agree with much of what he says, and would love to find another way to provide feedback to my students on their progress, but the college I teach at insists that at the end of each semester I enter a letter grade indicating my assessment of the work completed by each of my students.  If I must grade, and apparently I must, then I need to be as ethical as possible in my grading, and you, as the recipients of those grades have the right to know what I’m grading and what I am NOT grading.

Let’s begin with two of the nots:

I’m not grading you as a person.  How I feel about you does not determine the grade you receive from me.  Students have, at various times, suggested that only students I like get good grades.  It’s true that I like many of the students who earn As in my classes, but my detractors have reversed the order of things.  I don’t typically have any opinion about my students when I first meet them.  Over time, though, some students invest themselves in the hard work of learning, while others do not.  The students who work hard, who see me after class to talk about ideas, and who come brimming with their own ideas are more likely to earn good grades, and, because I enjoy working with  these students, frequently, by the end of the semester, I like them.  They earned their As, and because they earned their As I like them.  After all, they’ve demonstrated an interest in the things that interest me.  That said, I  have had students whom I have liked very much who have earned low grades, and I have had students of whom I have not been particularly fond earn high grades.

I’m not grading your effort. Effort is something I cannot see, so I can’t evaluate it.  You may be putting in twice as much time writing your essays as another classmate, and you may still earn a lower grade.  The other student may have an advantage over you in that he or she speaks English as a first language, has attended an excellent school, or has spent, from an early age, a great deal of time reading and writing, thus gaining the skills that are most valuable in my classroom.  Perhaps unlike you, he or she may also not be burdened with a fulltime job or a family.  It’s also possible that you might have things going on in your life that make school, at this particular moment, more difficult.  I can sympathize with all of the reasons why you may be hustling more and may not be achieving the same results as your more privileged classmate, but I’m not in a position to evaluate how hard you are trying.

So, what am I grading?

I’m grading the work you produced.  This is the only thing I can assess with any competency.  I can evaluate the formatting of your essay, the structure of your sentences and paragraphs, the validity of your arguments, the reliability of your sources, the cohesion of your paragraphs, the accuracy and precision of your diction; nothing outside of this domain of your writing is accessible to me.

When I grade I choose, for the most part, to look at each essay holistically, which is why I avoid, with rare exceptions, rubrics.  I have used rubrics as a high school teacher to encourage students to think about the individual components that go into the making of an essay, but the problem I have with using rubrics at a college level is that rubrics don’t accurately reflect the unity of the essays being graded.  How, for example, can I separate grammar and syntax from the content of the essay?  Is an essay that has flawless grammar and syntax but is devoid of meaningful content better or worse than an essay that is incomprehensible but that may contain a unique position?  Rather than parse these differnces, I respond to each essay as a cohesive, unified work, where formatting, grammar, syntax, evidence, transitions, and the introduction and thesis statement are intertwined.


A – As are earned by essays that are exceptionally well written.  In other words, it’s not enough for an essay to have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors.  It’s also not enough for it be carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  All of these things certainly belong in an A essay, but, in addition, an A essay must be original in what it says and how it says it.  A essays are focused, nuanced and thought provoking, and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly.

As are, by definition, rare, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon hope of earning one!  I don’t grade on a curve, or have a specific number of As (or Fs) that I award.  In theory it is possible for an entire class to be awarded As, and, in fact, in some of my upper-level literature classes a majority of the students do earn As.  I should point out here that that is more likely in upper-level courses because: 1) students in those courses have elected to take those courses and are often already gifted readers and writers, and 2) students in those courses have had to rise up through more basic English courses, and thus have developed the skills necessary for doing well.

B – Bs are awarded to essays that have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors, that are well organized and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly, and that are carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  When I’m reading a B essay I can focus on the ideas contained in the essay without having to spend much, if any, time struggling with the language employed by the writer.  What differentiates a B from an A is most frequently the issue of originality.

C – C essays are deficient either in the ideas being conveyed, or in their mechanics, structure or formatting.  I often have to pause in the midst of reading a C essay to make comments on incorrect grammar, awkwardly worded sentences, incorrect word usage, misspelled words or incorrectly or inadequately cited sources. This constant disruption means that I cannot focus on the ideas that the writer is trying to convey.  Additionally, C essays often lack a clear focus or purpose, and the ideas expressed may not be particularly insightful or original.

D – D essays have even more pronounced problems than C essays and frequently do not match the requirements of the assignment.  For example, analytical literary essays that do not quote from the primary text (the play, the novel, etcetera) being discussed automatically earn Ds. Similarly, a student who writes only three pages out of a four-page assignment is likely to earn a D.  D essays are also frequently so vague in their focus as to be virtually meaningless.  For example, I have had students write five-page essays entitled “Technology”.  These students frequently waffle on about how technology has “infinitely” improved our lives.  The problem with such an essay, of course, is the scope of the topic.  Technology can include, to name a few things, automated cars, medical technology, electronic security systems, gaming consoles, government surveillance systems, smart homes, smart phones, fitbits, genetic modification, the atomic bomb and the internet.  What could any student possibly say in five pages about this topic that would be meaningful?

F – Fs occur when the submitted work is so poorly written that it either does not meet the requirements of the assignment at all or is nearly indecipherable.


I’ve already stated that what I’m grading is the work you have produced.  Both the language and the ideas must be yours in order for it to merit a grade. I consider any attempt to pass off the work of somebody else as your own to be a form of theft.  Students who plagiarize are obviously robbing the person who originally thought up and wrote down the material being plagiarized, but, beyond that, they are stealing my time, and because the time I spent looking at what they submitted takes away from the time I might have spent looking at other students’ writing, they are also robbing their classmates.  Perhaps most importantly, though, they are stealing from themselves.  After all, they have paid to learn how to become academic writers and that investment is squandered when they don’t take the opportunity to practice writing.  With that in mind, whenever I detect plagiarism, I award zero points to that essay and I don’t allow the writer to make up those points.  If a student plagiarizes a second time, that student has demonstrated that he or she has no interest learning how to write and so I have no choice but to give that student an F for the semester.

I want to make clear that any plagiarism, no matter how limited it might be, will result in an F.  The following examples from actual essays should demonstrate the different types of plagiarism that occur.

This example comes from a student whom I like very much, and whose essay, for the most part, was not plagiarized.

Student’s essay:

The homoerotic undertones of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship and interactions can be easily analyzed when examining the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio, because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

This website includes this passage:

The homoerotic undertone of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is easily discussed by analyzing the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

Notice that this student did make changes to the material being used.  Those superficial changes, however, did not make this a paraphrase or summary of the original material, and even had the student radically altered the language, the student would have still been guilty of plagiarizing because the ideas being expressed belong to the writer of the webpage.

These examples come from another student’s essay.

Student’s essay:

“According an online study by psychology today on Science and technology ‘most people with prolonged isolation can result in sensory deprivation and mental illness, high blood pressure and venerability to infection.'”

At first glance this may not appear to be plagiarism.  After all, the student has put the borrowed material in quotation marks and has acknowledged that the material comes from an online study.  The student, however, has failed to cite the source of the study.  No author or title is provided and nothing is listed in the Works Cited page, so this is plagiarism.

Student’s essay:

Throughout the story isolation because of technology, leads to little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

This website includes this passage:

Throughout the story isolation because of technology leads little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

In this case the plagiarism of this sentence is verbatim.  The student hadn’t copied material verbatim from the website throughout the essay, but this small, single infraction was sufficient to warrant the student receiving zero points for the essay.

You shall not paste

Although most plagiarism involves students copying and pasting chunks of writing from the internet, there have also been cases of plagiarism where students get somebody to write their essays for them.  Obviously these cases are more difficult to prove, but my policy is that if a student cannot demonstrate his or her ability to write at the level indicated by the essay he or she has submitted, then the essay is plagiarized.  Furthermore, if a student is unfamiliar with the argument presented in the essay he or she submitted, or if the student is unable to define words that he or she allegedly wrote, then the essay  is plagiarized.  Two real examples will illustrate this point.  One of my students wrote an essay mentioning the Tequila Party.  I had never heard of the Tequila Party.  It turns out, neither had the student who had “written” the essay.  That student received an F for the essay and failed the course.  Another student submitted an essay on abortion.  The quality of writing in the essay seemed substantially better than the quality of writing the student was able to produce in class, which immediately made me suspicious.  When I asked the student about the submitted essay, the student correctly identified the topic of the essay as being abortion.  Unfortunately, the student thought that the essay was making a pro-life argument when, in reality, the essay was making a pro-choice argument.  This case of plagiarism also resulted in the student earning an F for the semester.

I have provided these examples to drive home the point that no plagiarism is permissible, and that what appear to be rather small violations of the academic honesty code will have a huge impact on the grade of the student caught plagiarizing.

What I Look at in an Essay:

I want to give you a broader idea of everything I look at when I’m reading a student’s essay.  I consider the four following areas:

  • Formatting – Formatting includes what identifying information you have in your essay and where you put it, where you place your title, what font and font size you use, where you put your page numbers, how you space lines and indent paragraphs, and how you quote sources and cite them. There are many different ways to format your essay or report depending on which discipline you are writing in. Essays for English are formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) rules.  The format of your essay is the first thing your teacher will see, and he or she will immediately form an impression about your essay based on that.

Here are a few quick guidelines for MLA formatting:

  1. Everything needs to be in Times New Roman, 12 point font.
  2. The essay should be double spaced.
  3. In the top right-hand corner of each page should be a page number preceded by the last name of the author, like this: Johnson 5.
  4. The following information needs to be include in the top left-hand corner of the first page:

    Student’s Name

    Professor’s Name (always give your instructor the title of professor, not Mr. Ms. or Dr.)

    The name of the class (i.e. ENG 112, ENG 125, etcetera)

    The date (the date should be formatted like this 10 May 2017)

  5. Underneath the information listed above should be the title of your essay. The title needs to be centered, and needs to have the initial letter of each noun, verb, adjective and adverb capitalized.  The title should NOT be bolded, underlines or, unless there is a quote in the title, in quotation marks.
  6. Titles should have two parts. The first part should be a hook that captures the attention of the reader, and the second part should indicate more directly the focus of the essay.  This is common practice in academic writing.  Consider the following examples from published pieces:

    Just Walk on By:

    A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space

    The New Jim Crow:

    Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

    Whipping Girl:

    A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

  7. The initial line of each paragraph needs to be indented using the tab button.
  8. Quoted material must be in quotation marks, and all material borrowed from other sources must be cited using the MLA in text citation method.
  9. A Works Cited page must be on a new page from the rest of essay and must have sources listed in alphabetic order, either by the name of the author, or, if the author’s name is not available, by the title of the source. Sources need to be left justified and sources that are longer than one line need to be set up with hanging indentation.
  • Mechanics – Mechanics refers to grammar, syntax (aka sentence structure), and punctuation. Having lots of mechanical problems can be really distracting for your instructor, and your ideas might not receive the attention they deserve simply because the instructor is trying to untangle a poorly worded sentence.  Here are a few small rules to keep in mind:
  1. English sentences require a subject and a predicate. The subject consists of a noun phrase and is the object, person, idea, whatever that is being described or is doing somethingThe predicate is the verb phrase that tells you about the subject.  Consider this sentence:

    “The Handmaid’s Tale explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women.”

    The phrase “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the subject, while “explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women” is the predicate.

    Here is an example of a student’s sentence where the subject is missing:

    “Around 1981 Nintendo released Donkey Kong featuring a character named the Jumpman. Popularly known as Mario.”

    This is an example of a sentence fragment. This sentence fragment could be fixed by writing, “Today Jumpman is popularly known as Mario.”

    I think it’s worth noting that Spanish speakers are perhaps more likely to leave off the subject in a sentence because in Spanish the subject of a sentence can be left out.  The English phrase, “I went to the hospital,” can be translated into Spanish as, “Fui al hospital.”   The pronoun, “Yo,” has been entirely left off of the sentence.

  2. When a comma is used to join two independent clauses this is called a comma splice. Independent clauses are clauses that can be sentences on their own.  Consider these two independent clauses:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet.”

    “He is offering her financial security.”

    Independent clauses can be joined using a comma and a coordinating conjunction or by using a semicolon:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet, but he is offering her financial security.”

  3. Apostrophes serve two purposes:  they indicate possessive nouns (“The student’s essay”) or they indicate that something has been removed. (“She’s going to the store.”  “Don’t talk that way to me.”)

Students frequently misuse apostrophes.  One common mistake is demonstrated in this sentence:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the 80’s.”

This sentence should actually be written:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the ‘80s.”

The point here is that the apostrophe should not go between the zero and s, because nothing has been removed from there and the ‘80s is not a possessive noun.  An apostrophe should, however, go before the 8 to indicate that the 19 has been removed.

  • Voice – Voice refers to the vocabulary and sentence structure the writer uses to convey who he or she is and to convey something about the nature of the communication occurring in the writing.  An email to a friend, for example, would be less formal and more “chatty” than a letter to a potential employer.  Academic writing needs to be more formal, but also needs to retain a personal aspect.  The following guidelines will help you develop a scholarly writer’s voice:
  1. Avoid euphemisms (i.e. replace “passed away” with “died”; replace “slept with” with “had sex with” ), slang (i.e. replace “cops” with “law enforcement” or “police officers”; replace “kids” with “children”; replace “cool” with “popular”; replace “guts” with “courage”), abbreviations (eliminate “i.e.”, “vs.” and “etc.”) and clichés (i.e. remove “through the roof”; “tons of opportunities”; “avoid like the plague”).
  2. Be aware of the denotation (dictionary definition) and connotation (emotional baggage) of the words you use and select words that precisely convey your meaning. Consider, for example, the difference between the phrases “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants”.  Both phrases refer to the same demography, but these phrases have different connotations and suggest the writer’s political position on the issue of immigration.  Here’s another example: “rape victim” versus “rape survivor”.  The first term suggests that the person who was raped has no agency and is passive – the recipient of an act; the second term suggests that the person does have agency and has acted by surviving.
  3. Avoid entirely the second person pronoun (you). This pronoun makes your essay sound too chatty or too preachy.  You will have noticed that I’m using “you” throughout this post, but that’s intentional – this post is meant to be instructional for you the reader and, thus, directly addresses you.
  4. Limit usage of the first person pronoun (I). You should avoid phrases like “I personally believe…” or, even worse, “Me, personally, I believe…”. There are several problems with these phrases.  First, the word “personally” is redundant.  If you wrote “I” we assume that it is personal statement.  Secondly, the reader assumes that you believe everything you’ve written in your essay.  You wrote it, so you must think it’s true.  You don’t need to say you believe it.  There are a few times when I do condone the use of I in academic writing.  These occasions would include:
    • recounting a personal anecdote that exemplifies a point you are trying to make or that establishes your personal expertise in the field being discussed (i.e. “As a trans woman serving in the U.S. army I have faced a significant amount of hostility from fellow soldiers and, more alarmingly, from my superiors.”)
    • disagreeing with common wisdom or with an expert in the area being discussed (i.e. “Howard Bloom and other literary critics have argued that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is clearly anti-Semitic, but I am going to contend that while characters within the play do express anti-Semitic opinions, Shakespeare makes Shylock a fully human and fully sympathetic character.”)
  5. Be brief and succinct. Students occasionally think that the best way to impress their instructors is by writing long sentences or by using unnecessarily complicated language.  Your goal, though, is to express your ideas as quickly and as clearly as possible.  Sometimes, in order to accurately and comprehensively conveying your meaning, you may have to resort to longer sentences and technical terms like liminal, discourse, epistemology and hegemony.  That’s fine.  Just make sure your sentences make sense and that you know what those terms mean before you use them.
  • Content – Content refers to the ideas expressed by the writer. The type of content you include depends on what you are writing.  Lab reports for science courses, for example, will consist of your observations and, possibly, hypotheses and conclusions.  History instructors may ask you to write a critical book review of a secondary text.  In a critical book review the writer briefly describes the book in question and then offers his or her opinion of the book.  English professors may ask for a range of different types of essays, like descriptive essays, persuasive essays and “This I Believe” essays.  Most of the essays I assign, however, are going either to be analytic essays or research essays.

Analytic essays are more difficult to write than critical book reviews, but they are also a better indicator of the writer’s ability to reason and make arguments, and they are more interesting to read.  If you were writing an analysis of Pride and Prejudice you would need to identify a key idea that you wanted to explore in the novel.  You would make an argument about that idea, and you would find evidence (passages from the book) to support your thesis.  For example, you could argue something like this:  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen subverts Regency era social conventions by having Elizabeth Bennet marry above her social status.  Your job now would be to retrace your way through the novel looking for passages that support this contention.

Research essays require writers to investigate a topic and then make an argument concerning that topic.  Notice that it is not enough to simply conduct research and report what you’ve discovered.  You need to balance the information you have uncovered through your research with the meaning or interpretation that you then give to that information.  Information is the data that you derive from your research.  An essay that is information heavy reads like an encyclopedia entry.  There are plenty of facts, but the facts don’t connect with either the reader or, it would appear, the writer.  The reader leaves the essay shrugging her shoulders saying, “Okay, I now know about the breeding habits of the platypus, but who cares?”  Meaning is the interpretation you give information.   Although it happens less frequently, it is possible to have an essay that is meaning heavy.  A meaning heavy essay reads like an opinion editorial.  The writer cherry picks one or two “facts” and uses them to spin off any meaning he or she feels like.  With that in mind, let me give you a couple of examples from historians:

  1. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire relies on evidence that Gibbon gleaned from primary sources to support the contention that the Christian doctrine of the afterlife undermined the civic duty of Romans.
  2. In The Trial of the Templars, Malcolm Barber looks at primary sources, and what happened in countries where the Templars were not put on trial to suggest that the King of France was motivated, in part, by his desire to acquire the wealth accumulated by the Templars.

Here are some rather obvious topics that you could work with:

  1. The rejection of climate change science by a significant portion of American society is motivated more by economic concerns than by any flaws in the science.
  2. Transphobia, the fear of trans people, stems from an anxiety acceptance of gender fluidity would undermine traditional sex/gender roles.
  3. The distrust that some academics express towards Wikipedia as a source of knowledge has less to do with the accuracy of Wikipedia, and more to do with concerns that, because Wikipedia is free and widely accessible, it will displace them as the gatekeepers of knowledge.
  4. Free trade agreements, although they hurt certain demographics in the short term, are good for the economies of all countries involved in the long term.
  5. Globalization and the power of massive international corporations have undermined the very concept of the nation state.
  6. The continual demand for high stakes standardized testing is driven less by concerns about slipping educational standards in the United States, and more by the lobbying of lawmakers by companies that profit off of these exams.
  7. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students undermines learning.
  8. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students ensures that even students from low income families will learn skills that are absolutely necessary to succeeding in our digital economy.

Any of these topics can be researched and then argued about.  There are a nearly infinite number of similarly interesting topics that could form the basis for a successful research topic.  Your job is to find a topic that interests you.

I hope that this overview has clarified what I’m looking for when I grade essays and has given you ideas for how to improve your writing.  Good luck!

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