Decoding dystopia

[Warning: this article contains spoilers]


The hype for Divergent, well … it was somewhat less than that for The Hunger Games – just saying.  Perhaps it was too premature, in the wake of its predecessor’s shadow? So let us delve deeper into this dystopian abyss…

Somehow there’s always a next hit for teen romcom junkies to ease the pain of the post-[insert novel] depression. In the case of The Hunger Games (2008) it was Divergent (2011) and following this I predict Lauren Oliver’s Delirium (2011). But what do we actually mean by dystopian? Having read all of the above here are some observations, (in no particular order): DEATH, sass, action, some form of forbidden/triangular love, fermented feelings of frustration, chips hit the fan, victory dance! Fin. If we want to split hairs about it, the OED defines it as, ‘An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible’ true story. Which is basically what I said.

“But why would anyone feel the need to assess these seemingly pop-tastic novels?” I hear you ask! Well perhaps revision for 0th week collections has finally worn me down but as I read over an essay on postmodernism, having watched Divergent the night before, I couldn’t help but see the wider implications present in these novels….

Postmodernism attempted to eradicate the division within culture and acted as a ‘specific reaction against the established forms of high modernism, against this or that dominant high modernism.’* This was achieved by looking forward but also by reaching back to tradition. As much as Divergent represents a hyper reality of a post-apocalyptic world, the nature of the serum that Erudite develops to control the other factions can be linked back to biblical structures. It brings our attention to the very sanctity of free will and by extension the power and potential of free thought, which Divergents possess. This shows that even on a level branded as pop culture, this dystopian novel strives to reach further by reaching back.

A further similarity is the elements of postmodern faction in Divergent. This is when the novel’s subject material is based on actual events, but writers tend to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. Perhaps this is just coincidence but its interesting Roth names the different groups within Divergent ‘Factions’. Why? In the novel, the segregation of the world into five groups leads to the singling out of what is considered to be the weakest – Abnegation. Abnegation is then targeted by the majority, which is led by the so-called intellectual elite – Erudite. Now while the events in the novel are fictitious, they are reminiscent of many historical injustices. It’s nothing new to hear of the weakest group in society being targeted by those considered dominant.

A third and final feature is the use of magic realism in postmodern work. Dystopian novels, by the very existence of their imaginative landscapes, are a construct of magical realism. There is often a moral or didactic element attempting to challenge and convey the universal truths of literature (love, fear, hope, honour, good vs. evil, death) through a microcosm of reality. In Divergent it begins with the different attributes each faction has. The message to take away at the end is that all qualities are necessary in a person’s character; they should never be defined by just one thing. This extends to society – in order to achieve a functioning and fair system, it requires all these qualities. A segregated society results in the isolation of individuals, who in time will begin to resent what is different. Instead, a society where people are multifaceted will be much stronger, like the Divergents. In The Hunger Games it is the depiction of humankind when they are pushed to their limit and enter a primal stage of being. Here their actions in the games force us to question blind faith in systems of power. It is plausible to read the framework as a critique of a totalitarian state. Or perhaps a warning about the desensitivity of the young and how they can become easily corrupted?

On a macroscopic level we should take a holistic position and consider the roles such texts have on literature – how it is now presented and received. Does the dystopian novel highlight the changing landscape for women writers in the literary field? In his book, Branded Male, Mark Tungate cites research by UK academics in 2005, who conducted a survey and found men were more likely to read books by male authors, whereas women were open to both male and female authors, including a greater genre diversity. Nine years on and now a younger generation is being exposed to popular and highly successful female writers – J.K Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and now Veronica Roth. Not only this, but the protagonists in the most recent popular franchises have been strong female figures – Katniss in The Hunger Games and Tris in Divergent. Yet the gender of the main protagonists for the last ten winners of the Booker prize would challenge this. Out of ten, eight books had male protagonists, one had a female and one had both male and female protagonists.

Nonetheless, in this wonderful instant age, in which the readership experiences these make believe role models on a different level, rapid popularity means instantaneous film adaptions – cue JLaw and Shai! Both these leading ladies are the epitome of the strong, fresh, hard-working folks Hollywood has to offer the world. With quick wit, vibrant personalities and bucket loads of talent, roles like these are examples of why texts such as Divergent and The Hunger Games are valuable. Hopefully now we are beginning to see a change in the phallocentrism of writing, at least on a commercial level that can reach a generation that will have a better outlook for the future and won’t judge a book based on its author.


*Fredric Jameson, in “Postmodernism and Consumerist Society”. (p.1961)


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