Utopia or Dystopia: Imagined Societies from 380 BC to 1984

In today’s lesson, we started by looking at three Greek words: “ou”, dys-” and “topos”. Some of you spotted that when joining them together, it created the words “utopia” and “dystopia”. “topos” means a “place”, “dys” is a negative prefix, being “bad”, and “ou”, more surprisingly, means “no”. So a “utopia” literally means “no place”, which was an intended irony on behalf of Sir Thomas More who coined the term in 1516. Around 380 BC, Plato, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, wrote a book called “The Republic”, where he arguably laid out the plans for the first utopia. Some, however, feel that it is a lot more like a dystopia.

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To explore what makes a utopia and a dystopia, we looked at some other very well-known and influential dystopian novels. We started by reading the first page of the particular dystopia, and asking you to discuss what you found interesting and surprising about it, and what you thought was going on. After that we watched a film clip and told you a little bit about the novel.

fahrenheit-451-cover

The first dystopia started with a detailed description of what appeared to be a fireman, with 451 on his helmet, describing what it was like to burn books. This was the first page of the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. You can read the text here and watch the trailer here. It is set in a society where booked are banned and burned if found – apparently in a bid to make society equal, but ultimately to control society.

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Next came the memorable opening of George Orwell’s 1984, a society where everyone is controlled by the constant reference to the presence of Big Brother, and where people are manipulated through initiatives like Hate Week and threatened with punishments such as Room 101. 1984 is arguably the most influential dystopian novel of modern times, and its references are well-known in popular culture. You can read the text here and see the clip here.

bravenewworldvintagecanadacover

Following that we looked at the opening of Brave New World, where humans are hatched in laboratories rather than born from humans, and everyone in society is given their position. A drug called “soma” is administered to keep everyone happy. You can read the text here and see a compilation clip exploring some of the themes of the story here.

never-let-me-go

Next was the first page of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, set around an experimental school for humans created to provide organs for other humans. The story is narrated by one of the ‘clones’, and is a moving account of three friends’ struggle to accept what and who they are. You can read the text here and see the clip here.

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Finally, we looked at Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale’s vivid account of an alternative, very religious American state called ‘Gilead’, where some women were enslaved as ‘handmaids’ to bear the children of the ruling elite, whose wives were thought to be barren. The story has recently been turned into a series, and as a result, the handmaid’s striking dress has been used in protests for women’s rights across the world. You can read the text here and watch the clip here.

After discussing each of these novels and exploring their themes, we looked at what Plato came up with in the Republic. Plato wanted a society with no democracy, despite living in the first known democracy, and felt that society should be ruled by philosopher kings who were selected in childhood. He banned all fiction from his ideal world, something that we find to be a theme in many dystopias. We talked about how his ideas could be seen as both utopian and dystopian, just as the other novels we have looked at today have elements of both.

Finally, I asked you for homework to create your own idea for a dystopian story, as well as coming up with a title, front cover and if you have time, a first page of the story, which would intrigue and draw people in, much as the first pages we have looked at introduce elements of the society they are set in in allusive and thought-provoking ways.

We are holding a community Dystopia Event on 14th February, with a talk by Professor Greg Claeys, an exhibition and refreshments, prize-givings for the best utopias as judged by Professor Claeys, and then a community viewing of the 2010 film Never Let Me Go. Details are here. We hope lots of you will come!

I really look forward to hearing and seeing the ideas and designs you come up with!

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