Common Themes of Dystopian Fiction – With reference to The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World

If you’re a fourteen year old girl at the moment, or you know one, you’re probably familiar with dystopian fiction. If not, why’re you here? A dystopia is an imagined universe in which oppressive control and the illusion of a perfect society (utopia) is maintained through corporate, philosophical, bureaucratic or technological means. Dystopian texts tend to be read as a reflection of the society in which they were produced. But what are the themes of these dystopian texts?

Archetype of Tragic Hero Protagonist:
The protagonist within a dystopian text is typically a tragic hero. The purpose of a tragic hero is to evoke emotions that are more sorrowful than those generally created through other heroes (e.g., a comedic hero); in order to predispose an audience into thinking more deeply about the issues presented within the text. The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World have dissimilar approaches to this dystopian convention. For a hero to be labeled as “tragic” they must have a hamartia, which loosely translates to “error”, this is the cause of the tragic hero’s downfall. Within Brave New World two separate characters can be read as the “hero”; John The Savage, whose demise was as a result of his lack of ability to assimilate himself into any society and Bernard Marx who was banished due to his individuality. This was orchestrated to demonstrate the way that unorthodox individuals cannot assimilate into a communist society. Within The Handmaid’s Tale our hero “Offred” doesn’t necessarily meet a tragic fate, the text ends with an open ending. The open ending is implemented in order to predispose the reader to think deeply about the protagonist’s fate as well as the conditions that lead to it. Though The Handmaid’s Tale does not implement a tragic hero, through other means the reader is predisposed to leave the text with a sorrowful temperament.


It’s safe to say 99.999999% of dystopian texts entail a class struggle of sorts; this is commonly used to reflect an inequality prominent in the society in which the text was published. For instance, within Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a caste system is implemented, in order to demonstrate the inferiority of women in comparison to men. Within the text symbolism is used to present women as inferior; animal imagery is used repeatedly throughout the text, for instance “a rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays in the maze.” In comparing herself to a rat the protagonist acknowledges her low placement on the societal hierarchy, as rats tend to connote poverty. This is furthered by the fact that females cannot take ownership of anything anymore, and are hence reliant on a man, as he is able to own assets. Offred acknowledges this in referral to her husband  “We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.” Reinforced by her name “Of-Fred”, which makes her seem like a possession rather than person. When the text was written, feminism was facing a lot of backlash from religious protesters, hence it can be read that Atwood’s gender/class division is a criticism of such backlash. Within BNW there is an obvious class division, which can be demonstrated by the way different individuals of different classes are produced. One significant difference is that higher castes (Beta and Alpha) are not mass-produced, and hence have a slight degree of individuality. That individuality extends, only to physical characteristics. In comparison to Alpha and Beta individuals, the Gamma, Delta and Epsilons, are small and perceived as unattractive. When being “decanted”, processes such as oxygen deprivation and injecting alcohol into their blood are used; giving them severe mental and physical handicaps in order to keep them content with their menial jobs. The population of The World State is modelled such that only a small percentage of its inhabitants are capable of excelling demonstrated when Mustapha Mond states “The optimum population … is modelled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above. Huxley’s implementation of a class system could possibly reflect something similar, based on economics, race, etc.


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Sex, being a fundamental constituent of human existence is a common theme in many texts. Within dystopian fiction the concept of sex can be manipulated to reflect the values of the society depicted within the text. For instance within Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale female sexuality is repressed to the point where it’s seen as only a business transaction; in order to critique the devaluation of female bodies by religious protesters opposing female reproductive rights, demonstrated when Serena Joy refers to intercourse between Offred and The Commander as “Like a business transaction”. The sexual act itself is deflated, described with unaesthetic tone and imagery “like a tap dripping”, hence reinforcing the above ideas. The repression of sexuality is furthered within the text through a symbolic motif of cigarettes, which can be read as a representation of control over sexuality/body. It can be read this way as cigarettes are something that were readily available in the protagonist’s past life which she now yearns for as they’re illegal; similarly to the aforementioned control. This is best demonstrated when Serena Joy offers Offred a cigarette “She takes the cigarette… and a little awkwardly presses it into my hand” this is stated shortly after Serena and Offred plan to take control over Offred’s sexuality and body. Contrary to The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s BNW presents a society in which  promiscuity and sexual freedom are sociologically expected. Citizens of the World state are conditioned to be “Adults intellectually and during working hours” and “Infants where feeling and desire are concerned.” Sex in BNW is used as a form of entertainment, rather than a form of procreation. This is demonstrated through the lengthy description of the reproduction during the exposition of the text. Objective, scientific language such as “Sixteen thousand and twelve; in one hundred and eighty-nine batches of identicals” is used to demonstrate that reproduction is purely scientific, hence sex is purely recreational in the world state. Most forms of entertainment within the text somehow relate to sex, for instance children run around playing erotic games (which is an unfamiliar concept to readers, as they’ve been taught not to sexualise children) and adults watch the feelies, which are essentially pornographic films. Huxley does this in order to critique the rise in existentialism post WW1, which resulted in promiscuity becoming more common.

Religion, philosophical control:

The use of religion as a tool for control is a common theme within a dystopia, this is due to it being a relatable one. According to my very reliable source religion “has been responsible for more deaths throughout human history than all other unnatural causes combined. For a thousand years the Church was a tyrannical dictatorship that used religion to control the uneducated masses”. Both texts display a bastardised, almost satirical version of Christianity. In Brave New Word, the “God” of The World State is referred to as “Ford”, alluding to Henry Ford, who, in modern society is seen as a symbol of consumerism. Huxley is criticising the way people “worship” possestions and superficial artefacts, hence using the symbol of religion to critique consumerism. The Handmaid’s Tale is rampant with references and allusions to the bible, though these references have mostly been bastardised in some way, hence reflecting Gilead itself. For instance, the “Angels” who normally connote peace and purity, fight wars within the text. Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship, worshiping a bastardised/skewed interpretation of the Bible in order to control it’s people. In the Rachel and Leah Centre, Handmaids are forced to listen to Bible verses, though the protagonist is sceptical of the authenticity of these verses as demonstrated: “Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a disc… I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking.” There is no way of checking as the Bible is kept from the Handmaid’s under lock and key as it is an “incendiary device”, meaning weapon. As mentioned above, when the text was published religious protesters were repenting against the ideologies prominent in the post WW1 society, there were even reports of bombings at abortion clinics.  It can be read that in presenting Gilead’s bastardised interpretation Atwood is criticising the way religious protesters were ignoring certain aspects of the Bible.

Repression of Knowledge and Free Thinking:

In order to implement total philosophical control all members of the society must follow or agree with the philosophy embodied by the society. This is near impossible, hence in order to make this easier the government within dystopian texts typically represses knowledge and free thinking, as they say, “knowledge is power”. In The Handmaid’s Tale, all Handmaids are forbidden from reading or writing, this is an attempt by the leaders of the society to limit/control the knowledge (and hence power) their citizens can utilize. This control extends over any form of written word; even Scrabble an innocuous board game is considered an atrocity. This is demonstrated when stated “Scrabble…seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation in its own way.” Within the text, Handmaid’s yearn for intellectual stimulation, to such an extent that Offred becomes near obsessed with the only word she has access to “I can spend minutes, tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print: FAITH.” The oppression of knowledge is further reinforced when it’s stated that the “University is closed”. University, being an intellectual space can be read as a representation of knowledge, hence the university being closed is symbolic of Gilead’s repression of knowledge.  Along with Gilead, the leaders of The World State in Brave New World have also sacrificed knowledge. Citizens are conditioned from birth to value consumption and to uphold the expected norm of their caste, though this makes for an extremely stable society, it’s at the expense of knowledge and freedom. Citizens are conditioned to dissent books from an early age, demonstrated when it states “They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ’instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. “As books tend to house knowledge, they can be read as symbolic of it; hence reinforcing the above ideas.


Within dystopian texts people are controlled through several means, in order to maintain a stable society. With stability comes the cost of freedom, knowledge and individuality. Dystopian texts commonly use themes such as religion, sex, knowledge and class as they’re familiar themes and hence predispose the reader to relate these themes to their own context. In other words, dystopian fiction says our world sucks (or will suck) – so what are you gonna do about it?
By B.R.


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