Literature Spotlight: Dystopian Novel vs. Dystopian Setting

ALERT: This week's Literature Spotlight contains spoilers for The Hunger Games trilogy. Read at your own risk!

This week my Bring Your Own Book club met for tea, and our topic for the month was Dystopias. I had offered to host this month, because dystopia is one of my absolute favorite genres. As I sat listening to the others recount various dystopian tales, I was struck by a thought that had been niggling at me for weeks – there's a significant difference between a dystopian setting and a true dystopian novel. With the increasing popularity of brilliant YA novels such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, it's becoming more and more common to see stories set in corrupt dystopian societies – but are these stories true dystopias, in the classic sense of the word? There's more to a dystopian novel than a corrupt society setting – classic dystopias also share certain plot and character elements. When viewed in this way works such as The Hunger Games seem to fit more as other genres of stories, such as adventure, mystery or thriller, that are set in dystopian-inspired worlds.

In a classic dystopia, the protagonist is an anomaly within the Society. He either starts out as the lone dissatisfied person in a world of good little worker bees – like Winston Smith in 1984 – or he is one of the good little worker bees himself. He may even be a somewhat celebrated member of the society; Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 has a respected job as a fireman, while D-503 in We is the builder of the spaceship Integral. Highlighting the protagonist in this way makes it easier for the reader to see why we will be following this person as opposed to anyone else; the majority of citizens are unaware of the flaws in the system, either because of relentless propaganda or status quo bias. Compare Winston's colleagues in 1984 or the ciphers in We to the citizens of Panem in The Hunger Games; while the Party and the ciphers are sheep who follow the teachings of their government unfailingly, it seems that everyone in the outer districts of Panem is aware of the awful reality of the Games and refuses to swallow the Capitol's propaganda. In a classic dystopia the protagonist's journey is one of awareness, as he becomes more and more aware of the flaws and shortcomings of the Society, and simultaneously becomes less and less able to fit into the compartment the Society has given him. But in the Hunger Games, Katniss is already aware of the flaws in the Capitol's rhetoric, and so is everyone she knows.

Most classic dystopias also contain a character of the archetype known as “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” In a dystopia, this character exists to show the protagonist the faults in the Society. She generally has her opinions already formulated, so that she can effortlessly denounce the Party or foretell the coming rebellion. In contrast to the protagonist, whose mental state tends to break down as he becomes more aware of the corruption, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has everything figured out already. She may end up as a love interest for the protagonist, and if so he will probably betray her at the climax. He is weak and indecisive compared to her strength and rhetoric. From Julia in 1984 to Clarice in Fahrenheit 451 to I-330 in We, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl enters the protagonist's life to give him freedom within the structure of the Society. In The Hunger Games, however, this character doesn't seem to be present, probably because there is no real need for her when the citizens are already aware and fighting back.

In a classic dystopia, the Society never loses. The protagonist may think he's figured out a way to escape or to bring down the Party, but the Party is always three steps ahead. If the protagonist refuses to bend, the Society will break him, conforming him by force. Whether it's the last scene in the Chestnut Tree Cafe in 1984 or the final Record in We, the Society always wins and the protagonist is once again a happy little worker bee. A classic dystopia ends on a note of hopelessness – the Society is too strong. The Hunger Games shows a brilliant subversion of this arc with the ending of Mockingjay. President Coin suggesting one final Hunger Games with Capitol children is a punch in the gut to the victors who have been through the arena – the reader can almost see the cycle of the Games beginning again. First one final Games, then another – and then it's back to square one, but with roles reversed. Coin has become Snow, and the power will wield her just as it did him. Katniss sees this, and manages to break the cycle by assassinating Coin instead of Snow, realizing that the real enemy is the power of the office, not the broken, dying man presented to her. By breaking the cycle, Katniss allows a hopeful – and very un-dystopian – ending for her society.
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