On this episode of The Torch, we examine the very timely intersection of Utopian and Dystopian works of literature and our cultural moment in time.
Here to discuss Utopian and Dystopian Literature and more is Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.. Professor of English at the University of Connecticut
The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.
Ed Leon: Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining us. I’m Ed Leon. The Donald Trump presidency and the daily churn of news emanating from his administration has produced a great resurgence of interest in dystopian works of literature. In fact, 1984, George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel released in 1949, has surged to the top of the book charts in February of 2017. That’s 67 years later. Here to examine the very timely intersection of dystopian novels and our cultural moment in time is Professor Pamela Bedore, Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, who teaches our new course, Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Hey. How you doing, Pam?
Pamela Bedore: Hi, Ed. How are you?
Ed Leon: Good. I never thought your course would be so timely. I bet you never thought that either.
Pamela Bedore: I certainly didn’t.
Ed Leon: Let’s start with 1984. Why is that book having a resurgence and why is it resonating in such a powerful way now?
Pamela Bedore: I think 1984, it’s a fascinating novel in that it actually introduces a lot of the terms that we just take for granted today, like Big Brother, a lot of work on surveillance, and also it’s a study in totalitarian government. A lot of people have made the argument that Trump shares some features with totalitarian governments. Of course, the big thing that 1984 offers us is the idea of doublespeak or doublethink.
Ed Leon: Double think. Talk about that a little bit. What is that in the novel?
Pamela Bedore: It’s the idea of alternative facts, basically. It’s the idea that you can see things one way, call that factual, or you can see things a different way and call that factual. Of course, Winston Smith, the protagonist of this novel, he actually works at the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to change history, change all the history books, all the records, so that the truth is always accurate and true forever. My favorite example of that is the chocolate ration, and that’s because I love chocolate. When they change the chocolate ration from 30 grams to 20 grams, Winston Smith has to go back and change the record to show the chocolate ration has always been 20 grams.
Ed Leon: Depending on where you are on the political spectrum, and we’re going to try to ride a fine line here because there are obviously 67 million people that voted for Donald Trump who feel that he’s operating in their best interest, but the idea that both sides of the political spectrum are saying completely divergent things about the same idea or concept or law or person … We’re so divided. We’re in the age of the dual thinking.
Pamela Bedore: Right, absolutely. Here’s what really interesting about 1984, is I think we think of that novel as being very, very dark, and of course it is. Room 101, the torture chamber, is a horrible place. At the same time, that novel, it doesn’t end on a totally dark note. It has an afterward that reshapes the novel. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but just like any work of dystopia, there’s some utopian imaginings in that novel, which is something that … Just going back to what you just said, Donald Trump’s view of the world is a utopia to half the country and a dystopia to half the country, and that’s something that’s critical to a dystopian and utopian project.
Ed Leon: Just some of the other parallels. You talked about the surveillance state. We now carry surveillance devices in our pockets every day, the cell phones and the mini-computers that we carry around. There was also the proles, which were the lower classes in that novel. There’s all this talk about politically the underserved majorities of this country that voted for Donald Trump. Also, that it’s a stratified world. There are three superpowers that are in charge: US, China, Russia. All these things, they’re kind of spooky, actually.
Pamela Bedore: They are. Then I think what’s even spookier about the three superpowers is the idea that within 1984 there comes a moment where the alliance changes, and so Winston and his team, they have to go back in and rewrite history and say, “We were always allied with Eurasia, not Eastasia.” Obviously, Orwell was referring to … That’s right after the Second World War, but it’s easy for people to make a parallel, like, “Who are our allies right now?”
Ed Leon: In the world of 1984, the world is always at war, and we have been in this constant war against terror for a long, long time.
Learn more: George Orwell and Totalitarian Dystopia
Pamela Bedore: Right. For Orwell, for the characters in that novel, part of the reason for that war is that it keeps people occupied. It’s a distraction more than a real political conflict.
Ed Leon: That theme comes up in several of these dystopian works, and we’re going to talk a little bit about that. Are you surprised, by the way? This book’s 67 years old. Are you shocked?
Pamela Bedore: It’s never been out of print, Ed.
Ed Leon: It’s never been out of print.
Pamela Bedore: It’s never been out of print.
Ed Leon: I know it’s been an assignment in school, but it shot to the top. It was crazy. Let’s move on. Let’s talk a little bit about Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s great dystopian novel. Talk about some of the parallels that we see going on here.
Pamela Bedore: Actually, I was all prepared for this, and then Matt Bai wrote a column just a couple days ago that stole my whole argument, but it’s brilliant. I think Matt’s column is excellent. Basically, he suggests that the 1984 comparison is not the right one. We should really be looking at the Brave New World comparison to understand this cultural moment. That’s because in Brave New World people are oppressed not by pain and torture, but by pleasure. When you go back to the cell phones we all have in our hands, that we play games on, that we do all sorts of things on all the time, Brave New World looks at a world in which people are just so distracted. He uses soma, the drug, and hypnopaedia, but people are just so distracted that they’re not that focused.
Ed Leon: I see ads on TV every night for our versions of soma.
Pamela Bedore: Exactly.
Ed Leon: There’s a lot of antidepressants out there.
Pamela Bedore: Exactly. Aldous Huxley actually said after … He wrote Brave New World in 1932, and after 1984 came out 16 years later Huxley actually wrote that Orwell’s worried about people burning books s, Huxley’s worried about people not even caring enough about books to read them let alone burn them. That idea of politics as entertainment, which is the main theme of Brave New World, is another way to look at our current moment.
Ed Leon: Right, and we have an entertainer as President now, a reality entertainer. Other themes in that book about caste systems and the dumbing down of America are also at play in our current times.
Learn more: Aldous Huxley ad Dystopian Pleasure
Pamela Bedore: Absolutely. I would have a hard time thinking of a dystopia that didn’t have really specific and concrete class systems
Ed Leon: That’s a running theme.
Pamela Bedore: Absolutely.
Ed Leon: Let’s talk a little bit about The Hunger Games, because there’s one theme in there which I think really resonates, and that is that wealth is hoarded at the top and then the rest, the common folks, are all out there fighting each other, scrambling for the crumbs
Pamela Bedore: The only way to change your station is reality TV. That’s what’s really interesting about Hunger Games
Ed Leon: By the way, I’m getting chills as we do this interview. I’m sorry, continue. Go ahead.
Pamela Bedore: That’s what’s interesting about Hunger Games, is that Katniss is living this very difficult life in which she knows she’ll never marry because she doesn’t want to bring children into the world in which she lives, but when she’s chosen to participate in televised hunger games where 23 of 24 teens will die in mandatory viewing reality TV game show, then she becomes actually one of the most recognizable people in her world and she leads a revolution. It’s a pretty fascinating novel. It’s interesting, because when (Suzanne) Collins wrote it, oh, now it’s so long ago, I think it was 2009 or ’08 was the first novel, she was really talking about war too. That’s a trilogy. Book one is hunger game 74. Book two, hunger game 75. Book three, revolution, real world war. Things go off the television and into the world. Yeah, chills for sure, just as you were saying.
Ed Leon: Pam, let’s talk about one that is another famous novel, was made into a great movie, is being made into a new series, and that is The Handmaid’s Tale.
Pamela Bedore: Yes. This is by Margaret Atwood, a fellow Canadian, one of my favorite all-time writers. Handmaid’s Tale is really fascinating, written in 1985. Just like 1984, sales has spiked on that one. This one’s about gender oppression. It’s a very dark future in which women basically have the choice of being handmaidens if they have fertility, bearing children for the wealthy, or they can work at nuclear cleanup. It’s a very, very dark world, but, just like 1984, it draws us in. It’s very immersive. Very, very good novel. Draws us into this dark world, and then has a sort of surprise hopeful ending. I don’t want to give it away.
Ed Leon: Don’t give it away.
Pamela Bedore: … but it does some really great gender analysis that I think people are really thinking about right now.
Ed Leon: Yeah, and resonating … I think there’s the discussion, maybe even the fears that this administration will pull back on reproductive rights for women in the courts. I guess it’s very timely in that respect
Pamela Bedore: Yes. Margaret Atwood is actually mentioned at the Women’s March in some of the signs, like, “Let’s keep Handmaid’s Tale fiction.” She has a lot of resonance, for sure.
Ed Leon: Another Margaret Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake. This one’s about ecology.
Pamela Bedore: Deep Ecology, Ed. This is the idea that the only way to save the planet is to get rid of the dominant species, which is us. This is a world in which bioengineered creatures called the Crakers basically replace humans. Again, it sounds so dark, but it’s also funny and oddly hopeful
Learn more: Margaret Atwood and Environmental Dystopia
Ed Leon: Funny human extinction.
Pamela Bedore: Right?
Ed Leon: Is this where the debate over climate change comes in?
Pamela Bedore: Yeah it is the idea that, in this world, the government isn’t doing anything about climate change, basically an individual genius makes a choice and finds a really innovative way to reclaim the planet.
Ed Lean: Was it corporate greed? Scientific Hubris? We’ll see which one it is. One that I think is really in the news right now and that is one of the themes in Minority Report, which is Philip Dick’s novel, the ides of locking up criminals before they even commit a crime. This is sort of the banning the idea of locking up criminals before they even commit a crime. This is sort of the banning people from immigrating here from supposedly terrorist countries. So relevant.
Pamela Bedore: That sort of conflict between individual freedom and security, that’s another theme that we’re going to see in a lot of these. It’s interesting, because the Philip K. Dick novella was written in 1956, so with McCarthy hearings, and then the film was made in 2002 right after 9/11. Now there’s a new television series. We are seeing these themes being just relevant at different moments. We’re living in a time when people are thinking of dystopia, but utopia too, the other side of that coin.
Ed Leon: You’re always bringing it back to the positive. Not everybody’s thinking that way. It’s a wonderful approach for your Great Course. It’s called Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature, and you do a fantastic job on it, so thank you so much.
Pamela Bedore: Thank you, Ed.
Ed Leon: In closing, is there an underlying theme to these? Or not theme, but is there a underlying purpose of dystopian works? Is it to warning? Is it to make us think? Is it a warning cry? What would you say?
Pamela Bedore: I really think it’s an exploration. On one hand, it is a warning, but one thing that … I’ve taught utopian and dystopian literature many, many times, but I feel like doing this course and really expanding it to the 12 hours, every single work of dystopia has a utopian underpinning, and every single work of utopia has a dystopian underpinning, which is the warning. I really think that these texts provide us a lens, a lens to analyze different elements of our political realities.
Ed Leon: Thanks for joining us today and giving us your lens. We appreciate it. Thank you for joining us here at The Great Courses. We’ll see you again soon.
From the Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature
Taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.