What 4 Popular Dystopian Novels Have in Common (and How To Write About Them)

“If I ruled the world, summer vacation would last all year long, kids could stay up as long as they wanted, and everyone could eat ice cream for every meal!”  

My 10-year-old self had a lot of excellent suggestions for a perfect world.

I’m sure we’ve all had thoughts (both as kids and as adults) about what life would be like in our perfect world.

This vision of total bliss is utopia: a world in which conditions are essentially perfect for everyone. A perfect world with no hardships and no conflicts doesn’t make for very interesting or dramatic storytelling, though.

That’s where dystopian literature comes in. Dystopian literature tells the story of those living in a dystopian world—one in which people are oppressed, live in fear, and are controlled (usually by a government or giant corporation).

The kicker is that a dystopian world usually starts out with a grand plan of being ideal. Governments or corporations get rid of things like pain, conflict, competition, disease, and poverty in an attempt to make things ideal for all citizens.

In doing so, however, society becomes restrictive and repressive, and citizens end up unhappy, fearful, and often rebellious toward their oppressors.

There are plenty of dystopian novels—The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, Uglies, The Giver, and Animal Farm (just to name a few).

If you’ve read some (or all) of these novels, but need a little assistance figuring out what they have in common and deciding what to write about, this post can help!

Below, I’ll focus on just four dystopian novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World. Ready to check out these four dystopian novels and four things they have in common?

dystopian novels

4 Elements That 4 Popular Dystopian Novels Have in Common

When writing a literary analysis, you have a lot of points to choose from, but this article will focus on four elements:

  • A ruler or oppressor with absolute power
  • Conformity
  • A protagonist who fights for change
  • An ending that leaves readers questioning

A ruler or oppressor with absolute power

dystopian novelsIn dystopian novels, citizens’ movements, thoughts, and actions are highly controlled and repressed. Generally, a government or large corporation is the oppressor.

The Handmaid’s Tale

In The Handmaid’s Tale, The Republic of Gilead was able to successfully overthrow the government, and although it claimed it would only hold power temporarily, it completely altered society, stripping away women’s rights. Due to declining birth rates in the country, women were forced to become handmaids to help others conceive.

In this society, everyone is restricted, particularly when it comes to sexuality. However, it’s the women who are ruled by absolute power. They have no freedoms, cannot leave their homes without being watched, and are not allowed to get an education.

1984

The citizens in the novel 1984, published in 1949are continually monitored by the leader of the ruling political party. The leader, known only as Big Brother (not the TV show that takes its name from this novel), monitors people’s every move.

People have no freedoms and are required to speak a new language designed to curb political unrest. People aren’t even allowed to think about rebelling against the government.

Fahrenheit 451

In Fahrenheit 451, individuality, intelligent conversation, and reading books are all banned. People don’t even enjoy nature anymore. Instead, people passively watch TV or listen to the radio for hours at a time.

In this society, the government has censored everything and has banned books in order to prevent original thought and intelligence. The government claims that this will promote equality among its citizens.

Brave New World

People in Brave New World are controlled by the World State, who claims that stability and engineering people are the way to happiness. Life in this brave new world means that people are not born into a caste system in the traditional sense.

Instead, they’re engineered into a caste system through a company that produces and alters embryos so that individuals are born into various positions in life, such as leaders or laborers.

Conformity

dystopian novels

In dystopian novels, most people generally conform to the new way of life. This is often due to passivity or simply neglecting to question their rights and the government’s actions.

This lack of questioning usually leads to most (or all) of people’s rights being completely stripped away.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Before the development of handmaids, pornography was prolific, and women were often victims of violence.

Many in society use these facts as talking points to attempt to convince women that they are now treated with more respect and should not only be content but happy in their new roles in life. In general, women accept (or at least tolerate) their new lives.

1984

There are, of course, a few isolated pockets of people who want to get rid of the oppression of Big Brother, but for the most part, people live their lives under rule of Big Brother without incident.

In this society, even some thoughts are illegal, and people live in constant fear of committing any type of crime.

Fahrenheit 451

When the ban on books first went into place, there were several groups who fought against the laws, but most people accepted the new society without question. They agreed to ban books as they didn’t want any writings to offend people.

The wife of Guy Montag (the protagonist) is also content in a world without books and questions him about reading, asking why he’d want to read a book and risk being caught.

Brave New World

Because people are engineered into their own specific ways of life, they generally don’t question their existence. They have known nothing else.

A protagonist who fights for change

dystopian novels

Although most people in dystopian novels accept their lives, there are people who question the new society. The protagonist of the story finds the strength to take on the oppressor and/or gather followers in order to create a world in which people will again have freedom.

The protagonist, however, isn’t always successful, and readers are often left wondering about the fate of the protagonist and the society.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Ofglen is a member of Mayday, a group that is resisting Gilead and who refuses to be complacent, yet the narrator, Offred, is not as committed as some.

Though Offred does attempt to escape her position in life, when her escape fails, she returns to her old role as a handmaid, essentially accepting her position in life.

1984

The protagonist, Winston Smith, has an illegal affair with a woman named Julia. Through this affair and writing in his illegal diary, Smith rebels against Big Brother.

Even though Smith himself is a member of the party, he’s curious about the totalitarian government and its absolute power.

Though Smith allows himself to become indoctrinated into the Brotherhood (who is against Big Brother), he secretly feels as though he will be caught. In the end, he is caught, tortured, and ultimately submits to Big Brother.

Fahrenheit 451

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a firefighter who burns books but soon realizes that there’s much to learn from reading.

He meets a teenager who questions things and loves nature. He meets other underground groups, including a professor, who have secret stashes of books and who share knowledge and conflicting opinions.

Montag’s wife ultimately turns against him, and Montag is forced to burn his own house. However, Montag also turns against his boss and sets him on fire and flees. A nationwide manhunt begins, a war is soon declared, and society is ultimately destroyed.

In the end, groups of book-lovers unite and hope to pass on knowledge and rebuild society.

Brave New World

The protagonist, John, becomes the focus of the novel. He grew up in relative isolation, but as he becomes involved in current society, he questions its rules and rituals.

He believes the new world dehumanizes its citizens because things like art, social functions, and relationships are no longer part of society.

An ending that leaves readers questioning

dystopian novels

Because the protagonist doesn’t always succeed in his/her fight, readers don’t know whether the society will stay the same, improve, or allow conditions for the average citizen to actually decline.

Readers of dystopian novels are also left to question the current society in which they live.

Dystopian novels are often cautionary tales about what can happen if citizens are complacent. The novels hope to open people’s eyes to the possibility of the government becoming too powerful.

The Handmaid’s Tale

The novel ends with Offred being taken away, but readers aren’t quite sure whether she’s actually being “saved” by Mayday or being taken to prison.

While The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986, the storylines of pornography, prostitution, and violence against women are certainly relevant today.

Given that, the novel and its ending leave readers feeling uneasy, wondering if, given the current conditions of society, complacency could lead to a situation not unlike that presented in the novel.

1984

In the end, O’Brien convinces Smith to become loyal to the party. Smith leaves Julia and is content to obey Big Brother.

Thus, readers are left to consider what can happen to a society that no longer has the ability to express individuality or question authority. If people become complacent and do not question, soon all of their freedoms may be taken away.

Fahrenheit 451

The novel was published in 1953 as the popularity of television was continually increasing. At the time, readers could easily imagine people staring at TV rather than enjoying nature or reading books.

Today, readers can certainly envision people staring at screens for hours at a time, though now the screens are generally computer or smartphone screens.

Readers are left to wonder what would happen if everything was censored and free speech was banned. People today also worry about society losing the ability to verbally communicate and people becoming isolated due to technology.

In many ways, this is just what the author, Bradbury, feared.

Brave New World

John ends up giving into the state and the “brave new world” but can’t stand the fact that he has given in. As a result, he commits suicide.

This novel, like most dystopian novels, leaves readers questioning technology, happiness, and what their roles in society might be if they allow technology to rule.

4 Ways to Write About Dystopian Novels

dystopian novels

There are plenty of ways to write about dystopian novels, but if you need a few ideas, check out these suggestions.

Compare and contrast essay

Once you examine these dystopian novels, you can clearly see how they’re similar. This, of course, means that you might consider writing a compare and contrast essay about the themes, the key features, or even the characters of the novels.

For instance, try comparing how Offred (from The Handmaid’s Tale) and Winston Smith (from 1984) are protagonists who rebel against their oppressors but who both ultimately end up submitting.

Or try writing about reproductive rights in The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World. How does each society attempt to control the reproductive rights of its people and engineer each new generation?

Character analysis

Many of the characters in these novels are richly developed, with interesting character traits that make them excellent candidates for a character analysis essay.

Of course, it’s always an option to write an analysis about the protagonist, but why not write about a minor character instead?

Consider the role Montag’s wife plays in Fahrenheit 451. What events shape her character, and what role does she play in the development in the novel?

Bonus Read: 

Everything You Need to Know About 4 Fahrenheit 451 Characters

Literary analysis

You might focus on one or more literary devices, such as theme, symbol, imagery, or point of view when writing a literary analysis. (Need help with literary terms? Read 15 Literary Terms You Need to Know to Write Better Essays.)

Consider the omniscient point of view in Brave New World. Because the narrator is omniscient, readers know everything about every character. Think about how different the novel would be if readers only knew the thoughts of one character, such as John.

What would readers think of the society as he discovers new information? How would this impact readers’ understanding of the society and of the novel as a whole?

Personal connection

If your assignment allows, you might even write about a more personal connection to explain how one (or more) of these novels relates to your life today.

Writing about a personal connection to some novels can be difficult, but writing about how people spend too much time watching TV and staring at screens today sounds a lot like what people do in Fahrenheit 451.

Obviously, it’s not too much of a stretch to connect this novel to our current society.

Looking for additional inspiration before you begin writing your paper? Take a look at these four example essays:

Utopia at Last!

dystopian novels

Even though the people in dystopian novels don’t always find utopia, it doesn’t mean that you can’t find your own little piece of writing utopia.

How exactly do you achieve writing utopia?

Here are four tips to put you on the right path:

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