The World According to Classics
By Megan Powell, Michael Calder, Lucy Carr and Dani Basina
Societies are built on morals, infrastructures and culture. Dystopias are built on society's failures, faults and deceits. The worlds embedded within literature have long depicted and reflected the shortcomings of reality, unmasking the inequalities, divisions and appropriations which could underpin potential collapse.
In this issue, we have selected a variety of classic novels which focalise their respective world, society or culture, externalising reality's most prominent social dysfunctions within malevolent organisations, tyrannical dictatorships and corrupt systems. These novels amplify, exaggerate and demonstrate the dangers of relinquishing accountability for social inadequacies, with important lessons embedded within seamless narratives.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Guy Montag is a fireman. A fireman that saves by setting fire. People’s beliefs are turned around, as firemen burn all the books and all knowledge must be destroyed. Guy is living “a good life” and he loves his job. After he meets a mysterious woman, Clarisse, everything starts to change. His eyes are opened to a world lacking freedom of speech and spirit.
Tables turn as he opposes the system. He finds out people have been doing what they can to save books and knowledge. A group of intellectuals forms the “Book People.”
Memorizing novels to pass on to each other and to preserve them, the group lives outside of the city and far away from the fires. Will they manage to keep knowledge alive for those who come after them?
The novel explores the tensions in one who has to choose between knowledge or remaining a part of an ignorant society.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicts a society plagued by an infertility crisis and the oppressive regime that overthrows the United States government under the pretence of preservation.
The Republic of Gilead, as the fictional society becomes known, threatens the freedom of its inhabitants, claiming that the infertility crisis can only be resolved by returning to theocentric ideals and stringent management of reproduction. Under the reform, society becomes patriarchal, segregated, and fertile women are forced into surrogacy. The deterioration of normality is emphasised by the protagonist, Offred, who provides a temporal comparison by reflecting on the society she knew, whilst being captive within the reality she despises.
Within her haunting dystopia, Margaret Atwood embodies and magnifies the heaviest issues that remain evident within our own society and outlines a truly terrifying future which could evolve from social ignorance.
Blindness by José Saramago
Blindness (1995) is a critically acclaimed work by the Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago. The story begins when an unexpected epidemic of blindness spreads through an unnamed city, and the rest of the novel details the societal breakdown that ensues. The first half of the novel is set in an overcrowded asylum, where the central characters are being quarantined with other “infected” people. Saramago masterfully captures the spectrum of human morality in the individual and collective reactions to the epidemic. He depicts those who, confined to the asylum, revert to hierarchical, depraved and brutal behaviour, along with those who fight to retain their humanity whilst trying to survive in the harshest of environments. Blindness is a deeply psychological work of fiction that provides a raw portrayal of the human condition. It is a post-apocalyptic novel and part of its power results from the grievously realistic emotions, situations and reactions it depicts.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This dystopian novel by George Orwell was published in 1949 and is perhaps one of the most recognised and cited modern classics. Even if you have not read the novel, you would be familiar with many of the phrases and ideas that Orwell presents, such as Big Brother and Room 101. The novel follows Winston Smith as he struggles to accept the ruling Party in Oceania and attempts to seek a way out of the misery, while being unsure of who he can trust and who belongs to the Thought Police.
Ultimately, the society that is depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four warns readers of surveillance and totalitarian control. The harrowing messages and themes explored throughout the novel are astonishing to read, as is the psychological manipulation of the Party to all members in Oceania. They infiltrate all aspects of life, controlling and watching everything that occurs under the watchful eyes of Big Brother. The world that is portrayed here serves to admonish a declining society under a totalitarian regime, hindering the characters’ ability to challenge the Party.