Defining Dystopia: Development and Difference from Utopia


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

The idea of a dystopia is one which is hard to define. What does dystopia look like? Is it simply the other side of utopia, or is it a another refinement or variation that develops in the utopian mind? Can we even define what constitutes a utopian vison, and what constitutes a dystopian one? Let’s look at the answer to some of these questions.

Dark, futuristic sci-fi city.
Dystopian visions are easy to identify, but hard to define. (Image: GrandeDuc/ Shutterstock)

The Tensions in the Spaces Between

There are a variety of tensions that mark the spaces between utopia and dystopia. But, it may be difficult to differentiate between these. After all, one person’s nightmare scenario might be another’s ideal one.

One of the tensions is generated in the decision between the ideas of freedom and security. One person’s worst place might be full of physical dangers, of vulnerabilities. But to deal with that nightmare, citizens might have to give up their freedom, which would lead to another person’s worst nightmare, where individuals are so carefully protected that they have limited control over their movements or actions.

A related tension is between chaos and conformity. Would it be worse to live in a place of overwhelming chaos or of mind-numbing conformity? Another tension is that between the kinetic and the static. Would it be harder to live in a world where things are constantly changing? Or where things are so stable that they might get boring?

Learn more about origins of utopia.

The Origin and Meaning of Dystopia

Now, the word dystopia was first used in public in 1868 by John Stuart Mill in a speech before Parliament, where he defined utopians as in favor of something too good to be practicable, and dystopians as in favor of something too bad to be practicable. That sense of dystopia as the opposite of utopia is a pretty typical idea. Utopia is a good place and dystopia is a bad place.

View of the outside through window criss-crossed by barbed wire.
It may be useful to think of dystopias as plot-based and centered on nightmarish ideas of police states and the like. (Image: gans33/ Shutterstock)

Except, of course, we know utopia is much more than a good place—it is simultaneously a perfect place and no place. As a literary genre, it almost always includes a combination of earnest imaginings and some level of satire, toward the optimism of thinking a better place is possible, or toward the writer’s current society, or both. What does that mean for dystopia, then? What is the opposite of that?

We could go with John Stuart Mill, that utopia is too good, and dystopia is too bad. But, of course, there’s another argument. It comes from Fredric Jameson, a cultural critic of a Marxist bent. Jameson says utopia and dystopia are a false opposition; that we tend to talk about them as if they’re opposites, but they aren’t really that connected.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Intellectual and the Visceral

There’s a way to see utopian ideas as fundamentally hopeful, but also as fairly static, fairly didactic. Dystopia, on the other hand, is more plot-based, taking as its main subject what Jameson calls “the pleasures of the nightmare—evil monks, gulags, police states”.

So, the pleasure of the two genres may lie in fundamentally different areas. On the other hand, we might consider the possibility that the two genres are two sides of a coin. Could they represent two different strains of the utopian impulse, one pleasant and one unpleasant? Perhaps utopia appeals to the intellect, while we react to a dystopia more viscerally.

So, between them, utopia and dystopia set up those tensions and anxieties that are part of the individual’s mind as also of society at a small or large scale. The tensions between security versus freedom, chaos versus conformity, static versus kinetic—a pull too far in either direction can be utopian or dystopian.

A Historical Dualism

Let’s turn to history to consider these questions, specifically to early twentieth-century  history,  since  that’s  when  we  move  from  the  utopian writing so popular in the late nineteenth century to a new kind of writing we often call dystopian. What could be responsible for this shift?

Man in Victorian hat sitting among strange looking machines
A perception of the dark side of technology led to greater dystopic fiction being produced. (Image: Nejron Photo/ Shutterstock)

Certainly, it’s tempting to turn to the volatile political situations in Europe that marked this period. After all, who wants to write about humans tapping into their better selves to create functional, fulfilling societies after the horrors revealed first by the Great War, and then, only a few years later, by World War II?

The problem with this explanation is that there were dystopias before 1914. Another possible explanation is the influence of technology. We see a general shift away from progress narratives in the 1890s as people realized that incredible technological advancements could lead to a huge income gap instead of an equitable distribution of additional resources.

Also, some nineteenth-century advances in science and technology might have a dark side, like eugenics.

Learn more about utopian technologies.

Dystopia as Cautionary Tales

We might also look at the democratization of literature in the second half of the nineteenth century due to higher literacy rates and lots of popular literature in the penny dreadfuls and the dime novels. We can see dystopias as texts that warn rather than explain; that provide a cautionary tale rather than a blueprint.

We can see dystopias as texts that let the reader do much more of the work. Instead of a writer thinking out all the ways a society could function well and giving us a prescription, he or she instead lays out a horrifying future and leaves it to the reader to figure out how not to go there.

Now, it is established that the twentieth century had a strong commitment to dystopian writing, but that does not mean that utopian writing died with the Gilded Age or the two World Wars or even September 11.

Dystopian and utopian impulses have co-existed throughout the twentieth century and continue to do so today, but since the turn of the twentieth century, it is dystopia which has predominated the scene.

Common Questions about Dystopia

Q. Between what tensions do utopia and dystopia develop?

Utopia and dystopia are born of the tensions between security versus freedom, chaos versus conformity, and static versus kinetic states of being.

Q. According to Fredric Jameson, what is the main subject of dystopia?

Dystopia, in comparison to utopia, is more plot-based, taking as its main subject what Fredric Jameson calls “the pleasures of the nightmare—evil monks, gulags, police states.”

Q. What is the general shift from utopias to dsytopias?

Broadly speaking, there is a shift from utopian thinking in fiction to dystopia. This can be read as a reaction to the world wars, or as a reaction to the realization that technology brings more inequality.

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