Why has the dystopian genre made a comeback? A Yale professor weighs in

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(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

When George Orwell first published “1984,” he could scarcely imagine that a contentious political climate almost 70 years later would lead to a nationwide resurgence in popularity of his book, and that some members of the U.S. population would begin to wonder if his novel is more prophetic than fictional.

In Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, Big Brother is the leader of the totalitarian state Oceania, in which every aspect of its inhabitants’ lives are controlled and under constant surveillance. Yale English professor Joe Cleary explains that the genre of Dystopia — or the imagining of bleak worlds significantly worse that the ones we are living in — “exercises a huge grip on the popular imagination” during a time when “people feel threatened by such things as state surveillance, and the suspension of the laws and liberties that people normally have in a democratic society.”

He adds: “Nuclear conflict, global warming, and environmental destruction have lent additional impetus to the dystopian imagination in our times, and when these dangers threaten to converge. This has served to eclipse the Utopian imagination in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and exponentially to increase the popular grip of the Dystopian genre.”

“It wasn’t until the 20th century — after two World Wars and the Cold War — that the genre of Dystopia became so prominent,” notes Cleary, who joined the Yale faculty this semester. Prior to that, he says, many people in the metropolitan West at least shared an Enlightenment faith in the idea of progress, and many writers were drawn to the idea of a Utopia, which was an attempt to imagine perfected societies that were far more advanced than their own in scientific and technological terms or in terms of their general sociopolitical arrangements.

In contrast, “1984” “imagined a brutally-controlled and vicious society where those in power found the means and the capacity to reach into every aspect of everyone’s lives and to control minds and bodies, thoughts and actions in ways that people inevitably found horrifying to imagine,” says Cleary.

Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is “another grim vision of a deeply authoritarian, masculinist, militarist society,” says Cleary, in which certain types of right-wing fundamentalism have coalesced to create a horrific version of North American society.”

Cleary says that there are other similar works that have been gaining prominence, including Phillip K. Dick’s novel “The Man in the High Castle” which was turned into a series now streaming on Amazon. In Dick’s counterfactual novel, the U.S. and the Allies lose WWII and Germany and Japan win it; afterwards, the United States has been split into three sections — the Japanese control the states on the West Coast, the Germans run almost half of the country, and between those two spaces is a neutral zone in the Rocky Mountains region, which remains mostly under Nazi control.

The Amazon series, says Cleary, “has been almost as popular in terms of viewership as the Orwell novel has been for readership.”

Cleary is teaching two courses this semester: “Modernism, Empire, World Crisis” and “The Irish Literary Revival.” And while he doesn’t directly incorporate contemporary topics into his classes, he does tell his students that they should consider whether there are suggestive analogies to the present day in whatever historic period they are examining in the books that they read.

“I feel that thinking through the relations between past and present is part of teaching,” says Cleary, who hopes his students cultivate “a tough love of the literature they read and the capacity to use that literature to think about the societies from which they emerged, the social contradictions and complex concerns of the worlds and texts they are studying, and the capacity to make interesting connections between the two.”

There are certain classic U.S. literary works that Cleary says he hopes don’t make a comeback like “1984,” as this would be a harbinger of a worsening political climate — plays like Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” or novels like Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.”

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324