Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy: Aberrant Future Societies and Personal Liberty
Written by Linda Andrew, for MAIS 750, Athabasca University, 2014
Dystopian literature is meant to unsettle us. Normally set in the future, the plots, while sometimes supported by advanced technologies not yet invented in the present, do not rely on the magical, but root themselves firmly in the earth. They are plausible, and it is their plausibility that makes them so terrifying. The opposite of utopian literature which depicts humanity living in peace and prosperity, dystopian literature paints a picture of a nightmarish future world where human suffering abounds. The author of the dystopic novel disrupts the mechanisms of human civilization and individual existence, but leaves them disturbingly recognizable. For example, the Nazi regime under Hitler ended after the Second World War. However, a dystopian novel might contemplate a future where a Nazi-like world government subjects the citizens of earth to its authority and philosophies, thus describing a future where the political and legal systems are perverse and tyrannical. Another example might entail a future earth where an ecological disaster has made life unbearable and where the scattered remnants of the human race scrape out a meager existence. In essence, dystopian literature shows us a future we do not want and hope against, yet remains a haunting omen of what might be—if we are not careful—and this is because dystopian literature echoes certain truths about our world as it is presently.
Although dystopian literature might approach an alarming future vision using cruel government control, unjust legal systems, economic crises, or ecological disasters as its theme, what all dystopian literature bears in common is the radical dehumanization or deindividualization of everyday people. This is the dystopian novel’s most dreadful premise—that the individual person is no longer free or granted the foundational human rights that most people of present day Western society currently enjoy. In the dystopic future, the concept of liberty is either dead or beyond the reach of the average person and human life is no longer sacred or invaluable. Humankind and all it once was is now smaller, fragmented, or squandered. We have lost our way—this is dystopia in a nutshell.
What makes most of us shudder at the thought of losing our precious liberty is the idea that we may also, somehow, lose ourselves in the process. We are bound by our image of self. It is where we live at all times and how we perceive the world in a way that is meaningful to us. We have no choice but to be this way because it is the very nature of our unavoidable humanness—our minds are always inside us. With regard to our own being, we smile at what amuses us, we weep at what saddens us, we are irritated at what offends us, and we love those people and things that best embody our individual understanding of what is good and beautiful. Permanently, we are our own being and the ways we interact with the world helps our own self-image become real to us.
In dystopian literature, this comprehension of self is oppressed by an ideology generated outside of the individual self and one that forces the individual to reshape in its image his or her thinking. It demands that the individual abandon the self and become something foreign—and expects equally that this foreign ideology be at home in the individual’s mind. However, in order for an ideology to be at home within a person, it must have meaning to her. If it does not, she is conflicted and unable to reason. For example, an atheist is not merely unwilling to embrace a belief in God, but unable. For the world to be real to us, we must first believe it is real. For us to be at home in our minds, we must have ownership of our thoughts—we must believe they are our own and, further, to have inner peace we must agree with them.
This paper will examine the crisis of personal ideology of the protagonists of four novels that present dystopian futures: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games. I will explore the dystopic apparatuses employed as the antagonizing structures of the worlds in each author’s vision, and how these structures serve to distort the “real” and either eliminate or subjugate the “individual”.
Unnatural Self-Ideology and Huxley’s Criticism of 1930s Mechanisms in Brave New World
Huxley’s Brave New World has met with controversy since its publication in 1932. Set in a technologically advanced London of the 26th century, Huxley’s world is sterile and peaceful. The beautiful and youthful citizens of this world live their ordered lives contented with their roles in society. There is no war, murder, or theft. Medicine, education, all the necessities of life, are provided freely by the government. Celebration, consumerism, sexual activity, and drug use is not only liberally permitted but mandated. Huxley’s world is one free from disease and decay, and one where everyone is perfectly happy…on the surface.
Beneath the surface, just out of sight, the sweet becomes sickly. The sterility of this world is actually cold as Huxley describes it, “the light [is] frozen, dead, a ghost” (1). There is a lifeless glow touching upon everything in Huxley’s world, revealing to the reader that there is nothing natural anywhere. Everything is simulated, including the people. The deeper the reader descends into the abyss of Huxley’s world, the clearer it becomes that the light is darkness, and this beautiful world is a lie. This lie is laid bare when the autonomous and “natural” man, John Savage, eventually arrives in Huxley’s London. By imagining what could be considered the absurdly logical extremes of the innovations of his era, Huxley addresses by recreating them in the image of his New World his trepidation regarding over-population, drugs, Eugenics, Fordism, and envisions the effects on human individuality in such a world.
In its November 2013 article “An Uneven Classic: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World”, Evolution News and Views quotes Dr Philip Ball in his article written for Nature. Ball is of the opinion that the Huxleyesque concept of the future challenged the evolutionary positivism of its day and claims that “when Brave New World was published in 1932, science and technology were widely seen as holding utopian promise…Aldous Huxley’s bleakly satirical vision of a technocratic, totalitarian state in which the masses are engineered into stupefied contentment by eugenics, drugs, mindless hedonism and consumerism seemed to scorn that rosy view” (npag). Huxley was deeply concerned about the direction that global over-population was taking the human race.
In 1958, Huxley produced a compilation of essays in a volume entitled Brave New World Revisited. Here, he explains his developing philosophies that underpin his thesis in Brave New World. In the first essay “Over-Population” he maintains that, on humanity’s present course, even dispersing the growing population to the moon or Mars
“will do nothing to solve the problem of mounting population pressures on our own planet. Unsolved, that problem will render insoluble all our other problems. Worse still, it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. There are many roads to Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and the broadest of them is…the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases” (npag).
Huxley predicted that over-population would lead to starvation, strife, and ultimately to totalitarian states where democracy and personal autonomy would be unmanageable—or eradicated completely. In Brave New World, he conceptualizes an authoritarian, technologically sophisticated society where the birth rate corresponds to the death rate, where all natural childbirth has been eliminated, and where the synthetic production of human beings through biological manipulation has permanently stabilized world population. However, this perfect stability is achieved at a great cost to human individuality and the traditions of human society passed down through millennia.
With all children now biologically engineered, the need for the family unit is dispensed with. Through the passing of generations, the idea of family has been entirely forgotten in favor of the new method, and is now merely the punch-line of a vulgar joke. The character of Mustapha Mond, one of ten ‘World Controllers’, visits a classroom where he describes the New World estimation of home and family to a group of boys and girls:
“Home, home—a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, so space; an understerilized prison; darkness, disease, and smells…And home was as squalid psychically as physically…What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane obscene relationships between the members of the family group! Maniacally, the mother brooded over her children (her children)…brooded over them like a cat over its kittens…‘My baby, my baby,’ over and over again… ‘Yes,’ said Mustapha Mond, nodding his head, ‘you may well shudder’”(Huxley 31-2).
Since the family unit is extinct, the need for men and women to form static relationships like marriage in order to reproduce the human race is redundant. With the end of family and marriage, the need for all long term love relationships is also over. Romantic love is frowned upon in Huxley’s world, and the idea of sexual monogamy is considered indecent. Regular promiscuity is seen as a healthy release of stress in a world where “everyone belongs to everyone else” (34). Mustapha Mond addresses the intolerable instability of parents, home, family, and romance and suggests that these states are both archaic and unnatural.
“Mother, monogamy, romance…No wonder those poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable. Their world didn’t allow them to take things easily, didn’t allow them to be sane, virtuous, happy…they were forced to feel strongly. And feeling strongly (and strongly, what was more, in solitude, in hopelessly individual isolation), how could they be stable? (35).
Thus, in the first few pages of Huxley’s Brave New World, the reader is introduced to a super-controlled society where all forms of human intimacy are forbidden. Even the frequent sexual contact between citizens is so habitual as to be perfunctory and insignificant. Yet, the reader still feels, at first, that this society is happy with its lack of depth—and this is actually true because, from conception, they have been programmed to happiness, compliance, acceptance, and contentment. Individual thought is programmed out of them through biological manipulation in the fetal state and then in psychological conditioning from birth until maturation. Citizens simply merge into society to a profession they are perfectly adapted to do and pleased to perform. It is all in the breeding process which, in Huxley’s world, is coldly efficient.
Aldous Huxley’s strange dystopia is informed by his contemplation of the field of Eugenics. The premise of Eugenics builds from Gregor Mendel’s study of pea plants in 1865, but with human subjects as its focus, and suggests that breeding specific humans with excellent traits will produce children who will inherit these excellent traits. Further, and most controversial to this premise, is the other dropping shoe which suggests that through controls over human breeding, undesirable human traits could eventually be bred out of the human race. It is at this point where Eugenics crosses into its wildly unethical territory, where it submits that persons with certain objectionable traits be disallowed to procreate. Eugenics uses words like “defective” and “inferior” to describe this group of persons with “undesirable” traits, and they include the mentally retarded, the mentally disturbed, the deaf and blind, the poor, immigrants, promiscuous women, and in some cases, Jews and homosexuals. This led to the implementation of forced sterilization and abortions on those whom Eugenic “scientists” deemed unworthy of passing their traits into the human gene pool. The University of Vermont has produced a history of Eugenics, and has kept for posterity several of the papers written on the topic. Willet M Hays, in his paper “Constructive Eugenics”, writes that civilized society is in need
“of restraining from the function of reproduction the genetically deficient classes and families. Scientists who have studied the heredity of the feeble-minded, the insane, and several other classes of defectives have proof which abundantly warrants the affirmation that individuals who have in their heredity a large percentage of these defective characteristics have no racial right to perpetuate their kind, a large percentage of whom cannot sustain themselves and must be a burden on society…[I]f all persons with a transmissible defective character in their heredity were rendered unproductive, by segregation or otherwise, nearly all of that characteristic could within a few generations be eliminated from the network of human descent” (npag).
Huxley takes Eugenics to its absurd extreme, describing a world where all people have been “eugenically” produced. In the “Hatcheries and Conditioning Center” of Huxley’s London, the method of engineering human beings in a sterile and efficient laboratory assembly-line is called “Bokanovsky’s Process” (Huxley 3). This process explains the method by which human beings are “conceived” in the laboratory, and fashioned into distinct and permanent classes of persons. The elite class of persons—the Alpha Pluses, the Alphas, and the Betas—are alone not subject to the Bokanovsky Process, and the conceived embryo is left to develop as “one egg, one embryo, one person—normality” (3).
All lower classes including the Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons, are artificially interfered with. Huxley describes his Bokanovsky Process as dividing the forming embryo into different buds “from eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before” (4). The higher the twin multiplication in the budding, the lower the caste of person. Further, according to caste, in order to eliminate intelligence and creativity, the embryos are poisoned and denied oxygen during their development, and using the “Podsnap Technique” (5) to bring the lower castes to a quicker physical maturity, in Huxley’s world “Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability” (5).
Every person alive in Huxley’s New World has been artificially preordained to live and work in a specified way and with a specified lifestyle. By the time persons reach maturity, with the aid of “hypnopaedia” (10) to condition their minds during sleep, they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically prepared to fit into a certain social slot and to function there perfectly. Should anyone feels less than happy, there is Soma.
Originating from the Hindu drug used in Vedic rituals, Soma was adopted by Huxley as the name for the wonder drug in his New World. Here, Soma is a state-developed and distributed drug. In Huxley’s world, there are no other drugs and no alcohol; no one smokes cigarettes or cigars. Described as “euphoric, narcotic, and pleasantly hallucinant” (46), Soma is supplied to the masses to alleviate unhappiness and to restore them to a place of perfect contentedness. Supported by propaganda-like slogans such as “one cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments” (46), and “a gramme is better than a damn” (47), Soma is ubiquitous across the New World culture, enormously and habitually ingested, even distributed as incentives to the Epsilons, and used by police in a spray form to subdue law-breakers—if any. In this New World, Soma has replaced the need for philosophy, religion, and the thirst for knowledge.
In Huxley’s time, Neuroscience was still developing, but many studies had already been completed detailing the effect of different drugs on brain chemistry. As with Eugenics, Huxley posited a future where the masses could be mollified and subjugated through the mandatory use of euphoria-inducing drugs. In Brave New World Revisited, he discusses in his eighth essay “Chemical Persuasion,” how Soma suffices for self-determination. Even though temporary, Soma might be taken as often as one liked, and while personal rights are few and far between in Huxley’s world, Soma is considered a sacred freedom—even though its constant use guarantees firm government control. Huxley remarks that
“in the Brave New World the soma habit was not a private vice; it was a political institution, it was the very essence of the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But this most precious of the subjects’ inalienable privileges was at the same time one of the most powerful instruments of rule in the dictator’s armory. The systematic drugging of individuals for the benefit of the State…was a main plank in the policy of the World Controllers. The daily soma ration was an insurance against personal maladjustment, social unrest and the spread of subversive ideas. Religion, Karl Marx declared, is the opium of the people. In the Brave New World this situation was reversed. Opium, or rather soma, was the people’s religion. Like religion, the drug had power to console and compensate, it called up visions of another, better world, it offered hope, strengthened faith and promoted charity” (npag). People find solace in the effects of Soma—far from the hollow drone of their daily lives. And with Soma, Fordism.
In Huxley’s New World, the government, rather than huge corporations, controls the economy. Published in the Michigan Law Review, the paper “Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: Still A Chilling Vision After All These Years” considers government control and industry, and author Bob Barr observes that “Huxley foresaw the development and dangerous abuses of technology by government in its perpetual search for ways in which to control its subjects. Huxley also understood the power of technology to not only enable government to control the populace, but also as a way to control the human mind” (849). Applying technology to the new industrial model springing up in Western society, Huxley employed the idea of Fordism after the philosophy and economic practices of Henry Ford.
Adapting the system used by post-Napoleonic Prussian militarists, Ford’s goal was to create a product quickly, inexpensively, and from the ground up that could be easily replaced or repaired and would be available en masse to the consumer. His product, the automobile, used the assembly-line method of unskilled workers, scores of middle managers, and wages that encouraged laborers to remain at their posts. In his paper, “Fordism, Post-Fordism, and the Flexible System of Production,” Professor Fred Thompson of Willamette University states that
“Ford’s main contributions to mass production/consumption were in the realm of process engineering. The hallmark of his system was standardization—standardized components, standardized manufacturing processes, and a simple, easy to manufacture (and repair) standard product…These innovations made possible the moving, or continuous, assembly line, in which each assembler performed a single, repetitive task” (npag).
It is the ruthlessly tedious work of the assembly-line that drew most of Fordism’s harsh criticism in Huxley’s time, and it was after this style of mind-numbing but stable work that Huxley patterned the industry of his New World.
Professor Thompson goes on to say that “assembly line work is unpleasant in a mass production environment. It is physically demanding, requires high levels of concentration, and can be excruciatingly boring” (npag), and most notable in Fordism, is the fact that no individual worker understands the job of another working on the same line. Thompson quotes Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who said in his book, Americanismo e Fordismo, that Fordism replaced in “the worker the old psycho-physical nexus of qualified professional work, which demanded active participation, intelligence, fantasy, and initiative, with automatic and mechanical attitudes. This is not a new thing, it is rather the most recent, the most intense, the most brutal phase of a long process that began with industrialism itself” (npag). Thus, capable, but not too capable. Intelligent, but not too intelligent. Creative, but not too creative. This is the paradigm for Huxley’s New World workforce and is based on Ford’s concept where mass production has replaced human creativity and craftsmanship.
On one hand, Huxley describes a future populated by human automatons who are rendered devoid of the capability of or the need for individual thought and creativity and who rely upon near monotonous hedonism and the temporary narcotic bliss of Soma to divert them from recognizing their own emptiness and prevent them from exploring self-actualizing dimensions of being. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the society Huxley describes has functioned peacefully for centuries. The systems of birth, education, living, and dying are not only standardized within this society, but are considered normal, reasonable, and quite correct. The citizens of Huxley’s world do not know what it is to be hungry, victimized, or unfulfilled. Yet, Huxley’s world is still considered dystopic, and this begs the question why? It is not until the introduction of the character of John Savage that a standard for comparison might be extrapolated.
Because Huxley’s Brave New World is a supposition, a sort of ‘what may be’ of the future given to the present day, we regard this New World through the glass of present day ideology. John Savage is the character in Huxley’s novel who personifies the ideology of personal liberty and individuality of present day Western society. Prior to John Savage’s arrival on the scene, there are whispers of discontentment with the status quo such as Bernard Marx’s personal ambition and romantic attraction to Lelina, or Hemholtz Watson’s desire for personal solitude and to write meaningful poetry. Yet, none of these forbidden feelings—rare and bewildering in the New World society—are contained either by stifling or by the comforts of Soma, and find a voice only when identified and released in John Savage.
Born naturally of a woman whom he knew as his mother, John grew up on the undeveloped “savage reservation” which is described as “a place which, owing to unfavorable climate or geological conditions, or poverty of natural resources, has not been worth the expense of civilizing” (Huxley 141). These areas, fenced off from the outside world, are populated mainly by aboriginal peoples who originally wished to remain separate from the new order and now live in squalor. Such was John’s home.
During his youth, he was exposed to Shakespeare and embraced the philosophies he found there, quoting often from various plays. Growing up, John witnessed aging and decay, disease and insanity, hunger and strife, and at first, he is enthralled and captivated by civilized and beautiful New World London—a place where the pains of life do not exist, and plenty overflows in the streets. Yet, just as quickly, John sees through this new place and is immediately confused and disillusioned. Entering a society where the traditions he values are considered obscene, John is horrified—but also something of a novelty. Observed by the elite Alpha and Alpha Plus crowd of London who regard him with polite curiosity, they consider his strange ways and phrases entertaining but nonsensical—like the chattering of a chimpanzee at a zoo.
As John grapples with the temptation for the luxuries of London and against his breathless desire for beautiful Lelina who, because of her breeding and indoctrination is destined to fail him, his reverence for personal autonomy inevitably clashes with the New World government. With Bernard Marx and Hemholtz Watson, he is arrested and brought to the office of Mustapha Mond—who has been watching John’s progress in London with interest. Huxley’s brilliant telling of the climactic confrontation between Mustapha Mond and John Savage speaks to three integral facets of human individuality—creativity, personal belief, and liberty.
John is shocked when Mustapha Mond quotes Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about my ears, and sometimes voices” (Huxley 192). It is revealed that Mustapha Mond is well-versed in ancient literature, and owns several books including Shakespeare and the Bible. Not only is Mond intelligent, well-read, and fluent in many esoteric topics, he was once a talented scientist. Mond remarks of his own ambitions that “I was a pretty good physicist in my time. Too good—good enough to realize that all our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question…except by special permission from the head cook. I’m the head cook now. But I was an inquisitive young scullion once…I was on the point of being sent to an island” (199). Mond once valued and exercised independent thought and individuality almost to his own destruction, but when given the choice between real science on an island, or continued life within the New World society, Mond chose the latter. His reasoning is simple: “our world is not the same as Othello’s world” (193). Where human creativity in the New World is concerned, the rationality might be paralleled with the old adage that asks “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, did it make a sound?”
As a sound is only discernable to a person if he or she hears it, knowledge is only knowledge if it is known. In addition, the knowledge only has value to one who wants or needs it. Otherwise, it is preposterous, even foolish. Hemholtz Watson, upon reading Romeo and Juliet, laughs at the silliness of the romantic element in the play. It has no value to him because it makes no connection with his world view. As Mustapha Mond explains to John Savage, the New World is just that—new. The past is so completely eradicated that the human being has become something equally as new. Mond says “you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get” (193). Therefore, all human creativity that is bred from inspiration, patience, soul-searching, and inner turmoil is meaningless in a society that has thrown off the need for insight, dedication to individual endeavors, and the desire to character-build through emotional growth. As Mond remarks, “One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for” (201). The citizens of the New World are fully integrated into their hyperreal bubble and want nothing else because all that is ‘else’ has no significance to their social conditioning. The rare person who deviates from social expectations and norms is considered strange and suspect—not just by the government—but also by the average citizen. Individuals simply do not fit in.
In his book The Ecstasy of Communication, Jean Baudrillard discusses social conditioning—or reconditioning—through objects of technologies such as television, automobiles, or avenues of ease toward greater consumerism. These objects not only change how one exists and reacts in her world, but how she thinks and feels toward her world as it steadily shrinks and distorts to mere images of the real. She forms subjective relationships with these objects and they become the voices that tell her what she wants and needs until she is too overwhelmed to fully understand. Baudrillard laments that “the space is so saturated, the pressure of all which wants to be heard so strong that I am no longer capable of knowing what I want” (Baudrillard 24). A person will feel and desire, and react to the world accordingly. However, in a world where anything he wants is readily available but where he feels nothing strongly, it does not matter anymore what desire is. Desire grows from not having, and feeling strongly. When too much is available, when nothing is left to the imagination, his desire, his passion for anything turns into a misguided “fascination and giddiness. It is a singular form of pleasure, perhaps, but it is aleatory and dizzying” (25). This is the realm in which the citizens of Huxley’s New World are permanently embedded.
The child-like form of happiness the New World citizen experiences that comes from having everything superficially but feeling nothing intensely has been obtained at the cost of the profundity and desire that is the lifeblood of human creativity. Mustapha Mond observes that “[h]appiness is a hard master…[a] much harder master, if one isn’t conditioned to accept it unconditionally, than truth” (Huxley 200). In Huxley’s world, human creativity is dead, and with it, the human spirit is also a casualty.
The conversation between John Savage and Mustapha Mond turns to the concepts of God and religion. For John, recalling his youth as an outsider—even on the reservation—the notion of God embodied unknowability and reverence. For him, his belief system is deeply personal, and calls him to such sudden introspection that he is unable to put his feelings into words. Mond, however, feels no awe at what is for John the greatest mystery of all. Instead, he produces a Bible he keeps under lock and key, and light-heartedly remarks of his book collection that “God [is] in the safe and Ford [is] on the shelves” (204). John is immediately offended.
Huxley does not enter into a debate between theist and atheist. Interestingly, Mond is not an atheist. Yet, with the abandoning of all things old in favor of all things new, the idea of God has been reimagined within the parameter of New World ideology—an ideology that Mustapha Mond fully embraces, and one that stands in opposition to John’s ideology. John has no biblical knowledge, but Mond does. John believes to be true what he senses innately, but Mond knows the hard facts of New World reality—such as it is. As with Raphael’s depiction of the debate between Aristotle and Plato in his “Scuola di Atene”, the ideologies between Mond and Savage can never meet. Mond claims that the concept of God must conform to the new, but John is convinced of the immutability of God.
When John asks Mond directly if he believes there is a God, Mond admits “I think there quite probably is one…In pre-modern times he manifested himself as the being that’s described in these books. Now…he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren’t there at all” (206). Mond reasons that the God of old is no longer compatible with the mores and needs of the New World—He has seen His day, and out-lived His usefulness. However, John speaks for the heart of humankind, and asks “isn’t it natural to feel there is a God?” (207). Mond entirely dismisses the idea of instinctual knowledge and the need for philosophical contemplation and replies that “[p]eople believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to believe in God” (207), and with New World conditioning weeding out of the human psyche the need for faith and philosophy, the human spirit is overwritten by government ideology—one in which God is abandoned. Therefore, the people of the New World feel no yearning toward matters of personal faith because they know nothing of them—they have never heard the tree fall—and should there be any question of the need for belief systems, there is Soma.
Stymied by the impenetrably logical arguments of Mustapha Mond, John Savage turns at last to his own personal liberty. He argues the case for his own right to choose how he will live and believe. Mond does not contest John’s choice, but merely attempts to point out that the social ideology of New World London is not compatible with John’s individualistic ideology, and that in spite of the differences, in the end, everyone has equivalent needs. John cannot see Mond’s argument clearly because his own sense of individualism cannot see anything reasonable in Mond’s words.
Dino Felluga, in his paper “Modules on Althusser: On Ideology”, discusses four main aspects of Althusser’s philosophy on Ideology. The first, “[i]deology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (npag), explains why John cannot understand Mond’s rationale. John sees himself as a complete being free from the false conditioning that, to his mind, hinders the autonomy of the New World citizens. Mond is trying to explain to John that “false” and “conditioning” are a matter of perspective. For Mond, conditioning is beneficial, therefore good, and now so completely embraced as to be normal. For New World Londoners, this is their reality. Since John is no longer part of the savage reservation, he is necessarily part of New World London, and thus part of its reality. Any ideas John has of a reality ‘past’ are now imaginary.
The second point Felluga discusses is that “[i]deology has a material existence” (npag). While living on the savage reservation, John witnessed the pseudo-religious rituals of the tribal people—rituals that he was not permitted to participate in, and in which he desired to be included. Once in London, he is determined to maintain his own autonomy, and this by his actions: he weeps at his mother’s death, he interferes with the distribution of Soma to the Epsilon workers, he refuses to engage in casual sex with Lelina, he engages in self-flagellation at his lighthouse home. In order to show his resistance and refuse surrender of his principles, he had no choice but to act. Felluga quotes Lenin saying that “[i]deology always manifests itself through actions, which are ‘inserted into practices’” (npag). Not only does John act on the principles of his own ideology, but solidifies his belief in his own right behavior by praying to his idea of God, and constantly quoting William Shakespeare who is, for John, the quintessential individual and keeper of human truth.
The third point referred to by Felluga states that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (npag). Mond is offering John a place within New World society—because he is already there and part of it. He is not forcing him. Mond has no intention of ‘punishing’ John for simply being John. Likewise, even though he intends to censure Bernard Marx and Hemholtz Watson, he will not harm them in any way. Such measures are no longer needed in New World London. Althusser’s notion of “interpellation” is seen clearly in the reaction of Bernard Marx to his arrest and sentencing. Even though Marx did not personally break any law, he is immediately consumed by his own guilt simply by being in the company of Hemholtz and John Savage. His emotional display on bended knee in Mustapha Mond’s office exhibits Marx’s understanding that he is an inseparable cog in the New World ideology, even though Mond shakes his head, saying “[o]ne would think he was going to have his throat cut” (Huxley 199), and then sends him to live on a tropical island in the South Pacific. Marx’s punishment, although benign, confirms his sense of interpellation in the ideology of New World London. John’s refusal to consent confirms his, and as Althusser says, “[t]he very fact that we do not recognize this interaction as ideological speaks to the power of ideology” (npag). John is where he is, and in the community of where he is. He can argue with the ideology, but he cannot successfully separate himself from it.
The fourth point Felluga discusses claims that “individuals are always-ready subjects” (Felluga npag). Felluga points toward Althusser’s estimation that “the ‘becoming-subject’ happens even before we are born” (npag), and this is part of Mond’s argument about the ‘natural’ adherence to conditioning by New World Londoners. Since most of the physical conditioning takes place in the ‘factory’, people are born to their caste—their place in society has already been determined. The hypnopaedic conditioning they undergo after birth merely allows them to be happy in their social class. Mond is also saying that John has been conditioned too—by his lack of ‘normal’ conditioning and by the childhood he experienced on the savage reservation. John is a victim of his own ideology and refuses to change, in spite of Mond’s attempts to show him how New London’s reality is, in his opinion, better. In the end, John states, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy” (Huxley 212), and Mond’s indifferent “[y]ou’re welcome” (212), not only gives his consent to John’s choice, but also releases John to what he believes is an incorrect—an unlivable—ideology.
John’s individualism cannot be realized in a society that does not understand what individualism is—where it has no value. In his lighthouse, permitted to live as he chooses, John finds that his newly-claimed personal liberty has made him a spectacle once again. He becomes a prisoner inside his stone walls. His belief that he holds a superior ideology to the unnatural “pre-conditioned” ideology of the citizens of New World London shows itself as shallow when faced with the reality of living in actual freedom and pain. They neither understand him nor see anything meaningful in his self-flagellation. John cannot be an example of personal liberty because the only thing the people of London notice is that he somehow lives without Soma and in dreadful isolation. Mond was right. Accepting defeat, John commits suicide. In John Savage’s suicide, Huxley completes his dystopic vision irrevocably as a world beyond the ability to change, evolve, or reason by 20th century standards.
The Psychology of Fear and Hate in George Orwell’s 1984
George Orwell’s chilling dystopic novel 1984 was published in 1948. It was the end of World War Two and Nazism, but it was also the beginning of the Cold War and the rise of the communist Soviet Union as a world power. Orwell combines the worst traits of Stalinist communism and Nazism, and arrives at his horrifying vision in 1984. Incorporating in his world destructive levels of hatred and fear, Orwell enters into a discourse on the importance of personal history by showing the reader a world where these things do not exist, and how individuality and all forms of human society can be shattered beyond repair.
Orwell’s protagonist is the character of Winston Smith. For Winston, fear has become part of his daily life—and not just the type of fear that manifests itself in dark rooms or in the presence of spiders, but as a constructed terror that is omnipresent, invasive, and sickening. Unlike unreasonable phobias, the fears Winston abides are very real indeed. He has every reason to fear what he fears. However, the effects of chronic fear on the psyche of the individual are profound. On one hand, to fear a hungry lion is healthy and promotes continued living. On the other hand, to live in fear of torture and death is devastating—not only to the mind, but also to the body. Winston is literally sick with fear—it is rotting him from the inside out.
Dr Alfred Adler, father of the School of Individual Psychology, contemplated the far-reaching effects of fear on the individual. Mark H Stone, in his paper “Alfred Adler on the Dynamics of Fear” discusses Adler’s theory which states that the greatest fear is the fear of death. Fear can be useful as a survival tool, but it can also be utterly debilitating and harmful to people for whom fear is beyond their control. Winston Smith has learned to understand his fear, but not to tolerate it. In his own home, he hides himself in a small alcove for privacy, his back against the wall, thereby “able to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went” (Orwell 7). He is so terrified of being seen that he is afraid of the casting of his own shadow. Adler who says that “[f]ear can extend itself to all relationships of human life. One can be afraid of the outer world or of one’s own inner world, and hence, one may either avoid society because one fears it, or one may be afraid of being alone” (Stone 57). Winston fears both the society without, and his thoughts within. Winston does not feel safe anywhere.
However, Winston has still bought the book full of blank pages—a place to journal his life—and this very act is subversive. In Winston’s world, no one is permitted to keep their own history because in Winston’s world, history changes daily. It is the act of “doublethink” (Orwell 9) that allows citizens of Orwell’s Air Strip One (formally England) to accept the incongruities of a past that alters even moment to moment at times. However, Winston has never mastered this skill. Doublethink is described as a method
“[t]o know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become conscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink” (Orwell 37-38).
In essence, one is constantly burying what one knows is true and purposely covering it with a new truth. Winston, however, is intelligent. His keen mind will not allow him to forget. He simply cannot wrap his head around the poppycock that is ‘doublethink’. This makes him an instant target and increases his terror of everyone and everything. Thus, Winston is wisely cautious about every aspect of his person.
Adler discusses fear as a means to safeguard oneself from danger. This is why Winston sits with his back against the wall even in his own home. This is why he participates in the mad idiocy of his society. He has become very good at hiding. Adler claims that fear as a safeguarding mechanism is clung to by the fearful person and “can be seen from a fiction which is often expressed or remains unexpressed, but is never understood” (Stone 57). Winston buys the blank journal and begins to fill it with nonsense he does not believe—the film he saw the night before that depicts a bombing raid, and the death of a small child whose disembodied arm is shown “going up up up right up in the air” (Orwell 10). He does not include punctuation in his writing. It is an erupting stream of consciousness, but without direction. What he actually wants to write does not come until he plies himself with gin. Then, the truth comes forth: “Down With Big Brother” (20).
Winston knows who he is inside. He knows he hates Big Brother and the Ingsoc Party. He hates his life of want in a London now in total disrepair. He hates his fear and the fact that the tobacco falls out of his cheaply made government-rationed cigarettes. Mostly, Winston hates his helplessness. But he bought the journal. To his mind, he can finally do something about his circumstances. (Quote) Winston has not thought it through though and, in truth, he knows that there is very little he can actually do to change anything. He is powerless. That is where his fear becomes his safeguard. He can always think ‘if I could just make people hear…’ and this is what Adler states is the force behind fear as safe-guard. He says that “[t]he fiction begins with an ‘if’ clause: ‘if I only…I would…’ As a rule the if-clause contains an unfulfilled condition…which only he can change. It is understandable that he will not give up his life-lie as long as he maintains his life-plan” (Stone 58). Winston tells himself that what he is doing is purposive—even though he knows he cannot fight Big Brother. Stone adds to Adler, remarking that “[o]ne’s coping is conditional upon choosing either to close ranks by safeguarding or to expose oneself to experiences” (58). Oddly, Winston chooses to cope by doing both; he hides himself away at all times, but in the pseudo-privacy of his tiny alcove he engages in the guilty pleasure of self-expression.
Adler comments upon fear that leads sometimes to personal adaptation where a person’s present life “is a result of the process of adapting oneself to the evolving structure of one’s immediate environment; and that this process of adaptation is effected by relatively inadequate means, by the creative power of the child actuated by the evolutionary urge to conquer and surmount obstacles” (58). Winston does not know how he can change his life. He just knows that he cannot go on in it as it is. (Quote) So, he buys a journal—hardly a step forward—but it is a tangible display of his autonomy.
There is no question that Winston can adapt. He does so on a daily basis when Big Brother informs him that there is a new history that supersedes the old one, or that the person he has eaten lunch with every day for years never actually existed. It is Winston’s desire to rise above the absurdity in his world that encourages him to buy a journal—one in which the history will remain constant. However, he is then confronted by his own logic: “For whom…was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn…How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him; or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless” (Orwell 9). Stone adds that fearful people can use creative power either usefully or uselessly. Discussing methods of uselessness, Stone states that “[t]hey are no less powerful, but they produce no productive movement, being devoted entirely or almost so to safeguarding status” (58). Winston buys a journal, an act for him that is daring and seditious—and in actuality, it is—but it is hardly productive, and Winston is stumped by his own inability to write the truth of his feelings, unless drunk.
Fear is personal. It acts upon and is reacted to according to the individual. Fear is an existential experience. Adler affirms that the worst fear is death, but Winston has moved into a fresh realm of fear. For him, death is simply, merely death. He has surrendered himself to the fact that one day he will give the incorrect facial expression, and will be found out. To death, certain and almost pacifying, he has given up his ghost. (Quote) He does not race toward it—it is more of an inevitability that he accepts. What is even more terrifying to him than the thought of death is the likelihood of a life lived constantly askew that he alone recognizes and can share with no one. (Quote) He struggles with it constantly, more than he struggles with the terror of Big Brother or the Thought Police.
What Winston’s world lacks in compassion it compensates for with complete absurdity. For instance, if the government states that Winston’s father never existed, then how is Winston alive? If something is true in the morning, how is it not true, and was never true, by the afternoon? These are the questions that Winston wrestles with. These are the questions that make him nervous and sick to his stomach, because if he is wrong and Big Brother is right, then there is something desperately wrong with him. He is losing his mind. (Quote) Conversely, if he is right, then he is a sane person trapped in a lunatic asylum; what else can possibly follow but complete madness?
In their article “Stop Making Sense: The Ultimate Fear”, Diederik A Stapel and Marret K Noordewier of Tilburg University in The Netherlands discuss fear and existentialism. In existentialism, the worst fear is a life so overwhelmed by absurdity that it becomes meaningless. Winston’s crisis is not only in his ever-present fear, his hatred of Big Brother, or his consuming loneliness. His watershed moment is his realization that his life is utterly without meaning—he has no past, no reliable present, and a future that consists only of poverty, incongruity, and despair. Stapel and Noordewier remark that “what people are really afraid of is meaninglessness and what really drives people’s behavior is meaning making” (246). Winston buys the journal to try to get a handle on himself—to assure himself that he is real, and that he can have a ‘yesterday’.
The journal embodies Winston’s fears that his life is exactly what he thinks it is, but it is also his remedy for meaninglessness. Stapel and Noordewier discuss how “people bind together the self-threats” (247) to their own self-esteem and autonomy in order to somehow placate their rational sense of identity. They try to find a pattern in the chaos of their world upon which to grasp a hand-hold. Winston strains to achieve his grip on sanity using the journal because “the ultimate fear is the apprehension that one’s life is…senseless. Dying is okay, if it comes with the reassurance that all was not for nothing” (246). Maybe one day someone will read it and know that he was here. Aside from his own impoverished bid for posterity, Winston is without hope—another debilitating aspect of fear.
Maria Jarymowicz and Daniel Bar-Tal, of the University of Warsaw and Tel-Aviv University, respectively, published their paper “The Dominance of Fear Over Hope in the Life of Individuals and Collectives” in the European Journal of Social Psychology. In their paper, they discuss that fear “as primary emotion, is grounded in the experienced present and based on the memorized past, processed both consciously and unconsciously…and sometimes leads to pre-emptive aggression” (367). Fear functions naturally as a critical element in determining individual or collective safety, adapting the “fight or flight” response as required, and assuring survival. When fear becomes terror, it fragments into something mal-adaptive, “eliciting dysfunctional reactions in certain situations, characterized by irrationality and destructiveness” (369). Winston participates in the government promulgated “Two Minutes Hate” (Orwell 11) where citizens of Air Strip One release their hatred toward the figure of anti-Big Brother Activist Emmanuel Goldstein.
In actuality, no one in Air Strip One has read the subversive book by Goldstein that speaks against the Ingsoc Party, nor do they know any of Goldstein’s politics. Anton Chekhov said that “[l]ove, friendship, and respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.” Chekhov’s maxim is never so true as when the people of Air Strip One, joined in a common purpose to scream blasphemies at the on-screen face of “Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People” (Orwell 13), engage in riotous hate that deteriorates into a “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer” (16). The people are as one, in spite of the fact that they do not know who Goldstein is, or why they should hate him so intensely. In fact, it is not at all certain that Goldstein was ever an actual person, but none of this matters to a people conditioned to hate anything Big Brother deems hateful. Goldstein is merely an outlet. Their hatred is their obedience to the will of Big Brother—which is motivated by their intense fear of him. Winston engages in the verbal hate process out of the dread of being seen not to participate. He is, as already stated, good at hiding. This is part of his hopelessness.
For Winston, a small hint of hope comes in the form of Julia. This young woman is not an intellectual like Winston, but reckless in her desire for sexual contact, even though casual sex, romance, and love is forbidden by Big Brother. However, Julia is a warm and vibrant human being, who offers Winston an island in his ocean of solitude, and she is therefore irresistible to him. After she passes a note to him discretely saying “I love you” (Orwell 115), he agonizes between whether or not to let his guard down and speak to her or to ignore her overture. However, “[a] kind of fever seized him at the thought that he might lose her…What he feared more than anything else was that she would simply change her mind if he did not get in touch with her quickly” (115). He wants her, he lusts after her, he is curious about her, and these desires combined inform his decision to contact her.
Jarymowicz and Bar-Tal define hope as “the cognitive elements of visualizing and expecting, as well as the affective element of feeling good about the expected events or outcomes” (373). The more Winston hopes to meet with and get to know Julia, the more he is willing to try. Jarymowicz and Bar-Tal add that hope “is based on higher cognitive processing, requiring mental representations of positively valued abstract future situations and more specifically, it requires setting goals, planning how to achieve them, use of imagery, creativity, cognitive flexibility, mental exploration of novel situations, and even risk taking” (373). These mechanisms toward hope that work inside the human mind are those that the Ingsoc Party desires to eliminate completely from the populace. Anything less than complete submission cannot be tolerated—anything less might lead to questions and rebellion. Julia puts it succinctly when she says to Winston that “[w]hen you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that…If you’re happy inside about yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother…?” (Orwell 139).
With the rise of hope and the slow dissipation of his continual fear, his health improves. “Winston had dropped his habit of drinking gin at all hours. He seemed to have lost the need for it. He had grown fatter, his varicose ulcer had subsided…his fits of coughing in the early morning had stopped. The process of life had ceased to be intolerable” (157). Thus, the hope Winston feels in Julia’s company is as subversive as his sexual contact with her. It is hope that makes his fear of Big Brother more bearable. And it is hope that leads him to take risks that eventually result in his arrest. Hope, however, can be superseded by sudden or crippling fear. Once arrested, Winston’s hope gives way to his terror.
It is the sense of hope, of meaningfulness, that Big Brother—in the person of O’Brien—wishes to beat out of Winston. It is not enough to simply make Winston say what he wants to hear, Winston himself must believe in it. To completely dominate him, O’Brien must turn Winston’s new sense of purpose into absurdity—an absurdity that he willingly accepts—and transform his feelings of affection for Julia into indifference. Evan R Harrington, in his paper “The Social Psychology of Hatred”, discusses how hatred begins with ambivalence and an ambiguous reality where alternatives either cannot be seen, or where one can act without being seen. When accountability is removed, and under certain pressure, people will behave amorally if such ensures their safety. They will agree to ideas that would be, under normal conditions, unethical to them (51).
Another method of producing hatred, is to eliminate all contradictory elements. Harrington says that “[i]n Nazi Germany, propaganda and control of the media likely helped limit the potential resistance of non-Jewish German citizens to Nazi genocidal agenda…Presenting an alternative viewpoint is important for resistance to dominant view for the very simple reason that it provides people with different ways to interpret the same situations” (52). Big Brother has effectively removed all contradicting information by training people to hate anything outside of Party propaganda, by controlling the thoughts of its citizens, and by criminalizing those whose consciences compel them to question Party authority. In essence, the Thought Police restrict people from reasoning for themselves. When Winston is seen as one who ‘thinks’, it is necessary for Big Brother to annihilate this ability and bring Winston in line with Party political ideology. This is achieved a little at a time.
Winston is arrested and placed in a holding cell. Here he witnesses the results of arrest in the beaten and starved prisoners who share the cell with him. Winston’s mind, through this intimidation, is being prepared for what lies ahead. Next, he is given to guards who repeatedly beat him senseless, and thus pain and terror are added to his intimidation. After the ordeal with the guards, he is taken to another room where he is bound to a table and systematically tortured. His torturer is O’Brien, whom Winston had initially come to trust and believe in. Thus, betrayal and a sense that no one can be trusted is added to his mounting intimidation and fear. Aside from tormenting his body and spirit, O’Brien attends to Winston’s intellect. He tells Winston that he is not sane. He tells Winston that two plus two equals five. (Quote) Winston breaks, but not completely. He is still in possession of his innate humanity—his Soul. He is then taken to the notorious Room 101—a place he has been preconditioned to fear as the worst of all places. In this place, confronted by his most dreadful and nightmarish fear, and to die by this method, Winston finally betrays Julia. When he does, his ordeal is over. O’Brien has effectively removed everything about Winston that once defined him as Winston, and now with nothing left, he is released until the day of his execution.
Winston abandons his own will and his ability to love. However, the love he leaves behind is not simply his love for one woman or even his love of what he believes is the truth. He relinquishes love utterly, and all the things that come with love—his loyalty, his courage, his sense of self, his reason, and his need for truth. (Quote) When he is at last without love, he is malleable. He can begin to believe as Big Brother wishes him to believe. His transformation to Party ideology is complete, and he is able to accept it willingly.
The social mechanisms disrupted in Orwell’s dystopia are that of socialness itself. The abiding social connections that twenty-first century citizens depend upon such as family, love relationships, and friendships are perverted into something sinister. They are imbued with fearfulness and the warmth once found in them destroyed. As O’Brien explains to Winston,
“[w]e have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen…There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother…If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever” (280).
Orwell’s future world is one that is both loveless and hopeless—except for the perversion of love created by Big Brother—one where the human spirit is defeated and fear reigns. The defeat itself is horrible, but that the defeat itself is permanent and beyond all hope of rescue is absolutely terrifying. For this reason, George Orwell’s 1984 is the final word in dystopian literature.
Censorship, Resistance, and Power Struggles in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury published his Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, and it is widely viewed as his best work. The title of “Fahrenheit 451” denotes the temperature at which paper will ignite into flame. Set in a future United States where all books except training manuals and comics are outlawed, the story follows the intellectual birth and evolution of resistance of Guy Montag—a fireman tasked with the destruction of outlawed books. Bradbury’s novel, a sharp criticism of 1950s censorship, examines a dystopic future where society experiences the consequences of removing all forms of erudition, the human urge toward resistance and power, and the effect of censorship on personal liberty.
Bradbury’s future is not overtly violent. Similar to Huxley’s Brave New World, the people of the society in Fahrenheit 451 live, work, eat, and sleep without much interference from the government. Mostly, people are content with their lives, and like the people of Huxley’s world, they do not miss what they have never had. Bradbury’s society is adapted to a life without books, and with enormous televisions in every household vomiting forth the very latest in popular programming, citizens do not miss the act of reading.
The government in Fahrenheit 451 is not an evil totalitarian regime seeking to dominate its people, as is the Ingsoc Party in 1984. Instead, this government banned books according to the will—or apathy—of the people. Not even the academics of the day spoke against the banning of books until it was too late. In his paper “The Life of Mind and a Life Of Meaning: Reflections on Fahrenheit 451”, Rodney A Smolla states that “the extreme regime of censorship depicted in Fahrenheit 451 does not come from the top but from the bottom. The people instigate it. The government just goes with the flow” (902). Undone by their own adherence to political correctness and by the political succor granted to special interest groups, they injudiciously chose to ban anything that could offend anyone. The phrase that avows “you can’t please everyone all the time” is germane to these circumstances since, in every book, there is at least one element that will be offensive to someone. Smolla says that “political correctness had not entered our cultural lexicon when Fahrenheit 451 was written, but that is the sort of phenomena Bradbury was writing about” (902). Yet, unwillingness to offend is often the benign first impression that censorship gives. It gains ground by passing itself off as a means to protect people from noxious literature or other media, but the definition of ‘noxious’ is often determined by short-sightedness. Smolla remarks that “[i]t is all too easy, all too glib, to dismiss censors as tyrants. Yet censors know no political right or left, no religion, no generation. The censor always believes in the moral rightness of his or her cause” (901). In Bradbury’s future America, the people bring about their own dystopia simply because they contravene a cardinal tenet of democratic society: everyone has the right to their opinion. By capitulating to only the offended, they silence everyone else.
Thus, in Bradbury’s post–literary society, books are scarce and the few that remain intact are hidden away by the rare person who still understands their value. These people alone have reason to fear because, if caught, the books and the home they are found in will be burned. This is the professional function of Guy Montag and the other Firemen. No longer employed to put fires out, Firemen work solely to create fires in their continuous efforts to eliminate all books wherever they are found.
Bradbury was an avid lover of books and, amusingly, wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the basement of the library of UCLA—a book about book-burning created in the midst of great books. In an interview with Lawrence Bridges, an aging Ray Bradbury discusses his life-long romance with books, their importance to the intellectual health of society, and his definitive work in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury describes libraries as filled with people—the authors of books—waiting to guide readers out of the darkness and into the light by helping them to discover themselves (Bridges Interview). Jonathan R Eller, in his essay “The Story of Fahrenheit 451” remarks that “Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time, and came to see the shelves as populations of living authors: to burn the book is to burn the author, and to burn the author is to deny our own humanity” (168). What we are as human beings, and why we are such, is explained to us in literature. We come to understand ourselves through reading, and the act of reading leads us toward meaning. As Mr Bradbury explains, “teachers inspire, but libraries fulfill” (Bridges Interview). It is because of his great reverence for books that Fahrenheit 451 came to life during a time of censorship and the narrow-minded persecution of various writers and artists. Eller adds that “[s]ometime in 1944 [Bradbury] read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and from that point on, Fahrenheit 451 was inevitable” (167).
Bradbury recalls back to the Nazi book burnings and how the spectacle not only terrified him, but touched him personally being already, at the age of fifteen, a young man of books. He grieves the book burnings partnered with the execution of authors by the Russian communist regime and posits a government’s motive behind book burning, stating that “if you couldn’t read, you couldn’t be part of any civilization. You couldn’t be part of a democracy…Leaders in various countries are scared of books because books teach things that they don’t want to have taught. If you know how to read then you have a complete education about life and you know how to vote within a democracy, but if you don’t know how to read, you don’t know how to decide” (Bridges). Essentially, one cannot make an informed choice if one does not have access to a variety of reading—reading that may not be popular with certain political platforms.
What is for some agencies so dangerous about books, yet an enduring comfort to authors, is that “killing the book will not kill its ideas. The life of the mind endures” (Smolla 901). However, this can only be true for the generation present at the censorship. It cannot apply to following generations that have never been exposed to the ideas and this is the caveat Fahrenheit 451 repeats again and again. Yet, this is not to say that Bradbury does not frame his argument against censorship around the lively and hungry mind, because Montag is clearly burning with hunger. It is simply that Montag cannot articulate his needs after originating in a culture that has stripped away its own words.
Bradbury positions his quill in the direction of censors, and those who promote censorship, because as he was working on Fahrenheit 451, the United States was launching its war on words in the form of McCarthyism. In the United States between 1950 and 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy bulldozed his way into the spotlight as chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. This group was formed during the anti-communist paranoia that had taken hold of the American people during the early years of the Cold War, and its mandate was to investigate and expose the so-called domestic threat of communist agents and agencies working to disrupt democracy from within America. An essay written for The Cold War Museum refers to Senator McCarthy as “one of the least qualified, most corrupt politicians of his time” (Oh Latham npag), and he was later defined under Eisenhower’s administration as a person who was “evil and unmatched in malice” (npag). McCarthy, during his communist witch hunt—which depended on injurious hearings based solely on hearsay and circumstantial evidence—earned his notorious reputation. McCarthyism, as the era came to be known, has been added to the American wordstock to denote the standard in oppressive censorship. In an excerpt from The Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction? Ray Bradbury writes “[w]hether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict. When the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy” (189).
Similar to, but not related to McCarthy’s committee, were the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC. This group, among other activities, aggressively pursued certain Hollywood artists and writers by besmirching reputations and destroying careers with innuendo that connected targeted individuals with anti-Americanism and Communism, and in this way created the ignoble Hollywood Blacklist. The essay “McCarthyism” on the site for US History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium discusses how these pugnacious committees informed censorship within schools that led to the banning of such books as Robin Hood, advocating “that children would be corrupted by the “communist” practices depicted in Robin Hood [because it supports] taking from the rich to give to the poor” (npag). Professor Wendy Wall of Binghamton University states that the influence of HUAC led to libraries removing Steinbach’s Grapes of Wrath and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, because “they were considered too leftist, from their shelves” (npag). Wall adds that “McCarthy, like members of HUAC and many other red baiters, greatly exaggerated the domestic communist threat” (npag), McCarthy, like members of HUAC and many other red baiters, greatly exaggerated the domestic communist threat. Still, the party’s policy of secrecy, its top-down control, its attempt to win converts, and its ties to the Soviet Union alarmed even many liberals.McCarthy, like members of HUAC and many other red baiters, greatly exaggerated the domestic communist threat. Still, the party’s policy of secrecy, its top-down control, its attempt to win converts, and its ties to the Soviet Union alarmed even many liberals.but since McCarthy and his cronies seemed to be the only ones to be heard, censorship reached an historical fever-pitch in America during the 1950s.
It was not until McCarthy’s attack on the US Military and several highly decorated war heroes, that he finally over-stepped his bounds. He was discredited and silenced. But it had to come to this extreme before the people of America finally said ‘enough is enough’. Ray Bradbury recoiled from the type of ludicrous bowdlerization of these pseudo-governmental committees and from the outrageous methods used by those who nurtured such stupidity. He became angry.McCarthy, like members of HUAC and many other red baiters, greatly exaggerated the domestic communist threat. Still, the party’s policy of secrecy, its top-down control, its attempt to win converts, and its ties to the Soviet Union alarmed even many liberals.McCarthy, like members of HUAC and many other red baiters, greatly exaggerated the domestic communist threat. Still, the party’s policy of secrecy, its top-down control, its attempt to win converts, and its ties to the Soviet Union alarmed even many liberals. In his interview with Bridges, Bradbury expresses gratitude that America is “a democracy of readers, and we should keep it that way” (Bridges npag).
In spite of the fact of America’s intact democracy of readers, Bradbury’s future America portrays a democracy of non-readers—people who are intellectually dead. By levelling his colloquy toward the paternalistic blue-pencils of his era, Bradbury builds his dystopic vision of censorship gone mad and the subsequent repression of autonomy and self-actualization through intellectual growth.
Bradbury offers the reader an omniscient view of Montag’s mind as he begins his inner struggle. At first, Montag seems like a happy person and fulfilled by his job as Fireman, entrusted by his community to aid in the battle against the disruptive ideology in books. In his position of trust and authority, Montag feels empowered in a life slighted elevated above the masses. Then he meets young Clarisse who nonchalantly informs him “I’m not afraid of you…you’re just a man after all” (Bradbury 5), and begins to draw his attention to ideas that, in his busy life and demanding work, he has long forgotten about. Simple notions like “there’s dew on the grass in the morning…and if you look…there’s a man in the moon” (7), stir uneasiness in Montag, but he does not understand why he feels this way. Then she asks him a critical question. “Are you happy?” (7). Her question befuddles and disturbs him.
As he enters his silent home, he ponders her question—actually tries to answer it, and realizes he cannot. Bradbury imagines a startling scene as Montag stops in front of a mirror where he is confronted by his dilemma. “How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know that refracted your own light to you?…How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?” (8). This is Montag’s first recognition of his own terrible depth of emptiness. He knows now that he is truly unhappy, but again, he does not know why.
Immediately after facing his own reflection in the mirror, Montag discovers that his wife is near death from a suicidal overdose of medication. The emergency ambulance crew, insensitive and jaded, arrives to resuscitate Mildred Montag. Afterward, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, the attendant tells Montag “that’s fifty bucks” (13), and that they “get these cases nine or ten a night…you don’t need an MD…all you need is two handymen…we gotta go…so long” (13). Montag realizes that he is not alone in his emptiness. In fact, there is a pervasive, undefined emptiness infecting his entire community, and a dim light emerges within the darkness of Montag’s repressed intellect—a repression he has not been aware of, and one he still cannot name. The light is a mere glimmer at first, but he begins to see—to really see his world—and then everything goes berserk. “Thunder falling downstairs. The whole world pouring down. The fire gushing up in a volcano. All rushing down around in a spouting roar and rivering stream toward morning. ‘I don’t know anything anymore,’ he said” (15). Montag’s mind has suddenly exploded with discernment, and he awakens. With his new mindfulness, his conscience also stirs.
It is not until his next job of burning that he experiences the full force of the changes inside him. An old woman chooses to burn with her books. It is not the wish of the Firemen that she die. They try to rescue her from her home, but she refuses to go, and as the flames begin to engulf her and her books, she quotes Latimer to Ridley who said, as they were about to be burned for heresy in Oxford in 1555, “We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out” (37). It is Montag’s boss Beatty who repeats the quote to Montag, thereby revealing that he has read. Montag is shocked by this revelation, and more than this, he shocks himself. He smuggles one of the lady’s books out of her burning house, and takes it home with him. Montag wants to read.
It is his acknowledgment of his own autonomous desire for intellect that transforms Montag from unwitting villain into a version of a Foucaultian agonist. Brent L Pickett of the University of Colorado, describes in his paper “Foucault and the Politics of Resistance” Foucault’s notion of the agonist. Applied to Montag, he knows well the limitations subscribed to and mandated by his society. His first act of individualism is to transgress these boundaries by resisting forces that would supplant his incipient conscience (464). Pickett adds that the “practice of resistance is directly linked to the practice of self-creation. It’s a question rather of the destruction of what we are, of the creation of something entirely different, of a total innovation” (464). Montag is reinventing himself because he cannot un-know what he now knows is true. Books are not the enemy. Therefore, he has no choice but to resist the social ideology that forbids knowledge and thus, his resistance brings him into conflict with Beatty, his boss and Fire Chief.
Pickett discusses Foucault’s position on resistance first by explaining that, to Foucault, the power that produces limits against which resistance is necessary is everywhere, and exists because all cultures are based on power and power struggles. To transgress these limits is to call them into question as a mechanism lacking in some way. Pickett quotes Foucault who responds to the shaking of limits saying that “the ‘world is forced to question itself’ and ‘is made aware of its guilt’” (448). The first thing Beatty does is defend the status quo, yet does so by invoking literature because he is unable to find a method of reason without it. This is how Bradbury’s society is guilty and this is the hypocrisy, as revealed in the character of Beatty, in which it dwells.
On one hand, to fully repair the damage wrought by censorship upon his future America, Bradbury will require a complete purge of its broken system. On the other hand, Montag is not trying to change the world outside—only his own—and he barely understands the process that is happening to him. His acts of resistance are the result of large choices leading to small actions: Montag chooses to read as an act of resistance which then compels him to steal outlawed books; he listens to Clarisse even though he is uncomfortable with her; he forms a relationship with Professor Faber; he asks unseemly questions about reading of Beatty. He is not arming himself by any means but if he thinks to hide his growing resistance, he does so pointlessly, because according to Foucault, true resistance in actuality does not hide itself (449). Pickett states how “Foucault maintained that transgression and contestation were still vital for the proper form of thinking” (449), and it is a slow rise to resistance in Montag as he becomes increasingly illuminated. Without his innate predilection toward resistance and transgression, Montag would have remained at his Fireman’s post, unaware and closed off to possibilities. However, Montag, in spite of his personal transgressions against the imposed limits of his society, is not interested in rescuing his world.
“The purpose of contestation is not the construction of a new, better system based upon reason, truth, or humanity. Any such system will have similar effects of exclusion, which is why Foucault repudiates the desire to oppose the current law in the name of a new law. Such a desire is, in his view, self-defeating. Instead, transgression seeks to undermine or at least weaken any given set of limits in order to attenuate their violence. Transgression then is nothing less than the affirmation of negation” (Pickett 451).
Montag resists, but is at first confused. Having never exercised his creative intellect, he is childlike in his reasoning. Yet, this is only at first. As he grows more aware of his needs and of his own sense of outrage, his resistance becomes stronger. Nonetheless, Montag does not try to salvage anyone but himself—not even his wife, who is to him both a quiet sadness and a confirmed loss. His act of imparting literary discoveries to Mildred and her friends is his vain attempt to articulate his indignation at the shallowness of their lives, to prove to them that there is more, but not to persuade them. His evolving conscience requires him to at least try but, even in this, he is ill-equipped and fails miserably. They are unable to understand him. Thus, “he knew that he was two people, and that he was, above all, Montag who knew nothing, who did not even know himself a fool, but only suspected it. And he knew that he was also the old man who talked to him and talked to him as the train was sucked from one end of the night city to the other on one long sickening gasp of motion” (Bradbury 99). Montag’s journey can take him nowhere but to Faber’s group of nomadic intellectuals, and away from the life he has always known. “Even now he could feel the start of the long journey, the leave taking, the going away from the self he had been” (99), and he also knows that, once gone, once the destruction of his life is complete, he can never return.
Montag is a Fireman who cannot set fires any longer, save for two. Since he now hoards books in his home illegally and is discovered by his wife and her friends, that Montag is reported is inevitable. Beatty and the Firemen gather to destroy his home as Mildred flees the scene, mourning the loss of her wall-sized televisions, but not her devastated marriage or the safety of her husband. In his second to last act of fire-setting, Montag burns his own house to the ground, and afterward, the full understanding that his past life is now completely dead to him envelopes him like the flames that have ravaged his home. “Montag could not move. A great earthquake had come with fire and leveled the house and Mildred was under there somewhere and his entire life under there and he could not move. The earthquake was still shaking and falling and shivering inside him and he stood there, his knees half bent under the great load of tiredness and bewilderment and outrage” (Bradbury 112). His home in ashes, his marriage over, his career at a humiliating end, and his impending arrest all crash down on him in an instant.
Yet, it is not simply the ruination of his life, but the fact that it came to ruin over nothing: a few old books, a couple of quotations of meaningful poetry, an unwillingness to abandon his ability to think. That, and the betrayal of a well-read man who, in spite of his hatred of literature, capitalizes on the knowledge found in that literature—like Satan quoting the Scriptures. Beatty’s spiteful gloat at Montag, “[g]ive a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he’s the Lord of all Creation. You think you can walk on water with your books” (112), seems to apply to all people but himself. Beatty reads to condemn—but he reads. He is the embodiment of the base self-righteousness of censorship, and in a moment of violent indignation, Montag sets his last fire—the fire that consumes and kills Beatty.
The power struggle between Montag and Beatty is one that pulls from the filaments of power weaving through their entire social system. There is the powerful governmental ban on books, which originates with the powerful voice of the people. There are the empowered few who hoard books contrary to law, making the role of power for the Firemen necessary. There is the power of the knowledge within the books that provides Beatty with his arguments, and there is also the growing power in Montag who is becoming increasingly autonomous. Power, in Bradbury’s society is ubiquitous but malleable and mutable—and it is exploited according to whose hands it falls into.
Madan Saraup, in his book Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, explains in the third chapter entitled “Foucault and the Social Sciences” that
“[p]ower is not simply a commodity which may be acquired or seized. Rather it has the character of a network; its threads extend everywhere. Foucault suggests that an analysis of power should concentrate not on the level of conscious intention but on the point of application of power. In other words, he wants to shift attention from questions such as ‘Who has the power?’ or ‘What intentions or aims do power holders have?’ to the processes by which subjects are constituted as effects of power” (82).
Foucault’s argument revolves around the way power is distributed, but not on the purpose of the powerful toward the power they have, or how the impact of power on the individual can be subjective. Rather, power is like rain that makes everyone wet. Power controls those who find it—not the other way around. In this case, if Montag and Beatty are subjects of power, then it is not necessarily governmental power that drives them, but the power of knowledge—the censoring of it and the desire for it. Neither of them particularly ‘possess’ the power of knowledge, rather they attempt to manipulate it. Beatty has much knowledge but weaponizes it, whereas Montag is accumulating knowledge as the groundwork of his own autonomy. That they are government agents is aside in their struggle—both wish to succeed as individuals trying to prevail against the other. This is an argument these men could have as civilians, but as Firemen, power informs Beatty’s right to burn down Montag’s house. Power informs Montag’s ability to resist—to burn down his own house and then turn his kerosene hose on Beatty, after which he runs for his life.
Montag eludes the police and escapes the city by crossing the river and traveling downstream. Once ashore, he meets up with the band of intellectual hobos, including Professor Faber. Shortly thereafter, Bradbury’s dystopian society is obliterated in a hail of atom bombs. Bradbury allows for a somber but hopeful ending to his fable. These intellectual nomads, having memorized books, emerge as the new guardians of human thought, creativity, and autonomy, and will now work to restore the human mind through literature and teaching. Society’s power transforms from illuminating ignorance to illuminating purposiveness. Foucault holds that power is not necessarily unscrupulous, nor does it necessarily corrupt or seek to corrupt. Instead, “power ‘produces reality’; it ‘produces domains of objects and rituals of truth’. Foucault remarks that we often hear the cliché ‘power makes mad’, but we should consider the fact that the exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge. Conversely, knowledge induces effects of power. It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” (Sarap 82). In the new reality created in the aftermath of war, there is a chance for people to reclaim what was lost through the literature they have memorized. Bradbury leaves his reader with the hope that social power will be controlled by the right people, and will manifest itself in terms of free knowledge and liberty. Bradbury’s message to future generations is astoundingly clear: ignorance and complacency destroy a society.
Government-Controlled Media, Reality Television, and Cost of Liberty in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy is comprised of The Hunger Games, published in 2008, Catching Fire, published in 2009, and Mockingjay, published in 2010. Set in the geographical United States in the future country of Panem, Collins’ dystopic society is an unimaginably cruel two-tiered system. Using an almost unrecognizable North America as her backdrop, Collins inserts recognizable trends of modern Western culture but portends them as toxic and disconcerting, and within the precarious microculture of District 12, follows the life of Katniss Everdeen—a seventeen year old girl and unwilling heroine—in her quest for personal liberty.
Most of Panem is divided into 13 districts, throughout which, except for District 13, the majority of the Panem citizenry is dispersed to labor miserably and live in squalor. Everything that is produced in the Districts, except for a small portion to stave off the starvation of the working masses, belongs to the Capitol. Gigantic, wealthy, and beautiful, the Capitol is the one existing city in Panem and the seat of government. With very little to work at, most of the Capitol citizens spend their lives in pursuit of luxurious and wasteful leisure and because they have at their fingertips all the amenities of their unjustified wealth, they have become shallow, lazy, and bored. Collins depicts the people of the Capitol as having a skewed sense of reality and morality, which makes them thoroughly unlikeable. They neither know nor do they care where their plenteous foods and frills come from, nor what peoples’ intense labours produce them. Amber M Simmons, in her article “Class on Fire” for the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, discusses the mindless waste in North America that is reflected in the wastefulness of the Capitol. She comments that when considering the level of North American decadence, “we are more closely associated with the Capitol, the bad guys, than with the Districts…According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010 approximately 34 million tons of food were thrown away…[A]n average individual US household wastes 14% of food purchases, supporting our nickname as the ‘throw-away generation’” (26). Like the Capitol citizens who vomit up food in order to keep eating, North America is guilty of squandering what could feed many.
The Capitol citizens are not alone in blame for their seemingly callous egocentricity. Since all media is government controlled and the history books have been written to fit the government’s agenda, the citizens of the Capitol see only what the government allows them to see. Further, most Capitol citizens trust President Snow, for they believe it is he who has preserved the peace in Panem for all of them. Their ignorance of the world outside of the Capitol is directly due to the one television channel that underpins their world views and informs their popular culture.
For Panem, the most extravagant occasion of the year is the annual Hunger Games tournament. With weeks of preliminary televised events and special interest stories leading up to the show, the citizens of the Capitol prepare themselves for the celebration of the year. The Hunger Games, both cruel and absurd, were first set in place after a rebellion against the Capitol by the Districts. In memory of the many lives lost, and in eternal reparation for the damage caused by their rebellion, each of the twelve remaining Districts participate in an annual lottery. From a list that includes all the names of the children between the ages of twelve and eighteen years old, two are chosen—one male and one female—to represent their District as Tributes in the annual Hunger Games.
The twenty-four randomly selected Tributes are taken from their Districts to the Capitol where they are treated to non-stop luxuries meant to distract them from the awaiting horror of the high-tech arena—where they will fight to the death until one champion remains. Collins’ trilogy begins at the onset of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games. Aside from the obviously abhorrent practice of bloody gladiatorial combat between the children of its nation, the notion that an audience of adults in the Capitol could watch the deadly games with relish is unsettling and ponderous. Yet, this bizarre level of insensitivity and lack of moral judgement on the part of the citizens of the Capitol has been slowly crafted by the government over decades in order to produce a culture that not only approves of the Hunger Games, but normalizes it as an essential part of the popular culture in which they eagerly participate.
To examine the popular culture of the Capitol, it is helpful to first examine the motives of the government that both underwrites and facilitates it. The government of Panem, which controls all forms of industry, justifies the continuation of the Hunger Games as a war memorial and as a deterrent to future wars and rebellions. To this end, the citizens of the Capitol are indoctrinated through media propaganda to believe that the people of the Districts will surely create rebellion if strict control is not constantly maintained. To give the Hunger Games an air of solemn necessity, it is ritualized. The people gather in their Districts’ town squares for the “reaping” of the tributes. The mayor speaks first, and gives a memorial speech that precedes the Capitol official who will draw the lottery.
“He tells the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games” (Collins 18).
Thus, with a reminder of the Dark Days which are inflated by carefully selected images of war, dead children, and crying parents on the enormous television screens installed throughout the communities and Capitol of Panem, and with the Treaty of Treason making the games lawful, the government exercises control of the Districts while instilling a sense of patriotism in the Capitol. The catch phrase “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” (19), becomes the “Merry Christmas” style greeting adopted by the Capitol’s citizens during the games and reflects a peculiar attitude of sadness, renewed hope, and gaiety in the face of impending murder and death.
Their overall sensibility flies in the face of our twenty-first century ideas about the hopeful evolution of human society, especially Western society, because while the Capitol enjoys advanced technologies and liberal ideology in some areas, their concepts of what is, to use the vernacular, right and wrong, has devolved rather than progressed. Concerns for the environment, care for the hungry, and a dedication to art and beauty have been pushed unceremoniously aside in favor of media entertainment and ridiculous extravagance. More concerned with the passing seasons of fashion, the Capitol citizens no longer look to literature or philosophy. In fact, there is a glaring lack of anything still intact that ties Panem to the history of human civilization, except for the government’s constant reminders of a violent past that must be avoided with the Hunger Games as its only restraining tool. The citizens of the Capitol are no freer than those in the Districts While their cages are gilded, they are still repressed and isolated within their community and under the thumb of a calculating, self-serving government represented in the character of the paternalistic President Snow.
Susie O’Brien and Imre Szeman in their book Popular Culture: A User’s Guide discuss the theories of culture put forth by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer who posit that “mass culture”, or “popular culture” as it is known today, is a creature of industries that design and propagate human appetites through psychological influence and enticements and also by providing availability. The constant influx of products does not incite cultural growth, but overwhelms, such that average individuals turn from their own set of preferences to align themselves with the popular product of the day. Additionally, Adorno and Horkheimer hold that the influence of popular culture is far-reaching and effects all individuals within the culture. They disagree with “the claim that humanity in general is slowly increasing its degree of freedom. Horkheimer and Adorno object strongly to this “myth” of progress and to the belief in human reason that lies at its core. Far from leading to greater freedom, they see people’s lives today as more restricted than ever. Humanity’s faith in progress has created an inescapable system of instrumental rationality that limits what we understand and experience to a considerable degree, and a domination of nature that threatens the continued existence of the world” (O’Brien Szeman 104). The encompassing effects of instrumental rationality explains the bizarre mind-set of the Capitol and the success of its government. O’Brien and Szeman define instrumental rationality as
“the use of rationality or reason in an instrumental fashion suggests the use of the most efficient means to achieve the desired end…However, there are drawbacks to instrumental rationality, especially when it becomes applied generally. The concept of efficiency isn’t a neutral one; that is, it implies a certain set of values about the goals of human activity and human life that may in fact contradict other values that people hold dear…Perhaps most dangerously, instrumental rationality can turn into an autonomous force. Even though human beings invented this use of rationality…it has come to be treated as an irresistible, unchangeable fact of nature” (105).
Essentially, by devising a carefully edited version of history, by using the threat of recurring violence, by answering all Capitol society’s wants and fads, by providing a media-sensationalized celebration to both remind and distract, the government of Panem—a fiercely autonomous force—has established an unchanging tradition that both feeds and controls the citizens, and makes them instruments of its own twisted rationale. It does so through the use of reason that it is somehow better to have the “controlled” violence of the games than to have a chaotic violent rebellion. O’Brien and Szeman add that “the culture industry produces culture that is designed to deceive and mislead those engaged in it. What the culture industry creates—what we now describe as mass or popular culture—has for Horkheimer and Adorno only one real function: to reproduce incessantly the values of capitalist culture” (105). While all of Panem is under President Snow’s totalitarian rule, the Capitol certainly exhibits the very worst facets of capitalism in its level of exploitation of the workers of the Districts.
Whereas the Capitol is controlled with a constant supply of plenty and a freedom from hard work, the Districts are controlled by fear, violence, and the suppression of human liberty—all unseen by the citizens of the Capitol. President Snow is the supreme dictator of Panem, much like the Caesars of ancient Rome, and with the might of the Capitol “peace keepers” and technologically advanced weaponry at his fingertips, he stands unopposed by the Districts who have been reduced to no more than peasants with pitchforks. As the Roman provinces were controlled by Roman officials, so the Districts are controlled by a Capitol peace-keeper captain and his detachment of soldiers. With government imposed restrictions on travel, trade, education, the supply of food and medicine, and the media, the people of the Districts endure their tedious and impoverished lives under the vigilant scowl of their Capitol overlords. To oppose the government is to invite punishment and execution. To say that President Snow has a asphyxiating grip on the throats of the people of the Districts is an understatement, and his motive seems to be nothing more than maintaining control to keep Panem society functioning as it is indefinitely, and this to keep himself in his office of President.
The one channel of television that incessantly serves the popular culture of Panem, is made up of a series of government manipulated news programs, government approved talk shows with Panem’s superstar host Caesar Flickerman, and the Hunger Games with both pre-games and post-games programming. The omnipresence of the television screens, has the secondary effect of creating entertainment that is standardized within the culture, and therefore manageable by the government. Adorno, in his essay “How to Look at Television” speaks to this invasive standardization as becoming thickly influential, and that “this rigid institutionalization transforms modern culture into a medium of undreamed of psychological control. The repetitiveness, the selfsameness, the ubiquity of modern mass culture tend to make for automatized reactions and to weaken the forces of individual resistance” (138). People stop thinking for themselves, and whether by apathy or ignorance, allow the government, through the medium of television, to decide for them how they think and feel.
In Panem, television has not changed in decades. All that varies is the annual parade of faceless Tributes, soon to be forgotten in favor of next year’s Tributes. While the Hunger Games are presented to the Capitol public as a sporting event, that it is mandatory to watch the games is implicit. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that since the games have been in practice for seventy-four years that most adult citizens of the Capitol have been watching the annual blood-and-guts display all of their lives.
To the Capitol audiences, the reality of the Hunger Games has become less about the Tributes as human children and more about their own aloof observation of the Tributes as the objects of drama and entertainment. Something of the same is happening in North America with audiences of reality television. In “Fantasies of Reality: Surviving Reality-Based Programming”, Edward D Miller of Staten Island College in New York discusses reality television shows such as “Survivor” and “The Real World”. The cameras within the Hunger Games arena do not just follow incidents of splashing blood, but also record the moments of humanity between the Tributes in order to produce a warm and fuzzy “ahhh” moment in the audiences, and because this is so, Katniss and Peeta are able to carry off their star-crossed lovers illusion when the camera watches them kiss and comfort each other.
Miller claims that reality shows are not about alienating audiences, but rather drawing them in—allowing them to be affected by the drama of the lives they are peering into. In today’s reality shows, individual actors have their so-called private moments displayed; the audience witnesses, but does not have the sense that the drama playing out before its eyes is in any way representative of the way life is in reality (9). Audiences do not put the two together, and choose merely to leer. In this way, reality television, as Miller says, involves “the audience in the emotions of the scene but not in the political dynamics of the event” (9). Even though they can feel involved, even care for one of the show’s participants, they are still removed. For them, “reality is inescapably put into narrative form” (9), and so even though the show is supposedly real, it is still received as a fiction. The hoopla that goes into the Hunger Games, and the very games themselves, are accepted as fiction by a people completely engulfed by the simulacrum that constitutes their lives. The citizens of the Capitol “help to pull the wool over their own eyes, but the illusionary fabric does not disappear. It is conflict and emotion that make the show appear real, the intensity of good old-fashioned drama, and not the fact that real kids with real issues” (9) are forced to participate in murder and death. Collins uses the idea of a televised game, where contestants, instead facing elimination by being voted off the Island as in “Survivor”, are eliminated by being murdered by their fellow contestants. In so doing, she addresses the real-world attitude of an audience paradoxically divorced from the real world. Even Katniss remarks, when watching replays of the deaths in the games that “[o]bjectively, I can see the mutts and Cato’s death are as gruesome as ever, but again, I feel it has happened to people I have never met” (Collins 364).
The gladiatorial arena of the Hunger Games is manipulated by the “Gamemakers” in the Capitol to increase excitement if there is a lull in the action—if no one has been murdered in a while. When young Katniss Everdeen finds a high branch in a tree, climbs up and rests there for several hours, and when the other Tributes cannot find her, the games slow down. This is where the Gamemakers must add excitement by creating conflict for the Tributes. In the case of Katniss, they send a wall of fire.
“The flames that bear down on me have an unnatural height, a uniformity that marks them as human-made, machine-made, Gamemaker made. Things have been too quiet today. No deaths, perhaps no fights at all. The audience in the Capitol will be getting bored, claiming that these Games are verging on dullness. This is the one thing the Games must not do. It’s not hard to follow the Gamemakers’ motivation…This fire is designed to flush us out, to drive us together. It may not be the most original device I’ve seen, but it’s very, very effective” (Collins 173).
Detached from their principles, desensitized to the plight of the current Tributes by decades of repetition, and accustomed to their over-indulged lifestyles, the Capitol citizens become like the Roman spectators petitioning “bread and circuses” from their Caesar; the very name Panem is a play on the Roman “panem et circenses”. Even while the Capitol citizens demand an increasingly thrilling quality of entertainment, their innate sense of morality becomes, as Adorno suggests, “preserved in an almost fossilized way” (Adorno 139). The Capitol citizens are not incapable of compassion, but compassion simply serves no purpose in their life worlds, and therefore their viewpoint “assumes an increasingly authoritarian and at the same time hollow character” (139). They demand gratification, because gratification is all they have. Because gratification is all they have, they are easily bored and require escalating excitement, which in turn produces more violence in the Hunger Games.
The character of Katniss Everdeen represents the morals, hopes, and pursuit of individuality of the Panem citizens who are not part of the Capitol. Katniss is what is real in contrast to the Capitol so completely separated from reality. Refusing to live by stringent laws that prevent liberty to the extent that many die of starvation, Katniss finds a gap in the fence, and with a bow and arrow, learns to hunt in the surrounding forests. Maddeningly, there is an abundance of wild game, forgotten orchards, edible vegetation, and fresh lake water within walking distance of District 12, but the people are forbidden to help themselves. There is a horrible shortage of everything within the community, yet Katniss and her friend Gale, bring back deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and vegetables from the untouched wealth of the thick forest—and do so out of the gaze of the peacekeepers. This is how Katniss manages to maintain a semblance of autonomy.
However, what Katniss Everdeen wants more than anything else, in spite of her struggles, pain, and inclusion in a rebellion she does not wish to participate in, is quite simple. She wants to be free, and she wants to be left alone. Katniss wants the fence around her District to disappear. She wants to swim in the lake, eat from her own garden, sleep in a warm bed, and be free from terror. She has no political agenda, nor does she long for a position of authority or fame. She does not seek wealth or frivolous possessions. All she wants is peace and quiet. Katniss is a troubled, impatient voice crying out from a dark well of loneliness, disillusionment, and calamity. And her voice captures the attention of the youth of popular culture in modern Western society. They hear and understand.
Lev Grossman remarks in “Love Among the Ruins: How Our Awful Future Became the Next Big Thing” that the youth readership feels how Katniss feels, and recalls adult readers to their own youths. “When you’re that age, everything feels like the end of the world: every test and snub and class and audition and prom. Adults have been around the block a few times. Whether it’s because we have more perspective or we’re just jaded, nothing is that big a deal to us. But you need to tear down the entire planet to match what goes on in a teenager’s interior universe. The apocalypse is where they live” (npag). Katniss, as a dehumanized Tribute flailing helplessly in the tidal surge of the Capitol’s popular culture, can find no extended branch to save herself from the relentless motion by which she is overwhelmed. In Mockingjay, prepared to lead what she is ill-equipped to lead, Katniss imagines “I have the sense of emerging from a world of dark, haunted places where I have traveled alone” (Collins 163). She is completely alone, and unable to trust anyone—a feeling commiserated with by her young audience who are learning that the fragility of their own lives is mirrored by the woeful fragility of their Earth.
Katniss, while fierce and determined, loses her precious autonomy once she becomes a Tribute. Yet, at her first opportunity to display her own individualism, she does. When the games come down to her and Peeta, rather than kill him, she suggests a suicide pact using poisonous berries found in the arena’s simulated forest.
“We both know they have to have a victor. Yes, they have to have a victor. Without a victor, the whole thing would blow up in the Gamemaker’s faces. They’d have failed the Capitol…If Peeta and I were both to die, or they thought we were…I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm. Then I fill my own. ‘On the count of three?’…It’s too late to change my mind. I lift my hand to my mouth, taking one last look at the world. The berries have just passed my lips when the trumpets begin to blare. The frantic voice of Claudius Templesmith shouts above them. ‘Stop! Stop!’” (Collins 344).
Worried that the Capitol will be denied the celebration of the victor, the Gamemakers allow Katniss and Peeta to become the first District “team” champions. However, Katniss’ subversive act of individualism angers President Snow. Now centered in his vengeful crosshairs, Katniss abandons her search for autonomy, and chooses to play the Capitol’s game of artificiality in order to survive. This brings her constantly into conflict between what she longs to be and what she must do, and it this conflict that drives her character throughout Catching Fire and Mockingjay. True autonomy is not realized by Katniss until the war is over. Only then is she free to become fully self-directed rather than manipulated by outside forces and ideologies.
Katniss is impelled to heroism because of her newly established cultural identity as “The Mockingjay”. The forming rebellion that drafts her into its ranks begins its attack on the Capitol by hacking into its fiercely protected television station. Gaining intermittent control of the station, they broadcast their agenda to Panem with Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games champion who stood against President Snow, as their symbol. The Mockingjay, a new species of bird that survived war and Panem soldiers that tried to exterminate it, has become representative of perseverance and survival in spite of hardship. Through the manipulation of media, the Rebel army has taken the fame of ‘Katniss of the Hunger Games’ and mythologized her. O’Brien and Szeman discuss Roland Barthes’ notion of mythology as it reorders ideology using signs and symbols that develop meanings of their own. “[T]hey take on additional associations that are more clearly subjective, charged with a culture’s dominant, often unspoken, beliefs or values” (62). The down-side of President Snow’s insistence on the games is the fact that a victor must be announced. His own rules turn against him, because Katniss as the champion receives both admiration and fame—unstoppable by President Snow. In spite of the Capitol’s desire for the excitement of the violent games, that they also celebrate the winner is a large part of the process and reflects their beliefs and values.
O’Brien and Szeman further explain Barthes position on myth saying that it is “a form of signification that works to express and, more or less invisibly, to justify the dominant values of a culture in a particular moment” (62). Without a victor, the games lose their meaning, and the people stop believing in them. Katniss as the young girl is easy enough to vilify in the media, but Katniss as the Mockingjay, a symbol that transcends the actual girl’s humanness, is now the flaming sword of justice behind which the Districts of Panem gather and prepare for war. “Myth works, Barthes’s analysis suggests, to the extent that we read it “straight”, accepting unquestioningly its naturalness…myths are not natural but historical, the product of particular relations of power” (63). Katniss herself cannot understand how people would want to follow her, a girl who happens to be good with a bow and arrow, into a real and potentially humanity-annihilating war. “We almost went extinct fighting one another before. Now our numbers are even fewer” (Collins Mockingjay 26).
Katniss seems to be the only one who sees herself as she actually exists in the real world, and she is in over her head. “‘What am I going to do?’ I whisper to the walls. Because I really don’t know” (18). Others, whether or not out of adulation or desperation or ulterior motive, see her as simulacra. Katniss is gone. The Mockingjay stands in her stead. That she is seventeen years old, does not seem to matter. That she has no experience in war, also does not seem to matter. That the people of Panem should put their faith in her to deliver them from the clutches of the Capitol seems natural to them, and because all they see is the symbol of the freedom they so acutely crave, they cannot see that Katniss is still no more than a teenaged girl. They do not see her as the face of the media propaganda fired back at the Capitol by District 13. They cannot see that Katniss herself is being used, and that she is not at all what they have built her up to be. She is the rope in the tug-of-war between the two powers in Panem.
By the end of Mockingjay, the Capitol is overthrown and President Snow has died. The Districts gather to rebuild their country and to make laws that are beneficial to all the people. The Hunger Games are over. However, Katniss is haunted nightly by gruesome nightmares of the games, while Peeta, who has become her husband, is still tormented by the memory of the lengthy torture he endured at the hands of President Snow’s henchmen. Collins leaves her readers with the understanding that, while war has come to an end, the aftermath of war can be just as painful in other ways. There are no winners—just survivors. In Collins’ dystopian future, the human race has barely survived and must now face an arduous journey of rebuilding their broken world while learning to live with wounds that may never heal.
This paper has discussed four dystopian novels in terms of the ways in which they disrupt the mechanisms of society, yet leave them eerily familiar, and in terms of how human individuality and liberty is consequently affected. The novels have also revealed what a society needs to function justly and democratically by postulating societies in which justice and democracy are absent. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy imagine their dystopian futures differently with regard to back story and setting, yet common threads bind them together and repeat themselves throughout.
In all four of the novels, the governments are totalitarian and control the ordinary citizens either by indoctrination—naturally or artificially induced—or through the use of fear and violence. The aim is to control the human individual. Therefore, all forms of individual behavior are outlawed. Once the human individual is controlled through laws and intimidation, the human ability to think and reason comes under attack. This is where dystopian futures instill fear into the readers who considers what life would be without the freedom either to make choices or to reason for themselves what is moral or immoral. In essence, dystopian futures depict human beings robbed of their own beingness, and are among the best illustrations in English literature of “man’s inhumanity to man”.
However, dystopian futures also engage the struggle of individual protagonists to rise above soulless government control and to adhere to their own sense of being, and the most important part of their stories is whether or not the protagonists succeed—or rather, how they fail. Dystopian novels rarely supply happy endings. In Huxley’s Brave New World, John Savage cannot bring a voice of reason to a society that has become comfortable in its new world view, and the more he speaks, the more nonsensical he sounds. In Orwell’s 1984, Winston fails because he cannot hold out against the horrible torture he suffers. In the end, he surrenders. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Montag manages to get out of his doomed city only to watch it completely destroyed. Bradbury offers that it can be rebuilt, but in the wake of atomic war, the promise of salvaging society is far off and will require a nearly insurmountable level of work. In the Hunger Games Trilogy, Katniss escapes with her life, but is deeply scarred by the horrors she endured which play out again and again in the nightmares that plague her sleep. Her world is now safe from the Hunger Games, but she is not.
In spite of being defeated either explicitly or implicitly, the protagonists still grapple for their right to experience the world through their own eyes, and not through the eyes of outside ideologies forcing upon them. This is because human beings, in the understanding of Western culture, do not merely want liberty, they need it and claim it as a fundamental right.
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