Forgive the all-caps. I’m in a state of frenzy after seeing Divergent. I’ve written about this briefly before, but I am so intrigued by the saturation of dystopian fiction and film these days. On the YA side, you’ve got the formula of shy-girl-turned-revolutionary a la Hunger Games and Divergent and on the literary fiction side, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale and of course, the classic 1984 or the book that scared the living daylights out of me. Why? George Orwell responded to the aftermath of World War II and the rise of communism, and Aldous Huxley to worldwide industrialization and to what he considered the dehumanization of mankind following the first World War. What are we responding to today? And why is it so successful specifically with teenagers?
YA dystopian fiction is the new vampire romance. It’s trendy and exciting, and it definitely makes a good story. I sat immobile in the theatre after seeing Divergent, unblinking and in awe at what had just happened. I connected with Tris the same way I connected with Katniss (forgive the inevitable comparison) because both were stronger than they knew or seemed, and pushed themselves constantly to save what they loved, or fight for a cause. They’re incredibly brave, but they’re also vulnerable and dynamic and complicated. So, I see why characters like Tris appeal to teenagers (and adults!). She is “dauntless,” after all. But what about the situations they find themselves in? The fights to the death, the hostile governments, the constant struggle for survival? What’s going on here?
When I read The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I read a blurb in the back that described the dystopian government’s rules and strictures on women as “the logical conclusion” of certain societal trends and ideals. Victim-blaming in rape instances, for example, is the norm in Atwood’s world. In Huxley’s Brave New World, women are immunized against child-bearing, people are bred in factories, and everyone is high on soma all the time to dull the pain and pleasure of living. So in these instances, the dystopian “future” is the logical conclusion of the scary things we see happening all around us on a daily basis, if these terrible things became normal, or if they became enforced law.
So what does YA dystopian fiction tell us about how teenagers see society? Is it just storytelling and plotting, or is it something else?
I feel like in the case of Divergent at least, the answer is in the title. Teenagers are afraid of being different, being weird, being ostracized (aren’t we all?) and people like Tris and Katniss, who break the molds and find this immense inner strength, offer all kinds of hope for young people. It’s okay to diverge, people. Difference makes you beautiful, and all that. In the case of Hunger Games, the answer is a little less clear because the world-building is less clear. Katniss is fighting an amorphous force whose only clear method of cruelty is the whole children-killing-each-other thing, and maybe the wealth disparity between the districts. So if she’s fighting for a vague “freedom,” then teenagers relate to her strength and courage, and admire her as a role model. I can definitely get behind that.
Strangely enough, I think dystopian novels of all kinds give people hope. It’s all about the struggle, the fight, the never-giving-up. It’s idealistic in the best way, because dystopia suggests an opposite: a utopia of ideals, a perfect method of living, a peace that we all idealize and wish to strive for in this world. Even if it’s unattainable, if we keep writing about fighting, if we keep noticing things in our world and reacting to them, if we keep up the struggle, then hopefully that dystopian future will stay in the realm of fiction.
Confession: I actually like Tris better than Katniss. Please don’t kill me. I’ll fight back.