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A Hunger for Dystopia: Critical Thinking on the Journey to Self-Discovery

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I was in high school in the mid '90s when I first read George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. It lifted the veil of my childhood innocence, opening my eyes to the injustices of the adult world. Once I finished the chilling, final sentence of the novel, there was no going back to my naive self.

New dystopian books are dominating the bestseller list. The Hunger Games trilogy has spent more than 260 consecutive weeks (more than five consecutive years to date) on The New York Times Best Seller list and has more than 65 million copies in print. And Publishers Weekly claims:

2013 was officially the year of Divergent. The three books in Veronica Roth's dystopian trilogy sold a combined 6.7 million copies last year (three million hardcovers, 1.7 million paperbacks, and just under two million e-books).

1984 helped me uncover dark truths about the adult world. It bred a rebellious streak in me, or so I thought. Looking back, I wasn't rebellious at all. I wasn't defying authority and upending injustices. I was just a teenager going about his school day in ripped jeans and flannel shirts. But dystopian lit made me believe that I was a rebel.

Today's stories resonate with teenagers in a similar way. On their journey to self-discovery, they're identifying with a new crop of young protagonists, often in post-apocalyptic worlds, crusading against oppression. That's because they too are beginning to question the authority of their parents, become skeptical of our political system, and challenge the traditional power structures like school and the law.

Dystopian novels belong in our classrooms because they hold a mirror up to our fears and flaws. They use amplification, irony, and paradox to reflect the shortcomings and injustices of the day.

For those of you that read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or Brave New World in high school, here are five updates to the dystopian genre that will captivate you and your students.

The Handmaid's Tale

Margret Atwood wrote this shortly after the conservative revival of the 1980s, just as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher assumed power. The novel opens with a staged terrorist attack that wipes out the president and most of Congress, allowing religious fanatics to seize power and strip women of their freedoms. In many ways, it imagines a reversal of the rights that women fought to achieve in the 1960s and '70s. Atwood has said that the book "has become a sort of tag for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women's bodies and reproductive functions."

The Giver

In this coming-of-age story, Jonas is given the job of holding all of the memories of the community, good and bad. Through his training, he starts to question whether or not the numbness the leaders have chosen for the community is a good thing. Is it worth missing all of the joy to bypass the pain of life? In a 2005 speech to the University of Richmond, Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, said:

Because I write for a young audience, the questions that incite and inspire a book must always be presented through the consciousness of a young person. And so I created a boy, and I named him Jonas. Then I forced myself to look very, very closely at the world this boy lived in. It was like picking up a rock in a swamp and seeing the toxic filth underneath, the oozing, slimy, squirming things that hide out of the daylight. The things that we don't want to see. The things we would like to turn away from.

Feed

Corporate culture, technologically-controlled minds, and rampant consumerism are just a few of the targets on author M.T. Anderson's agenda. The story is about Titus, Violet, and the Feed -- an internet connection implanted in the brain. Those with feeds can access "vast digital knowledge databases, untold consumer goods, and can communicate with others quickly and silently." Yet, as Violet and Titus uncover, it's more a tool for thought control, advertisement, and manipulation rather than intellectual advancement. Anderson has said:

Even as a teenager, I was irate, and I think a lot of teens are mad about this, mad about the way that the whole media and the advertising world try to demand that kids be a certain kind of thing. And the fact that they take our own images of ourselves and they mold those images, but also kind of use them like a voodoo doll, like sticking pins in and sort of demanding -- the pain will stop once you buy this thing.

The Hunger Games

This series highlights the inequalities of a post-apocalyptic society, pointing out the meaninglessness of vanity and the cruelty of a severe caste system that punishes those who rebel. The voyeuristic thrill of reality television and our apathy toward war and violence are twin targets of author Suzanne Collins. She explained to Scholastic:

Telling a story in a futuristic world gives you this freedom to explore things that bother you in contemporary times. So, in the case of the Hunger Games, issues like the vast discrepancy of wealth, the power of television and how it's used to influence our lives, the possibility that the government could use hunger as a weapon, and then first and foremost to me, the issue of war.

Divergent

Veronica Roth wrote the story that became Divergent while on winter break at Northwestern University. Roth said the inspiration came from:

. . . Psych 101 my first year of college, and I learned about exposure therapy, which is when they treat people with fear, like for anxiety. It exposes them repeatedly to what they're afraid of, and gradually you become less afraid of it, or have a healthy level of fear, and I thought of the Dauntless then. That's kind of where it came from, and everything else built on top of it.

Everything else includes a post-apocalyptic Chicago that divides society into personality types called factions to promote stability and balance. Yet as a beautiful female protagonist struggles to find to find her place and her true faction, she is exposed to the limitations of these social divisions, how they indoctrinate members, and how it all contributes to the manipulation of the masses.

Does this new wave of dystopian literature stack up with the classics like Brave New World, 1984, or Fahrenheit 451? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

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Deb Stahl's picture

The only one of these I'd use in middle school is The Giver (even upper elementary, perhaps, depending on the group); the rest I'd hold off on till high school at least.

Feed I would skip for middle schoolers unless I had a remarkably mature group of 8th-rgaders; it is powerful and raw (and you might expect some parental blowback from a significant amount of profanity and teen drinking) but remarkably prescient considering when it was written and how similar our world has already become. Not sure that middle schoolers would be able to really appreciate it as well as older kids, in part because of the romantic relationship which they're not likely to be able to relate to as well as high schoolers (background knowledge). Ditto Hunger Games - IMO there's no need to expose kids to that kind of savagery in middle school (the movie was viewable by my middle schooler, but I know her well enough to know that she'd have nightmares if she read the 1st book :-\), and many of the nuances of both romantic relationships (the love triangle) and the political situation are likely to be lost on younger readers.

Agree with the Ember series being another good dystopian read; The City of Ember comes with both a sequel AND a prequel worth reading and discussing, and would be very accessible for middle schoolers.

Lisa Lehr's picture

We've taught a dystopian unit with our eighth graders for several years. The kids really get into it; they especially like thinking about what aspect of society the author was criticizing. For that reason, I'd say that modern dystopian novels are necessary. As much as we might enjoy 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, the criticisms are products of the times in which they were written. Today's teenagers don't understand or embrace Bradbury's slams of giant televisions; those are realities they accept and embrace.

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dphillips51's picture

The question that gets the most interesting responses is: What are the reasons why teens overwhelming prefer to read dystopian literature. There seems to be agreement that they are afraid of the direction their world is taking.

Chaddy's picture

I read 1984 and Handmaids Tale in AP English in High School. My son read Enders Game and Hunger Games in 8th grade Language Arts (he attended and IB Magnet School). I'm a big fan of the dystopian genre and have read a variety of dystopian books. I've enjoyed most of them. I think they appeal to my rebellious nature. Although I have to say that it was Handmaids Tale that was the spark for me, rather than 1984 like others have said. It's my feminist nature as well, I suppose. My husband even enjoyed Enders Game and he's not a reader. I also read the Giver years ago as well, in fact I read the whole quartet. Several of the 6th graders I teach have enjoyed The Giver.

Melissa Cunningham's picture

I read the first two books of the Maze Runner series with my 8th graders and it was great! I had intended to start some dystopian discussion but we ran out of time this semester. Our new curriculum includes Hunger Games, but since most of my students have already read it, we're going to review it briefly and then do a compare/contrast between the two stories under the dystopian umbrella.

Corby Weyhmiller's picture

City of Ember is a great book! The other books of the series are also great, like the Giver it can be use for students in upper elementary but still holds interest for middle school with lower reading level.

Dickens18's picture

I remember reading The Handmaids Tale in English class my senior year and that book has stuck with me since! While it is definitely for a more mature audience, I think it is a great alternative to the classic dystopian novels and allows students to make comparisons to both politics and their own beliefs and what happens when one is pushed too far, especially since the heroine can remember a time before this new system.

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Graeme Fox's picture

"amplification, irony, paradox" - add propaganda and Zamyatin's "We" to the Great Dystopian Classics list. Adding an international scope to dystopian novel teaching will greatly help English students gain insight into other cultures and shared experiences. The topic of media and bias in 1984 and We are as relevant now as when they were written.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I agree, Graeme. One of the great aims of literature, I believe, is for the reader to use the imaginative world of literature to come to terms with their own Sense of identity and place. Dystopia, through its distortion of societal structures, is a great way for teens to recognize the power structures in their own lives and understanding their relationship to them.

Slcb11710's picture

The Silenced by James Devita is great. It was just reprinted due to demand.

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