Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias

Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias

Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias

Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias


As the 20th century has progressed, dystopian fiction has gained power as utopian fiction has become increasingly irrelevant. As an overtly didactic genre, dystopia extrapolates terrifying near-futures from disturbing current trends. In order to quickly create an atmosphere that is at once plausible and terrifying, dystopian writers almost universally turn to an idea certain to generate both fear and sympathy in the reader--the dual concept of language as the primary tool by which repressive societies stifle dissent, and simultaneously as the primary weapon used by rebels bent on understanding, resisting, and countering such oppression. This volume traces the evolution of language's centrality in 20th-century dystopias in English, including Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid's Tale, Native Tongue, The Judas Rose, and Riddley Walker.


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-- that's all."

--Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Poor Alice. Humpty Dumpty's argument--that words are not immutable, but up for grabs in a struggle for control--challenges one of her most basic assumptions. Beyond Humpty Dumpty's charming image of a speaker wrestling with words for control over their definitions lie darker questions: how far might a speaker go in enforcing acceptance of, or at least stifling dissent over, a given meaning and in eliminating other ones? By controlling language, can a speaker also control the thoughts of others who speak that language? If language can only be controlled within fiction, why is the idea so effective at terrifying readers? During her travels in Wonderland, Alice struggles against other speakers for control over words and meanings. Leah Hadomi and Robert Elbaz argue that:

[M]uch like the development in the utopian genre as a whole, the developmental process in Alice moves from utopia to dystopia. . . . This world based on a fantastic organization of an ideal reality, closed, separated and harmonious, is likely, in its exaggeration or extremism, to become a stifling dystopian reality, static and . . .

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