Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Longing for a Life Less Ordinary: Reading the Banal as Dystopian in Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Longing for a Life Less Ordinary: Reading the Banal as Dystopian in Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly

Article excerpt

Sonya Hartnett's work aligns with realist literature, however Hartnett's writing for young adults has been referred to as dystopian, with critics highlighting the gritty social settings and bleak outcomes of her novels. Dystopia is sometimes used as synonymous with a generally destructive or depressing environment, but is more often associated with the nightmarish projected future worlds of science fiction. This article will offer a reading of Butterfly's treatment of the future and dystopian motifs to demonstrate how such a 'realist' text can re-articulate some science fiction conventions. The social bleakness in Butterfly is located in the banality of life in the suburbs. In this way, it could be argued that Hartnett's readers are asked to view a banal future, rather than any far-fetched or fantastic future, as dystopian.

Butterfly (2009) sees teen protagonist, Plum, endure the small horrors of embarrassment and disillusionment, rather than issues like suicide or incest, which drew attention to some of Hartnett's previous works.1 Plum believes that she has a 'grand destiny' (Hartnett 2009, 152), which may be typical of the teenage psyche, but might also be read in the context of a contemporary desire for fame (or notoriety) as preferable to a life that is merely 'average'. Butterfly features several characters desirous of change, which, as a literary device, invites the reader to imagine the future of this particular social world. Unfortunately, there are many indications that these players are unlikely to effect major change in their life patterns, thus suggesting they will live out the very run-of-the-mill future lives that they most fear. This article links several understandings of dystopia with a close reading of Butterfly to explore the ways in which the novel cuts across genres to illuminate a vision of ordinariness as dystopian.

A dystopian narrative, put briefly, is 'the story of the "bad place'" (Kennon 2005, 40). For Sargent (1994, 9), a dystopia is a 'non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in a time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived.' This style of writing is most often associated with science fiction due to the nature of a wholly new, imagined world necessarily being in the future or outside the common earthly experience. Adesire for amelioration of the human race is a significant driving force in many dystopian narratives, with populations questionably 'improved' and often left homogenous, impassive or robotic. In this way, it is often the quest for a utopia that brings about a dystopia, and we see this clearly demonstrated in the desire for improvement expressed by Hartnett's protagonists in Butterfly, each of whom strives towards a future that is markedly better than their present.

To call Sonya Hartnett's work dystopian seems like a stretch in the light of the aforementioned definitions, given that her work has simultaneously been linked with social realism, a genre of writing very much grounded in the 'now'. In truth, Hartnett's writing probably transcends many of the labels of literary marketing, but rising to mainstream popularity as she did in the early 1990s, her writing was caught up in the nexus of two important literary trends: the development of 'grunge' and a renewed fascination with Young Adult ('YA') fiction. Several of Hartnett's books, including Butterfly, are now marketed as crossover novels, in that they appeal to a variety of reading ages. Her strong reputation as a YA author, though, means that critical responses continue to examine her contentious themes in terms of their appeal and/or potential effect on young readers.

The YA fiction genre was put under the microscope in Australia in the 1990s as several authors released hugely popular, nihilistic books for young readers. This resulted in much critical debate on issues of thematic appropriateness for readers in this cohort, which might loosely be viewed as fourteen to eighteen years old. …

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