“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell, 1984
Why is the dystopian theme in literature consistently popular? Let’s be honest — it’s not the less-than-cheerful storyline, the endless stream of desperation, struggle against oppression, and jarring finish. The very words leave us off balance. Yet, stories like George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are standards in literary bucket lists and school syllabi. We are quick to claim that they are a direct reflection of the present-day culture, but they demand deeper reflection.
If you’ve never read 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, you are missing out on a brilliant challenge to your mind and a penetrating perspective on current events. These books are strangely inspiring, leaving you motivated to look at culture from the outside in and question what you usually think you see. The characters aren’t in some far-off reality; they are in our here and now.
If we consider these books from ‘outside the box’, we gain insight into modern society. More importantly, we must process these insights and take them personally. Dystopian stories shouldn’t necessarily leave us with a hopeless mood that fills us with despair. They must be read on a deeper level as a clarion call to jar us out of our complacency. Perhaps the dystopian authors penned their stories not to be a final note of condemnation on civilization, but as an alarm — to give us a big picture of the chaos that is incrementally encroaching into our culture.
Erich Fromm, a 20th century psychoanalyst and social philosopher, wrote in his afterword for 1984 that Orwell, Zamyatin, and Huxley “have expressed the mood of the present, and a warning for the future.” Dehumanizing society isn’t accomplished in a day, probably not even a decade. We may not even be fully aware of the simmering hopelessness that we’ve come to tolerate. “It is precisely the significance of Orwell’s book that it expresses the new mood of hopelessness which pervades our age before this mood has become manifest and taken hold of the consciousness of people.” The issues of “Big Brother” and a soulless industrial and bureaucratic machine have quietly pervaded our world for decades, but it needn’t be a final sentence.
Ultimately, we are called to run headlong into the fray to fight against the slow descent into grim dystopia or die trying, fully grasping the guarantee that there is something better, a pure and golden hope when we arrive to our better home. We do not enter the battle alone.
Where once there was community, it’s gone.
The life they wove together is unstrung.
Those cords create a hard and cold garrote.
Now Newspeak strangles sense, we’re left with none.
All hope dissolves in isolation’s grip.
Dismissing all, so now we just relent.
Pure Truth is realigned and now we slip,
To numbly move through chaos, we’re content.
But then a whisper rises through the din.
It says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
A mighty force who is our battle Sovereign.
Brings reckoning to Evil by the sword.
Amidst an endless deadness we must rise,
And set our sights on reaching Paradise.
 Erich Fromm, “Afterword” in George Orwell’s 1984 (New York: New American Library, division of Penguin Group, 1961), 316.