Violence and Dystopia

Today I’m talking about violence in dystopia.  If you would like to read more of my thoughts (and some insightful comments) on the dystopian genre: check out my posts about the present popularity of dystopia and the role of the strong female hero in dystopia.

**As a warning, I have to use a couple spoilers in order to actually talk about this, so beware if you are concerned with spoilers about The Hunger Games, Divergent, Partials, or the Chaos Walking series.**

Dystopia is a fairly violent genre and that violence in dystopian lit seems to span a range of cultural notions about violence.  Since this post would be out of control if I talked about all of them, I want to focus on the relationship between violence and government in dystopias.

First, we see governments using violence as a means of social control.  In The Hunger Games, for example, the Capitol pits its citizens against one another in a fight to the death in order to retain its tenuous control over the districts.  Having the districts direct their violence towards one another serves to prevent the districts from turning their superior manpower and resources into violence against the Capitol.  In Divergent, the Erudite and Dauntless leaders conspire together to turn the Dauntless into a mind-controlled army who will kill off any resistance.  This allows the Erudite to rebel against the established order without getting their own hands dirty and also gives them access to the best, most obedient soldiers.  Can’t get much more social control than mind control.  In Partials (which I am about 3/4 of the way through), the Senate launches “rebel” attacks on their own town.  By doing so, the government tries to scare their populace into unity (and thus compliance with unpopular fertility measures) by creating a shared enemy.

These pictures of government-sanctioned violence shouldn’t come as much surprise, since we have seen plenty of violent governments in recent history.  What is interesting is that these examples do not (initially) involve the government directly inflicting violence on its own people, mainly because no one dares to rebel against the government’s order in these societies.  Rather, the government requires/forces/prods its citizens killing one another to distract from their actual discontent with the government.  This sort of violence seems to serve the purpose of reinforcing how corrupt, unjust, and dystopian these societies actually are and to justify the next government-related type of violence– war or revolution.

The Hunger Games trilogy and the Chaos Walking trilogy both feature all-out revolutions/wars (I am leaving off books in incomplete series because the wars haven’t started yet).  This is probably the closest that dystopian violence gets to being regenerative… in that it is used to regenerate society and set it on the path to a new, more peaceful and just order.  At the same time, however, the individual characters suffer tremendous loss and personal suffering as a result of war violence.  Katniss may gain the hope of a new future without famine and the games, but only at the cost of losing her sister, her spirit, and Peeta’s sanity.  Todd and Viola may save the New World from self-destruction, but Todd ends up in a coma, tons of innocent people and Spackle are killed, and perhaps worst of all, Todd is forced to lose his innocence through killing another person.  The price of violence is incredibly high in dystopian societies and often it is incredibly senseless.  I can’t think of a better incident of senseless violence than when Aaron kills Manchee in The Knife of Never Letting Go.  In the end, though, we are given the message that this violence is justified and worthwhile because it results in the ousting of a unjust (and often violent) regime.

The ultimate message, then, seems to be that violence is both contextual and costly.  Violence for no reason or for means of social control is bad, but violence in support of revolution is ok… though either way people will die, lives will be changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Feel free to share your thoughts on dystopian violence in the comments!

11 thoughts on “Violence and Dystopia

  1. Very interesting. Whenever I read a dystopia novel that has this type of government violence it always makes me wonder how the world got to that point. Sometimes there’s a back-story, but most times I think it’s left a little vague. “There was an uprising of the people and the government killed it.” Maybe it’s just the conspiracy theorist in me, but the more I read dystopian novels, the more I fear one day they could come true!

    Anyway… I found your comment “Violence for no reason or for means of social control is bad, but violence in support of revolution is ok” really thought-provoking. Clearly, violence for no reason is bad, but, playing devil’s advocate, could violence be looked at subjectively? Like depending on what side you’re on? I guess it’s kind of a cyclical pattern… government is bad, people rebel, government cracks down, people die down, government is bad, people rebel… But really, is either group “right” if there’s violence? Just throwing the thoughts out there!

    Fantastic discussion post!

    • I’d like to think we’re left in the dark as to why the societies are the way they are because we are usually introduced to the world by a teen narrator who probably was being fed propaganda about how things ended up the way they did. The narrator, then, doesn’t really know what actually happened or is usually so caught up in the way things are, they don’t question the past. It would be nice, though, to see authors explore how distorting history is a really powerful tool of social control. It would fit in nicely to the genre, I think.

      Violence, to me, clearly is subjective as to when it is justified and not justified. Again, this doesn’t seem to be an issue that many authors are dealing with (though I think Chaos Walking might and I just missed it on my initial read) and I’m not sure why. It often feels as though authors are willing to have their characters perpetuate violence in support of a revolution and to not examine the self-perpetuating nature of that violence. I think it comes down to a cultural belief that violence can solve problems and put an end to other violence. The questioning of that belief doesn’t seem to play a big role in the dystopias I’ve read, but I would like to see an example of it, for sure.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

  2. One could break it down into basic concepts. Freedom=good. Opression=bad. But what if one society has vehement beliefs that are generally accepted among the population, but to an interloper, it appears oppressive and wrong? We would need a cosmic judge to ultimately decide who is right or wrong. But what cosmic judge? God? What if one side or both sides believe in no god, or in many gods. What if opposite sides believe in the same God? I’m being like Candice, mostly. Just playing the devil’s advocate. Becuase I truly believe that when a person or government seeks to take away or restrict access to the basic necessities of life as a form of punishment or control, then I think people have a right to fight for their lives.

    • Clearly the issue of violence and government is incredibly complex and contextual. I agree that violence is subjective and culturally relative (to a certain extent, but that is a totally different conversation)… but I suppose I am interested in why we get the consistent message in dystopias that violence can be justified in order to overthrow a cruel and oppressive regime. I think generally speaking American culture is ok with this idea… we like to think of ourselves as defenders of liberty across the world and as a society which used violence to shed the oppressive English colonial government. Violence in and of itself is rarely what is questioned in dystopias. We’ve clearly moved past the cultural moment (Vietnam War era) in which we’re totally disillusioned with violence and cannot see it bringing about anything beyond chaos and destruction… and authors are reflecting that in their writings.

  3. I think the idea of government sanctioned or mandated violence against fellow citizens is more frightening because it’s harder to overcome. It’s everyone against everyone instead of the people against the government. Those mini dystopias are alive and well now.

    • Amen. It’s frightening in dystopias how much control the government has over its citizens… and how close to reality that is for some people. I think it is even more disturbing to read dystopias where violence doesn’t really come into the equation, where the government exerts its control in much more insidious or covert manners– mind control, shame, etc.

  4. Having just posted my review of The Hunger Games, I wrote about why I enjoy reading about dystopias. I believe most authors of dystopian novels write them with the intent of getting readers to think about the complex issues raised by such novels. Violence is such a part of dystopian literature because of its historical use in society building. It is hard to argue most societies and rebellions in our world today, and in its past, are not led by violence. Is this art mirroring life or life mirroring art?

    • I am wondering… when you teach The Hunger Games (as you mentioned in your post) do you plan on discussing the violence with your students? It almost seems to me that, other than the controversy over whether to take young children to see the movie, the role of violence is neglected. I think it could spark some interesting insights into the entertainment value of violence and the political role of it as well.

      P.S. I had to laugh at your last question. I wrote my master’s thesis on a topic which basically tried to answer that question… I wrote about the reciprocal relationship between science and culture and used the housefly as my case study. It was a fun project, as strange as it may sound!

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