Dystopia | Definition, Elements, Examples, Movie, Novel, characteristics



Dystopia Etymological Meaning

The term “dystopia” is coined by using Greek prefix ‘dys-’ meaning ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ and Greek root word ‘topos’ meaning ‘place’.

Dystopia Definition

A dystopia is a fictional society that is the opposite of utopia. A few scholars  claim that it is “An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror” or “an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be.” It is usually characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government, or some other kind of oppressive social control.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia defines the dystopia as- “A dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian.” And adds, “…Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, and various forms of active and passive coercion.” Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity’s spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.

The word derives from Ancient Greek: äo-, bad, hard”, and Ancient Greek: üyo. “place, landscape”. It can alternatively be called cacotopia, or anti-utopia.

The first known use of dystopian, as mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary, is a speech given before the British House of Commons by John Stuart Mill in 1868, in which Mill denounced the government’s Irish land policy. Dystopian depiction can easily be found in novels such as Nineteen Eighty Four (George Orwell), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and Fahrenheit 451(Ray Bradbury).

Utopia Vs Dystopia

Simply Utopia is a heavenly place where ultimate peace resides, a place where everybody aspires to live without least trace of trouble or sorrows, where everything is going easy and perfect. Thus many think that it is a place which does not exist in reality at all, an imaginary land. It is a place just before Pandora opening the mysterious box and inviting all trouble. The term ‘ustopia’ was first invented and applied by Sir Thomas More in his book entitled Utopia (1516) describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. Also utopian is a society where citizen will be provided peace, justice, employment, safety and security, food and better policies.

Unlike utopia, ‘dystopia’ is a hellish place where nobody would want to live, a place where civil rights and freedom would be violated, and socio-political condition would be polluted.

If a utopia is truly perfect for all, there would be no conflict (which would make a pretty boring story). A dystopia, on the contrary, generally has wide-spread appeal to audiences because it plays upon our deepest fears and emotions- a loss of life, liberty, and happiness.

Elements of Dystopia

Following are the chief characteristics of dystopian fiction:

  • Dystopian fiction has a background story of war, revolution, uprising, overpopulation, natural disaster or some other climactic event that results in dramatic changes to society. Because dystopian literature typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society.


  • Such fiction has a protagonist who questions society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong.


  • Dystopias seldom feature an outsider as the protagonist. While such a character would more clearly understand the nature of the society, based on comparison to his society, the knowledge of the outside culture subverts the power of the dystopia. When such outsiders are major characters—such as John the Savage in Brave New World– their societies cannot assist them against the dystopia.


  • As such fiction typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society. Usually, this advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power, while the oppressed population is limited to a rather primitive technology.


  • In many dystopian novels, the hero’s conflict brings him to a representative of the dystopia who articulates its principles, from Mustapha Mond in Brave New World to O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is usually a group of people somewhere in the society who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts his hope, although often he or she still fails to change anything. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four they are the “proles” (Latin for “offspring”, from which “proletariat” is derived), in Huxley’s Brave New World they are the people on the reservation.


  • The story of dystopian fiction is often (but not always) unresolved even if the hero manages to escape or destroy the dystopia. That is, the narrative may deal with individuals in a dystopian society who are unsatisfied, and may rebel, but ultimately fail to change anything. Sometimes they themselves end up changed to conform to the society’s norms, such as in With Folded Hands, by Jack Williamson.

Dystopia Examples

Examples of Dystopian Fiction and Dystopia Books

The Iron Heel was described by Erich Fromm as “the earliest of the modern Dystopian.”

Brave New World, written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley, a class system is prenatally designated in terms of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons.

In We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, people are permitted to live out of public view for only an hour a day.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 mirrors that the dystopia represses the intellectuals with particular force, because most people are willing to accept it, and the resistance to it consists mostly of intellectuals. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is a dystopian novel which presents a future American Society where books are outlawed.

The novel When the Sleeper Wakes by H. G. Wells depicts the governing class as hedonistic and shallow. George Orwell contrasted Wells’s world to that depicted in Jack London’s The Iron Heel, where the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism, which Orwell considered more reasonable.

Unwind (2007) by Neal Shusterman relates the story of post-civil war in the near future, a compromise between Pro-life and Prochoice was reached in the form of “The Bill of Life” and “Unwinding”. It allowed parents of children between 13-18 to have their children’s organs harvested in “the ultimate sacrifice”. \

Besides, Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954), Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985), Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984), The Running Man by Richard Bachman (1982), and The Children of Men by PD James (1992) are also fine dystopian novels.

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Dystopia Movie

Good triumphs over evil and one day we all are going to be all right- that is the motto of dystopian movie. Dystopia movie raises different issues of the imaginary future society like intelligent machines, environmental destruction, pandemics, government control or the zombie apocalypse. Here is a list of the most popular Dystopia Movies that you might wish to watch:

The Matrix directed by the Wachowski brothers

Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott

Never Let Me Go directed by Mark Romanek

Elysium directed by Neill Blomkamp

Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard

City of Ember directed by Gil Kenan

Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang

1984written by George Orwell and directed by Michael Radford

Dark City directed by Alex Proyas

Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg

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