All posts by Alexander Hoffman

I have never been totally enchanted by America’s public education system. In fact, since leaving high school, I have become fairly disgusted by it, and Doctorow’s Little Brother did little to improve my views. Throughout America, a fairly substantial number of people are growing more and more aware of the ways in which public education does not live up to its ideals. Take, for example, this critical article that highlighting some of the major failures in public schools. Personally, standardized testing tops my list, but I also feel that the surveillance and prison-like status of the school in Little Brother is a huge deal in society today.

While no school is nearly as strict and technologically secure as Cesar Chavez High, we get closer and closer every day. It is difficult to skip a high school class without phone calls home and permanent strikes on one’s record. Furthermore, more and more schools are installing cameras in hallways and classrooms, and this article talks about having teachers wear cameras to combat misbehaviour. In my opinion, increased security is not the solution. By stifling the students, it is quite possible that they will only become more determined to undermine the system. Like Marcus, they will continue their behaviours, even under threat of punishment if they get caught. Cameras, rules, and other security measures only attack the symptoms of misbehaving children. To truly eliminate this issue, and allow schools to go back to focusing on teaching, rather than discipline, the root causes need to be addressed. Unfortunately, root causes arise from a number of factors, including family life, income, and personal beliefs. To address these will involve huge efforts by the entire country, which is honestly not something we are ready or willing to do at the moment. In fact, improving the quality of life overall is an aspect of utopianizing America as a whole.

Little Brother introduces one path that life can take for those whose behaviours do not suit those in power. These destructive paths could be eliminated if the behaviours are solved at the source. However, to do seems to require both technological and societal advances, to the point that security is either strong enough to work or until we believe security is not necessary in public schools. Yet to get to that point will require huge leaps in American values or scientific research, both of which are hindered by the public education system. This means it may be impossible to ever improve our current system, and brings up the necessity for total reform. Total reform, however, will also likely require major efforts on the behalf of all Americans. Until most people are united in this goal, it will be impossible to drastically induce change.

We all have talked and thought countless hours about the themes of dystopian societies, their people, their ways, etc. Yet not often enough have we analyzed how these books were written. Also infinitely important to all YA dystopian novels are the division of chapters, cliffhangers, sentence structure, and point of view. Without these, there would be no method through which to tell the author’s messages. These aspects of any novel are often so fundamental they are either forgotten or disregarded as absolutes. Yet a skilled author knows how to twist these fundamentals to make a good story into an extravagant one. Point of view specifically stands out to me in every YA dystopia. It is very rare indeed that one of these novels is not in the first person point of view. The goal of my research project is to delve deeper into why exactly every author seems to know that first person POV is the way to go.

First, there is the obvious answer: first person POV makes the reader able to relate with the main character. Yet I believe there is more to the inevitable use of this POV. For example, there are two main types of first person POV: present and past tense. These are both used in YA dystopias, yet what difference does it make? Does the present tense give a sense of urgency that the past cannot provide, therefore encouraging the reader to read like there’s no tomorrow? Also, is there something wrong with using the third person POV? Is it simply convention to use first person for a YA dystopia; are authors following some sort of mold that each story fits inside of, which is guaranteed to make the most money?

The aim of my research project will not only be to dig deeper into using first person POV as a method of forming a link between the reader and the main character, but also to uncover ulterior motives that may not be quite so obvious. At the moment, one such motive I have thought up would be to keep other characters’ thoughts from reaching the reader. In a dystopian novel, the purpose is to point out “flaws” in a society dreamt up by the author. Yet not every person in the novel is bound to disagree with the society. So if the author lets other points of view be presented alongside the main character’s, will the reader be less inclined to agree with the main character? Is the author providing a safety net by only creating a single path through the novel, and making it nigh impossible for a young adult reader to stray?

The fact is, nearly every YA dystopian novel you read is in first person POV. This is a very undeniable fact, less disputable even than many common themes. Such one-track minds, both in the books and with the authors, must arise from somewhere.

I would like to take a moment to comment on the propaganda video shown annually at the reapings in The Hunger Games. First, watch it for yourself.

Such a touching speech from the president of a beautiful nation. While you may think I am being sarcastic, there were absolutely members of Panem who thought just that. Effie Trinket, for one, was moved to tears. Even among the districts, tributes from 1, 2, and 4 likely use this video as justification for training and volunteering to participate in the games. They see it as an honor. Only the districts for whom the games almost never provide benefits see this video as disgusting.

What makes the video disgusting to the poorer districts? This propaganda mostly contains laughing families and images of good health. Perhaps the eldest among the districts remember a time before the war, or when the Capitol was not quite so heavy-handed. Or maybe it is the actual image of well-fed families that keeps the people angrily silent. Whatever each individual’s reason, it is obvious from the books and the movies that no one in the poorer districts appreciates the Capitol’s propaganda. In fact, they seem to see right through it. So why does it work?

Propaganda videos such as this one have the ability to serve multiple purposes. People among the Capitol and richer districts essentially buy into the upbeat and forward-looking parts of the message wholeheartedly. However, those in the poorer districts are simply reminded of the Capitol’s power over them. Those who are well-off but into the second half of the video, in which the Capitol promises riches and generosity to all who submit. Those in District 12, however, relate much more to the first half of Snow’s voice over. Here he talks about war and all the hardships it brought upon both the Capitol and the people. Yet District 12 still experiences many of these terrible aspects of life. Widows and orphans are likely common sightings within the poorer districts. Snow mentions that the Capitol is the one feeding the districts, reminding the poor and hungry that with a war, they would be even poorer and hungrier. The thoughts of life getting even worse than it already is are just as powerful a deterrent as brainwashing.

Even within this display of power, the Capitol refrains from disclosing too much information. There is no exact talk about the reason why the districts rebelled, only that they were defeated. As the victor, the Capitol has the freedom to choose which pieces of history the districts are allowed to know. They are allowed to understand that their defeat took place, and as punishment they must endure the Hunger Games. Without any other information, it becomes nearly impossible for anyone in any district to oppose the idea of the games, as it has become a norm. Add in brainwashing or an elimination of all hope, and the Capitol has the districts pinned under its thumb.

So you’ve decided to go out and construct your own utopian society. You have the money, the power, and any other means necessary to do whatever you want with some remote, undiscovered island (which is sure to be the focus of a classic novel in the near future) and some eager followers. Now the only problem left is figuring out what a utopia actually entails. You could ask your future subjects what their vision of a utopia is, but this will lead to thousands of unique answers. Can any one of them be correct?

Picking apart the name seems to be of little use. Thomas “More created a tension that has persisted over time and has been the basis for the perennial duality of meaning of utopia as the place that is simultaneously a non-place (utopia) and a good place (eutopia).” (Vieira 3) The name itself maybe once provided a definition, but so much time has passed that the name no longer holds any true definition. We live in a completely different society from that of Thomas More, and therefore each of us probably defines a utopia differently from him. For example, most people use the words utopia and eutopia interchangeably, yet some argue that these words are eminently different.

A broad definition for utopia is only somewhat satisfactory. On the one hand there exists the simplest definition: a good place. It is even widely accepted that a utopia is inherently a better place than one’s current society. These definitions mostly speak about the social and technological settings of the “better place.” Yet with such a simple definition one person could envision nearly infinite social settings and another person may envision exactly none. On the other hand, the more complex one’s specific definition of a utopia becomes, the fewer people will agree. Eventually, only the person who has created that definition will agree.

Personally, based on the fact that each person has their own version of utopia, my definition is as follows: A society in which each person believes wholeheartedly that their lives could not get any better without putting strain on someone else’s life. Thus, each person would need the society to be tailored specifically to suit them, which makes such a place nearly impossible.

Utopia as a concept can exist in any other genre of literature. All that a story in another genre needs is someone wishing for a better life, which can typically arise out of nearly any conflict. In this way, sci-fi is a twin to utopian stories. Technology is central to both sci-fi and many authors’ utopian societies. Yet technology is just a means to achieving the state of utopia, and does not affect my definition of the genre or the concept.

Utopias written for young adults are not really very much different from others, except that they are typically dystopian with a push towards a utopian society. Dystopias are easier to make interesting, and in my opinion young adult literature is a money-maker at the moment. There may be secondary goals to implant ideas about perfect societies, as well as societies to avoid, but I believe these are secondary goals.

So, is your definition of a utopia any stronger? Or is it just more befuddled and unclear? Good luck building that society!


Works Cited

Vieira, Fátima. “The Concept of Utopia.” Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 3-4.