Dystopia and Literature
- Frederick Philip Grove (Author)
Consider Her Ways. Bakka (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Erika Gottlieb (Author)
Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Grzegorz Danowski
Dystopian Fiction East and West is an important publication in the field of cultural studies. The author analyzes about thirty literary works written in the former Soviet Union between 1920 and 1991 and in Eastern Europe between 1948 and 1989. The texts chosen for analysis depict and evaluate life in a number of totalitarian states that existed in Central and Eastern Europe between the October revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its political universe. Gottlieb’s extremely comprehensive critical anthology acquaints the North American reader with many literary works as yet undiscovered in Canada and the United States. Since she provides important historical and cultural background for each text, her study is an excellent reference work. Yet Gottlieb goes far beyond a simple summary of a selection of texts. She manages to relate all of them to the central concept of dystopia, "the dictatorship of hell on earth," where individuals are sentenced to damnation "by an unjust society, a degraded mob ruled by a power-crazed elite." But how relevant are these authors to the Canadian or American experience? Gottlieb anticipates such questions, and not only places Central and Eastern European dystopian fiction alongside such Western classics of the genre as Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also relates the modern portrayal of hell on earth to that offered in Dante’s Divine Comedy and other older texts. Thus Gottlieb discusses a recognized canon of dystopian fiction.
Gottlieb shows that the concept of an ideal state and a failure to implement it have been part and parcel of human existence for centuries. There has always been a dystopia to match every Utopia, and the European fiction Gottieb discusses is part of the same utopian/dystopian discourse that produced Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Vonnegut, and Atwood. All dystopian fiction is satirical, and uses parable, allegory, and the grotesque. Dystopian states stress the individual’s loyalty to the state and rely for their success on censorship and on what Gottlieb calls "the ritual of the trial."
Gottlieb does stress one essential difference between East and West. While Western literature has always described imaginary dystopias in order to warn of the dangers inherent in a non-democratic, totalitarian state, Central and Eastern European authors were able to reflect on a real experience of dystopia, "the worst of all possible worlds."
Consider Her Ways, originally published in 1947 and recently re-issued by Bakka, "examines the idea of a Utopian society through the story of [a] group of ants and their interaction with North American culture." Indeed, Grove’s novel describes a journey of exploration undertaken by South American ants, a journey that culminates in a series of contacts between ants and humans. The Bakka edition encourages us to see the book in terms of "the parallels and contrasts between the pastoral ways of the ants and the North American life of excess." While the ways of Grove’s ants certainly are pastoral, Consider Her Ways is not constructed around a straightforward juxtaposition of a Utopia (the world of ants) and a dystopia (the human world). In fact, the ant kingdom has a number of features usually found in totalitarian states. The queen wields absolute power over its subjects, and loyalty to the state precedes all other kinds of loyalty. As soon as an individual attempts to challenge the state’s decisions, the ritual of the trial discussed by Gottlieb is initiated. These decisions are usually made in the name of might and not right; opposition is ruthlessly eliminated.
Consider Her Ways provides an interesting reflection on things Utopian and dystopian. Although it is classified as science fiction, it can be approached from other angles. For example, the dominant role that females play in the ant world makes Grove’s novel interesting material for feminist research. Witty and philosophical, Consider Her Ways is also a good story.
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MLA: Danowski, Grzegorz. Dystopia and Literature. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 140 - 141)
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