Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Introduction

Act I

I’m starting a short series of posts where I analyze dystopian literature in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. Dystopia is a catch-all category for fiction featuring tyrannical governments, post-apocalyptic worlds, or the general break-down of society, but here, I’m referring mostly to the most famous, “classic” dystopian novels that you probably read in high school: 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. In this series, I propose that most of the classic dystopian novels feature what I call an “Inverted Hero’s Journey,” where the protagonist rebels against his oppressive society and then suffers a fall from “grace.”

The Hero’s Journey is a widespread narrative structure often found in both mythology and literature, first popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell catalogued an elaborate plot structure for the hero’s journey, but he summarized it as follows:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

I’ve seen 1984 analyzed with the traditional hero’s journey, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The classic dystopian novels to me seem like the opposite of this. As I’ll explain in more detail in the next post, the protagonist actually starts off fairly high up in society. He rebels and sees the reality behind the State’s lies. (I’m using “State” for whatever name the dictatorship takes in each novel.) But the State has great powers arrayed against him, and the protagonist suffers a decisive loss and returns usually alive, but beaten back into line.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/26/Ingsoc_logo_from_1984.svg/800px-Ingsoc_logo_from_1984.svg.png

When I started this blog, I never imagined I would be doing deep literary analysis here of the kind that makes most people cringe in English class, but when you read enough books and listen to enough book and movie review podcasts, a funny thing starts to happen: you start to notice these things on your own. This idea came to me when I was listening to the audiobook for another classic dystopian novel called We.

(As a general note, I will be using male pronouns in this series because that is how the Hero’s Journey is traditionally formulated, and because in all of the books I’m specifically analyzing, the protagonist is male, but you can certainly have a Heroine’s Journey too, inverted or otherwise.)

My idea was this: one of the stage’s of Campbell’s hero’s journey is called the “Meeting with the Goddess,” where, usually leading up to the climax of the story, the hero meets a women (or sometimes a man) who imparts wisdom and gifts to him. The hero’s journey is not a hard and fast rule, and many later interpretations don’t include this stage, but I saw a clear parallel with dystopian fiction: in each of 1984, Brave New World, and We, there is what I call a “Meeting with the Devil,” where the protagonist is confronted with one of the people who is running the dystopian world and learns just how hopeless his position is.


I’m going to use the rest of this series to lay out the stages of the inverted hero’s journey of these books, and if you haven’t read one or more of them, there will definitely be spoilers galore. However, right now, I want to start by explaining some of the history of the genre, to give you a clearer idea of where I’m coming from.

Most people have probably read or at least heard of the big three: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953), but the roots of the genre go back further. While these three writers drew on each other for inspiration, they also drew on the earlier Russian novel, We, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921. In We, people have numbers instead of names; all of society is built around mathematical principles, cut off from the outside world, and people are expected to be emotionless automatons running the “machine” of civilization. You can probably see the parallels already.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/08/We_first_ed_dust_jacket.jpg

Interestingly, even We wasn’t a wholly original idea. Zamyatin drew clear inspiration from H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, first serialized in 1899. In Wells’s Rip Van Winkle-esque story, a man falls asleep for two hundred years and awakens to find the trustees of his estate have established an oppressive world government through the powers of investment and compound interest. As with science fiction in general, while there were threads of dystopianism in earlier works going back at least to Gulliver’s Travels, Wells was the one who got it started as a genre. However, we only see a little of what we now call dystopia in his work, so I will pass that one over.

These three books stood for a long time, with a few additions to the literary canon—A Clockwork Orange, Logan’s Run, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Later, Lois Lowry’s The Giver introduced us to Young Adult dystopian fiction, which led to a wave of similar stories sweeping through in recent years—The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and more. I’ll be passing over those, too. All of these stories follow a more traditional hero’s journey with the protagonist being ultimately victorious, or at least their fate left ambiguous.

Instead, it is the early dystopias that leave us with this hopeless, inverted hero’s journey to underscore the cautionary tales they represent. Even here, I’ll note that Fahrenheit 451 is a little different from the others because Bradbury, at the end of the day, was an incorrigible optimist, but I still think it fits the inverted narrative better.

In the upcoming posts, I will explain my inverted hero’s journey model in more detail and how the dystopian narrative fits into it. Also look for the whole series on my essays page when it’s done.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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