In my class on Dystopian Literature, we talk a lot about what I call “hallmarks of dystopia” — those aspects of an imagined society that make the individual citizen’s life feel proscribed and unfree. If Utopia is an imagined place where all is right in the world (for the one who dreams it, anyway), dystopia is its direct opposite, and comes in many forms.
In 1984, possibly the most influential dystopian novel yet written, the intrusion of the Party on people’s thoughts far surpasses any of the other nightmarish aspects of a life of deprivation. It’s worse than the miserable lack of diversity Winston Smith experiences in what he consumes, worse than the loneliness he endures.
As in other dystopias, individuals in 1984 have no freedom of written expression and no right to free speech, but beyond that, they have no freedom of thought. I was thinking about this as I read about the violence in France this week, where those at Charlie Hebdo were targeted for attaching their names to their viewpoints, controversial as they were in some cases.
Although Paris has been a place of political unrest and violence over the centuries, for me it has always been a place of beauty, a refuge, a place of dreams — a utopia of sorts. The attacks in Paris are a reminder of so many things — most of them terrible, scary, and sad — but they are also a reminder of the power of our thoughts and words.