Specters of Totalitarianism: Representations of Power and Control in Twentieth Century Dystopian Fiction (English Dissertation)

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Mark  James Fisher               ENGL 3000:  English Dissertation             Dr.  Jane Dowson                    

Spectres of Totalitarianism: Representations of Power and Control in Twentieth Century Dystopian Fiction

By Mark James Fisher

Dissertation Supervisor: Dr. Jane Dowson



Contents Page


The Origins of the Dystopian Genre and its Characteristics

Structure  and Aims of the Dissertation



Chapter 1   - Rewriting History?  The Manipulation of Truth and Memory as a tool of control in George Orwell’s  Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm


Chapter 2 -  ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’ (George Orwell):  Representations of Surveillance and Terror as tools of control in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale   


Chapter 3 - Winning Hearts and Minds? Representations of Indoctrination and Propaganda as tools of control in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World







Dystopian fiction has always been preoccupied with power and control. One of the main reasons why authors write this type of literature is to create awareness of how this power and control can be manipulated by governments and dictatorships respectively, to serve their own ends. This dissertation, using George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm (1944) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), alongside Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1923) as its literary texts, will look at the ways in which the dictatorships like Oceania, Manor Farm and the World State wield this power and control over the citizens that it controls. They are seen to wield this power and control via different forms:  re-writing history, surveillance and terror, and indoctrination and propaganda. Chapter 1, using George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four as its basis, will look at how the dictatorships in these novels, Oceania and Manor Farm, are able to re-write history. It is argued that they do this by manipulating truth and memory. Chapter 2 will look at the ways in which surveillance and terror are represented in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I have argued that whilst surveillance is represented in the form of observation, terror is depicted through the use of concentration camps, torture, public humiliations and interrogations. Chapter 3, again using Orwell’s novel alongside Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, will look at the ways in which indoctrination and propaganda is used. I have argued that whilst indoctrination is represented through the manipulation of youth organisations, propaganda is mediated through personality cults and the control of language. Whilst all of the novels reveal that the various dictatorships are successful in using these methods, it is surveillance and terror that is conveyed to be the most effective method, as unlike the other two methods, this ensures that the regimes in the novels are able to break their citizens into owing complete conformity and obedience. At the same time, through these methods of control, this dissertation shed light on the broader issue of totalitarianism. Evaluating each novel against Hannah Arendt’s definitions and ideas of totalitarianism in her treatise The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958), and also the amount of resistance depicted in each novel, this dissertation examined the extent to which the dictatorships in the novels can be considered to be classed as ‘totalitarian regimes’. Out of the four novels discussed, it was revealed that the dictatorships portrayed in Orwell’s novels, Oceania and Manor Farm, are the most accurate representations of totalitarianism. Unlike, the Republic of Gilead in Atwood’s novel or the World State in Huxley’s novel, the regimes in Orwell’s novels ensure ‘total control’ over their citizens, thereby ensuring that any resistance is unsuccessful.  

KEYWORDS:   Dystopia, Utopia, Power , Control,  History, Memory , Surveillance, Terror , Indoctrination, Propaganda, Totalitarianism, Resistance


Origins of the Dystopian Genre and its Characteristics

Dystopian fiction has always been pre-occupied with power and control. One thread that reflected this was totalitarianism. However, in order to understand how this thread came about, an examination of the dystopian genre, and its characteristics, is required. Dystopia and utopia are often seen as both sides of the same coin, and therefore this means that any literature written in the dystopian vein has not been easily placed. Whilst a ‘utopia’ is seen as a ‘good place’, a dystopia is seen as the opposite of this, and therefore deemed to be a ‘bad place’, or the ‘worst of all possible worlds’. Although dystopian literature emerged fully-formed at the start of the early twentieth century, its roots lie in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century saw a number of developments following the enlightenment ideals of progress, which included the industrial revolution, and the creation of science and technology. These trends mirrored themselves in a literary genre called the utopia. However, although the nineteenth century was a heyday for both progress and science,  and for the utopian genre particularly, by the turn of the century, these ideals of progress and science were critiqued, as philosophers grew concerned as to how these ideals could be manipulated by mankind via governments and institutions, in the form of eugenics and biology. Therefore, there followed a period of degeneration, known as the fin-de-siècle, which simultaneously gave rise to the utopia’s antithesis, the dystopia. The dystopia, introduced by H.G Wells, looked at how science and technology could be turned on its head and manipulated by governments to control their citizens. By the early twentieth century, this new genre became fully entrenched in English Literature, and therefore writers whom wrote in this genre, made it their aim to critique social and political systems. These writers wanted to express their fears of a world becoming embroiled in totalitarianism. These fears of totalitarianism expressed by writers were apparent in the 1920s and 1930s, as with the rise of both capitalism and fascism, writers such as Aldous Huxley wrote critiques of capitalism, whilst writers like Katherine Burdekin wrote critiques of fascism. Similarly, during the Cold War, writers who wrote in the genre focussed their attention on the threat of global communism. This fear of totalitarianism was also again developed in the 1960s and 1970s.  This period saw the rise of ‘cyberpunk fiction’ and also the ‘feminist critical dystopia’, which although commented on contemporary issues such as environmentalism, feminism and globalisation, were pre-occupied with their dangers rather than their benefits.  

Structure and Aims of the Dissertation

This dissertation has two inter-related aims: firstly, to explore and evaluate the ways in which dictatorships wield power and control over their populations in the dystopian novels under discussion, and secondly,   to assess whether these regimes, through methods of power and control, can be considered to be ‘totalitarian’. The first aim is to explore the ways in which the dystopian regimes in the texts control their populations. This control manifests itself in three different ways: re-writing history, surveillance and terror, and indoctrination and propaganda. Chapter 1 will look at the ways in which history and truth is manipulated in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm. Chapter 2 will again take Orwell’s novel as a starting point, along with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to explore the representations of surveillance and terror in dystopian novels. Chapter 3, similarly, will use Orwell’s novel again, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to explore the representations of indoctrination and propaganda.  At the same time, by using these texts to illustrate these themes of power and control, this dissertation will highlight the broader issue of totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt in her major political tract The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958) defined totalitarianism as ‘a political system or elite which monopolises total domination over all aspects of political, social, cultural and economic life’. However, although the regimes in the novels are able to control their populations in various ways, the extent to whether they can be regarded as ‘totalitarian regimes’, by achieving  ‘total domination’, is controversial.  In order to assess whether any of the regimes in these novels can be considered ‘totalitarian’, the methods of power and control used by these regimes will not only be measured against Hannah Arendt’s definition and ideas of ‘totalitarianism’. However, they will also be evaluated against the amount of resistance encountered in the novels. Therefore, this resistance will act as an additional underpinning sub-topic in each chapter.  Although  before each chapter is discussed in detail, it is necessary to provide an in-depth methodology explaining the reasons behind my choice of texts, their place in the broader dystopian genre, and their function and importance in the wider dissertation topic as a whole.


This dissertation will take the early to late twentieth century as its literary period, utilising four novels in depth to explore ways in which dystopian regimes control their populations. Although George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) is seen as a major text within the genre, this novel will be used as a starting point alongside his other novel Animal Farm (1944), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale(1985). A major reason for the discussion of these texts is that they all contain trappings of totalitarianism. Orwell’s novels are well-known for reflecting this phenomenon, especially as both novels were written during the early Cold War, a period in which totalitarianism was at its zenith. However, Atwood’s novel is slightly different to those of Orwell and Huxley. Whilst the novels of Orwell and Huxley belong to the first wave of dystopian fiction, a period pre-occupied with the rise of totalitarianism, which manifested itself through the political systems of fascism and communism, Atwood’s novel belongs to the second wave of dystopian fiction, a literary wave preoccupied with the rise of feminism and environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Although critics like Amin Malak have classified Atwood’s novel as a feminist text, ‘one critiquing patriarchy rather totalitarianism’, these critics fail to see Atwood’s main point in writing in the novel. .  Atwood wanted her novel to stress the power of totalitarianism, as having been influenced by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and historical events like The Cold War and Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship in Romania in the 1980s (which presided over a society with declining living standards and birth rates), she wanted to express her fears of this trend emerging in contemporary society. In this case, she believed that the Republic of Gilead in her novel was ‘merely an extension of Orwell’s Oceania. Therefore, this dissertation will seek to challenge most of the literary criticism written on the dystopian genre, thereby offering a different approach to Atwood’s novel. It will demonstrate that rather than providing a commentary on patriarchy and sitting neatly within the category of feminist critical dystopia, Atwood’s novel sits better in the earlier twentieth century male dystopian mode of Orwell and Huxley, which was well-known for reflecting issues of social control and power, especially totalitarianism. 

Chapter 1

Re-Writing History? The Manipulation of History and Memory as a tool of control in

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four

One way which dictatorships control their populations, is by re-writing history. Re-writing history is a key feature of dictatorships, as it is an ideological weapon used to keep the population under control thereby re-defining and re-shaping the future.  Dictatorships re-write history using different methods: firstly, by re-writing the historical narrative of a country, thereby changing events, and secondly by re-writing the histories of individual lives. Ultimately then, dictatorships penetrate issues of memory and truth.   However, whether these methods are successfully reflected in the dystopian novels of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, is controversial. Both novels demonstrate that whilst dictatorships can influence and re-write history in a number of ways, at the same time, they also show that these attempts reveal limitations.  

Dystopian regimes are able to re-write history by changing historical narratives of a country. George Orwell’s novels demonstrate that past events are altered and re-shaped to fit with the dominant party’s view. In Animal Farm, Orwell represents two stages where historical events are re-written: firstly following the revolution, and secondly after Napoleon’s subsequent split with Snowball, and his departure. History is rewritten following the revolution, as this is seen by the replacement of the farm’s title,  ‘Manor Farm’ , with ‘Animal Farm’.  Orwell demonstrates a revision of history here, as whilst the former name constituted the feudalist era in which the working classes (the animals) were oppressed, the latter name substitutes the freedom of the working classes (the animals), and the freedom that lies head. The second stage where history is re-written in the novel is after the Battle of the Cowshed takes place, when Snowball is driven off the farm by Napoleon’s hounds. As a result of Snowball’s disagreement with Napoleon, he is deemed an ‘enemy of the people’ (p.70), and therefore his role in the Battle of the Cowshed is damaged, and re-altered to suit Napoleon’s newly-established regime. As Snowball’s role in the Battle of the Cowshed is re-altered to suit Napoleon’s regime, this mirrors the events following the Russian Revolution, whereby historical records were re-written, in order to diminish Leon Trotsky’s role in the revolution. 

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Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty Four, the historical narrative of a nation is totally revised, in order to suit Oceania’s perspective. Although Oceania always seems to be at war with external enemies in the form of Eurasia and Eastasia, Orwell shows that the Party is always constantly changing its views on these, depending on which country it is fighting at the time as:

To trace out the history of the whole period, to realise who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made any mention of ...

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