Utopian Literature and Thriving Anti-Utopian Literature


The word “utopia”1 was first used in literature in the treatise “Republic” by Plato. Plato used the word to denote “a place which does not exist”. Much later the utopian genre became distinct in literature: it was close to science fiction in its nature but was at the same time different from it, as here the author does not emphasize the description of incredible scientific discoveries. The goals of the utopian author are completely different: he is creating in his own opinion a perfect model of society trying to rebel against the current order, more precisely, against the disorder, opposing to it an institution which is invulnerable from all the f an island, and for the first time we come across the word utopia in the meaning corresponding to the ideology of the genre (i.e., as a “model of perfect society”) in the book “Pilgrimage” by an English clergyman Samuel Perches.

The capital city of Thomas More’s Utopia is Amaurot (from Greek amaurotos=disappearing). The main river of Utopia is called Anyder (anhydrous=waterless). The ruler of the country is the Adem (a+demos=without nation). The story is told by one of the members of Amerigo Vespucci’s expedition group, Raphael Hythlodaeus (Hythloday) who has been to the island of Utopia with others during one of the trips of the expedition group and describes its way of life. Everyone’s rights are equal in Utopia. Its inhabitants are engaged in economy and crafts. They work neither all day long nor forcibly, but 6 hours a day so as to leave time for recreation. They are peaceful and they display a neutral attitude towards other religions. In order to defeat the greediness, the utopians abolish the money and make the property common which allows avoiding dissidences.

It should be mentioned that in addition to fiction, utopia found expression also in politics and philosophy. If we try to chronologically classify these three utopias, we will notice that the latter two are of an earlier origin and it is the reflection of these two in fiction which is called fictional utopia.

Utopian genre has many interesting features which are displayed in both plot and character system. For example, in such works the author shows a society where time seems to have stopped. There is no dynamism of actions, there’s no inner conflict, everybody is unanimous, there is solidarity, laws are duly kept by the society, there is no inner development in characters, they all seem to live in accordance with a certain pre-plan, and as a result the peculiarity and individuality of the narrative’s characters suffer. Utopian writers try to base their societies on elevated and unearthly ideas. At the same time, any utopian work is created in a way so that it can never have any contact with the external world. This is probably a fictional trick which on the one hand allows the author to give his model of an ideal society without deviating from outer-utopian phenomena, and on the other hand the authors have possibly realized themselves that being results of mere thought and imagination, such societies will lose their ideality during the first clash with real life and they will be distorted from the contact with the outer world. It is not without reason that the proponents of the opposite genre, anti-utopists found these works attractive, yet dull and artificial. Anti-utopists thought that although utopists used their own model of ideal society as an initial point and as the axiom of the social regime, they did not achieve happiness as it is impossible to reach happiness in artificial ways.

Utopia initially developed as a rhetorical and scientific treatise (e.g., Plato “Republic”, G. Winstanley “The Law of Freedom”, F. Bacon “New Atlantis”), but since the 18th century it has been considered a fictional genre which more frequently finds expression in novels (D. Defoe “Robinson Crusoe”, J. Swift “Gulliver’s Travels”).

As it has been mentioned the utopian literature shows a perfect country which actually does not exist and is not found on geographical maps (fictional characters most frequently discover these countries in the result of travels or unexpected development of events). This feature is typical of romanticism but on the other hand it can be said that the authors’ wish was seeing their model of ideal society to be put into practice in the future. And although in the 20 th century the new literary movement, futurism, developed, the two genres went on existing side by side: one as an absolute futurism, and the other with its constructive judgments on the future.

In the 19th century social utopia develops with new intensity and a number of writers commit to paper their fictional perceptions of “the best, bright country” (G. G. Byron “The Island”, V. Hugo “Les Misérables”, J. Verne “The mysterious Island”). The difference of social utopia from classical utopia is the complete absence of ideal society in it. It lacks the equality, love, brotherhood which are preached and so emphasized in utopian works. Yet, there is a hope that the society which will allow the man to feel happy and safe, will be finally built. Authors very often expressed such ideas through smaller models, and most frequently through a family model. The literary-fictional utopia is closely related to the legends and stories of the Golden age about the “blessed countries” where diverse religious and ethnic concepts and ideals are widely applied.

After the swift rise of utopia the period of an equally steep decline came: writers stopped seeking for ideal societies, and utopian literature gave way to more realistic works.

Anti-utopists came to oppose to utopian writers: the former tried to depict a society which should have been ideal as intended by the plan, yet it has many drawbacks and vulnerable points. But utopia did not vanish completely: it gave rise to fantastic fiction, particularly science fiction. In this regard it is worth mentioning that anti-utopists also began to widely apply the genre of science fiction in their works.


“Those two, in paradise, were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without

happiness. There was no third alternative. Those idiots chose freedom, and what came of it? Of

course, for ages afterward they longed for the chains.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, “We”

Of Anti-utopia came to replace utopian literature. Yet this new genre had various names (kaakotopia (bad place, evil’s state), negative utopia, counter-utopia, dystopia (turned utopia), quasi-utopia (false utopia), etc.) before getting its final name (anti-utopia). The term anti-utopia was first used as a name of a literary genre by Glenn Negley and Max Patrick in their utopian anthology, “The Quest for Utopia”, 1952.

It is noteworthy that anti-utopian works (S. Butler “Erewhon”, E. M. Forster “The Machine Stops”, George Orwell “1984”) were first published in England which is considered to be the homeland of utopia.

In the 20th century anti-utopia thrived also in American literature. Among the best American anti- utopian books are Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano or Utopia 14”, Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague”, “The Iron Heel”, Stephen King’s “The Running Man”, Philip Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” and, of course, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. The title of Ray Bradbury’s book is already symbolic and points to the whole axis of the plot. In the beginning of the book the author made a note: “FAHRENHEIT 451: The temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.” This becomes a key for the whole book. The book tells about a totalitarian regime established in the nearest future which forbids reading books and is generally against the existence of books under considerations of consumer mentality. Forbidden books are subjected to burning. This work is carried out by firemen (here the fireman directly means someone who burns books). Guy Montag is such a fireman who is loyal to the regime and he unconditionally keeps the law. But the crucial meeting with Clarisse McClellan changes his life: he also indulges in reading and he is declared an outlaw. The author tries to show in the book how people can often blindly follow some unintelligible ideas, yet only one stimulus or one motive is enough for the person to regain one’s self and often emphasize things towards which he was once filled with hatred.

As a literary-fictional genre, anti-utopia is sometimes viewed as a subgenre of utopian literature. It could be possible to agree with this statement, but it should be mentioned that despite numerous similarities these two genres have many distinctive features which turn anti-utopia a separate genre from a subgenre. In their works anti-utopists depict a country where the development of the social regime is full of negative tendencies. Unlike utopian ideal order anti-utopian heroes do not live carelessly and in a brotherly way. Tyranny is alien to them, they try to regain their identity, they come out against the established order and they attempt to regain their right to choose. Sometimes in order to emphasize the importance of the topic the authors apply a hyperbole. They show that not only distinct states are condemned to spiritual slavery, but the whole world. To the utopian ideal reality anti-utopia opposes the negative sides of the social regime showing how dangerous they are for humanity, and if utopian works describe an already ready and stable reality which does not undergo changes, anti-utopia enables that society to make a choice, to grow, which mostly results in collapse of social regimes, because such social regimes are false and dictated, and the man is looking for freedom and an opportunity of choice and the ability to live in one’s own understanding which one is deprived of in that ideal social regime.

Anti-utopia is kind of parody and at the same time contrast to utopia and utopian concepts in general. Anti-utopists often write their works in a satiric style which is an obvious mockery towards utopia. Unlike utopian literature which has found expression mostly in novels, anti-utopia is broader in scope: novels, plays, short stories, and even poems. The ultimate aim of anti-utopists is not the elimination of utopian ideas which is actually impossible because utopia is the result of hope, dream and thought, but rather mocking and criticizing those ideas though the absurd situations evolving around them.

Despite these various differences between utopia and anti-utopia, the main difference has been and remains the individual. Utopian literature focuses on the ideal social regime, completely ignoring the individual, while anti-utopia’s core is the man with his desires and sense of freedom. These works are mainly created in the method of a clash between the man and the society.

Anti-utopian literature reached its peak in the 20th century as a response to numerous wars and revolutions. It is noteworthy that one of the first works of this period was written by a Russian author Y. Zamyatin (the novel “We” published in England in 1920). Running ahead of time he depicted in his novel a United State where there was no lack of work, people were provided with accommodations, it was not necessary to think about tomorrow, state arts such as music and poetry were swiftly developing. Children and everyone with no exception were healthy and happy, they got education and they were educated in accordance with the nuances of the state ideology. But Zamyatin noticed also the most important thing: individuality was dead in the man, intelligence penetrated everywhere, the walls of the houses were transparent (the walls were really transparent in the novel). But the culmination of this all were fantastic operations which resulted in the separation of souls from human bodies, and people were numbered. The self was killed in people and the “we” was injected (hence the title of the book).

In the 1930s anti-utopian literature took the fascist ideology as a specific target (H. G. Wells “The Autocracy of Mr. Parham”, S. Lewis “It Can’t Happen Here”). Later new subgenres originated in anti-utopian literature, such as satiric anti-utopia, detective anti-utopia and anti-utopia-catastrophe.

Anti-utopia in the 21st century

In time anti-utopia has not yield its position in literature and even continues to victoriously pass its path. The numerous anti-utopian works written in the 21st century which enjoy great love and popularity among readers, demonstrate it (Victor Pelevin “S.N.U.F.F”, James Dashner “The Maze Runner” (trilogy), Kazuo Ishiguro “Never Let Me Go”, Suzanne Collins “The Hunger Games” (trilogy), Scott Westerfeld “Uglies” (book series), Lauren Oliver “Delirium” (book series), Veronica Roth “Divergent” (trilogy)).

Modern anti-utopian works have their own development uniqueness. Mostly this works do not depict a currently existing country, but they present to the readers the near future where the events are taking place. Making use of various literary tricks, the authors make the reader understand that the country of the future is the result of the collapse of old regimes, particularly, the rulers of the future world emphasize the unreasonableness and falseness of democracy, they also mention that the world resists wars and avoids them only in case if the government is held in the hands of a few individuals who are unconditionally obeyed by people. In this way the state gets rid of new revolts and it rules people creating an “ideal world” for them.

The future events often evolve in a post-apocalyptic period when the humanity has almost disappeared and the persons who are in charge of the new world blame again the old regime. But as a rule, there is always someone who rebels against the established regime, struggles for the sake of everybody and who emancipates the country from the hands of the autocrats. The heroine of the American bestseller “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins begins her struggle because of unjust social conditions, as well as the fear of losing her own identity and her relatives. Using the structure of the ancient gladiatorial combats, Collins demonstrates the drawbacks of the built ideal social regime, its selfish aspirations, inclinations of domination, where not only is the individual ignored and devalued, but the government’s interests are above even the society’s interests.

In the next post-apocalyptic anti-utopia depicted in the trilogy “Divergent” by Veronica Roth we are presented the near future where after numerous wars Chicago city-state was again governed by a group of persons. People are divided into groups (fractions) and everybody again unconditionally obeys the higher authorities. This social regime is solid only because people have lost their identity, they have become a toy in the hands of their commanders who are in their turn accountable to more powerful forces. It seems that everything is peaceful, and the island-embodiment of utopian ideas is found, but then divergents who are people that have kept their individuality and who are not afraid to speak out the truth appear. As it happens in Collins’s book, Roth’s heroine also rebels against the current social regime because her family is more important for her than the party (fraction) and because she gives importance to her freedom of choice. Further events evolve in such a way that a group of freethinkers led by divergent Beatrice perform their role of liberators.

In the anti-utopian works of the 21 st century the rulers of the new world repeatedly emphasize the drawbacks of the former social regime, democracy, and its powerlessness in the government system. Yet in these works the authors come out claiming the opposite: despite the utopian pompous outer peel, these new systems are rotten from inside. And the heroes of anti-utopian writers struggle against such ideas.

1The word utopia has two possible translation variants: 1. Greek “u”-does not exist and “topos”-place, i.e., “a non-existent place”, 2. Greek “eu”-best, perfect and “topos”-place, i.e., “a perfect country”.


  1. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A3%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BF%D0%B8%D1%8F
  2. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%90%D0%BD%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%83%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BF%D0%B8%D1%8F
  3. http://uchebnikionline.com/literatura/istoriya_zarubizhnoyi_literaturi_xx_stolittya_-_davidenko_gy/roman-antiutopiya_stolittya.htm
  4. http://library.narfu.ru/rus/TRResources/VirtualExhibitions/Pages/utopiay.aspx
  5. http://www.krugosvet.ru/enc/kultura_i_obrazovanie/literatura/UTOPIYA_V_LITERATURE.html?page=0,2
  6. http://xn-- h1afoehc.xn-- p1ai/tvorchestvo-uchashchikhsya/57- osobennosti-zhanra- antiutopii-v-literature

Author: Arman Veranyan: © All rights are reserved.

Translated by Lusine Marutyan