Back to the Future: The Rise of Dystopian Literature

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One of my favorite novels to teach is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I have taught it twice a year for at least nine of my fourteen years teaching, and it remains a fresh favorite for me. The majority of my students typically enjoy it, as well; but until recently, most of my avid readers did not connect Brave New World to other books they were reading. Enter The Hunger Games and Divergent series. Finally, students are talking about and making connections to dystopian literature! Below are three reasons dystopian literature has a distinct place in the modern classroom.

  • Dystopian literature is the “it” item in modern YA.

If you ask a classroom of high schoolers how many of them have read The Hunger Games and/or the Divergent series, you will find a majority have read (or at least seen the movies) one, if not all, of the books. Even most of the non-recreational readers in the class will know what you are talking about when you reference these series. They read what captures their attention, and reading dystopian literature is now at the top of the list. If we want to continue to engage our students, we must give them what they want, and right now, they want dystopian literature. Many of them will be surprised that classics such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World can go toe to toe (and surpass, even) their current literary flings.

  • Dystopian literature has characters and situations to which students can relate.

Tris and Four in Divergent, Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, these characters connect with high schoolers because they are close in age and go through some of the same emotions and troubles in which current students find themselves. From the older novels, John and Lenina in Brave New World, or Winston and Julia in 1984 share similar struggles. Same song and dance, and students still connect. Winston and Julia may be a bit more mature in years, but the mentality and the struggle are the same. While our students may not be battling the government and the injustices prevailed upon them by that government, they are dealing with fitting in, being the new kid, having a crush on someone, or facing a friend who has a crush on them. Maybe they’re dealing with parents who are absent (1984) or embarrassing (Brave New World) or abusive (Divergent) or any other combination found in these modern novels. The point is: students are relating, and students are reading. Avid readers grow into more articulate students, both in speech and in writing. Our goal as English teachers is to mold students into creative thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong readers. Dystopian literature can help encourage this and maintain that spark of interest that could fuel a fire for a lifetime.

  • Dystopian literature links students to the issues of today.

Today’s high school students can be quite vocal about their opinions on today’s social, economic, and political milieu. These dystopian novels put into perspective the elements of their world that make them relevant. While they may feel like they’re having to rid themselves of all competition around them or form alliances to make it through a tough class in one piece, students see their environments in these stories. The safe space of the future helps them to displace some emotions, but many of them will see the connections between the ruling classes in these novels and the ruling elite of our present day. It opens the conversation across curriculums, from history to science and technology to sociology and psychology. When they address the same issues in the older dystopian novels, they are often surprised at the “predictions” that have come to pass. Some of my best classroom discussions come from these dystopian worlds connecting to our own little dystopias.

One of the things I love about teaching and referencing dystopian literature is the awareness it brings. These novels always have a way of reminding my students how important — and easy — it is to be kind, helpful, and honest; that is okay to be unique and to stand up for what is right and just.

What is your favorite dystopian novel to teach and why?

Jill Massey teaches AP Literature at East Wake Academy outside of Raleigh, NC. In addition to being a lover of all things British literature, Jill enjoys directing her church choir, cheering for NC State, and updating her dog Titus’ Instagram account.