We’ve been working on unseen, close analysis for the Dystopian / genre question at A-Level. Because AO2 is such a focus, very closely pinning everything to the text has been essential. I’ve particularly made sure that we’re discussing narrative perspective/viewpoint, partly because I think it’s a complex idea which distinguishes high-level candidates, and partly because it gets to the real heart of AO2 in terms of how the text is being presented.
This extract from ‘Station Eleven, written in 2014, echoes contemporary concerns about the potential for environmental and ecological crisis resulting from climate change as well as exploring the possibility of a dystopia occurring when fossil fuels run out.
An undertone of threat and danger pervades the setting of the passage. The “end of July” should suggest balmy sunny weather but instead the sky is “white-hot” in the middle of a “relentless” heat-wave, the adjectives implying a threatening rather than enjoyable scene. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Atwood uses the oppressive July heat to express Offred’s increasing, unfulfilled desire, which leads her into dangerous relationships with both the Commander and Nick, The setting of Gilead is neat, tidy and well-kept: an external representation of state control. In contrast, the setting of ‘Station Eleven’ is a curious mixture of decay and growth; the trees “pressed in close”, creating a potentially claustrophobic atmosphere – which would threaten the Travelling Symphony, and enhances the sense that they are in danger from unseen attackers – and “emptied through creaks”. The natural imagery of “saplings” and “soft leaves” would usually indicated new growth in a more positive, optimistic way but here the nature is pushing back at humanity, destroying the pavements they have created and making it difficult to move through as nature reclaims the man-made environment for its own.
The third-person narrative perspective creates a sense of almost dreamlike, or fairy-tale, detachment. The opening line “twenty years after the end of air travel”, is typically dystopian, landing the reader in the middle of a familiar-yet-strange environment in which the contemporary reality has been altered. The narrator fulfils the role of the ‘journeyer’ identified by Margaret Atwood as a central trope of dystopian fiction. The caravan is near Lake Michigan though they “couldn’t see it from here,” an example of the third person narrative moving back and forth from the characters’ knowledge and viewpoints to create a link between the reader’s contemporary time and the Travelling Symphony’s future. Repetition of “twenty years” brings the reader info the future, the lack of air travel and manufacturing suggesting an ecological disaster coupled with the elimination of fossil fuels. As Offred’s future in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ takes place approximately twenty years after the novel’s publication (although the initial era is unspecified, hints such as the introduction of electronic currency and ‘Take back the night’ rallies suggest a late 1980s) and Orwell’s ‘1984’ occurs forty years after its 1948 publication, the journey into the dystopian future appears limited to our own lifetimes. Perhaps, after that, it becomes science fiction.
Through the characters of ‘Station Eleven’ Mandel suggests the dangers of this future world. They walk “slowly”, with “scouts watching for danger”, armed with “weapons” which include three knives – another result of the loss of manufacturing, particularly in an American dystopian when many contemporary post-apocalyptic characters had straight for the local gun shop or police lock up to obtain their protection. Their clothing also demonstrates the changes in society as the sandals are made from” automobile tyres”, the tyres rendered useless for their original usage through the loss of fossil fuels. Unlike many dystopias, they retain a sense of individual identities. The Handmaids lose their identities and become known only by the possessive “Offred and “Ofglen”. Winston Smith retains his every-man name, but is also allocated a number, Use of plural pronouns is also common, for example in Zamyatin’s ‘We’. In which characters are also known primarily by number. Here, however, Kristin, Gil and August all have specific – modern and identifiable – names. There is a more positive sense of community than in many dystopias where community is policed and discouraged by the state fearing that personal relationships will override patriotism. Yet there is also a social hierarchy through names – the “second violin”, and the “Director” carrying connotations firstly of the role within the Symphony ‘s performance schedule but also seeming to take on the role of leader in the community, controlling their organisation. As in ‘Brave New World,’ this appears to be a less militaristic society than The Handmaid’s Tale run by “commanders’” and the Director seems benign though perhaps callous through their dark humour, suggesting that remembering lines in “questionable territory” is preparation for overcoming stage fright.
The characters have clung to culture in a time of crisis. The intertextual references to King Lear perhaps draw on the tragic nature of the play, particularly as “Kirsten” experiences the play in this new time and her previous life, suggesting it will continue to be an important motif. The juxtaposition of her learned line – “mad, fantastically dressed with wild flowers” – ironically contrasts her own appearance with tyre-rubber sandals and three knives for adornment. In totalitarian or authoritarian regimes culture is often restricted or policed, leading to displays of particularly patriotic art, in the case of Nazi Germany, the 1950s denouncements of Hollywood as “unAmerican”, or Soviet Russia’s burial of literary works not harmonious with its ideology. Explored in ‘Fahrenheit 451’, the control of culture is ironically continued with the regular banning of The Handmaid’s Tale from libraries and school reading lists due to its ‘explicit’ contexts, ignoring its important messages. The “Symphony” comprises both musicians and actors, and is performing King Lear rather than a orchestral piece, suggesting a development of culture as it has had to adapt to accommodate the difficulties of this new world.
The danger and decay of this dystopia is represented through the description of the caravan, The listed components have become useful with “the end of gasoline,” and the way a “bench had been installed…for the drivers” of these now-horse-drawn pick-up trucks creates an impression of a more archaic horse-drawn carriage. Mandel brings home the realisation that in the scale of human history, the era of oil, petrol and gas is a potentially very short one. However the scavenging of manufactured goods provides protection in a dangerous world. The “difficult-to-break automobile glass” provides somewhere “relatively safe to put the children.“ The casual reference to children is unusual in dystopia where the future is often made more futile by either the elimination of children (along with concerns for fertility, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Children of Men’) which makes the contemporary world bleak due to the inevitable extinction of humanity, or, such as in ‘The Road’, the focus on the child’s lack of a secure future as symbolic of humanity’s failure. The children in ‘Station Eleven’ are relatively safe, suggesting that there is perhaps a sense of recovery of some kind, if not to the world the adults once knew.