Monday, 20 May 2013

A Comparison of dystopian novels: Love and Sex as Rebellion

The Starting Note

I had always intended to do another of these posts, but I hadn't a concrete idea on what to do it on until the topic of the place of love and sex in rebellion came to me. I have also read a few more dystopian novels since the last comparison post, so I will be referring to those books too. As before a list of the dystopian novels referred to is at the below.

I had planned on posting this a few days ago, but I remembered that Delirium by Lauren Oliver, was in my 'to read' folder on my Kindle, and considering that dystopia is completely surrounded by the supression of love, I thought that reading that before posting was prudent.

EDIT I have now linked the book list at the bottom to any previous posts I have written on them.

Please be aware that what I write below will contain spoilers from the books listed below. Also please be aware that I will refer to sexual relationships in this post.

A Comparison of Dystopian Fiction: Love and Sex as Rebellion.

This topic doesn't really cover all dystopias, there are some such as After the Fear, Never Let Me Go, Masque of the Red Death, Prison Nation and Divergent (and sequels) where sex and love between people aren't seen as a problem at all, there is still completely free choice, well apart from the obvious divisions between people due to physical barriers. It is also worth noting that the book Reform didn't really go into anything related at all, and so it is unknown what the position is on sex and love in that dystopia.

The prime example of sex and relationships as rebellion is Orwell's 1984, where Winston and Julia have sex in various places because of the rebellion it signifies, this is particularly backed up with Winston's thoughts the first time they have sex about defying the Party. Winston and Julia's relationship then does progress, to the point that before they go into the Ministry of Justice they promise that they won't betray each other (the fact that ultimately they do is besides the point, that is more about making the point that the Party can break anyone, making it one of the bleakest endings to a dystopian possible). Though this started off as rebellion, it ended in a relationship, probably because it is human nature to crave companionship (and to some degree sex.)

In a similar way Atwood's characters in a Handmaid's Tale, Nick and Offred, have an affair in the rigorously controlled Gilead, where they could both effectively be killed for having sex with each other. Again this comes down to the human need for companionship and sex, though on Offred's part at least, we have no real idea about Nick's thoughts, actually having sex for rebellion's sake doesn't seem to be the case. Again, as with Winston and Julia, and perhaps more so, Offred and Nick's relationship grows, she herself tells us that she told Nick her real name, something that the readers themselves don't even know for sure (personally I agree with the logic that her real name is June, as that is the only name listed from the Red Centre that isn't accounted for later in the novel).

On the other hand, looking at Huxley's Brave New World, the idea of relationships is completely forbidden, sex is a recreational activity to be shared with everyone. Though there is a small love story, it is one sided, and it is from the perspective of John the Savage, who wasn't brought up in the World State and so basically has normal ideas about emotions. This means that a relationship would be rebelling against the state, but ultimately in this case couldn't happen, simply because the state has everyone so successfully controlled.

An interesting book to look upon in this light is The Program, which is a newly released book which I would highly recommend. In this book the protagonist Sloane, and her boyfriend James, have a relationship which regularly involves sex. Instead of being frowned upon this is instead almost encouraged as the controllers of the Program believe that it reduces the risk of 'catching' suicide. Upon Sloane's induction into the Program she begins to forget James (which is what the Program is aimed to do), and meets Realm. Though you get the idea that sexual relationships are frowned upon within the Program, everyone seems to think that Sloane and Realm are having sex (they're not) and no one does anything to stop them. However, after being released from the Program, Sloane is told to stay away from James (who has also been cured), which she doesn't listen to, going to the extent of meeting up with him constantly and even having sex. Though having a relationship isn't against the state, the Program seemed to want to stop people feeling the same as they did before the cure.

Looking at dystopias where the oppression of women is the key to the dystopian rule, so books such as 2022 and Whores, as well as the classic The Handmaid's Tale already mentioned above, sex and relationships can be used to rebel, like the aforementioned Offred and Nick relationship, though this isn't always the case. In 2022 there is no active sexual rebellion, though the culmination of the plot is due to Natasha rebelling against the idea of becoming a concubine to her brother-in-law, so even though she doesn't commit an act of rebellion through sex, she is rebelling against it. Similarly in Whores, women are allowed to have sex, and in fact men are encouraged to view women as sex objects, though there is no real case of anyone saying no outright. On the other hand, it is actually stated by Mae that she turned to lesbianism because of the oppression towards women, but she was originally straight, in a way this is also a form of sexual rebellion.

The introduction of the love triangle into young adult dystopias has also impacted on this. Though some relationships are approved of, others might not be, which could make acts of love and sex more rebellious. Taking one of the most famous examples from the below list, Katniss and Peeta's relationship in The Hunger Games is a state-approved one, in which they are believed to be married and having a baby, despite the fact that they are only 17, the only person who seems to really disprove about this is Katniss' mother, well and Gale, but this is where it becomes more rebellious. Despite having an 'onscreen' relationship with Peeta, Katniss still considers how she feels about Gale, even kissing him. Though at the surface not an act of rebellion, she is doing something contrary to that which the state decided.

The Glimpse contains another prime example of the love triangle at work. Though it doesn't have the same stringent 'matching' system as Delirium has, there is a very formal (and early) system of getting married. But the protagonist Ana falls in love with someone else, and after effectively being forced into the 'marriage' she escapes to find the boy she's in love with. Though in this case I think that the rebelling is more because of being in love, rather than by being in love itself.

Moving on to the dystopias that are a lot more restrictive in the sense of who you can love and have sex with. Though in the Selection you can love pretty much who you want, except with the same social pressures as are found in today's world but with the caste system exaggerating them, you aren't allowed to have sex until you are married, in fact America even has to sign something to promise that she is a virgin. This would make having sex before marriage one of the ultimate acts of rebellion, though it is presumed that none of the characters have done it. However, in the first few chapters of the book it is clear that America and Aspen, who sneak around behind each others back, go as far as they can without actually having sex, and by pushing their luck they could be seen as rebelling. Upon America's entrance into the Palace it is explained that the girls are not allowed to have relationships of any kind with anyone other than Maxon, and when Aspen appears he and America rebel against this rule and kiss a few times. Rebelling through being in love becomes an even bigger issue in the sequel The Elite, in which America's friend and fellow member of the elite, Marlee, is punished by having her caste stripped away and being publicly whipped, just for being in love with someone else.

Going even further than the Selection and the Elite, is The Ultimate Choice, in this book, overpopulation forced the dystopia and so there were restrictions put on who could have children and who could even have sex. The protagonist, Cassie, breaks these laws once and gets pregnant (and then is forced to elect for suicide), though it somewhat seems like she did it accidentally and wasn't consciously rebelling. However the rebel group that she runs into, and accidentally joins, are very much rebelling through relationships and sex (to get illegal children), they know what they are doing and continue to do it. It does seem though, that with that many people making up the population, it would be easy to do something like having sex, without anyone ever realising, which would somewhat detract from the point of rebelling.

Finally there is Delirium, and the subsequent books (though at the moment I have only read Delirium and two short stories Annabel and Hana from the series). The dystopia in Delirium is based on a forced cure for love, when a citizen reaches 18 they are 'cured'. If a teenager falls in love before the age of 18, then they are cured early, though this can lead to complications mentally, the impression is given that this actually happens fairly regularly, though the intensity of it does seem to progress as the novel goes on. It is worth noting that in this case the love that is being cured is not just romantic love, but is love for everything, family, hobbies, pets, friends etc, though predominantly the story is about romantic love. Boys and girls are kept separately until they are cured, and as soon as they are cured they are 'matched' with another person who they will marry after they have finished their education.

Firstly there is rebellion such as that of Lena and Alex (who only pretends to be cured), they rebel simply by being in love, and wanting to be in love. This is also similar to Lena's mother who loved her husband despite him being unable to love her, the cure didn't work for her, and that she loved her children and showed it in ways that other parents were incapable of. Then there is the second type of rebelling, such as Hana does, which is elaborated on particularly in Hana. She goes to illegal coed parties (with illegal music, after curfew) and a lot of people going there are kissing, having sex, doing what teenagers that are nearly 18 normally do in today's world. Hana also shows that not everyone is into it for the love, some are for the desire (which is also undesirable according to the state), shown by Steve's reaction to Hana's questioning, and the room full of girls' underwear pegged out. It is important to note that this form of rebelling would today be seen as standard teenage rebelling, and so shouldn't be taken as a serious rebellion against the state (though that is of course how they see it), and the true rebellion comes when the people in love start to do things such as runaway to the Wilds rather than when they kiss someone or have sex.

Another thing that is noticeable about Delirium is that the state takes a stance on sexuality (compared to most dystopias where same sex couples are simply not mentioned), and though the state says that they are unnatural, you do see it happening, particularly in Hana, though the rebellion for same sex couples is more or less the same level as for mixed sex couples in this instance.

Ultimately it is clear that a lot of the rebellion behind dystopian novels comes down to love, not just of the romantic kind, and actually in some cases despite of the romantic kind (mainly thinking of the Hunger Games in this instance). Even some of the dystopias listed in the top paragraph because love and sex aren't oppressed or restricted in them rely on love to get the revolution and rebellions going!

The Novels

It is probably worth noting that some of these I haven't read in a while, and that several are counted as Young Adult novels, though in my opinion this does not mean that the dystopias they portray are any less suitable for adults. Reviews of several of the below books (particularly the more recent ones) can be found on my blog. I have left a gap before listing the dystopias I have read since writing my first dystopian comparisons post.