In my research for graduate school, I came across the idea of the bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that catapults the protagonist into adulthood. A bildungsroman implies that identity “is there to be discovered, tried and tested as part of growing up,” and that identity is “shifting, unstable, always under construction and conveyed through performances.”(1)
In our personal lives, we experience bildungsroman-esque events that launch us from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, learning the hard-earned lessons that life isn’t always fair, that our parents aren’t perfect, that Santa Claus isn’t real, or whatever the particularly traumatizing reality may be. We grow up, grappling with this notion of who we are, and discovering that who we have been doesn’t have to determine who we will become.
A bildungsroman can happen at the level of community or society as well, shaking up the status quo and heralding in a new order. Communities can experience identity crises, in which groups of people must reevaluate their ideals and values, and redefine who they are and who they will be as a collective.
Dystopian fiction depends on such crises.
Dystopian fiction typically follows protagonists that “fall from innocence and achieve maturity as they realize the dystopian realities in which they live,” moving “from apparent contentment into an experience of alienation and resistance.”(2) These heroes call into question the value of the society’s ideals, often challenging, disrupting, or overthrowing the prevailing dystopian order, and eventually bringing the rest of society in line with their new vision.
(A sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Or, the head of a dystopian government toppled by our valiant heroes.)
But what about at the beginning of the novel, before the hero becomes a hero? The characters at the beginning often do not realize that they are in a dystopia. They’ve got two special blinders on—the notions of “this is how it is” and “this is how it has always been." It takes a bildungsroman event to occur, some sort of crisis from which there is no turning back, no ability to continue turning a blind eye to reality.
But what about all of the other ordinary citizens of the dystopian society? Where is their bildungsroman, and at what point will they grow from a state of childlike ignorance, blissfully ignoring the signs of decay and devolution around them, to adult awareness? At what point do they shift from the childish notion that “this is not my problem” to the adult perspective that “I will take responsibility”?
This shift is often forced upon them by the heroes toward the end of the novel or the series, in a final moment where everyone realizes the madness of their lives and flees toward sanity.
Here's the thing about dystopias: no one actually wants to live in them, and no one thinks that living in one would be a good idea. But madness and absurdity begin to look quite normal and ordinary when it's all you experience.
We are all in a potential dystopia. The slide from idealism and change to extremism and control is often a gradual one, a subtle transition in which each phase is so seemingly separate from the others that people don't realize they are in a dystopia until it is all they know.
How can we prevent a dystopia from taking place, aside from depending on some cataclysmic bildungsroman event to force a society to grow up, take off its blinders, and pay attention?
As the very first step, it takes individuals really examining what's going on, really looking at what's happening in their communities and their cities, and stepping up and saying over and over again that "this is not normal" and "this is not okay."
This is not normal. This is not okay.
(1) Stephens, John. Ways of Being Male: Representing Masculinities in Children’s Literature and Film. Psychology Press, 2002, p. 104.
(2) Basu, Balaka, et al, editors. Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults: Brave New Teenagers. Routledge, 2013, p. 7.