Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Conventions of

utopian / dystopian literature

Conventions are the standard expectations, elements, rules, traditions, or content-features that identify genres (i.e., types, classes, or kinds of literature, art, music, etc. . .  . )


Characterization is a consistently problematic features for utopian fiction, as members of a utopian community may suppress individuality in order to conform to the community's expectations.

Most utopian citizens fade into the system's background, or appear more as functions or officials within the community rather than the individualized, conflicted selves who populate most modern realistic fiction. Utopian (or dystopian) characters sometimes wear depersonalizing uniforms, further diminishing individuality and emphasizing community function.

Protagonist as a visitor who may arrive for ulterior motives. Visitor-hero expresses skepticism over the utopian scheme and the value of the community and the individual. Through dialogues and experience with utopian guides or citizens, the visitor-hero is subsequently re-educated and converted or absorbed into the community.

In dystopias, the protagonist may be born into or otherwise introduced into a community that is imposed rather than chosen. The protagonist may lead a rebellion or escape to a more individualistic life or is tragically crushed by the utopian state. (The typical dystopian hero is young in contrast to the utopian state's aged authority figures.)

Antagonist or helper may be an authority figure who introduces or explains the community, refuting the visitor's objections. (both utopias and dystopias)

A love interest may develop to increase reader interest and the visitor's commitment to the community.  (both utopias and dystopias)


The utopian community is separate from normal society, either in place or time.

Place: lost valley, newly discovered island or continent; natural boundaries like mountains, oceans, or, in More's Utopia, the waterway Utopus directs built to separate Utopia from its continent; or walls, as in Heaven in Revelation; gated communities in suburbia; corporate compounds in Oryx and Crake

Time: uncorrupted past, enlightened future, sometimes visited through time-travel

Gardens: Garden of Eden, competitive gardens in More's Utopia, the "garden city" of Boston in Looking Backward, the nation as garden in Herland and Ecotopia.

Plot / Narrative

Journey, either through physical space or time, by visitor from normal world to utopia, and sometimes back again.

This physical journey may be paralleled by a psychological journey or transformation on the part of the visitor to the community, who first rejects the community's principles but eventually converts and becomes a memberr.

Dystopian novels narrate a repressed individual's awakening to the community's injustice or hypocrisy, and to his or her personal destiny beyond the community's restrictions, followed by escape or rebellion. (Dystopian protagonist often gathers a cohort of similarly disaffected or repressed individuals.)

Millennial events punctuate or hinge time and history as origin stories for utopias. The prototype for this pattern is the Bible's book of Revelation, which first describes the destruction of the old world, followed by a vision of heaven or "the New Jerusalem." In this and other millennial-utopian narratives, anr apocalyptic turning point destroys the old dystopian world and separates the utopian present or future from the past discord or dystopia.

Examples of  origin stories:from utopian narratives: Utopia 2.1;  Looking Backward 4.4, 5.4, 19.18; Herland 5.60-5.70, Anthem 1.9, 2.49


Typically first-person: visitor / intruder ("I") who may visit for ulterior motives, defends outside world, asks questions of guide, embodies reader's assumptions and anticipates and states reader's potential objections to utopian arrangements.

Other stylistic conventions or devices

Socratic dialogue between intruder and guide or teacher. (Utopia's are "talky" genres, betraying their intellectual audience.)

  Narrative-dialogue of fiction to extended monologues.

      Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged feature extended speeches by protagonists.

      Dr. Barton's Sermon" in Looking Backward.

  Public spectacles and pageantry where community comes together to celebrate unity. In a dystopia, such events may become opportunities for rebellion or exposure of supposed utopia's hypocrisies or injustices.

"Models" for cooperative, communal society &

motivations, incentives, rewards for cooperative, communal labor

extended family (possibly encouraging polygamy, polyandry, free love to blur lines of relation)

More, Utopia, Of the Traveling of the Utopians: . . . "[A]ccording to their plenty or scarcity, they supply or are supplied from one another, so that indeed the whole island is, as it were, one family." (42)

compare Herland, ch. 5: "You see, children were the—the RAISON D'ETRE in this country."

"The power of mother-love, that maternal instinct we so highly laud, was theirs of course, raised to its highest power; and a sister-love . . . ."

military organization  (modern armed services as "meritocracy")

Looking Backward, ch. 6: "That is," I suggested, "you have simply applied the principle of universal military service, as it was understood in our day, to the labor question."

Looking Backward, ch. 12: the duty of military service for the protection of the nation, to which our industrial service corresponds

Importance of models or examples: emulation

competition of communities, not individuals

honor, national service (Looking Backward, Ecotopia)

labor not for profit but for professional or personal interests (Looking Backward 7.5) 

see also Utopian Motives.

Variations on single-family heterosexual / patriarchal / monogamous household*

Sexual variations, which may compromise an experimental community's appearance of a higher morality. 

*Historical utopias often attract "unattached" singles between childhood and full maturity. The Brook Farm community near Boston has been compared to college dorm life.

Values or issues

Conformity vs. individualism

cooperation vs. competition

equality vs. opportunity

community ownership vs. private property

communal vs collective dining

justice alternatives: retribution, restitution

Reconciliation of intellectual and manual labor

abolition of currency