English and drama

Utopias and Dystopias

Module code: Q3119
Level 6
30 credits in spring teaching
Teaching method: Workshop, Seminar
Assessment modes: Dissertation

This module explores the production of utopian and dystopian fictions from the 16th century (Thomas More's publication in 1516 of Utopia) to the present day. It examines the production of utopian images and thought in a number of specific cultural and historical contexts. These include:

  • the 16th-century context in which More originally developed the concept of utopia
  • the production in the 18th century of utopian and dystopian responses to the enlightenment (particularly those of Swift and Voltaire)
  • the 19th-century utopian tradition in the US (Hawthorne, Thoreau)
  • the explosion of utopian thinking at the end of the 19th century (with writers such as Bellamy, Wells and Morris)
  • the relationship between modernism and utopia (particularly in relation to Woolf and Kafka)
  • the growth of dystopian responses to modernity in the 1930s and '40s (Orwell, Huxley)
  • the importance of utopian thinking in relation to feminism, from Sarah Scott to Wollstonecraft to Shelley to Atwood
  • and the shifting role of utopian and dystopian thinking in marshalling the political possibilities of literature from the '60s to the present day (from Beckett to Cormac McCarthy).

Throughout this wide-ranging module, we will focus closely on a number of central questions:

  • How far is it possible for literary works to imagine a better or a perfect world?
  • How far is it possible for such imaginings to effect actual social change?
  • Are utopian fantasies politically regressive, an opiate to distract us from material social inequality?
  • What is the role of dystopian thinking?
  • Does dystopian fiction contradict utopian thought forms, or can dystopian writing produce utopian possibilities?
  • What is the relationship between utopian thinking and hope?
  • Is there a theological dimension to utopian thought?
  • What is the relation between science and utopia?

In addressing these questions, the module will offer a means of thinking broadly but rigorously about the role of literature in transforming social conditions, and making the world a better place.

Module learning outcomes

  • Read critically a range of fictional texts, from the sixteenth century to the present day, that develop various conceptions of utopian and dystopian thought.
  • Engage with theoretical conceptions of utopia that infom readings of literary texts.
  • Develop a critical awareness of the relationship between literary texts and social change.
  • Construct a clear argument on a relevant topic, in an extended dissertation.