I do not believe the Merriam-Webster definition— “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives”— is accurate enough to describe a dystopia. To me, a dystopia is a world through which some oppressive force or group holds some means of control over the people and the people’s blatant acceptance of such. Many dystopian protagonists are propelled for change when they break away from collective thought and thereby the control imposed upon them by their society.
The term “dystopia” is complex; while some members within a society would disagree that the world they live in is a dystopian society, others would argue that elements of a dystopia are present in their society. This calls into question the extent to which oppressive control, alongside other typical elements, are necessary in order for a society to be deemed a dystopia. For instance, the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas describes a seemingly perfect society filled with constant celebrations. However, the happiness of the people are contingent upon a single child who lives a life of misery and suffering. Is Omelas truly a utopia— a perfect society— or is it considered a dystopia? This suggests that dystopias and utopias are complicated terms that go beyond a simple classification of good or evil.
Throughout many dystopian works, the theme of control is present, with the characters usually living in ignorance of the sinister happenings occurring behind the scenes. The series “Attack on Titan” displays the typical characteristics of the textbook definition of a dystopia, where the lives of the characters are constantly threatened by the presence of giant human-eating titans. However, as the story progresses, it is revealed that the storyline runs much deeper than the conflict of humans versus titans, and the characters learn that much of their knowledge of the world they knew was fabricated. The control of public knowledge can also be seen in 1984, where the government constantly rewrites history, and the citizens accept the information being relayed to them without question. 1984 rejects the textbook definition of a dystopia in that the ordinary people are not fearful for their lives. Rather, the citizens’ ignorance leaves them to live in relative content, despite unknowingly being manipulated and under surveillance by their own government. Within both works, the protagonists’ new knowledge of the reality of their situations pushes them to want to change what they believe to be morally wrong. For this reason, I believe dystopias are defined by the exertion of control over the people within a society, regardless of the feelings of the individuals.