Dystopia – the world is thrown into chaos. Yet; hovering over this tumultuous landscape, can be found the unnerving eye of providence. This is the very same symbol that glares out at US customers from the back of the dollar bill. Iconographers have long concurred that the eye represents the all-seeing eye of God. It shines down on saints and sinners alike, to remind them that their thoughts and actions are always observable by God. In this rhetoric, I will be exploring the presentation of the eye of providence in dystopian fiction and analysing why it is a pervasive emblem in this genre.
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” (George Orwell, 1984)
There are no secrets from an omniscient eye. 1984 is built upon the premise that BIG BROTHER IS ALWAYS WATCHING YOU. The idea being that if citizens feel they are always being watched, they will not partake in rebellion actions. This also links to a sadistic form of voyeurism where people’s suffering takes centre stage to deter other potential criminals. In the Hunger Games, the tributes are used as pawns in a media campaign to show the power of the Capital. Here Suzanne Collins draws a parallel between the Roman gladiatorial games and today’s reality tv, to make the point, that even today we still enjoy turning real suffering into entertainment. The pertinent question here is if people are commodities for other people’s recreation and God is omniscient, then how can he be loving? This is the ancient religious debate that some theists struggle to come to terms with. Does God use us for his own voyeurism? However, authors of dystopian fiction constantly play on the symbolism that dictatorships are like omniscient gods making it a delicious product of literary totalitarian states.
In 1984 God is replaced with ‘BIG BROTHER’ and in the Hunger Games, he is replaced with President Snow. These formidable leaders are the beating heart of the dictatorship machine for people to simultaneously revere and fear. As Winston looks at the gaze of Big Brother from propaganda posters and the people of Panem look at the gaze of President Snow on their telescreens; an allusion is made to Hitler’s Third Reich. Attwood also makes this allusion in the Handmaid’s Tale that engineered reproduction has been used before to prevail a Caucasian race by the Nazis. So many dystopias make reference to the Third Reich because of its prevalent status as the most obvious kingdom whose ideology is built on the foundations of power and control. But also because Hitler stands out as the omniscient eye whose radiating gaze and propaganda machine made even the most innocent of citizens blindly complicit in his reign of terror.
George Orwell indeed named his novel 1984 as he feared an escalation of fascism/communism after the cold war and wanted to warn people what a modern-day government would look like with absolute power if totalitarianism was not oppressed.
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (George Orwell, 1984)
The eyes of dictator’s burn the retina’s of their puppets and demand their ideology be the only ideology. Ironically a dystopia is the last place you’d think God could be found in. However, I would argue that literary exploration of dystopian realities shows that he is at the very centre of a totalitarian ideology; for dictators must project themselves as god-like. However, Greek myths show that merciless brutality is not a modern dystopian trope but has always been a part of the human imagination. The Hunger Games is closely allied to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. King Minos sent 14 Athenian tributes into the labyrinth to defeat the Minotaur every year, echoing the tributes of the 12 districts that enter into the games. The dystopian landscape itself is an unbeatable labyrinth created purposely by a dictator such as King Minos to inflict pain. Victorious powers have long demanded human sacrifice as part of their conquests. Modern Dystopias feed off this long established novel of the human subconscious.
Nonetheless, there is always a chink in the armour of an omniscient God. In the Hunger Games, jabber jays were used by the Capital to listen in on rebel conversations and repeat them back to officials. However, the rebels soon realised and began leaking false information back to the officials leading to the program being revoked. The jabbery jay experiment then became a representation of the idea that the Capitol may not be as all-powerful as it believed. This is echoed by Winston in 1984 who manages to find a secret hideout that cannot be reached by telescreens. Just as people sin in the eye of God, so do people to look for ways to rebel in a labyrinth of control. Attwood says in Handmaid’s Tale.
“We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” (Margaret Attwood, Handmaid’s Tale)
Subjects of dictatorships will appear to be a mindless mass but there will always be your Katniss Everdeens, Winstons and Offreds. Figures who appear from the darkness to show that light can be seen in the gaps between the dictator’s propaganda stories. These gaps and chinks of the totalitarian machinery are emblazed in-between the spaces of dystopian fiction; as the ink bleeds the message that an omniscient eye is a symbol that can always be subjected to dissection and subsequent banishment.
Image sourced from Pixabay.