Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

Course No. 2341
Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.
University of Connecticut
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Course No. 2341
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Understand the paradox of the term utopia," which means "no place," but is also a homonym for eutopia-a good or perfect place."
  • numbers Dive deep into the works of authors you know and discover new writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Samuel R. Delaney, and more.
  • numbers Discover the subgenres associated with utopian and dystopia writings, such as the concept of euchronia," and learn how these new categories affect literature."
  • numbers Examine our fascination with the nightmarish and pessimistic views that make dystopian literature so popular, especially for the young adult audience.

Course Overview

Can literature change our real world society? At its foundation, utopian and dystopian fiction asks a few seemingly simple questions aimed at doing just that. Who are we as a society? Who do we want to be? Who are we afraid we might become? When these questions are framed in the speculative versions of Heaven and Hell on earth, you won’t find easy answers, but you will find tremendously insightful and often entertaining perspectives.

Utopian and dystopian writing sits at the crossroads of literature and other important academic disciplines such as philosophy, history, psychology, politics, and sociology It serves as a useful tool to discuss our present condition and future prospects—to imagine a better tomorrow and warn of dangerous possibilities. To examine the future of mankind through detailed and fascinating stories that highlight and exploit our anxieties in adventurous, thought-provoking, and engaging ways. From Thomas More’s foundational text Utopia published in 1516to the 21st-century phenomenon of The Hunger Games, dive into stories that seek to find the best—and the worst—in humanity, with the hope of better understanding ourselves and the world. Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature delivers 24 illuminating lectures, led by Pamela Bedore, Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, which plunge you into the history and development of utopian ideas and their dystopian counterparts. You’ll encounter some of the most powerful and influential texts in this genre as you travel centuries into the past and thousands of years into the future, through worlds that are beautiful, laughable, terrifying, and always thought-provoking.

Professor Bedore brings an acute understanding of literature’s ability to both reflect and shape society, as well as an immense enthusiasm for great storytelling, introducing you to fresh perspectives on deep-rooted themes you thought you knew. She will take you on an expedition through a variety of idealized utopian and flawed dystopian worlds, embarking across a broad survey of the differing perspectives and historical backdrops that shaped the genre, from the influence of scientific optimism in the 17th century and satire in the 18th to deeply political and sociological approaches in the 19th and 20th centuries and beyond. Even if you are familiar with these writers, this course provides so many deep insight and alternative perspectives, it will be as if you are reading them for the first time. Uncover the darkness behind seeming utopias and discover the hope that lives beneath the terror of dystopias as you deep dive into classics, blockbusters, and little known gems by:

  • Jonathan Swift
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • Samuel Butler
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Edward Bellamy
  • H.G. Wells
  • Samuel Delany
  • George Orwell
  • Octavia Butler
  • Anthony Burgess
  • Margaret Atwood
  • And many more

With Professor Bedore, you’ll follow these authors and more as they explore the limits of how humans live together, build societies, and view our own humanity.

The Heavenly Places of Utopia

Professor Bedore begins her study of utopian and dystopian storytelling with a look at utopia, the earlier of the two genres to be widely recognized. Utopia, both as a word and a concept, is a paradox. As she notes, the word “utopia” means “no place,” but it is also a homonym for eutopia—a good or perfect place. This contradiction is the foundation on which the genre is built and why it provides such rich opportunities for exploration. Can we invent a perfect place if it is also no place?

Starting with the book most often credited as the beginning of the utopian genre, Thomas More’s Concerning the Highest State of the Republic and the New Island Utopia, Professor Bedore moves chronologically through history. She examines how humor was introduced into utopian literature with Jonathan Swift, reveals how utopian concepts were used to market the idea of the American Dream, and explores the intersection between utopian stories and science fiction. Lastly, Professor Bedore looks at alternative and selective approaches to creating utopias, such as that of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who tells the story of a world populated only by women.

As you travel through time and across various lands, you’ll discover classic and contemporary authors, novels, and short stories that have critiqued, educated, and ultimately contributed to impacting the world as we know it.

The Hellish Nightmares of Dystopia

The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Giver. The Maze Runner. The City of Ember. In recent years, much has been made of the terms “dystopian literature,” specifically in relation to Young Adult literature. The modern generation misleads itself by assuming that the dystopian novels which are popping up left and right were created simply for them. At the same time, the older generations does this fascinating classification of books a disservice if they believe the young adult selection chronicles the entire genre.

First used in public by John Stuart Mill in a speech in 1868, the term “dystopia” has often been understood to be the opposite of utopia. If one is an idealized version of society, wouldn’t the other be its the nightmare alternative? Professor Bedore demonstrates how the truth—that utopia and dystopia are both based on the same impulses through different means—is less counterintuitive than it first appears.

The turn of the 20th century saw the beginning of the transition in thought from utopian visions to dystopian. Was this merely a reflection of modern cynicism, or are there deeper reasons that we turn to darker visions of the future? Professor Bedore dives deep into our fascination with worst case scenario stories, exploring many of the political and social forces that brought dystopian anxieties to the surface of literature. She reviews the impact of historical milestones such as:

  • Globalization and political strife: the wars of the 20th century have been particularly impactful thanks to global scale and the technologies of modern warfare
  • Rapid industrialization: the loss of traditional and agricultural jobs and increasing urbanization have led to rapid change and precarious quality of life for many
  • Increasing reliance on technology: the increasing automation of modern life has displaced workers and led to speculation about the increasing influence of “intelligent” machines
  • Democratization of literature: dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and other popular entertainments have often focused on the sensational and the lurid—elements much more familiar to dystopia than utopia

Professor Bedore will introduce you to the “Big Three Dystopias” of the 20th century—Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwelll’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in a whole new light. She will dissect how each one reflects the tensions and anxieties of the modern world and trace their influence through later writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Samuel R. Delaney, and many more.

Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Utopian and dystopian novels transport us to other worlds, but as this course will point out, those utopias and dystopias are often the same speculative world. Many of the portrayals of the future being depicted in current films and books including The Hunger Games, Elysium, and 3% present a push-me, pull-me worldview, with an elite set of haves and a distinct set of have-nots.

As Professor Bedore explores, one of the key elements of dystopia—and by extension, utopia—is the balance of different social and cultural needs; utopias are an attempt to create harmony between the needs and desires of people and dystopias are often the result of drastic imbalances. However, it’s not the only balancing act that utopian and dystopian novels tackle. The most powerful and enduring works covered in this course are often the result of examining particular tensions and contrasts like:

  • Freedom vs. security- what is the ideal balance between being safe and being free?
  • Chaos vs. conformity- how much structure is necessary for a “good” society?
  • Kinetic vs. static- do people crave change and rapid growth or comfortable predictability?
  • Intellectual vs. visceral- are the greater joys in life the ones of the mind or of the body?

In a world with limited resources, these equilibria are not easy to maintain in perfection, which means a utopia for some often results in dystopia for others.

Visions of the Past and Future

Utopian and dystopian literature is considered “speculative fiction,” which also includes the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Likewise, utopia and dystopia are also broad categories themselves that contain many subgenres with differing ideologies and techniques: feminist utopia, cyberpunk dystopia, heterotopia, apocalyptic lit and many more.

Among the various subcategories presented by Professor Bedore is a particularly useful one known as “euchronia,” a utopia that is set in a different time rather than a different place. Euchronias are usually set in the “real world” but also in a different time, anywhere from a few generations to several hundreds of thousands of years forward or backward. Euchronias are often a more direct way for authors to critique their own society—seeking to transport readers to extreme, alternative realities. Euchronias are exemplified by works like H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, set over 700,000 years in the future, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which occurs just a little over 100 years into the future (from its original date of 1887), or Ursula K. LeGuin’sHainish Cycle novels set in an alternate history and future throughout the series. These stories are fascinating not just in their speculation about the future or the past, but also in their ambivalent view of progress. They present complicated worlds that are both utopic and dystopic depending on the perspective—an important thread that runs throughout the utopian and dystopian traditions.

Whether you’d rather escape to an idealized world or explore the depths of the human condition, you’ll get the best of both worlds through this fascinating scope. Under the brilliant command of Professor Bedore, you’ll understand the motivations of these subversive worlds, the basis for these memorable characters, and how the body of literature has fueled lasting change. Open your imagination, suspend your disbelief, and take a provocative adventure through the great works of utopian and dystopian literature.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Utopia: The Perfect Nowhere
    Enter the world of utopian and dystopian fiction. After a brief foray into the definition and origin of utopia, dive into Ursula K. LeGuin's short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and explore the ambiguities of "perfect" worlds. Then, get a deeper understanding of the ways genre functions and how it shapes literature. x
  • 2
    Thomas More and Utopian Origins
    Take a step back and learn about the origins of the utopian genre, beginning with Thomas More's Utopia of 1516. More's foundational work gave us the word "utopia," but did it create the genre? Explore the elements of the story to see how it set conventions for later works but also critiqued the very idea of utopia in the process. x
  • 3
    Swift, Voltaire, and Utopian Satire
    Continue your exploration of the early history of utopia by examining notable works produced during the two centuries following More's initial work. Compare and contrast the ideas of classical "utopia" and "critical utopia" and understand how laughter was an integral part of 18th-century utopian storytelling, focusing on Voltaire's Candide and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. x
  • 4
    American Dreamers: Hawthorne and Alcott
    The 19th century was the century of "utopia" and also marked the transition from utopian to dystopian stories in popular literature. Look at Americans who attempted to build real-world utopias, and in turn examine the work of two authors who reacted to the American attempt at perfect societies: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. Consider the ways that optimistic, utopian thinking is integral to the idea of the American Dream. x
  • 5
    Samuel Butler and Utopian Technologies
    Shift your attention from rural American utopias to explore from a different perspective: Victorian anxieties about technology and the vanishing frontier. Analyze these fears in Samuel Butler's Erewhon, which utilizes utopian conventions and heavy doses of satire to critique religion, health, education, and humanity's increasingly complex relationship to machines. x
  • 6
    Edward Bellamy and Utopian Activism
    Can utopian literature have real-world impact? This question is integral to understanding the significance of Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Witness the ways Bellamy's socialist vision of the future had genuine influence on the social activists of Gilded Age America. Professor Bedore also introduces the idea of "euchronia"–a form of utopia set in a different time rather than a different place. x
  • 7
    H. G. Wells and Utopian Science Fiction
    Unlike the utopian tradition, science fiction doesn't have a single text that defines its origin. It does, however, have several figures credited with its creation. One such figure is H.G. Wells, who not only helped in the creation of science fiction as a genre, but was also deeply devoted to utopian thinking. Ultimately, his work brought utopia and science fiction together in the same space, highlighting their intersections and their differences. x
  • 8
    Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Gendered Utopia
    Many utopian stories were concerned with the "woman question," or the quest to determine where women belong in an ideal society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman went a step further by creating a utopian society populated solely by women: Herland. See how questions of gender equality are reframed without the reference of an opposite gender and the impact of Gilman's vision on the feminist movements of the later 20th century. x
  • 9
    Yevgeny Zamyatin and Dystopian Uniformity
    Shift your attention from utopian blueprints to the cautionary tales of dystopia and explore the origins of the genre and the complex ways it functions in literature. Examine the period between World War I and World War II that produced the "Big Three Dystopias" and dive into the earliest of them, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. x
  • 10
    Aldous Huxley and Dystopian Pleasure
    Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932, is the second of the "Big Three" dystopian novels of the interwar years. Investigate the ways Huxley projects the anxieties of his day onto the future, creating a world in which people are controlled not by pain or fear, but by pleasure, and consider how utopian and dystopia are often only matters of perspective. x
  • 11
    George Orwell and Totalitarian Dystopia
    Perhaps the most famous of the three defining dystopias of the early 20th century, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four has created a vocabulary of ideas we continue to use in political discourse today. Trace the ways Orwell uses language to shape his dystopic vision and the way it both reflects and distorts reality. x
  • 12
    John Wyndham and Young Adult Dystopia
    Published during the wave of anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, John Wyndham's The Chrysalids is one of the earliest examples of Young Adult dystopian fiction and a potent examination of the fear of the Other" in dystopian storytelling. See how it set the stage for the extremely rich strain of dystopian literature aimed at younger readers that dominates bestseller lists in the 21st century." x
  • 13
    Philip K. Dick's Dystopian Crime Prevention
    Examine the parallels between social and political issues that become prominently reflected in science fiction literature as utopias and dystopias become less independent of each other. Look at the portrayal of community, choice, and rules to determine when the sacrifices being made cross the threshold between a completely perfect society and a complete lack of freedom. As the genre starts to tackle "big" questions of philosophy around individual free will, the line blurs and we are left with dystopias that are dressed up to look like utopias. x
  • 14
    Anthony Burgess, Free Will, and Dystopia
    Delve deeper into the central question of free will and how utopian studies respond emotionally and intellectually to this conundrum by examining A Clockwork Orange. Discover the literature that influenced it and was impacted by it, while exploring the nuanced differences between reading and watching this pivotal work. Burgess looks at extreme situations to pose questions we continue to struggle with, such as: What's the right balance between security and freedom? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for the State to curtail individual freedoms? x
  • 15
    The Feminist Utopian Movement of the 1970s
    The feminist utopian movement began in the 1970s and, despite the name, doesn't feature very many "traditional utopias." There is a guarded optimism represented in these novels that dealt with real-world issues of discrimination by creating societies portrayed as classless, crimeless, government-free, but laden with satire. x
  • 16
    Ursula K. Le Guin and the Ambiguous Utopia
    Delve into the science fiction-based worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, who approaches various situations with an open mind, drawing upon disciplines like physics, anthropology, and fine arts. She builds worlds in which people attempt all kinds of strategies of governance, including no governance at all. Discover how Le Guin uses sci-fi and utopia to explore LGBTQ issues with the intent to change our views on gender and sexuality. x
  • 17
    Samuel Delany and the Heterotopia
    Focusing on Trouble on Triton, explore the ways Delany introduces readers to ambiguous heterotopia through a society where your identity (such as sex, race, religion, and sexual preference) can easily be changed. Investigate whether this abundance of individual freedom results in utopia or dystopia. x
  • 18
    Octavia Butler and the Utopian Alien
    None of Octavia Butler's writings fit perfectly into the categories of utopia or dystopia, but she is vital to this study because her utopian writing represents a turning point that moves us from the feminist utopian renaissance of the 1970s to the more complex negotiation between utopian and dystopian impulses that helped shape the genres as they are today. In the first of two lectures focused on her, delve into her usage of aliens to show the importance of working toward social change. x
  • 19
    Octavia Butler and Utopian Hybridity
    Examine the many ways Butler challenges boundaries-not only of genres, but also of human identity. In this lecture, you'll see how she tackles the questions that are important in defining utopian futures: what does it mean to be human? Is utopia always an unresolvable paradox? And if it is, does it have to be? How much can we change and still be considered human? And really, does being human even matter? x
  • 20
    Margaret Atwood and Environmental Dystopia
    Margaret Atwood is an icon in utopian and dystopian fiction. Explore the ways she has helped to shape utopian thought and sexual politics with one of her classic novels, The Handmaid's Tale, as well as her more recent MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood is known for apocalyptic writing but you'll see how even her darkest works have elements of humor and satire with intrinsic meaning. x
  • 21
    Suzanne Collins and Dystopian Games
    Does it seem like a lot of the most popular books for young adults lately have been dystopias? In this lecture, explore why teens are so drawn to dystopia, what current anxieties are being tracked in this large body of YA literature, and what the impact of this literature on young adult readers has been. You'll also discover why this subgenre is so popular with adults. x
  • 22
    Cyberpunk Dystopia: Doctorow and Anderson
    The cyberpunk genre was developed in the 1980s and often features advanced information technology that allows much of the action to take place in cyber space rather than physical space, with an emphasis on the dangers and pleasures of the spaces between the cyber and physical worlds. Through satire or in earnest, we get at the same anxieties about contemporary American society: the internet has amazing potential to create a better, more egalitarian world, but we may be going about it all wrong, creating not only a more oppressive world, but a new generation of young people who rely on technology without truly understanding it. x
  • 23
    Apocalyptic Literature in the 21st Century
    Dive into the world of post-apocalyptic literature, which examines the aftermath of a cataclysmic event. Review the four major apocalyptic sources: technological, biomedical, environmental, or supernatural, and explore bodies of work that utilize each one. You'll see how even the worst dystopian situations often sneak hopes of utopian thinking into the stories because humanity survives on a core of optimism that whispers that no matter how bad things get, we can imagine-and maybe even attain-something better. x
  • 24
    The Future of Utopia and Dystopia
    Reflect on how dystopia shows us the darker side of contemporary reality right here in our connected global world, focusing on issues we struggle with every day: totalitarian government, new technologies, economic disparity, control of sexuality, and environmental degradation. Conclude with the recurring theme around utopian yearnings and the sinister road that leads to dystopia, proving that the perfect place is no place. This powerful genre embodies a simultaneous optimism and cynicism that is, perhaps, an inherent part of the human condition. x

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Your professor

Pamela Bedore

About Your Professor

Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.
University of Connecticut
Pamela Bedore is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches courses in American Literature, Popular Culture, and Genre Fiction. She holds undergraduate degrees in English and Education from Queen’s University, a Master’s from Simon Fraser University, and a PhD from the University of Rochester. Dr. Bedore has published widely on science fiction, detective fiction, and writing...
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Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 51.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Every utopia is a dystopia to some I watched this at a time I could do a session daily. Which gave me time to think of one session before moving on to the next. The course inspired me to re-read 1984 and Brave New World.
Date published: 2020-07-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Watch This. What a fabulous course. Links to social history and author backgrounds. If everybody had this lady as an English teacher what a well informed lot we would be. The works spanning 500 years have gobsmacking relevance to today. Fans of the matrix, lord of the rings, Harry Potter, marvel stories, Star Wars, social reformers, power hungry leaders. What an eye opener. Can only hope it can gain a bigger audience. Superb.
Date published: 2020-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mind Bending My own areas of knowledge are Physics and Mathematics. In literature I am moving out of my comfort zone. However I found this course amazing. It has really broadened my mind and I now have numerous books to read and movies to watch. Thanks Pamela Bedore.
Date published: 2020-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Discriptive about all things utopian and dystopian I am learning so much about subjects I never considered or knew about. The professor is very knowledgeable and a delight to listen to, you can tell she loves her subject and wants to inform us about everything she knows!
Date published: 2019-12-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Insights I should have paid closer attention to the course description, and especially the chapter titles. My impression was the course would explore Utopian and Dystopian worlds; comparing and contrasting different views, aspects, and relationships between them, then relating how various authors had dealt with those aspects. It was very soon apparent that was incorrect. It is rather a book review of of selected works of the genre through time, each volume examined in itself and compared and contrasted to other works being covered. Professor Bedore is very knowledgeable, has selected many great examples of the genre, and expressed well thought out impressions of them. Her enthusiasm and love of the topic is wonderful. She has definite opinions, and is not afraid to express them, refreshing in our day of trying not to offend anyone. I gained many insights to add to my own reading of many of the works reviewed. A couple of comments on the lecture presentation itself: she displays some gestures so repeatedly that became distracting, perhaps using a lectern would help. She was constantly in "spoiler alert" mode, and apparently fearful of "ruining" the reading of someone who had not yet read that particular book. I would suggest if she perceives this as a problem, do a universal warning in the first lecture, and then proceed to fully explain plots so as to fully justify her interpretation. In conclusion, the course was well worth the time and money. I would purchase a followup.
Date published: 2019-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of 500 years of literature I just finished this course and was sorry to see it end. It provided a great overview of the topic, going back 500 years to the origin of utopian literature. The instructor has a pleasant, engaging style. The lectures are well organized and go into sufficient detail without overwhelming the viewer.
Date published: 2019-10-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lecturer I was worried this would be dry...quite the opposite. I’m hoping GreatCourses will get het to do lectures on her many other subject areas.
Date published: 2019-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic Presentation This course has been one of my favorites. The professor, Pamela Bedore, has an infectious, enthusiastic speaking style. She clearly loves the genre of utopian/dystopian literature, and presents her clear and informative lectures in such a way that I now want to read many of the works she describes. I've been making a list as the course progressed, and I'm going to be busy for a long time. Professor Bedore also opened my eyes to many women authors with whom I was not familiar, and the fascinating perspectives these authors bring to the genre. I felt that the on screen graphics greatly enhanced the presentation, although even just watching the professor's delivery of the info was fun - she may be reading from a teleprompter, but you wouldn't know it - she's just enjoying telling us all the different aspects of these books, and her enjoyment inspired me, while also providing much scholarly information. Strongly recommended.
Date published: 2018-10-19
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