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Saunders’s “The Red Bow”: The Dystopian Reality of Totalitarianism Essay

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2021


Literature is not only a form of art but also a versatile tool which can be used to analyze the past and push the limits of reality to examine perspectives and possibilities. A genre that has grown increasingly popular in the last several decades is dystopian science fiction. As opposed to utopia – a paradise-like human society where the boldest ideas about prosperity came to fruition, dystopia paints a gloomy and frightening picture of the world.

While the events in the majority of dystopian stories and novels take place in the future, authors often take inspiration from the political regimes and social phenomena of the past. An array of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century left a trace in world literature, and the trauma of oppression has yet to be processed. In his short story “The Red Bow,” contemporary American author, George Saunders, attempts to examine the mechanisms behind establishing a totalitarian state. This essay will consider the relevance of the topic introduced by Saunders and provide actual historical examples that support his hypothesis.

The Synopsis of “The Red Bow”

“The Red Bow” starts with a group of men going out for a dog hunt in the middle of the night. As it turns out, their otherwise strange decision is explained by the fact that a dog has killed the narrator’s daughter, Emily. At first, the men are looking for a specific dog – an intention which appears to be more or less reasonable – but as time passes by, their obsession with animals is pushed to the extreme (Saunders).

After some time, the men no longer hold a grudge against one dog – instead, they see all animals in their area as their arch enemies. They want to spread the message about the dangers of keeping animals around, and soon the entire community joins them to eliminate the threat. In the beginning, the red bow serves as the evidence of dogs’ cruelty, as the accessory belonged to the narrator’s deceased daughter. The narrator uses it to promote his cause and claims that the red bow still has bite marks. However, as the plot unravels, a reader learns that the piece of evidence is fake.

The Symbolism of “The Red Bow”

Saunders’s “Red Bow” could be interpreted as an extended metaphor for political propaganda that aims at separating social groups and breeding hatred and hostility between them for their interest. The hunting team represents the totalitarian government which starts small but then spreads their power to infest the minds of other community members. What makes the story realistic is that “the government” bases its doctrine on something seemingly reasonable and feasible – the safety of citizens.

However, as they say, those who trade freedom for safety lose both, and soon the community members start suffering from the new “guidelines.” For instance, Bourne’s dog is shot for no reason at all – and forcefully so. Further, Father Terry’s dog is killed not because it was displaying symptoms of aggression but only because the hunting group held a personal grudge against the owner. Thus, the war against animals becomes the war against those who do not share the hunting team’s views.

Real-Life Example: Khmer Rouge

One of the terrifying real-life examples of murderous government propaganda is Khmer Rouge or Khmer genocide in Cambodia in the 20th century. A reader can draw a parallel between the phenomenon of Khmer Rouge and the scheme described by George Saunders which only amplifies the message sent by the concerned writer. Back in the 1960s, the Communist Party of Kampuchea was a small group based in the remote jungle regions that made little headway (Lowery and Bergin 51).

However, as a civil war broke off after a military coup, the party exploited the opportunity and through coalitions, gained increasing support. Here, a reader can compare the opportunist actions taken by the party to the way the hunting team used the death of a little girl to forward their agenda. The Cambodian communist leader Pol Pot abolished money and private property, emptied the cities and established rural communities. While at the time some of his measures might have seemed to be viable solutions, soon, their reinforcement turned into massacre and genocide of two million people who could not comply with the new laws.

Contemporary Real-Life Example: North Korea

To those who live under the democratic regime, it may seem that totalitarianism is a thing of the past. However, there are still some contemporary examples of governments controlling their people by using terror and violence. One of the prime examples of such states is North Korea – a small country in East Asia that has been isolated from the rest of the world for decades on end. As of now, the country’s policies are based on the ideology of Juche, or self-reliance (French 80).

Within the said ideology, the rest of the world is inhabited by enemies while North Korea is the only rightful communist state that does not succumb under pressure. Again, a reader may notice that while independence is a positive value, the way it is executed or rather imposed is horrifying. It is easy to see that keeping people in a bubble of illusion is only possible through violence (Myers 74). There is extensive evidence of human rights violation including political killings, torture, and forced labor camps. Everything attests to the fact that over the decades, the government has shifted from seeing the enemy outside to looking for the enemy within and has been terrorizing its people ever since.


In their works, writers often show how the horrendous events of the past could unfold further were they not put to a halt back in a day. Even though “The Red Bow” is not based on real events and the plot might appear a tad absurdist at first, upon further reflection, it is possible to draw parallels with historical phenomena. In this sense, such stories may be not only entertaining but also educational – while they somewhat simplify the mechanism of government propaganda, they also convey the point to larger audiences. “The Red Bow” describes the process in which a group of activists can perpetuate any cause – no matter how unreasonable it may seem.

The hunting team representing the government uses the death of a little girl to wage war against animals and convince the community to do the same. The history of humankind knows many examples of political propaganda getting out of hand, for instance, Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and the totalitarian state of North Korea. The imaginary government in “The Red Bow” and real regimes are characterized by the gradual process of dividing the nation and vilifying a particular group of people.

Works Cited

French, Paul. North Korea: The State of Paranoia. Zed Books Ltd, 2015.

Lowery, Zoe, and Sean Bergin. The Khmer Rouge’s Genocidal Reign in Cambodia. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc, 2016.

Myers, Brian R. North Korea’s Juche Myth. Busan: Sthele Press, 2015.

Saunders, George. “Esquire. 2009. Web.

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