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Social Criticism in Books: ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursulak Le Guin and ‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo Essay

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2021

Introduction

In her novel “The Dispossessed”, the author Ursula Le Guin talks of two worlds forming a two-planet system: Urras and Anarres. While Urras is a beautiful, fertile place, populated by a human-like race, Anarres is a desert world, a wasteland inhabited sparsely and devoid of water and biological resources that support life. Shevek is a scientist and a genius in theoretical physics. He grows up in the utopia, learns and rebels against its limitations, and reaches out to the world outside Anarres. Using this plot as a backdrop, Ursula Le Guin discusses various aspects of social and political feasibility in a different culture, a different history, a different world. The true focus of this book, however, is the Odonian utopia on Anarres. The Dispossessed discusses a wide range of utopian concepts derived from Taoism, the ideas of political thinkers like Fourier and Kropotkin, and the oppositional politics of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Main body

Antares is a society with problems such as complacency and stasis. Le Guin discusses the complex boundary between utopia and dystopia including in the process an examination of gender roles. In the utopian society of Anarres, the two genders are treated with complete equality, a fact reflected very clearly in their language “Pravic”, which has been specifically developed as part of their efforts to create the ideal society. This language has no words for sexual intercourse that indicate possession of one partner by another except for one indicating rape. Instead, the language features plural sexual verbs, indicating mutual action: “It meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had”. Individuals have names that are entirely devoid of gender. Infants are given computer-generated names, ostensibly as a democratic gesture that avoids conventional patriarchal naming procedures. Pravin also contributes to the communal nature of society on Anarres in other ways, as in its use of the same word for “work” and “play” and in its de-emphasis on expressions indicating possession. The details of the political philosophy in Anarres are mostly communist and anarchic: little to no personal property, no political structure, no one in authority, and peer pressure used as the only policing force. The drudge work of the world is shared in common, each person giving a day in ten.

Shevek works on the development of a unified theory of time that incorporates both sequence – the typical Western vision of linear historical progression- and simultaneity – a sort of Taoist vision of all times as existing at once. This conflation of history and eternity thus serves as a central metaphor for the book’s attempt to escape utopian stasis by proposing an ideal society that is still able to accommodate change, conflict, and human rivalries. The society of Anarres is based on a belief in perpetual revolution. There is an anarchistic suspicion of fixed structures of all kinds in which the individual’s responsibility resides not so much in obedience to existing systems as in contributions to ongoing revolutionary change. In Shevek’s words: “Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice–the power of change, the essential function of life”.

However, Le Guin seems to posit certain fixed ideals for her society-in-flux, which may be one reason why the revolutionary society of Anarres is in danger of stagnation in the novel. The administrative functions of a society that has no government become more and more bureaucratic. Scientific institutions are controlled by aging and selfish individuals who fear innovation. The rebel Shevek is thus forced to turn to the hated “propertarian” society of Urras for a source of new energies that will stimulate his own scientific thinking and help to free his society of its stasis.

The contrast between the poverty of Anarres and the richness of Urras is also problematic. Le Guin clearly rejects material wealth as the basis of the “good” society, and the rich nation of “A-lo” on Urras is projected as a place of severe injustice and inequality. In The Dispossessed “material dispossession becomes the necessary condition for ethical wealth”. This seems to indirectly refer to Christian traditions and the exaltation of asceticism. Thus, Le Guin’s book attempts to assemble various elements of the oppositional thinking of the leftist politics of the sixties and seventies into a coherent utopian statement.

Don DeLillo’s award-winning book, “White Noise” (1985) tells the story of a college professor and his family whose small Midwestern town is evacuated after an industrial accident. Published in January 1985 only a month after the Union Carbide chemical disaster in India, the novel was hailed as timely in its depiction and naming of the airborne toxic event. Apart from that, this book involves totally American concerns and particularly American numbness towards certain social issues. Through Jack, Don DeLillo also discusses the cult of power and death that fascism entails. The book highlights the hazards attending the new world order that is constantly changing due to globalization and the fusion of cultures.

The main protagonist is Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies who lives with his fourth wife, Babette, and their four children from previous marriages. Jack and Babette are obsessed with one question: Who will die first? Very soon, the entire community is threatened by an “airborne toxic event” that forces the family to evacuate their home and, Jack believes, exposes him to deathly poison. White Noise exposes, more significantly, the overwhelming power of the media to dictate, dominate and mediate the meaning of our lives. The title itself refers to the numbing meaningless sounds generated in contemporary life. White Noise explores several themes that emerged during the mid-to-late twentieth century, e.g., rampant consumerism, media saturation, novelty intellectualism, underground conspiracies, the disintegration and re-integration of the family, and the potentially positive virtues of human violence. ”White Noise” talks about everyday American issues such as traffic, television, and the bold prints of tabloids, fast food, and movies. Television, DeLillo says is ”the primal force in the American home, sealed-off, self-contained, self-referring…” Through the character of Jack, DeLillo shows how the society is made up of people who are reluctant to address a concept of evil, do not question consumption patterns, are tuned to accept disaster only in faraway places but not within the home, and worse, never in oneself.

Don DeLillo writes about America as a land “where no one is responsible or in control; all are receptors, receivers of stimuli, consumers”. Children, in the America of ”White Noise,” are in general more competent, more watchful, more in sync than their parents; The novel’s first short section informs us the children seem the only ones still attuned enough to the natural world to be concerned about dogs and cats. But children are also the targeted audience, the frequency to which the advertising industry and the vast construct of the media are tuned. The issue of parent-child antagonism is dealt with through the conflicts between Heinrich and Jack, and also between Babette and Denise. They share open hostilities that mask love and concern. The family’s attempts to connect demonstrate the need for love, even when those efforts go unfulfilled. Seeking solace, the Gladney’s, typically middle class, fill their internal sense of deprivation with the external, material excess of the much-visited supermarket, where buying power gives Jack a sense of “replenishment, a sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls”. The family also has a great love for watching disaster footage on television. This raises the question of morality. Can disaster be made entertaining? The media does that. White Noise mocks people’s inability to empathize. The book shows that entertainment in others’ suffering, encouraged by the media is an immoral aspect of modern-day culture.

Conclusion

When we compare the two novels, we find that both of them are excellent commentaries on social orders. While “The Dispossessed” deals with utopian ideas and concepts of leftist politics, “White Noise” deals with problems in the present social order in America. One can identify better with the social criticism embedded in “White Noise” for it talks about the present-day world and problems that the common man faces within and outside his home.

Bibliography

  1. DeLillo, Don (1985). White Noise. Viking Publishers. New York
  2. Le Guin, K. Ursula (1974). The Dispossessed. Avon Publishers. New York
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"Social Criticism in Books: ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursulak Le Guin and ‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo." IvyPanda, 12 Sept. 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/social-criticism-in-books-the-dispossessed-by-ursulak-le-guin-and-white-noise-by-don-delillo/.

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IvyPanda. "Social Criticism in Books: ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursulak Le Guin and ‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo." September 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/social-criticism-in-books-the-dispossessed-by-ursulak-le-guin-and-white-noise-by-don-delillo/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Social Criticism in Books: ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursulak Le Guin and ‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo." September 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/social-criticism-in-books-the-dispossessed-by-ursulak-le-guin-and-white-noise-by-don-delillo/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Social Criticism in Books: ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursulak Le Guin and ‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo'. 12 September.

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