Refigurations of Freedom

An Analysis of the Idea of Freedom in Contemporary American Young Adult Dystopian Fiction

by Robert Gadowski (Author)
©2022 Monographs 190 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 15


The idea of freedom, changed and contested throughout the ages, has become the staple of liberal democracies and a beacon of hope amidst dark tendencies that endanger the future. This books offers an analysis of freedom in the context of its historical significance for the Western civilization, newly emerging socio-political trends, and the proliferation of innovative technologies that all converge to shape human life in the nearest future. All of these prolific topics permeate modern literature, and in particular the work of American dystopian writers who convey visions of the future where profound refiguration of freedom and the whole democratic paradigm is inevitable.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One An Overview of the Idea of Freedom in the Western World
  • 1.1. Freedom in Ancient Greece
  • 1.1.1. Individual Freedom in a Universe Determined by Fate and the Gods
  • 1.1.2. The Social Basis of the Ancient Idea of Freedom: The Dichotomy of Freedom and Enslavement
  • 1.1.3. The Political Dimension of Freedom in Ancient Greece
  • 1.1.4. Freedom as Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy
  • 1.2. Freedom in Ancient Rome
  • 1.2.1. Freedom and Enslavement in the Social Context of Ancient Rome
  • 1.2.2. The Political Dimension of Freedom in Ancient Rome
  • 1.2.3. Freedom as Virtue in Ancient Rome
  • 1.3. Medieval Christianity and Freedom
  • 1.4. Freedom in Modern Europe
  • 1.4.1. The End of Feudal Social Relationships and the Advent of New Ways of Viewing Freedom
  • 1.4.2. The Impact of the Protestant Reformation on the Emergence of New Ideas of Freedom
  • 1.4.3. Social Expansion of the Notion of Freedom
  • 1.4.4. Intellectual Freedom
  • 1.4.5. The Growth of Political Freedom
  • 1.5. The Rise of Democratic Freedom in America
  • 1.5.1. Lockean Natural Rights as the Foundation of American Freedom
  • 1.5.2. The Birth of American Freedom
  • 1.5.3. The Notion of Freedom at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
  • 1.5.4. Freedom and the Rise of the Common Man
  • 1.5.5. Freedom and Democracy in the Jacksonian Era
  • 1.5.6. The Incompatibility of American Freedom and Slavery
  • 1.5.7. Economic Freedom in the Gilded Age
  • 1.5.8. The Expansion of Freedom in the Progressive Era
  • 1.5.9. Freedom and the Women’s Rights Movement
  • 1.5.10. Freedom and the Civil Rights Movement
  • 1.6. Freedom in the Recent Era
  • Chapter Two The Failure of Uncontested Freedom
  • 2.1. Uncontested Freedom
  • 2.2. Dystopian Fiction as a Fitting Genre for Considerations of Human Freedom
  • 2.3. Looming Dangers to Freedom in Selected YA Dystopian Fiction
  • Chapter Three Contested Freedom and Its Negotiations
  • 3.1. Freedom vs. the Police State and the Clash of Civilizations
  • 3.2. Freedom, Globalization and Economic Upheaval
  • 3.3. Freedom and Its Negotiations
  • 3.4. Young Adult Dystopian Narratives and a Redefinition of Freedom
  • Chapter Four Freedom in a Posthuman Future
  • 4.1. Posthumanism: Key Ideas
  • 4.2. Transhumanism: Key Ideas
  • 4.3. Criticism of Posthumanism and Transhumanism: Ethical Concerns
  • 4.4. Freedom and the Posthuman/Transhuman Future
  • 4.5. Whose Freedom? Biotechnological Subversion of Egalitarianism
  • 4.6. Transhuman/Posthuman Philosophy in YA Dystopian Narratives
  • 4.6.1. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series: The Shapes of Posthuman Freedom and the Eugenic Impulse
  • 4.6.2. Neal Shusterman’s Unwind Series and Nancy Famer’s Novel The House of the Scorpion: Denying Freedom via Biotechnological Instrumentalization of Human Nature
  • 4.7. Freedom and Cyberspace
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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The last several decades have seen a proliferation of civil freedoms on an unprecedented scale. For citizens of liberal democracies, freedom is understood as a universal phenomenon inextricably linked to universal human rights and liberties.1 Individuals molded by the Western liberal democratic model treat freedom as an indispensable part of their lives. At the same time, the future prospects for freedom to reign ceaselessly are jeopardized by the fact that the West has been too self-satisfied with the liberties it has attained, believing that the liberal advances have been achieved once and for all, and that it is unimaginable that anything might stymie them, let alone reverse them. Terry Eagleton precisely identifies this symptom of the crisis in his seminal work After Theory. He believes that Western politics:

had grown increasingly blunted, as it suited those in power that we should be able to imagine no alternative to the present. The future would simply be the present infinitely repeated − or, as the postmodernist remarked, “the present plus more options” (6–7).

If this is the case, then modern-day politics downplays the hard-won gift of feeling free. In short, for many Westerners freedom has lost its special status and become too mundane and obvious. While Eagleton’s insights are illuminating, the perspective he describes fails to accommodate the harsh realities of the political and social unrest that has emerged in recent decades.

Western democracies are often characterized as free markets of ideas, which therefore offer space within the public discourse even to ideologies that are openly skeptical or sometimes unequivocally opposed to freedom understood as an inalienable human right. In fact, at the very moment that this dissertation is being written, the polarization of Western societies seems to be growing in proportion to the rapid radicalization of political life.2 Grand populist narratives ←9 | 10→spun by political strategists are becoming increasingly influential. Political parties push their agendas and notoriously obscure the meaning of freedom in their programs. Timothy Snyder poignantly describes this process in his book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, in which he eloquently captures the faults of modern democracies’ practices that are leading to a political crisis with regard to liberal democratic freedom within the Western world. He says:

Americans and Europeans were guided … by a tale about the “end of history,” … the politics of inevitability, a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American capitalist version of the story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity (iv).

This way of thinking denies the need to persevere in shaping sociopolitical conditions. On the one hand, people are made to believe by all kinds of politicians that a global triumph of the liberal democratic model is inevitable, but on the other they are confronted with dire conditions of everyday life that undermine the reputed success of democracy in the West. Snyder points this out:

Politics of inevitability resists facts like poverty, financial crisis, inequality, this in turn makes people fed up with it. It undermines itself by being blind to the reality of the present. If it is so good, why it is so bad? (v).

Indeed, practicing politics this way has devalued the meaning of freedom. At the same time, the vacuum created due to the failure of the politics of inevitability has needed to be filled. People have craved a new narrative, a vibrant and persuasive way of approaching social and political life. Unfortunately, in many cases the narratives that have emerged do not champion freedom, but rather, by playing on people’s fears, try to curtail freedom in the name of populist and authoritative policies. Snyder calls this type of politics “eternity politics.”3 He says that this narrative is used by “politicians [who] spread the convictions that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom” (v). Therefore, in the end, eternity politicians effectively rid themselves of the responsibility to create new opportunities for freedom to flourish and they even exalt methods that limit freedom in the name of a greater ←10 | 11→good that is often tied with populist axioms. Western politics, once pregnant with meaning, is now “characterized by superficiality, unwillingness for reform and reducing life to spectacle rather than true reform” (v). Consequently, the crisis of freedom has been dangerously moving from a period of stagnation to what seems to be a full-on attack on intrinsic civil liberties.

This feeling of freedom being under attack can be conflated, to invoke George Lakoff’s phrase, with the development of “siege mentality” that has taken root in Western politics, especially since the rise of international terrorism. While war and social disorder have always been foes of freedom, international terrorism has become a menace that lurks in the shadows and necessitates the implementation of unorthodox measures. The ever-growing state apparatus offers a solution to this problem, but it comes at a price: a drastic increase in coercion and surveillance, as well as restrictions on personal freedom. In the modern world plagued by the fear of terror, Western politicians readily posit themselves as guarantors of peace. In their policies, the ultimate remedy for terrorism lies in a concentration of power and the “necessary” curtailing of civil liberties. In such a scenario, the government becomes an emanation of the Big Brother from an Orwellian dystopia, and freedom becomes a currency to be exchanged for peace and a sense of safety.

These tendencies in social and political life all contribute to the contemporary crisis of freedom. While social philosophies that contemplate the impact of scientific progress provide a scholarly reflection on possible current and future threats to the liberal democratic paradigm, there is still another vibrant field of speculative deliberation on how democratic freedoms may be jeopardized. That area is fiction that clothes social and philosophical issues of human freedom in a literary costume.

Historically, in anglophone literature, the theme of freedom has been associated with the evolution of contemporary literary genres, in particular the emergence of the novel. The great English novels often delved into the issue of the development of an individual’s autonomy in relation to the socio-cultural realities of the period. The works of such writers as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson or Jane Austen highlight the importance of individual rights and liberties by introducing protagonists who face outmoded social mores and social pressure that hamper their freedom. Lynn Hunt, in her Inventing Human Rights: A History, makes valuable observations on the role of the modern novel in facilitating the growth of individual freedom. Hunt states that “[n]ovels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings, and many novels showcased in particular the desire for autonomy,” (39) which facilitated the spread of freedom in social and political spheres. Thus, much ←11 | 12→like the formula of the Bildungsroman4 that underscores the importance of the growth of the protagonist, eighteenth century fiction served as a temple for the readers’ civil growth, urging them to contemplate the extent of freedoms they could enjoy. Similarly, Joseph R. Slaughter, in his Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law, asserts that the concept of the universality of civil liberties, later expressed through the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, derives directly from works of modern literary fiction. Slaughter states that novelists supplied “their idealistic projections of the blossoming free and full human personality,” (52) thereby making it possible to move the discussion of the nature of freedom from the pages of philosophical tracts to the fictitious adventures of popular heroes and heroines, and then to the public arena. The novels produced social and political ferment that penetrated societies and, over time, made the recognition of the importance of civil freedoms a ubiquitous experience in the Western world.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the West had started to treat personal autonomy as a prerequisite for individual liberty, which resulted in the rise of civil rights, established to safeguard the political sphere of the freedom of an individual. In this context, it is no surprise that the denial of civil rights was a major transgression against what freedom was envisioned to be. One of the greatest examples of literary activism that condemns limitations of civil liberties and hails the expansion of freedom comes in the form of nineteenth century American slavery literature. Despite a rich tradition of literary representations of freedom in the political pamphlets of Philip Freneau and Thomas Paine, and the powerful Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson, everyday reality stood in stark contrast to the American adherence to the belief in individual rights. It was slavery literature that rendered freedom from oppression a preeminent topic in the age of institutionalized slavery. Poignant narratives like Frederick Douglas’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) or Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853) have ←12 | 13→become classics of literature promoting civil freedoms. At its core, slavery literature concentrated on the plea to expand freedom beyond the limits of class, race or gender, so that a true egalitarian society could be created.

In the twentieth century, the freedom theme in literature manifested itself differently, for the biggest danger to civil rights and liberties was experienced through totalitarian machinations of states such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia. Totalitarian ideologies engineered societies and robbed them of freedom by means of propaganda, total invigilation and fearmongering. These horrors of history spurred authors of freedom literature to respond to the perils of their day. Notable expressions of concern for freedom trampled by totalitarian powers can be found primarily in the dystopian genre of the time. Literary works such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), serve as powerful warnings that authoritarian rule always leads to the complete decline of a society. In the end, freedom becomes an alien concept to people caught in the cogs of the machine of a totalitarian state.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
liberal democracy utopianism American studies posthumanism transhumanism political science
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Gadowski (Author)

Robert Gadowski completed his doctoral dissertation in philology at the University of Wrocław, Poland. His academic interests involve the areas of literary studies, social sciences and political philosophy.


Title: Refigurations of Freedom