Unseen for OCR A level: Oryx and Crake (Dystopia)


An unseen model, written during an U6th lesson: 55 minutes.

The passage from Margaret Atwood’s 2013 novel Oryx and Crake reflects the Dystopian trope of the eco- dystopia, or possibly, due to the ‘scabs’ all over the Snowman’s body, the dystopian novels derived from some form of unspecified illness which has happened prior to the passage. Such writing as McCarthy’s The Road or Hoban’s Riddley Walker became common in the new Millenium and often recall what Atwood calls here ‘envy or nostalgia’ for the past.

The passage is set in what might seem an idyllic location by the seaside, were it not for details in the precise description. Thus Snowman is hearing the onomatopoieia of the waves, ‘wish-wash’, but instead of rest and relaxation, we learn that ‘he would so like to believe he is still alive’, implying a state of of living which is unrecognisable. The voice of the omnisicient narrator provides information which serves to undercut the immediate impression of peace and tranquility. It seems that the sea and surrounding area have degenerated badly -the ‘ersatz’ reef is a recent aggregation of waste and decay – a tricolon of ‘rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble, in which the syndetic listing serves to build up the pile in the mind of the reader.  Just as Hoban has Riddley Walker recognising elements of the prior mechanised world as he walks around the new Iron Age England, here Snowman seems to be a throw-back to the world before. He lives up a tree, presumably for safety from animals on the gorund, yet he has an ‘authentic-replica red sox’ caps which he hangs from the tree as though from a hook on the bedroom door.  It is not clear from what he is trying to keep it safe.

The ‘dark towers’ out to see develop this hidden threat, their colour alone suggesting negativity, and the narrator regularly develops the same idea, using overturning of convention: thus the ‘rosy’ glow of dawn is  juxtaposed with ‘deadly’ and the narrator asks the reader to consider how the colour has undergone a change -no longer being seen as ‘tender’. The world is in a form of reversal, another typical trope of such writing, as seen in The Road, in particular, where the only colours to break the monotony of ‘grey’ tend to offer little solace to the Man and his son.

The final change in the world as we know it, comes in the description of the ‘punishing’ sun, suggesting a heat too strong to bear. Indeed the children seem to have mutated in some way to develop ‘thick- skin(s) and we wonder if this is how the protagonist got his name. Snowman is no doubt pale and vulnerable to the sun, we note how he does not enter the sea, ‘even at night’. He is a creature of ‘dimness’ because it is clear that the sun will harm him in some way.  When he does move, he is careful and organised. Atwood is precise about his movements and actions, using careful detail to suggest his organised behaviour. The narrator adds detail in such a way as to indicate free indirect speech – Snowman’s own thought processes. He scratches, ‘around but not the itchiest places’ for example since he recognises that blood poisoning ‘is the last thing he needs’. His climb from the tree is equally careful – the repeated ‘right, left’ pattern suggesting this  – and he finds the need for clothing- the use of the Roman Toga is a neat way of separating Snowman from the young children who are probably naked, certainly ‘glistening’ and presumably belong to the new world, or like the boys in The Lord Of The Flies, are somehow removed from adult care. The contrast between the decay of the old world – scabs and rusted car parts- and the shiny newness of the children is clear.

Although they are of a new world, there is still threat. Again, Atwood uses free-indirect speech to show Snowman’s concern as he asks a rhetorical question in his mind concerning the creatures which might ‘infest the lagoon’. If this is a world corrupted by illness, then ‘infest’ carries an important message suggesting that any infection may have come from that source. However, to the children, the savage Snowman is a creature to be observed closely and treated as a source of knowledge, not unlike John the savage in Huxley’s Brave new World. In this new timeless world, he has answers and is the only adult in the passage. He warns them, in tricolon-heavy writing, of the potential dangers of the lagoon: he tries to be kindly, yet sees himself also as paedagogue (teacher) and soothsayer (reader of the future), and in that role has to keep the knowledge of the past alive for the current generation. This is a common Dystopian trope seen in Mr Charrington’s antique shop (1984) or the characters at the end of Fahrenheit 451 who have memorised the great world of literature.  The narrator lists the materials as though on an inventory – ‘ A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobbs Bucket O’Nubbins, ditto’. The items chart the disintegration of the Earth from culture -the piano keys – to appalling fast food outlets. Even here, though, danger lurks and the trio of dangers discussed – ‘scalding liquids, sickening fumes, poison dust’ -provide an asyndetic listing of the elements which may have caused the sickness and immense suffering.

Despite this, the children seem happy – they sing and chant Snowman’s name and are impervious to the heat of the sun. In the novel Station 11, we read of impossibly hot sunlight, but here the children really do seem to be protected by some form of evolutionary development. Indeed this troubles Snowman and he seems uncertain whether to be envious or overcome with nostalgia. It is clear that the children seem to have a much freer life than that which he had before whatever has befallen the planet, and he is all too aware of his stench and his vulnerability as he meets the group -seemingly a daily, or at  least a regular, occurrence. The suggestion is of a figure from an earlier time who is sought by the young inhabitants and treated as a valuable source of knowledge. If this is the case, it is a change from many Dystopian novels in which such characters are shunned or pushed to the edges of society, as in Zamyatin’s We or Huxley’s Brave New World. That said, he is a fascination in himself. The chidlren quickly forget the fruits of the beachcombing and ‘stand and stare’. Their question, ‘whether he has two eyes really, or three’ suggests the almost mythical status that he has among the group. A survivor perhaps, or certainly someone from a lost generation.