Social Separation in Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake is not only a work of science fiction and fantasy, but a speculation as to the way in which our world may turn out if we continue to make dangerous choices as a society. Atwood explores the idea of how far we will take the idea of separating people by class and she also enters into how our abilities and education will shape the way we live. Most importantly however, she has created an extremist point of view of the class system. It is imperative to explore the ways in which people are separated by class in this novel because it can be seen as a warning of what is to come since there are already so many parallels in her tale with today’s society.
The world that is portrayed in Oryx and Crake is a very surreal and unique world where there is a high precedent placed on technology and scientific advancements that have been made. In this futuristic world people are separated by the type of job that they hold, and then they are placed accordingly into corporate-industrial compounds. The compounds are seen as the areas where the higher classes of people live, while the outside cities are called the pleeblands. Jimmy begins his life by living in the OrganInc Compound with his family. Since his father is a scientist who is working on developing human organs inside genetically modified pigs, called pigoons, his family is considered high class and they live accordingly. These compounds, or communities, have their own built in schools and shopping areas. They have eliminated the need for people to leave in order to obtain goods, because the compound is self sustaining. The people who live inside the compounds like to separate themselves from the outer world by the high walls they use to surround their communities as well as the CorpSeCorps security guards that they use to protect themselves from the outside world. “Compound people didn’t go to the cities unless they had to, and then never alone. They called the cities the pleeblands. Despite the fingerprint identity cards now carried by everyone, public security in the pleeblands was leaky; there were people cruising around in those places who could forge anything and who might be anybody, not to mention the loose change- the addicts, the muggers, the paupers, the crazies” (Atwood 27). This attitude of complete separation and almost dehumanization of the people outside of compounds could have also led to the idea that these "outside" people could not be "fixed" and were a complete drain on society. This may be considered one of the reasons that Crake wanted to eliminate everyone and start again with new “people.”
Later in the novel, Jimmy’s father receives a promotion and the
family is moved to the HelthWyzer Compound. His father’s scientific
skills were recruited by this company in order to help create NooSkins,
which are another way for people to try to stay youthful looking for
the rest of their lives. Once again, the reader can see how the only
people who advance in society are the ones who have something to offer
the scientific world by way of advancements. The HelthWyzer Compound
was even more secluded by the outside world. “The HelthWyzer Compound
was not only newer than the OrganInc layout, it was bigger. It had two
shopping malls instead of one, a better hospital, three dance clubs,
even its own golf course” (Atwood 54). When Jimmy moves into the
HelthWyzer Compound there is an even bigger disparity between these people
and the people who live in the pleeblands. The pleebland people do not
have access to the HelthWyzer “public school” or to the hospital.
They are kept out by the CorpSeCorps who patrol the border of the compound.
Jimmy’s mother hates the way that this security is run and she
comments on the CorpSeCorps when she says, “…the guards were
ruder, they were suspicious of everyone, they liked to strip search people,
women especially. They got a kick out of it, she said” (Atwood
53). It is clear that Jimmy’s mother is one of the few people who
can see the social injustices that are taking place, and she does not
agree with what she sees happening.
Another type of segregation that is happening in Oryx and Crake is the idea of education being the main factor that dictates how persons will live their lives, and in what ways they will exist in a society. Jimmy and Crake started out in the same compound growing up, but Jimmy was a “word” person and Crake was a “numbers” person. In their fictional world, the main emphasis in society is placed on science and numbers and everything else gets pushed to the side. This includes the arts and literature aspects of their society. In "The Terror Of The Theraputic," Stephen Dunning states that, “As the quantitative technological society advances, it reduces both our need of, and capacity for, linguistic subtlety, emotional precision and nuance, indeed for all those skills that permit and preserve fulfilling, embodied collective human existence.” Upon graduation, Jimmy goes to the Martha Graham Academy, which is not seen as a good school, while Crake goes to the Watson-Crick Institute. They already have their lives mapped out for them right after graduation from high school based on the college that they will attend. When Jimmy arrives at school he sees that there is poor security and the living conditions are substandard. Jimmy also says that, “The Academy had been set up by a clutch of now-dead rich liberal bleeding hearts from Old New York as an Arts-and-Humanities college at some time in the last third of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the Performing Arts- acting, singing, dancing, and so forth” (Atwood 187).
This is an example of how this society does not value the arts anymore, in Atwood's future. Jimmy is one of the only students who does not cheat at school, which goes to show the morals and ethics of the other students who currently attend school with him. He occasionally creates his own words to use, and his teachers never bat an eye, but instead praise him. Jimmy is in school so that he can learn how to use language in order to manipulate people into buying products that they do not need, since that is the only thing a word person is good for in this future society. Crake’s school is the complete opposite, and when Jimmy goes to visit he is able to see all the differences in their schools. “The security going into Watson-Crick as very thorough, unlike the sloppy charade that took place at Martha Graham: the fear must have been that some fanatic would sneak in and blow up the best minds of the generation, thus dealing a crippling blow to something or other” (Atwood 197). It is clear that people place a high value on this learning institution, and the people who attend it.
The large difference between the treatment that “word” people receive and the “number” people receive is shocking in the novel. There is such a gap between them, and the people who cannot contribute to society in a scientific way are swept under the rug. No one cares what they do, which is seen in the fact that cheating at Martha Graham Academy is never punished, and the life their graduates will live is sub par and essentially there is nothing they can do about it. The class systems are developed here, and people be stuck with them for the rest of their lives. People like Crake are destined to have a rich life based on what they can offer, but no one else is allowed the chance to move into their society. The segregation factor is harsh, and they make no attempt to hide it. It is a worrisome thought to think that people may one day start to move into this pattern of thinking someday. Right now, our own culture allows for upward mobility. If you have a skill or a talent, you can use it to the best of your ability. Just because you are born poor does not mean you have to stay poor. Working hard and getting good grades can get you into the school you want to go to, regardless of where you live. While it may be harder, it is not impossible, such as the way it is in Oryx and Crake. A pleebland person would never be allowed into either Martha Graham or Watson-Crick because it would be unheard of. Education, and access to it, is a major segregating factor for these people.
Oryx and Crake seems like a cautionary tale for people to read and think about. Comparing the way that our society is now to the way that it could be in the future may be a sobering thought for some people, and perhaps Margaret Atwood is telling us that if we continue to live our lives in such a way we could end up like the people in the novel. It is unwise to place such a high premium on some people and think absolutely nothing of others based on their place in society. The people in the compounds do not care what happens to the people in the pleeblands, but they fail to realize that they all live in the same place, and that they are all people. Even though they may not see it, they are all connected in some way. While they may try to fight it, sooner or later they will realize that it is true, and that everyone’s ultimate fate is connected.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2003. 1-376.
Dunning, Stephen. "Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: the Terror of the Therapeutic." Canadian Literature 186 (2005): 86-101.
"Gated Communities." Wikipedia. 31 Oct. 2006. 11 Nov. 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gated_community>.
Copyright 2006 Dr. Michael O'Conner
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