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Social Relations and State Control in “Penguin Island” Novel and “Brazil” Film

Since ancient times, social relations and state control have been an issue of discussion in the literature. The decay of modern society in both works participates in a widespread concern with social, moral, and even biological degeneration that swept through Western culture in the 20th century. Part of the failure of the society to progress arises from the fact that the transformation of the citizens into free individuals and humans is less than entirely successful. Two works selected for analysis, Penguin Island by Anatole France and film Brazil criticize social relations and strong state power which oppresses identity and self-identification of citizens.

Penguin Island is a satirical novel that describes bourgeois France but is also intended as a cautionary story about a capitalist society in general. In the book, a devout Catholic monk, Saint Mael, sets out to convert the inhabitants of the islands of the Breton coast of France. In the process, he encounters a storm that blows him off course, driving his vessel southward. Mael finally lands on an island off Antarctica were, nearly blinded by the reflection of the sun’s rays from the polar ice, he mistakes the island’s penguin population for small humans. The narrator “praises” his own contemporary, the conservative Pope Pius X, for taking action against such similar contamination in Europe as “contrary to revealed truth, fatal to sound theological doctrine, and a mortal blow to faith” (France 109). He thereupon begins preaching to the penguins and eventually baptizes them. Then, to avoid the embarrassment of having mere animals brought into the Church in this way, God transforms the penguins into human beings. The bulk of the book then traces the development of civilization on Penguin Island through medieval, Renaissance, and finally modern stages, allowing France to make several satirical observations about the history of his own Europe, especially France. Many characters and episodes correspond directly to figures and events in French history, including the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars of conquest, and the notorious Dreyfus affair. In addition, France’s mode of constructing his fictional history serves as a parody of the techniques and preoccupations of “serious” historians. From the initial error of Saint Mäel onward, the most prominent specific target of France’s satire is the Catholic Church. When first converted to humanity, for example, the penguins continue to live in a mode of innocence and tranquility, much as did Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The efforts of Mäel and the other clerics who come to the island to bring morality and modesty to the former penguins only result in the introduction of corruption, greed, and lasciviousness, which in turn lead to guilt and unhappiness.

The events of Brazil are set in a near-future London, Brazil is a work that combines this dark setting with satire, parody, and complex ironies that open several rich dialogues with the traditions of both fiction and film. The protagonist of Brazil is Sam Lowry, a conscientious and well-connected but unimportant and unambitious bureaucrat who works in the gigantic Orwellian Ministry of Information, an organization charged not only with keeping tabs on the general populace but also with distributing official propaganda to encourage the ongoing obedience of that population. As one might expect, the work of the Ministry depends heavily on computerization. The state of computer technology in this future world is anachronistically backward; the available machines use clunky mechanical typewriters for keyboards and small black-and-white televisions for monitors. Meanwhile, communication between different parts of the huge

The main similarity of these works is that they use satire, irony, and humor to citizen social relations and state control. In contrast to the novel, the film represents a mixture of styles and genres and depicts different historical periods that create several contradictions and presents several opportunities for viewers. In contrast to the film, the novel is based on satire and acute irony appealing to the emotions and imagination of its readers. The cumbersome technology of Brazil also centrally contributes to the drab atmosphere of the film, which features blighted industrial landscapes, decaying urban slums, and dark, crumbling buildings. All citizens are liable to sudden and unexpected arrest at the hands of the heavily armed troops charged with keeping security, and citizens are sometimes arrested (and even executed) through administrative errors. This oppressive atmosphere stands in stark contrast to the official propaganda produced by the Ministry, which typically features smiling, happy families in idyllic settings. That this propaganda is but a thin veneer of optimism over the true darkness of life in this society is emphasized by the frequent depiction in the film of roadways lined by solid walls of propagandistic billboards that block the view of the blighted landscape beyond. In the novel, satirical history proceeds into modern times, and this focus on Catholicism recedes, to be replaced by a general condemnation of social affectation, financial deception, and cultural sterility. France’s socialist sympathies become increasingly clear in the latter parts of the book, in which he focuses more and more on the negative consequences of capitalism and industrialization for the society of Penguins. The narrator explains his vision of reality: “vast numbers of masterpieces of poetry and ancient rhetoric were destroyed. Historians are unanimous in agreeing that the Penguin monasteries were the refuge of literature in the Middle Ages” (France 85). From the very beginning, the author suggests that the introduction of the idea of private property to the inhabitants of Penguin Island has severe pernicious effects. By the time Penguinia reaches the twentieth century, this emphasis on private property has led to a strict class-oriented society in which the relatively few rich grow increasingly prosperous through the labors of the impoverished masses. Meanwhile, industrialization leads not only to the virtual enslavement of the workers who must man the factories but also to extreme environmental degradation. The once pristine island becomes increasingly polluted.

In the novel Penguin Island the theme of social control and social criticism is developed through the lens of religion and low morals of people, In Brazil, social criticism is developed through motifs of strict power and ministerial control over the lives of citizens. Almost all of the images of Brazil are complex and ambiguous. For example, by the end of the film, it is not certain whether Lowry’s sexual liaison with Jill was not also a figment of his imagination, and there are hints that Tuttle’s entire existence may be imaginary. The film thus resembles the novel in its central opposition between political oppression and the individual imagination, but it refuses to take a simple stand concerning this opposition. In particular, Brazil neither declares the inevitable victory of the imagination nor accepts the ultimate impossibility of resistance to tyranny.

In sum, the history of Penguin Island and social life in Brazil along with a depiction of the revolution that destroys capitalism as leading not to communism but simply to the destruction of civilization differs dramatically from the fundamental history and of revolution. Despite the humor and satirical elements of their plots, both works are pessimistic. They can be seen as a warning of what could happen were events to continue on the negative course the authors believed they had already begun in modern capitalism.


Brazil (1985) (1998). dir. b Terry Gilliam. DVD. Universal Studios

France, A. (2009). Penguin Island. Brownstone Books


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