Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Religion and Power
Dune was one of the first science-fiction novels to address issues of religion. Many science-fiction authors considered religion an outdated institution that would eventually lose its direct control over society. Many writers assumed that the separation of church and state would only widen in the future. Frank Herbert had a different conception of the future. Dune’s universe employs a feudal government system that includes dukes and barons and in which religion has a very strong presence in everyday life and politics.
Religion’s most obvious presence in Dune is in the Bene Gesserit. The Bene Gesserit are familiar with numerous religious texts, from the Orange Catholic Bible to more cryptic texts such as the Great Mysteries. These texts play a significant role in defining the Bene Gesserit conception of the world. The Missionaria Protectiva reveals that the Bene Gesserit frequently exploit religion to protect their own members. The Bene Gesserit use the Missionaria Protectiva to spread contrived legends and prophecies to developing worlds. Bene Gesserit can exploit these legends to earn the respect of the native inhabitants, who believe in the contrived legends.
The other important presence of religion in Dune involves control of the Fremen. Kynes’s father is the first person to exploit religion as a method of rallying the Fremen to his cause—turning Arrakis from a desert planet to a lush, green world. Kynes and his father hope to bring paradise back to Arrakis through religion. Although Kynes wants to bring nature to Arrakis by making it a lush, green planet, his endeavor is contrary to nature because Arrakis is a naturally dry planet.
Religion represents a source of comfort and power throughout the novel. Paul pursues the same goals as Kynes, but he uses his religious power over the Fremen as their messiah to gain control of the entire Imperium. Paul possesses mystical abilities that go above and beyond a simple heightened awareness or intelligence, but his clever exploitation of religion is his most powerful advantage. Paul’s adept manipulation of religion and the calculated use of legends contrived by the Bene Gesserit allow him to rise to the position of Emperor.
Human Control Over Ecology
To exist in the harsh desert climate of Arrakis, the Fremen must be keenly attune to ecological issues such as the availability of water, the proximity of giant sandworms, and unstable weather patters. The ecological issues in Dune extend beyond the mere necessities of daily life on Arrakis. Dr. Kynes, a prominent figure in the book, is an ecologist who hopes to transform the ecosystem of Arrakis from a desert to fertile, verdant splendor. The Fremen take up his cause, and Paul continues it after Kynes’ death.
Altering Arrakis into a lush garden planet is performing the work of a higher power, reshaping the land to conform to the preference and needs of the Fremen. Yet no character in Dune ever questions whether it is morally right to change the climate of Arrakis. Changing the planet might kill the sandworms, which have an integral role in creating melange, an addictive drug used throughout the universe. Such a change in the ecosystem may also obliterate the muad’dib, the planet’s beloved mice, and the source for Paul’s new Fremen name. The Fremen are strong and powerful soldiers because they have trained in a harsh desert climate. The Fremen would not have the power to fight the Emperor’s soldiers or change the climate of Arrakis if the environment were different.
Dune raises the question of whether humans should exercise their power to manipulate the environment, but lack of opposition from any character in the novel leaves no firm conclusion.
Herbert explores the moral question of manipulating nature with the issue of the gene pool in Dune as well. Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, and his duty is to diversify the genetic makeup of the universe. Disturbing the natural genetic makeup may lead to a deadly holy war, or jihad. If human beings fight the natural order of life, whether through the environment or genetic codes, Herbert suggests, the results can be dire, even if the repercussions are not felt until far off in the future.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Inheritance and Nepotism
It is ironic that Dune’s futuristic political system is based on the feudal system of the Middle Ages. Dukes and barons rule planets and sectors of space, and control passes down from one relative to the next in line. After the death of Duke Leto, Paul becomes the duke of Arrakis. Similarly, Baron Harkonnen plans to hand his power to his nephew Feyd-Rautha.
In the future society depicted in Dune, relatives inherit more than wealth. The “sins of the father” often pass to the children as well. The Atreides and the Harkonnens hold something called kanly against one another. Kanly is the right of vengeance. Any act performed by one against another can be lawfully reacted to in kind. The tenet of “an eye for an eye” applies to families and communities, not just to individuals. The Atreides and the Harkonnens spend their time raiding and killing one another, and each generation of Atreides and Harkonnens continues the cycle of vengeance and hatred.
Inheritance is important to both males and females for preserving knowledge and power. Paul’s mother trains Paul in the skills of the Bene Gesserit. Jessica also passes her powers to her daughter, Alia. Similarly, Lady Fenring seduces Feyd-Rautha in order to carry his child as part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program. Paul worries that the Bene Gesserit’s plan to reinvigorate the human gene pool can be accomplished only through jihad, a war that will spread across the universe. Birth and family lines are an integral aspect of relationships in Dune because they maintain tradition throughout thousands of years and thousands of worlds.
One of the more distinctive aspects of Dune’s environment is the existence of precognition, or knowledge about events that have not yet occurred. The mystical ability of certain human beings to see into the future brings elements of fantasy into the novel.
Most of the characters with precognitive powers are members of Bene Gesserit or the Guild, but Paul develops this power beyond all others because of three factors: his genetic heritage, his Bene Gesserit and Mentat training, and his exposure to melange. Herbert never clearly describes the exact nature of Paul’s powers, but given the improbable nature of some of Paul’s predictions, his precognitive powers must work on a level beyond mere calculation.
Paul’s precognition gives him control. By knowing the future, Paul can shape events in the present to attain the results he desires. Of all his powers, precognition is perhaps the most useful, as well as the most terrifying. Paul feels that his precognition is both a blessing and a curse. He is concerned about having too much control over people, such as the Fremen, but he also feels driven to achieve his ultimate goal of gaining control of the universe.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Melange, the spice drug, is found in limited quantities on the planet Arrakis and mined by the Fremen. Dune was written in the early 1960s, when drug experimentation was beginning to enter the mainstream consciousness of America. Dune explores the concept of drugs as a way of opening “the doors of perception,” a phrase penned by the poet William Blake that Aldous Huxley used as the title of a book about his experiments with hallucinogens. Consuming melange, which is highly addictive in large quantities, allows Paul to see through time and to perceive the future.
As a symbol, melange represents the untapped potential of human perception and brainpower. Melange allows Paul to achieve the greatest heights of his power and awareness. Melange is a costly crutch, however. Melange is highly addictive in large quantities, and Paul cannot survive without great quantities of it. The more he takes, the less the drug affects his awareness, and so he requires greater and more concentrated doses. Melange may open the “doors of perception,” but its addictive force binds its users to the drug .
The Fremen refer to blood as “the body’s water,” suggesting that the Fremen view water as the blood of the environment. When Thufir Hawat agrees to join the Fremen, he enters the “bond of water,” rather than a blood oath or blood brothers. People show their loyalty to each other by spitting or sharing water. Paul and Jessica, during their time with the Fremen, engage in countless rituals that involve water. For example, Paul accepts the water of Jamis’s corpse after he kills him. After drinking this water, Paul is baptized into the culture of the Fremen, and he is reborn as a leader in their world. For the Fremen, water and life are one and the same.
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