Study Guide

Dune Themes

  • Man & the Natural World

    Pardot Kynes says that the purpose of ecology is "understanding consequences" (30.11). Now, that's a bit different from the definition you'd find in a dictionary, but it's a definition that helps us understand nature's role in Dune. In Dune, our relationship with nature is one of consequences. The environment a society lives in shapes that society's culture, economics, politics, and religion. So, a society from the forested lands of Europe will be distinctly different from one found in the Sahara Desert. The same can be said for planets like Caladan, Arrakis, and Geidi Prime in Dune. Each planet uniquely shapes the civilization found within its own ecology. Kind of weird, huh? Add or subtract a river, or a forest, or a bunch of mountains, and you could find yourself living in an entirely different society. Does that mean you'd become a different person?

    Questions About Man & the Natural World

    1. Excluding the Fremen and Kynes, which character do you think best understands the ecology and nature of Arrakis? Which character understands it least? Explain your answer. Also, how does this understanding directly relate to this character's individual fate at the novel's conclusion?
    2. Everybody makes a big hullaballoo over water on Arrakis. But what other environmental differences to do you see between Arrakis and our world? List them. What do these differences say about nature? Do they teach you anything about our own ecology? Explain why or why not?
    3. Take a look at our other themes. Now, pick the one you believe is most affected by the environment of Arrakis. Explain your decision. If you want, you can go in the opposite direction and choose the one you see as least affected.
    4. Pick a novel in which the protagonist travels to a foreign place. Any book will do—the place can be fictional or real, as long as it's foreign to the protagonist. Now, what parallels can you draw between your chosen novel and Dune? Does Dune suggest new ideas about nature or ecology for your book of choice? Why or why not? Does your novel suggest new readings for the theme of ecology in Dune?

    Chew on This

    On the surface, the planet of Arrakis appears to be based on the Middle Eastern ecology. But when politics, religion, and economics are considered as part of Dune's ecology, the result is a distinctly American vibe.

    The ultimate message of Dune is that humans can never find balance with their ecology. Either nature will destroy mankind, or humans will destroy it.

  • Fate & Free Will

    Human beings have an obsession with wondering about the future. Are we destined to play a specific, predestined role in history, or do we have free will? Do the tarot cards reveal truths about our future? How seriously should we take our fortune cookies? Dune plays with these ideas—well, except for the fortune cookie—and pretty much occupies a middle ground. Paul Atreides has the ability to see the future in his dreams, but he views the future as a spectrum of possibilities. In other words, he is fated to a variety of different futures, but his free will will determine which future ultimately becomes reality. It's pretty heavy stuff for a fifteen-year-old boy to cope with, but on the plus side, he doesn't have to lug a tarot deck everywhere he goes.

    Questions About Fate & Free Will

    1. So, the big question then: Was Paul the messiah prophesized by the Fremen, or did he simply use the myth to his own advantage? Explain your answer.
    2. What do you think: do some characters employ free will while others are fated to certain destinies? What determines whether or not a character has free will? How are fate and free will determined? Don't forget those explanations.
    3. Pick a character, any character. In what ways does this character demonstrate free will? In what ways does this character no have free will? Make a list for each. What does your list tell you about the theme of fate and free will in Dune?

    Chew on This

    Although Dune plays coy with the idea of fate and free will, Paul's jihad means it lands on the side of fate.

    The Bene Gesserit's breeding program suggests that the novel's idea of fate focuses more on social and political flavors of fate than the spiritual ones.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Dune just can't make up its mind about traditions and customs, can it? Take Duke Leto, for instance. He stops the Harkonnen tradition of selling slop water to the beggars and institutes a tradition where the needy get clean, fresh water instead. Seems like a good idea, right? But Duke Leto doesn't learn Fremen customs quickly enough, and it eventually leads to his downfall. On the other hand, Paul succeeds where his father failed by doing just that: learning Fremen customs. So are traditions and customs good or bad in Dune? Then again, maybe this subject is just too complicated for terms like good or bad? Maybe the book is suggesting that we judge traditions and customs by their usefulness in the moment, always willing to throw out what no longer works for us in the here and now. Just maybe…

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. Pick a moment in the book where following a tradition or custom helped a character. What does this moment suggest about the theme of traditions and customs? If you couldn't find such a moment, then consider what this absence says about the theme.
    2. Pick a moment in the book where following a tradition or custom hinders a character. What does this moment suggest about the theme of traditions and customs? If you couldn't find such a moment, then consider what this absence says about the theme.
    3. Pick a planet from the novel. How are the traditions and customs similar to our own? How are they different? What does this suggest to you about the nature or purpose of traditions and customs in culture?

    Chew on This

    Paul changes certain Fremen traditions and customs, but since he could not alter their religious customs, he could do nothing to stop the jihad in the end.

    All the characters who are unwilling or unable to change their traditions and customs die. The sole exception is the Emperor Corrino, but he ends up in exile, so it amounts to the same thing.

  • Coming of Age

    Every child wants to be a grown-up, but no child wants to do the growing up. Why? Because it's hard, that's why. But if you think you have it bad, just trying growing up as Paul Atreides. Paul was displaced from the only planet he'd ever called home, only to have his father killed and his ducal destroyed. Paul then had to adapt himself to a wholly alien culture, find love, and prevent himself from becoming a messiah whose name will sunder the universe in a bloody jihad.

    Actually, that all seems kind of familiar, right? Displacement, death, love, family, and adaptation to new cultures and ideas? It all sounds a lot like the path we all must travel as we come of age. Paul's path just needs a little more mopping. All that blood, you know.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Do any characters other than Paul come of age during the course of the novel? Who? Use evidence from the book to support your answer. Does this character's coming of age change or expand your understanding of the theme?
    2. Watch one of the Dune movies. Yeah, we know. Watching a movie—how awful. Anyway, compare and contrast Paul's coming of age in the book to that Paul's coming of age in one of the movies. What similarities do you see? What differences? How do these affect the theme within each version?
    3. Pick another coming of age novel, anything from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Make a list comparing Paul's coming of age with the character's from your novel. What does this comparison suggest to you about the coming-of-age genre? Also, does the comparison lead you to a new understanding of either of the two novels?

    Chew on This

    Dune is about cultural as well as personal coming of age. Paul comes of age with the Fremen. At the same time, the Fremen come of age with Paul's help.

    Although billed as a coming of age novel, Paul doesn't actually come of age. He's already an adult character at the beginning of the novel. He's older by the novel's end, but there are no significant changes to his personality.

  • Power

    If we had to describe Dune's theme of power in one word, we'd use "energy." Why? Energy is required in any system to produce any form of force or power. In physics, energy produces the force that makes things move—Newton's Laws of Motion, anyone? In your body's system, food produces energy, so you can get up and do stuff… or sit down and play video games. In Dune, energy comes in a variety of forms, depending on the system in question. In economics, money creates the energy necessary to get things done, and this is why the Baron Harkonnen is such a threatening villain. On Arrakis, water equals power, because without water no one could do anything—because, you know, they'd die. Even information becomes a source of energy in the political system, because without it Mentats like Hawat and Paul could not produce their calculations. So, in a word, energy is power. Awesome.

    Questions About Power

    1. There are many different forms of power in Dune. List as many as you can. What form of power do you think has the power to rule them all? Don't forget to explain your answer with textual evidence.
    2. Taking Paul off the table, what character do you think wields the most power on Arrakis? Why, and what form of power is it? What does this character tell you about the nature of power in the novel?
    3. Religion, Politics, Ecology, Economics, Military: which institution do you think holds the most power over the others? Ties are okay so long as you explain your reasoning.
    4. What do you think is the relationship between the power of the individual and the power of cultural institutions in Dune? Does one dominate the other? Do they share a certain power? Is it a circular power relationship? Feel free to rock that creativity.

    Chew on This

    We know it sounds clichéd, but the power of love really does triumph over all in Dune. Hey, the novel's really tapping into those classic themes, and it doesn't get more classic than that.

    Duke Leto puts his faith in the power of family. The bet works out for his cause in the end, even if it doesn't work out very well for him.

  • Religion

    If the box office take for The Avengers of $623 million is any indication, people love superheroes. Love them. And this love of superhuman qualities mirrors a side of humanity Dune taps into with its treatment of religion. No, seriously, just hear us out. In the novel, Paul enters into the role of Muad'Dib, the Fremen messiah. His superhuman strength, intelligence, and power means that the Fremen easily accept Paul as their savior—but at what cost? On the one hand, Paul uses the Fremen to his own (selfish?) political gains. On the other hand, he does technically act as savior for the Fremen, unshackling them from Harkonnen rule. The end result is jihad, a violent universal conflict that spreads beyond Paul's control and even beyond his will. Faith, it seems, is one thing, while faith in the infallibility of a superhuman leader is quite another.

    Questions About Religion

    1. In our discussion of the "Fate & Free Will" theme, we asked if you thought Paul really is the messiah prophesized by the Fremen or whether he simply uses the myth to his own advantage. We're asking the same question here, but with a twist. Regarding the theme of religion, does the difference even matter in the end?
    2. The Orange Catholic Bible comprises many religious texts into one mega-text (see our "Symbols" section for more). Where do you see the Orange Catholic Bible coming into play in the novel? List the instances. Based on this list, how does the Orange Catholic Bible affect the theme of religion in Dune? Explain your answer.
    3. Paul and Jessica are the big chimichangas when it comes to religious superheroes. But do you see any other characters taking the role of religious leaders amongst their people? If so, who, and what does this tell you about the role of the religious superman in the novel? If not, then explain why you think this is, and explain what this tells you about the role of the religious superman in the novel.
    4. How about a question about morality to spice things up? Do you feel the spread of the Bene Gesserit Missionaria Protectiva to be a moral, immoral, or amoral act? (Check out our choice quotes for more on the Missionaria.) Pick one and explain your answer. Next, which of the three do you think Paul's and Jessica's use of the Missionaria Protectiva falls under? Again, please explain.

    Chew on This

    Dune keeps a very distinct line between politics and religion. Although the line is distinct, it is also very subtle. You have to keep a discerning eye to notice it. Instead, it is nature that shapes the religion in any given ecology.

    Of course, the opposite might be true. We could argue that religion is shaped more by politics than by nature.

  • Politics

    Have you ever seen the list of things the Tasmanian Devil on Looney Tunes eats? It's pretty extensive (source). And that's what the Tasmanian Devil and politics have in common: they consume everything. Well, that and garbled speech patterns. Anyway, in Dune, there is almost nothing politics doesn't shape in some way. The family structures of the Harkonnens and the Atreides are shaped by politics; the Spacing Guild assures that getting from point A to point B requires political red tape; and even the decision of who lives and who dies is harnessed by the political system. Is there anything politics doesn't shape? Hmm, how about we throw that question right back at you?

    Questions About Politics

    1. Why do you think Herbert chose a feudal system of government for his futuristic society? What aspects of politics does this system of government allow the novel to explore? Does it enhance or distract from any other themes, characterizations, or philosophies of the novel?
    2. Does nature shape politics or does politics shape nature on Arrakis? Don't feel like you have to pick one side or the other. You can be as nuanced in your approach as you want. Just don't forget the textual evidence.
    3. What difference do you see between the politics of the Imperium and the Fremen? How do you see these differences changing the society they are a part of? How do these differences illuminate the theme of politics? (If you want, you can also answer these questions with the similarities between the two.)
    4. Now for something different. Choose another form of government: democracy, communism, meritocracy, plutocracy, whatever. How would the story of Dune be different under this form of government? How do you think these changes would alter the novel's themes? Don't forget to explain why.

    Chew on This

    The Baron Harkonnen is the exemplary politician in Dune. Hey, he's not a nice guy. He's just the best politician.

    Duke Leto's ultimate downfall was his lack of political savvy.

  • Fear

    Fear comes from a variety of sources in the Dune universe. It's actually scary just how many things the characters must be fearful of in their day-to-day existence. At the same time, fear isn't something to fear in Dune. You read that right. Those who fear fear are ultimately destroyed by it. Meanwhile, those who accept their fear, those who let it "pass through" them, can make a tool of fear. They can learn from it to better themselves. They can use it against their enemies. Paul's coming-of-age journey connects the idea of overcoming fear with the idea of growing up (see "Coming of Age" for more).

    Questions About Fear

    1. The Bene Gesserit have that awesome mantra to deal with fear. Do you see any non-Gesserit trained characters dealing with fear in the novel? Who are they, what do they do, and how well do they succeed? What does this character's struggle suggest to you about the theme of fear?
    2. Who would you say is the most fearful character in Dune? Who would you say is the least fearful character? Compare and contrast these characters, noting their attitude toward fear as well as their failures and successes in managing it. Does this comparison reveal anything about the nature of fear in the novel? Why or why not?
    3. Religion, economics, politics, the military: choose the one you believe produces the most fear in the characters. Why did you choose the one you did? How are the characters affected by the fear produced by your choice?

    Chew on This

    Alia Atreides is the only character in Dune who fears absolutely nothing.

    The sandworms are full-fledged characters in Dune. Yes, they are, and their characteristic motivation is none other than fear—fear for their young, fear for their lives, and fear of losing their ecology.

  • Family

    You know what we love here at Shmoop? It's when an author does the heavy lifting for us. It's just super nice of them. Here's Frank Herbert discussing the importance of family: "And I learned, from childhood, that the family experience can be very important to an individual. Family life teaches a person to shoulder his or her share of responsibility. […] A child can develop a sense of self-reliance and self-worth through involvement in such activities" (source).

    It sounds like Herbert had something similar in mind when he wrote Dune. The family structure provides support and responsibility for both Paul Atreides and Feyd-Rautha. But—and this a big but—the very different families create different people. Paul is taught responsibility to support the family and people around him, while Feyd-Rautha is taught responsibility to himself only.

    Questions About Family

    1. Compare and contrast the Harkonnen family with the Atreides family. What are the differences? What similarities do you see? Does this comparison provide any insights into the theme of family? What are they?
    2. Which character do you believe is the most family-oriented in Dune? Why do you think so, and how does this character increase your awareness about the theme of family in the novel?
    3. What character do you believe is the least family-oriented in Dune? Why? Does this character increase your awareness about the theme of family in the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Family is a deterrent to success in the Dune universe. The characters that prosper, including both the Baron and Paul, are those willing to sacrifice their families in the name of success.

    Then again… maybe success of the family is all that matters in Dune. The individual members of the family are not more important than the preservation of the family as a whole.