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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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).
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.
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.
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.