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Samuel Butler gives form to the modern dystopian novel
on October 26, 2003
Following in the tradition of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," the English novelist, essayist, and iconoclast Samuel Butler published "Erewhon" privately in 1872. The title is an anagram of "Nowhere," which is the literal translation of the word "Utopia," the title by which Thomas More's 1516 work has commonly become known. "Erewhon" is arguably the first anti-utopian or dystopian novel, anticipating the later and better known works such as Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984." Whereas More and other utopianists are primarily interested in attacking society's ills and making the world a better place, the anti-utopians engage primarily in either satire of the society in which they live or in making dire predictions about the dismal fate that awaits humanity. Butler is most decidedly in the former category, since he proves in not only "Erewhon" but also his more famous work, the semi-autobiographical novel, "The Way of All Flesh," that his main concern is in attacking the complacency and hypocrisy he saw infecting Victorian society.
Like More's island of Utopia, Butler's Erewhon is a remote kingdom, not to be found on any map, which is discovered by the narrator of the novel (biographers of Butler have assumed it is modeled on a part of New Zealand, which anyone who has viewed the "Lord of the Rings" movies can attest has some spectacular landscapes). Cut off from the rest of the world, the citizens of Erewhon lives according to their own rules and dictates. Butler breaks from the tradition of creating an idealized world that goes back from More to Plato in favor of a more realistic society. In Butler's world there is still money, and both the rich and the poor still exist; there is even a monarchy in charge. It is when we notice strong parallels between Erewhon and the members of Victorian society that we start to see Butler's true purpose.
Hypocrisy is rampant in Erewhom, where citizens think nothing of agreeing with things they do not believe in and their friends know that they are doing so. While the citizens pretend to worship deities that are the personification of lofty human qualities such as love, justice, and hope, they really worship a goddess, Ydrgun, and the Church of England is transformed into the sytem of "Musical Banks." As Butler hits his stride in this novel he creates a topsy-turvy world where illness is treated as a crime (there are no physicians in the country) and criminal behavior, such as theft, are seen as minor weaknesses in character.
Unlike Francis Bacon's utopian work "The New Atlantis," where science was seen as the salvation of humanity that would correct all ills and provide all necessities, Butler's world has outlawed machinery because they might one day become the masters rather than the servants of humanity. Clearly Butler was no more enamored of the Industrial Revolution than he was of Victorian society. In many ways this is the section of "Erewhom" where Butler makes his most cogent arguments. It is also the point where the book's narrator, whose initial attitude of admiration turns to one of surprise, now beocmes one of condemnation as the eccentricities of the citizens of Erewhon are fully revealed. Ultimately, the shortcomings Butler sees in them are the same of which he accuses British society, politics, and religion.
Because Butler is satirizing Victorian society his value to modern readers remains inferior to that of Huxley and Orwell, not to mention Edward Bellamy ("Looking Backward 2000-1887") and Yevgeny Zamyatin ("We"). However, in many ways "Erewhon" is a pivotal novel in the history of utopian literature, not only because of how it follows and breaks away from More's original work and how it sets the stage for what other forgotten writers of dystopian fiction, such as Alexander Bogdanov ("Red Star") and even Jack London ("The Iron Heel"). "Erewhon" remains one of those novels where its historical significance outweighs its literary appeal.