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Erewhon
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2003
Samuel Butler's 'Erewhon' is a tale of a simple shepherd who travels too far in his foreign country, (unnamed, but based on New Zealand), only to find another, hidden Country where the sick are imprisoned and the criminal are 'healed'. This previously unknown society is described in detail as to its workings, and seems irrational in its execution.
People you will meet in the travels and travails of this poor lost fellow are of various interesting sorts; including the straighteners, who are doctors for the criminally ill. Our shepherd, visits the musical bank, the College of Unreason, and in detail describes how the people of Erewhon dress and act.
The book was written, in part, to be a criticism of Victorian England, but really stands as a literary classic. Certainly provides amusing entertainment, it is also an interesting look at society in general. Highly recomended for C.S. Lewis and Tolkien fans, this book is indispensable as is the sequel, 'EREWHON REVISITED'.
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on April 25, 2002
Samuel Butler does a neat balancing act with "Erewhon," a novel that is equal parts fictitious travelogue, philosophical tract, social/political/religious satire, and adventure story complete with a romantic subplot. The protagonist, a young Englishman named Higgs who is unsatisfied with employment prospects in his home country, moves to a distant colonized land where he takes a job as a shepherd. Beyond a mountain range there lie some mysterious lands that he would like to explore, and, setting out one day with a timid guide who later abandons him, he eventually gets to the other side of the peaks and finds himself in an isolated country named Erewhon.
One of the first things Higgs notes is that Erewhon is a few hundred years behind the times technologically. They have no modern mechanical conveniences, and when Higgs is discovered to own a watch, it is confiscated and he is put in prison. Later released and placed into the custody of a rich man named Mr. Nosnibor, Higgs learns all about the bizarre customs and beliefs of the Erewhonians.
In Erewhon, sickness is punishable by law and criminal acts are treated medically by people called "straighteners"; so, stealing a pair of socks is analogous to feeling a bit under the weather. The Erewhon banking system is a facade, as their money is worthless. The Erewhonians believe in an ethereal prenatal world where babies are given the (preferred) option not to be born into the mortal world. Their institutions of higher education, the Colleges of Unreason, teach conformity and resist originality and progress. Most importantly, they condemn technological advancement because of the fear that machines will continue evolving so rapidly that they will eventually develop a consciousness, out-evolve man, and take control of the world. Imagine how the Erewhonians would have despaired over the realization of artificial intelligence!
How have the Erewhonians arrived at all of these beliefs? Higgs concludes that their belief system is a result of gullibility -- they tend to put their faith in anybody who comes up with a convincing argument for whatever agenda he's trying to push. They don't analyze, question, or challenge; they just accept the status quo until somebody with a big mouth (but not necessarily a big brain) decides the status quo needs to be changed. In this way, one man who thinks killing animals is wrong convinces the people to become vegetarians; another man who likes meat convinces the people that killing plants is an even greater sin.

This book has a lot of targets, some not all that obvious, but I think Butler was prophesying a world in which demagoguery takes the place of common sense and reason, a world through which he was satirizing organized religion, sentimental notions of familial sanctity, and the complacency of the Victorian middle class. I've also read "The Way of All Flesh," but I find "Erewhon" to be a better representative of Butler's skewering cynicism and sly humor.
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on June 20, 2000
I was browsing the library and just happened to come across Erewhon. The picture on the cover of the book looked nice and it seemed like a nice novel about imaginary travels. I was in the mood for something adventurous, so I took it home and read it. It turned out to be one of the best books of my life, making me feel as if I'm not totally alone in the world with my opinions. Samuel Butler had a wonderful way of taking the society he lived in and disguising it in a satire. Sometimes you have to really search, but you'll see that it's still there. I'm probably sounding very confusing, so I'll have to give an example. The Musical Banks represent the Christian Church. This took me a while to figure out. The Musical Banks are large decorative buildings with many frills and much impressive architechture. Inside there is singing. You take your money into this bank and give it to the attendant, who will, in turn, give you a second type of currency. This second currency is completely useless, but you must carry it around and go to the bank often to have any respectibility in society. Many things take a while to soak in completely, but once you do you will find yourself jumping up and down and screaming "I got it I got it!" Or maybe I'm just slow---either way- this is a really great book that's well written. It can get dull at points when Butler begins to babble, but for the most part it's very interesting. It's 2:00 AM or something so if what I'm writing doesn't make sense, you'll know why. I also recommend Butler's, "The Way of All Flesh."
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on December 14, 1999
I have just reread Samuel Butler's Erewhon, a book described by Lewis Mumford as having 'a sunny malice'. Personally I don't find anything malicious in this tale. He does stand just about every taken for granted convention of Victorian society (and the world still) on its head, and has great fun doing it, but the end result is to force the reader to think long and hard about much that is usually accepted without thinking.
In Erewhon, criminals are considered to be ill and are 'treated' by 'straightners' who make them well, whereas those who have physical illnesses (or suffer bad luck) are considered criminal and are tried and punished. Thus an embezzler will be treated for his 'illness' and the party who was robbed will be tried in the Court of Misplaced Confidence. The consistency with which Butler carries through with this conceit is impressive and consistently entertaining, and this is only one of the 'curious' conventions of Erewhonian society.
My favorite part of the novel is the section that purports to be a classic text from the College of Unreason, 'The Book of the Machines'. Modeled on Darwin's writings, this text explains how machines are on an evolutionary track that will surpass and then come to dominate their human creators. The detail of the argument is impressive (the discussion of 'vestigial organs' in machines is hysterical and accurate), and no matter how far fetched it must have seemed in 1872 when the book was published, it seems much less a satire and more a serious fear today.
This is a book of great intelligence and wicked humor. As a simultaneous mind stretching exercise and laugh generating experience I can think of few novels of any age that are its peer.
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Erewhon, which was written in 1872, is a strange but funny and intriguing description of the world turned upside down. In the country Erewhon money is worthless and there is no life after death but there is life before birth. People hate machines, because they might develop consciousness and become a threat for humans. Crime is a disease and disease is a crime: criminals are treated and nurtured, whereas sick people are seen as dangerous and bad and get punished. But wait a minute...... is this a description of the world turned upside down or a description of what the world is turning into?
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on October 3, 1999
I felt honour-bound to review this Victorian English Book as it surely must have been an inspiration to later authors such as Kafka and Orwell. A 'gulliver-esque' tale is told wherein a traveller chances upon a strange world where the conventional rules of our society are turned upon their head - the ill are sent to prison and criminals are given pity & understanding. Despite the age of the book, it is not a difficult read, and is very underrated (or perhaps just overlooked?)
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2004
It is interesting to read the "Terminator-esque" fears of 19th century scholar/writers like Butler. Unfortunately, in the face of today's depleted oil supplies, such fears of machines taking over society may be a bit out of date. At any rate, what surely is out of date is Butler's writing style, which is all "tell" and no "show"--the complete opposite of, and in this case vastly inferior to, the Hemingway style of the 20th century. There is only a thin veneer of story here, a thin and slight excuse of a story and then Butler hits us with page after page of philosophical dystopian diatribe. Orwell may have learned a lot from this book which helped him write the masterpiece "1984", but Orwell did it much, much better. Orwell's story, as well as his dystopian diatribe, were much, much sounder and more described and more plausible.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2004
It is interesting to read the "Terminator-esque" fears of 19th century scholar/writers like Butler. Unfortunately, in the face of today's depleted oil supplies, such fears of machines taking over society may be a bit out of date. At any rate, what surely is out of date is Butler's writing style, which is all "tell" and no "show"--the complete opposite of, and in this case vastly inferior to, the Hemingway style of the 20th century. There is only a thin veneer of story here, a thin and slight excuse of a story and then Butler hits us with page after page of philosophical dystopian diatribe. Orwell may have learned a lot from this book which helped him write the masterpiece "1984", but Orwell did it much, much better. Orwell's story, as well as his dystopian diatribe, were much, much sounder and more described and more plausible.
Butler does strike on many ridiculous aspects of his Victorian society, and the United States today, in describing some of the inaneities of situation ethics of the Erewhonian gov't. On this note and this note only, Butler is not dated at all.
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