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ELH 69.2 (2002) 439-472
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Erewhon and the End of Utopian Humanism
Samuel Butler's Erewhon, or Over the Range was published in 1871. As the title suggests, even through the euphonic distortion of Butler's wordplay, the novel is written with Sir Thomas More's Utopia in mind. More combined two words to coin his seminal neologism: "eutopos," which means the good place, and "outopos," the place which is nowhere. "Erewhon" is "nowhere" misspelled backwards, the soft vowel beginning of "eutopia" thus recalled in a word which, like "utopia," also inscribes its negation. Despite these apparent flags, the reader who hopes for utopian revelations from the civilization that Erewhon's boorish narrator discovers will be disappointed. Erewhon is no paradise of humanist social planning—no sagacious management of resources and human desires is to be found here—but instead a maze of bizarre institutions and fantastic customs. Erewhonians punish their sick and hospitalize embezzlers; they imprison those who have suffered grievous misfortune to hard labor. In all this, it seems that a devious trick has been played, such that Gulliver's Travels and not Utopia is the true template for the novel. Critics have been quick to note this, and since its first publication the novel has been understood as a biting satire of Victorian institutions. And yet the tradition of describing Erewhon as satire has not lessened the stranglehold that the concept of utopianism has on it. 1 Erewhon is frequently classified as a utopian novel, it appears in bibliographies of utopian fiction, it is taught in courses on utopian fiction, and in general, the one thing known about it is that it's a utopian novel.
The association is not unwarranted. However, the question of the novel's relationship to utopianism is vexed from the start by the historical and theoretical complexities that have been packed into the word "utopia." For the sake of clarification, I will sketch out some provisional distinctions. Erewhon does not engage with the [End Page 439] classic utopianism of a radical political and philosophical tradition, where certain buried or occluded potentials of humanity are imagined as "shattering" social and economic structures that repress them. 2 But the novel does engage with another variant of utopianism, one that I will call the myth of idyllic expansion. According to this late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century convention, the earth harbored large tracts of fertile and unpopulated land that were fit destinations for the surplus populations of Britain and Europe. Bearing the best qualities of their home cultures with them when they left, the settlers who struck out for these misleadingly conceived destinations were to establish neo-European societies, the outposts of a globally expanding and improving European civilization. In this regard, the myth of idyllic expansion exemplifies a classic corollary of the utopian imagination, the dream of new space, of liberation through geography from poverty, or (especially in the nineteenth century) from the harsh conditions of life in recently industrialized economies. Additionally, the myth of idyllic expansion is, like all forms of utopianism, predicated upon certain ideas about human nature. If the utopian tradition begins with More, so does the critical dependency between utopianism and the philosophical importance of the category of man. Seventeenth-century Italian and English Christian Humanists followed More's lead in attempting to instill their humanist beliefs into plans for a perfect society. Indeed, it is the dependency between latter-day humanist premises and the images of a better place that proves to be the weak point in the myth of idyllic expansion. It is sorely tested through encounters with non-European people, after the first corollary of the myth, that of unpopulated land, proves false.
Erewhon is an extended commentary on this type of utopia, specifically as it emerged within nineteenth-century colonial New Zealand, which Butler experienced first-hand when he spent several years sheep farming on the South Island. Before tracking the fate of idyllic expansion through Erewhon, let us review briefly the novel's plot. Our narrator is a white settler working on a sheep farm in...