- Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel by Jason H. Pearl
Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel is an ambitious and original study of a group of texts that have been overlooked in studies of literary utopias and given short shrift in histories of the novel: prose fiction written between 1660 and 1730. Whereas previous scholars such as A.L. Morton have described the eighteenth century as the nadir of utopian literature, Pearl argues that the period’s utopian literature has gone unrecognized in part because it participated in a transition whereby euchronias—imaginary societies existing in the future—gradually replaced utopias—imaginary societies positioned geographically in unexplored regions of the globe. This transition from spatial to chronological coordinates, and from the geographical to the temporal imaginary, Pearl suggests, was due largely to European exploration of the globe, which left increasingly less of the earth’s surface unmapped and unknown. The spaces in which a literary utopia might be set shrank rapidly as geographical knowledge grew.
While scholars of utopian literature have neglected late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century texts that do not seem to fit a narrow definition of utopia, studies of the rise of the novel have marginalized the same texts because they do not fit definitions of the genre that privilege the exploration of individual subjectivity and a commitment to empirical realism. By showing how these works participated in the process of “geographical disenchantment,” Pearl explores the complicated relationships between global exploration and an emergent realism. He uncovers lingering utopias in works set in geographically concrete contexts, such as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton (1720), and finds the beginnings of formal [End Page 384] realism in works set in imaginary worlds, including Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Utopian Geographies contributes to recent, wide-ranging attempts to map the emergence of fiction as a discursive category (for example, Nicholas Paige, Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel , Franco Moretti, Maps, Graphs, and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History , and Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” in The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography, and Culture, ed. Franco Moretti ) by exploring the impact of geographical knowledge on the representation of place and the development of realism.
Pearl explains that the process of geographical disenchantment occurred as literary imagination encountered the limits imposed by increasing geographic knowledge. This process is manifest in a three-part narrative movement of emplacement, deconstruction, and reconstruction. First, early novels “emplace utopias in relation to recognizable coordinates, making their imagined spaces geographically accessible and, therefore, logically possible” (9). Next, they “devalue those spaces, undermining their supposed perfection, and rendering true utopias inaccessible, impossible” (9). For instance, as Pearl shows in his discussion of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe trilogy (1719–20), Crusoe’s island, located somewhere off the coast of Surinam, is transformed from a desert to a paradise before it is undone by the incursion of sailors and natives of nearby islands. Yet, in a third step, “the failure of utopian geography establishes interior space as … a site of recuperated possibilities” (11). In other words, utopia becomes an internal state, a form of subjectivity or selfhood that differentiates the traveller from his contemporaries at home in England. Thus, in the third, little-read volume of Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe proclaims his ability to enjoy in his own mind the peaceful solitude of his island even among the heaving crowds of London. Pearl refers to this internalized sense of distance and difference from English society as the “utopian remainder” and suggests that it is an early version of the modern subjectivity that Nancy Armstrong finds in mid-eighteenth-century domestic fiction such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). Voyaging protagonists including Crusoe and Gulliver choose not to completely re-enter English society because they fear contamination with its vices. However, they often form ideal friendships that “expand utopia and delimit its communicability...