The Coming Race Essay - Critical Essays

Edward Bulwer-Lytton


A highly popular and influential novel in its time, The Coming Race is now generally considered a conservative critique of Victorian utopian ideas concerning such issues as democracy and gender equality. The novel shifts ambiguously between utopia and dystopia, largely because the object of the satire is never clear. Sometimes it is the narrator, whose enthusiastic statements about American republicanism often seem ironic and who looks ridiculous in his flight from the aggressive Vril-ya women. The novel, however, concurrently mocks Vril-ya society, with its masculine women, insistence on Darwinian evolution, and lack of passion. As the narrator notes, any human among them cannot help but experience intense fear or crippling boredom. Consensus breeds complete uniformity that precludes both philosophical debate and artistic creation. This “perfect” society also is founded on violence, which is not only imperial but domestic; peace ultimately results from the deterrent properties of vril. The Vril-ya are not as radical as they seem: Sexual stereotypes still determine gender roles, women who woo aggressively become submissive wives, and the state has absolute control over the people. The unquestioning obedience and cultural stability of the Vril-ya reveal a conservative resistance to change.

By placing the narrator, and through him the reader, in a threatened and marginalized position, the novel invites a critique of the Vril-ya’s treatment of the outsider that can be applied to the perception of marginalized groups in Bulwer-Lytton’s England. The novel is perceptive regarding the various typical, and equally dehumanizing, responses to outsiders: condescension, scientific study, and violence. In addition, it discredits the notion that any culture’s beliefs are universal by portraying a constantly shifting margin; the narrator is outside Vril-ya society, as the Vril-ya are abnormal to him, and the narrator and the Vril-ya alternately represent “normal” humanity and the various groups it marginalizes. Thus, The Coming Race, deemed ambiguous by nineteenth century reviews and twentieth century critics alike, is actually more radical than the utopian society it depicts.