Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Erewhon (ee-ree-whon). Utopian land set vaguely in the South Pacific region—possibly in New Zealand, but because of Erewhon’s vastness, some scholars have argued that it is more likely located in Australia. Early chapters show the struggle of the narrator, Higgs, to cross the unnamed mountain range between a coastal sheep pasture and the interior. He is in the company of Chowbok, an elderly Erewhonian. They travel on horseback to begin with, following the course of a river. After they spot the main range of mountains, with glaciers on their summits, the route becomes rockier, so they release their horses and continue on foot. Many gorges are unscalable or dead ends. After Chowbok deserts him, Higgs continues on alone. The difficult river crossings, dangerous precipices, snowy saddles, and magnificent views (often obscured by clouds) are described in great detail.

As Higgs descends toward the interior of the country, he sees the first evidence of another society: ten huge statues of semihuman forms. However, the people he encounters there are of normal human stature, handsome, and Mediterranean in their coloring. Their villages resemble those of northern Italy, where Samuel Butler spent many pleasant holidays.

As Higgs is taken, without force but on foot, from village to town, it becomes obvious that the vegetation of this land is similar to that of both New Zealand and the Mediterranean. However, the inhabitants’ language is different, and the society completely rejects machines. The first evidence of a difference in Erewhonian philosophy comes when Higgs’s pocket-watch is confiscated and placed in a museum of old and broken machines that houses fragments of steam engines, clocks, and other things that appear to be hundreds of years old. Higgs calculates that the society’s culture is technologically similar to that of Europe in the twelfth or thirteenth century.

Imprisoned for his possession of a watch, Higgs comes to realize that illness is regarded as a crime; even catching a cold can result in a prison sentence. However, over the years, the law has produced a healthy and athletic people. Here, Butler puts Darwin’s principle of the survival of the fittest into...

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Erewhon Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Cannan, Gilbert. Samuel Butler: A Critical Study. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1969. A sound, general introduction to Butler’s literary work, diverse talents, and interests.

Greenacre, Phillis. The Quest for the Father: A Study of the Darwin-Butler Controversy. New York: International Universities Press, 1963. A psychoanalytic account of Butler’s connection with Darwin that sets “The Book of the Machines” into interpretative context.

Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler. New York: Twayne, 1964. A fine overview of Butler’s work.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Earnest Atheist: A Study of Samuel Butler. London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1936. A lively and insightful account of Butler’s attitudes. Helps to explain the ferocity of his attack on religion in Erewhon.

Stillman, Clara G. Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972. Offers a helpful chapter on Erewhon, analyzing Butler’s satirical methods.