Higgs, a young man of twenty-two years, works on a sheep farm. From the plains, he looks often at the seemingly impassable mountain range that forms the edge of the sheep country and wonders about the land beyond those towering peaks. He learns from an old native named Chowbok that it is forbidden to visit that land. Chowbok assumes a strange pose when questioned further and utters unearthly cries. Curious, Higgs persuades Chowbok to go on a trip with him into the mountains.
They are unable to find a pass through the mountains. One day, Higgs comes upon a small valley and goes up it alone. He finds that it leads through the mountains. When he goes back to get Chowbok, he sees the old native fleeing toward the plains. He goes on alone. After climbing down treacherous cliffs and crossing a river on a reed raft, he finally comes to beautiful rolling plains. He passes by some strange manlike statues, which make terrifying noises as the wind circles about them. He recognizes in them the reason for Chowbok’s performance.
Higgs awakens next morning to see two girls herding a flock of goats about him. When the girls see him, they run and bring some men to look at him. All of them are physically handsome. Convinced at last that Higgs is a human being, they take him to a small town close by. There his clothing is searched, and a watch he has with him is confiscated. The men seem to be especially interested in his health, and he is allowed to leave only after a strict medical examination. He wonders why there was such confusion over his watch until he is shown a museum in which is kept old pieces of machinery. Finally, he is put in jail.
In jail, he learns the language and some of the strange customs of the country, which is called Erewhon. The oddest custom is to consider disease a crime; anyone who is sick is tried and put in jail. On the other hand, people who commit robbery or murder are treated sympathetically and given hospital care. Shortly afterward, the jailor informs Higgs that he is summoned to appear before the king and queen and that he is to be the guest of a man named Nosnibor. Nosnibor embezzled a large sum of money from a poor widow, but he is now recovering from his illness. The widow, Higgs learns, will be tried and sentenced for allowing herself to be imposed upon.
In the capital, Higgs stays with Nosnibor and his family and pays several visits to the court. He is well received because he has blond hair, a rarity among the Erewhonians. He learns a great deal about the past history of the country. Twenty-five hundred years before, a prophet preached that it was unlawful to eat meat, since man should not kill his fellow creatures. For several hundred years, the Erewhonians were vegetarians. Then another sage showed that animals were no more the fellow creatures of man than plants were; if man could not kill and eat animals, he should not kill and eat plants. The logic of his arguments overthrew the old philosophy. Two hundred years before, a great scientist presented the idea that machines had minds and feelings and that, if man were not careful, the machine would finally become the ruling creature on earth. Consequently, all machines were scrapped.
The economy of the country is unusual. There are two monetary systems—one worthless except for spiritual meaning, and one used in trade. The more respected system is the...
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valueless one, and its work is carried on in Musical Banks where people exchange coins for music. The state religion is a worship of various qualities of godhead, such as love, fear, and wisdom, and the main goddess, Ydgrun, is at the same time an abstract concept and a silly, cruel woman. Higgs learns much of the religion from Arowhena, one of Nosnibor’s daughters. She is a beautiful girl, and the two fall in love.
Because Nosnibor insists that his older daughter, Zulora, be married first, Higgs and his host have an argument, and Higgs finds lodgings elsewhere. Arowhena meets him often at the Musical Banks. Higgs visits the University of Unreason, where the young Erewhonian boys are taught to do anything except that which is practical. They study obsolete languages and hypothetical sciences. He sees a relationship between these schools and the mass-mind, which the educational system in England is producing. Higgs also learns that money is considered a symbol of duty; the more money a man has, the better man he is.
Nosnibor learns that Higgs is meeting Arowhena secretly. Then the king begins to worry over the fact that Higgs entered the country with a watch, and he fears that Higgs might try to bring machinery back into use. Planning an escape, Higgs proposes to the queen that he make a balloon trip to talk with the god of the air. The queen is delighted with the idea. The king hopes that Higgs will fall and kill himself.
Higgs smuggles Arowhena aboard the balloon with him. The couple soon find themselves high in the air and moving over the mountain range. When the balloon settles on the sea, Higgs and Arowhena are picked up by a passing ship. They are married in England, and Higgs tries to get up an expedition to go back to Erewhon. Only the missionaries listen to his story. Then Chowbok, Higgs’s faithless native friend, shows up in England teaching religion, and his appearance convinces people that Erewhon actually does exist. Higgs hopes to return to the country soon to teach it Christianity.