Critical Evaluation

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Samuel Butler’s utopian satire Erewhon is a series of essays written between 1860 and 1870 that anticipates the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Like these later utopian writers, Butler attempts to expose and deflate the hypocrisies that flawed the England of his day rather than to prophesy or to propose corrective measures. As a result, his novel is really dystopian in vision. It savages a society full of easy self-congratulation and at the same time remains pitiless toward misfortune. Butler’s artistic versatility—he was an accomplished, though unappreciated, painter, musician, and essayist—enabled him to offer social commentary from a variety of perspectives. Erewhon also helped Butler sharpen social critiques that he voiced even more effectively in his great autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh (1903), published only after his death.

In his preface to Erewhon, Butler concedes that the book contains “hardly any story, and little attempt to give life and individuality to the characters.” He tries throughout the work to keep readers at a critical distance from the usual distractions of the novel genre. As a satirist, Butler asks the readers to examine every issue with detachment and to register every distortion and shift in perspective. However, he makes his task treacherous with various techniques such as his use of anagrams—“Erewhon” is an anagram of “Nowhere.” Just as the readers must untwist the title to assess its meaning, so they can never fully trust the novel’s narration. In his unabashed desire both to exploit Erewhon and to convert its natives, the adventurer-narrator, Higgs, is clearly himself a target of Butler’s satire. Nevertheless, despite his own hypocritical bent, Higgs also records and loudly decries Erewhonian foibles. Himself insensitive to irony, he provides readers access to duplicities Butler wishes to reveal.

In general, Erewhonian society, like its English counterpart, confuses individual responsibility with bad luck and moral choice with mischance. By punishing disease as criminal, for example, Erewhon reflects Victorian England’s desire to maintain appearances; visible blemishes—the hapless sick or poor—mar society’s self-image and are eradicated. Because they are living reminders of the costs of progress and industry, they must be treated severely by being hidden away in poorhouses or prisons. In a sort of moral anagram, crime in Erewhon becomes a disease; it is attended by solicitous “straighteners” and wins the sympathy of the “patient’s” friends. Here, Butler takes aim at English society’s willingness to ignore all sorts of moral failures in the name of order and profit. He tacitly implies that people admire those who thrive by immoral means, blaming instead those who are so weak and gullible as to be victimized by them. Thus, Nosnibor, Higgs’s host, is treated for having embezzled and is allowed to keep his ill-gotten profits, while the widow he cheats is prosecuted.

Similarly, children in Erewhon, rather than their parents, are made responsible for their birth and upbringing. The unborn commit a “felony” in inflicting themselves upon the living, for which they must make “obedient and abject” amends throughout their lives. In return, truly exemplary parents spend great sums educating their offspring at the Colleges of Unreason, “in order to render their children as nearly useless as possible.” In this tortured relationship, Butler rehearses the account of his own childhood, which he later provides in The Way of All Flesh . In accord with family tradition, and against his own inclination, Butler was educated for the ministry, though he failed to enter the church. Through the Erewhonian “birth formulae,” he exposes the coercion, guilt, and estrangement that troubled his typically Victorian family. Butler mocks his expensive but irrelevant Cambridge education...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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in the obsolete “hypothetical language” (that is, Latin) taught to Erewhonian students.

Butler also depicts Victorians as being confused about objects of worship. Erewhon’s two systems of currency reflect a similar religious hypocrisy. Commercial interests supplant genuine religious feeling so that, finally, worship is expressed through commerce. Though publicly lauded, the “coin” of the Musical Banks is worthless, and the banks themselves are rarely visited. In the same way, Victorians went through the motions of religious observance, paying their tithes on Sunday, but their offerings remained worthless. They kneeled instead to the goddess Ydgrun, Butler’s anagram for the Victorian “Mrs. Grundy,” who enforces only a shallow social conformism.

Finally, in “The Book of the Machines,” Butler ridicules the Victorians’ misunderstanding and fear of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as their disproportionate faith in progress through industrialization. While the Erewhonians fear the “evolution” of machines (Higgs’s watch is therefore regarded as dangerous), such an evolution was already at work in industrialized England. For the greedy Victorians, a factory possessed more life and potential than the workmen who operated it; machines—and the profit they sustain—threatened to become more real than the needs of colorless and expendable workers. At the same time, society fretted about the question of the descent of humanity and resented being linked to the animal world as strongly as the Erewhonians mistrusted the machine. Butler’s twist neatly exposes the blindness of a society that neglects living, breathing individuals, all the while insisting upon humans’ divine origin.