Samuel Butler Long Fiction Analysis
On his deathbed, Samuel Butler spoke of the “pretty roundness” of his career, beginning with Erewhon and ending, thirty years later, with Erewhon Revisited.
Erewhon must be understood first of all as a satire rather than as a novel. It is in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), works that sacrifice unity and development to a vision of the writer’s society in the guise of an imaginary foreign land. Like Rasselas and Gulliver, Higgs of Erewhon is a young man ready for adventure, out to learn about the world. He quickly reveals his image of himself as sharp, cunning, and bold. Before he tells his story, he lets the reader know the things he will hold back, so that no one reading the tale will be able to find Erewhon and thus profit financially from Higgs’s exploration.
His story begins as he is working on a sheep farm in a colony, the name of which he will not reveal. Intending to find precious metals or at least good sheep-grazing land, he journeys alone inland, over a mountain range. On the other side, he finds a kingdom called Erewhon (Nowhere), which looks very much like England. Higgs’s point of reference is England; all aspects of Erewhonian life he measures by that standard.
Many such satires work through the narrators’ quick judgments that the new lands they encounter are either much better or much worse than their native countries: In each case, the narrator’s rather simple view plays against the author’s more complex perspective. In Erewhon, however, the narrator is not quite so naïve. His own failings, rather than his naïveté, become part of the satire, which thus has a dual focus, much like book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels. Higgs, like many good Victorian heroes, is out to make money. It is this prospect that motivates him most strongly. Coexisting with his desire for fortune is his religiosity. Here, Butler’s satire on his character is most pronounced and simplistic. Higgs observes the Sabbath, but he seduces Yram (Mary) with no regret. He plans to make his fortune by selling the Erewhonians into slavery, arguing that they would be converted to Christianity in the process; the slaveholders would be lining their pockets and doing good simultaneously. Butler thus exposes, to no one’s great surprise, the mingled piety and avarice of British colonialists.
Butler satirizes European culture through the Erewhonians more often than through his hero, Higgs, gradually unfolding their lives for the reader to observe. Their lives are, on the surface, peaceful and pleasant; they are a strikingly attractive race. Only through personal experience does Higgs learn the underpinnings of the society: When he is ill, he learns that illness is a crime in Erewhon, while moral lapses are regarded in the same way as illnesses are in England. When his pocket watch is discovered, he learns that all “machines” have been banned from Erewhon. Erewhonian morality is based on reversals: The morally corrupt receive sympathy, while the ill are imprisoned; a child duped by his guardian is punished for having been ignorant, while the guardian is rewarded; children are responsible for their own birth, while their parents are consoled for having been “wronged” by the unborn. This pattern of reversals is of necessity incomplete, a problem noted by reviewers of Erewhon in 1872.
“The Book of the Machines” is the section of the satire that has drawn the most attention, because of its relationship to Darwinian thought. It may well be, as it has often been considered, a reductio ad absurdum of Darwinism, but the chapter also takes on reasoning by analogy as a less complex target of satire. “The Book of the Machines” is Higgs’s translation of the Erewhonian book that led to the banning of all mechanical devices. Its author claimed that machines had developed—evolved—more rapidly than humankind and thus would soon dominate, leaving humans mere slaves or parasites. He argued that machines were capable of reproduction, using humans in the process as flowers use bees. The arguments proved so convincing that all machines in Erewhon were soon destroyed, leaving the country in the rather primitive state in which Higgs found it.
The purpose of “The Book of the Machines” becomes clearer in the following two chapters, which detail Erewhonian debates on the rights of animals and the rights of vegetables. At one point in the past, insistence on the rights of animals had turned Erewhon into a land of vegetarians, but the philosophers went a step further and decreed that vegetables, too, had rights, based on their evolving consciousness. Again, Butler plays with argument by analogy, as the philosophers compare the vegetables’ intelligence to that of a human embryo.
The Erewhonians who believed in the rights of vegetables were led nearly to starvation by their extremism, and it is this same extremism that causes Higgs to leave Erewhon. Fearful that disfavor is growing against his foreign presence, he plans to escape by balloon, taking with him his beloved Arowhena. The perilous escape takes place, and the hero, married to Arowhena and restored to England, becomes a fairly successful hack writer. His account of Erewhon, he says at the end, constitutes an appeal for subscriptions to finance his scheme to return to Erewhon.
The broad, traditional satire of Erewhon is abandoned in its sequel. Written years later, Erewhon Revisited reflects the maturity of its author, then in his sixties. In the later work, Butler treats Erewhon as a habitation of human beings, not satiric simplifications. Erewhon Revisited is thus a novel, not a satire; its focus is on human relationships. Butler had already written (though not published) The Way of All Flesh, and the preoccupations of that work are also evident in Erewhon Revisited. Both works grew out of Butler’s fascination with family relationships, especially those between father and son.
The narrator of Erewhon Revisited is John Higgs, the son of George Higgs and Arowhena. He tells of his mother’s early death and of his father’s desire to return to Erewhon. This time, however, Higgs’s desire is sentimental; he has grown past his earlier wish to profit from the Erewhonians. He goes to Erewhon, returns in ill health, tells the story of his adventure to John, and dies. The book in this way becomes John’s tribute to his father.
Although Erewhon Revisited may be identified as a novel rather than as a satire, it does have a satiric subject as part of its plot. Upon reentering Erewhon, Higgs discovers that his ascent by balloon has become the source of a new religion. The Erewhonians revere his memory and worship him as the “Sun Child.” Higgs is horrified to find that there are theologians of Sunchildism fighting heretics. Unfortunately,...
(The entire section is 2897 words.)