Utopia (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699

When UTOPIA first appeared, many people thought More was relating an incident that had actually happened. To make the realistic framework of the story convincing, More includes himself as a character. He and his friend Peter Giles meet Raphael Hythloday, a Portuguese seaman who has been to the New World.

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More, Giles, and Hythloday engage in a conversation concerning the value of entering a king’s service in order to promote the public good. This discussion leads to an analysis of the economic and social ills in the Europe of the 16th century.

Book II, actually written first by More, contains Hythloday’s description of the representative government, communistic economy, and religious toleration of the Utopians. Although individual Utopians are fallible, the Utopian state is organized upon rational and humanistic principles.

Much controversy concerning UTOPIA has arisen because the Utopians, whose imaginary state is described in Book II, have abolished private property. Marxist critics have claimed More as an early forerunner of Karl Marx, interpreting UTOPIA as a critique of bourgeois capitalism.

More was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1935. His canonization has intensified speculation about the orthodoxy of UTOPIA. Since the Utopians practice mercy killing and divorce, some critics have argued that More did not regard Utopia as a good place. Other critics have insisted that UTOPIA should not be taken seriously, that it is a witty joke.

Modeled in certain respects on Plato’s REPUBLIC, UTOPIA is an important touchstone for subsequent works which describe imaginary societies.

Additional Reading

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto and Windus, 1998. A helpful biographical study of Sir Thomas More’s life and times, which explores the ideas he developed and the difficult personal decisions that he faced.

Baker-Smith, Dominic. More’s “Utopia.” New York: HarperCollins, 1991. A complete study of Utopia that balances analysis of its contents as a literary work and as a treatise on political theory. Includes information about the history of Utopia’s composition, the Renaissance humanism that permeates More’s thought, and the sources that influenced its ideas and literary style.

Fox, Alistair. Thomas More: History and Providence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. This intellectual biography details the evolution of More’s thought, delving deep into his views about God and humanity.

Fox, Alistair. Utopia: An Elusive Vision. New York: Twayne, 1993. A veteran More scholar offers an interpretation of More’s aims in the writing and vision of his famous Utopia.

Guy, John. Thomas More. London: Arnold, 2000. A study of the life and thought of the author of Utopia.

Hexter, J. H. More’s “Utopia”: The Biography of an Idea. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Examines Utopia for evidence of its stages of composition. This sequence forms the basis for analyzing More’s intentions in writing Utopia and the ideas he wanted to express in his work.

Johnson, Robbin S. More’s “Utopia”: Ideal and Illusion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. An essay interpreting Utopia based on an honors thesis by a Yale undergraduate. Presents More’s Utopia as a continuing discourse on the balance between ideal and reality in society and government.

Marius, Richard. Thomas More. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. A well-crafted biography that analyzes a man torn between the medieval world of faith and the modern world of reason and who ultimately chose the spirit over the flesh.

Martz, Louis L. Thomas More: The Search for the Inner Man. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. An effort to interpret the complexities of More’s life, which involved politics, philosophy, and religion.

Monti, James. The King’s Good Servant but God’s First: The Life and Writing of Saint Thomas More. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997. A biographical study that explores the clash of politics and religion in More’s life.

Olin, John C., ed. Interpreting Thomas More’s “Utopia.” New York: Fordham University Press, 1989. Helpful essays by important More scholars explore and assess the meaning and significance of More’s classic on the ideal human society.

Reynolds, E. E. Thomas More and Erasmus. New York: Fordham University Press, 1965. A careful study of the relationship between two dynamic thinkers who influenced the development of European humanism.

Ronald William Howard John K. Roth

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