Utopianism Essay - Critical Essays




The term utopia designates a highly idealized and hence unattainable society—the word itself derived from Sir Thomas More's fictional Utopia (1516), which literally means “no place.” More created his ideal island republic in order to satirize by contrast the conditions in the England of his day. The idea was not new with More, as critics observe that the utopian impulse in literature can be traced back at least to classical antiquity and Plato's Republic. In the nineteenth-century novel, the utopian tradition flourished as writers sought to dramatize the political and economic principals—equality, freedom, and material plenitude among them—necessary for the advancement of society. Likewise, a number of real-life experiments were undertaken in the form of contained, usually short-lived, utopian communities designed to test the viability of a fully cooperative society where competition and want were unknown. After a period of considerable popularity, the utopian mode in literature had begun to give way by the close of the nineteenth century, to its inverse: a dystopian vision of the future in which human freedom and happiness were extinguished by an oppressive society.

Utopian expressions in the literature of the United States have long been bound up with the popular myth of America as a land devoid of the restrictions on liberty that were thought to prevail in the Old World. In American fiction of the nineteenth century, writers frequently described positive utopias, representing an idealized future in which progress, technology, and social enlightenment were allied for the purposes of reducing toil, economic scarcity, and political inequality. Critics acknowledge that such utopian schemes are perhaps best represented by Edward Bellamy's popular novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). Based upon the socialist principles of community ownership of property and the elimination of capitalist exploitation of labor, Bellamy's novel describes an ideal America in the year 2000 using the precepts of utopian socialism. Such positive utopias as Bellamy's represent only one strain of the utopian tradition in American literature. Another perspective highlights the comparative function of utopia; a view illustrated in such works as Herman Melville's Typee (1856), which contrasts a primitive South Seas paradise with modern civilization, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novel drawn from Hawthorne's experience as part of the small, utopian community formed by social reformers at Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

In nineteenth-century British utopian literature scholars generally observe the dominance of the satirical mode in the tradition of More's Utopia and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Samuel Butler's Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872) is such a satire set in a remote, idealized land. Somewhat more positive in outlook, the writings of William Morris represent a utopian vision informed by both an atavistic return to medieval social forms and a belief in utopian socialism. Morris's speculative News from Nowhere (1890), while lacking in the concrete economic criticism of Bellamy's work or the playfulness of Butler's, stands as one of the most influential of the nineteenth-century British socialist utopias.

Another force at work in the utopian fiction of the nineteenth century that has elicited the interest of modern critics involves the significant feminist element in the genre. Scholars note that utopian works by women of the nineteenth century generally offer a view of the future in which women's political and social rights have been expanded to allow equality with men. Such works frequently feature themes of equal justice and opportunity between the sexes or reflect an inversion of traditional roles in patriarchal hierarchy—a movement that, critics contend, reached its literary high point in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist utopia Herland (1915). An alternate strain of feminist utopianism is represented by Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853), in which feminine cooperation and goodwill become the touchstones of an idealized society.

Representative Works

Edward Bellamy
Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (novel) 1888

Calvin Blanchard
The Art of Real Pleasure (novel) 1860

Charles Brockden Brown
Alcuin: A Dialogue (novel) 1798

Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The Coming Race (novel) 1871

Samuel Butler
Erewhon, or Over the Range (novel) 1872

Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (novel) 1865

James Fenimore Cooper
The Monikins (novel) 1835

Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett
New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future (novel) 1889

Florence Dixie
Gloriana; or, The Revolution of 1900 (novel) 1890

John Adolphus Etzler
The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (novel) 1833

Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford (novel) 1853

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Moving the Mountain (novel) 1911
Herland (novel) 1915

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Blithedale Romance (novel) 1852

William Dean Howells
A Traveller from Altruria, Romance (novel) 1894
Through the Eye of the Needle: A Romance (novel) 1907

Sylvester Judd
Margaret: A Tale of the Real and Ideal (novel) 1845

Mary E. Bradley Lane
Mizora: A Prophecy (novel) 1890

Herman Melville
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. During a Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas (novel) 1846

David A. Moore
The Age of Progress; or, A Panorama of Time. In Four Visions (novel) 1856

William Morris
News from Nowhere (novel) 1890

James Reynolds
Equality—A Political Romance (novel) 1802

Timothy Savage
The Amazonian Republic (novel) 1842

Olive Schreiner
“Three Dreams in a Desert” (short story) 1890

Adam Seaborn
Symzonia (novel) 1820

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Hellas (poetry) 1822

David Stirrat
A Treatise on Political Economy (political philosophy) 1824

George Tucker
A Voyage to the Moon: With Some Account of the Manners and Customs, Science and Philosophy, of the People of Morosofia and Other Lunarians [as Joseph Atterley] (novel) 1827

Mark Twain
“The Curious Republic of Gondour” (short story) 1895

Criticism: Overviews: Utopian Literature

Joel Nydahl (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Early Fictional Futures: Utopia, 1798-1864,” in America as Utopia, edited by Kenneth M. Roemer, Burt Franklin & Company, 1981, pp. 254-91.

[In the following essay, Nydahl surveys the utopian vision expressed in American fictional works of the late eighteenth century.]

The earliest utopian visions in and of America were of millennial expectations fulfilled: Columbus saw on the shores of the New World a stage upon which would be acted out Saint John's great prophetic drama; John Winthrop's “Citty on a Hill” was to be a society of godly men waiting for, and working to bring about, the final apocalyptic defeat of the forces of Satan; John Eliot's...

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Simon Dentith (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Imagination and Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Utopian Writing,” in Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and Its Precursors, edited by David Seed, Syracuse University Press, 1995, pp. 137-52.

[In the following essay, Dentith studies the ways in which nineteenth-century utopian literature employs and transcends the trope of inversion.]

In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, ‘In which the story pauses a little’, George Eliot contrasts the ‘wonderful facility for drawing a griffin’ with the difficulty faced in trying to draw a real lion. George Eliot was a writer who was generally anti-utopian in spirit, for whom science meant not so much the...

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Criticism: Utopianism In American Literature

Taylor Stoehr (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Art vs. Utopia: The Case of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brook Farm,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 89-102.

[In the following essay, Stoehr examines the impact of Nathaniel Hawthorne's life at the utopian colony, Brook Farm, on his novel The Blithedale Romance, and explores the tension between art and society in the novel.]

The United States has been a country of extraordinary faith and extraordinary cynicism. We are idealists who pride ourselves on our pragmatism. Our institutions fail miserably to do what we ask them to, and we shrug our shoulders. Young people are expected to go through a period of admirable moral fervor—and...

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John Ferguson (essay date 1978-1979)

SOURCE: “Mark Twain's Utopia,” in Mark Twain Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Winter, 1978-1979, pp. 1-2.

[In the following essay, Ferguson critiques Mark Twain's utopian story “The Curious Republic of Gondour.”]

“The Curious Republic of Gondour” was published anonymously in Atlantic Monthly for Oct. 1895. It was a time when Mark Twain was actively concerned with politics. He was not a party politician, though his sympathies were generally Republican. The 1876 Presidential campaign was the first in which he was deeply involved emotionally: he believed intensely in Hayes's commitment to clean government, and thought that Tilden's election would be a...

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Gorman Beauchamp (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Melville and the Tradition of Primitive Utopia,” in JGE: The Journal of General Education, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 6-14.

[In the following essay, Beauchamp evaluates the primitive, escapist utopia of Melville's Typee.]

Among the compensatory myths of political theory, before the Idea of Progress pushed all others to the periphery, three figured most significantly: the myth of the Golden Age, the concept of the Noble Savage, and the dream of utopia. Although these imaginative constructs differ to the obvious degree of each requiring its own rubric, they nevertheless interpenetrate in crucial ways and share a number of common features. Of the...

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George R. Uba (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Howells and the Practicable Utopia: The Allegorical Structure of the Altrurian Romances,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 118-30.

[In the following essay, Uba explores the allegorical nature of William Dean Howells's utopian romances, A Traveller from Altruria and Through the Eye of the Needle.]

The utopian novels A Traveller From Altruria (1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907) hold an anomalous position in the literary canon of William Dean Howells. Not only do they mark a shift away from his characteristic brand of realism but both individually and collectively they pose a problem of...

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Reimer Jehmlich (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Cog-Work: The Organization of Labor in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and in Later Utopian Fiction,” in Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, edited by Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 27-46.

[In the following essay, Jehmlich investigates the problem of labor as it is addressed in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, and examines the novel's influence on subsequent utopian treatments of this problem.]

It is not only mechanized environments—Disneylands of all types and sizes—that threaten to cripple modern man and alienate him from both his fellow man and nature. A more immediate threat, so it...

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Naomi Jacobs (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Substance and Reality in Hawthorne's Meta-Utopia,” in Utopian Studies, Vol. 1, 1987, pp. 173-87.

[In the following essay, Jacobs investigates the utopian elements of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance.]

“Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories; but I remember that I always had a meaning—or, at least, thought I had.”

Hawthorne to Fields, 1854

The unusual mix of autobiographical/historical subject matter and allegorical method in Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance has led readers down a...

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Lee Cullen Khanna (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Text as Tactic: Looking Backward and the Power of the Word,” in Looking Backward, 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, edited by Daphne Patai, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, pp. 37-50.

[In the following essay, Khanna discusses Edward Bellamy's early utopian fiction in order to highlight the tension between “theory and praxis” in Looking Backward.]

Utopian fiction is a hybrid genre, and Edward Bellamy, one of the great utopists, worked its inherent contradictions into a text of surprising social and political power. Although modern readers are likely to dismiss Looking Backward, citing its systematized solutions to social...

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Criticism: Utopianism In British Literature

Darko Suvin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Counter-Projects: William Morris and the Science Fiction of the 1880s,” in Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris, edited by Florence S. Boos and Carole G. Silver, University of Missouri Press, 1990, pp. 88-97.

[In the following essay, Suvin contends that utopian fiction is a subgenre of science fiction, using William Morris's News from Nowhere and Victorian science fiction of the 1880s as evidence to support this position.]

Historically, there is a very intimate connection between utopian fiction and other forms of what I have called science fiction in a larger sense, such as the extraordinary voyage, technological anticipation,...

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Mark Kipperman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Macropolitics of Utopia: Shelley's Hellas in Context,” in Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, edited by Jonathan Arac and Harriet Ritvo, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 86-101.

[In the following essay, Kipperman studies the utopian, romantic, and radical view of history offered in Percy Shelley's Hellas.]

“We are all Greeks,” said Shelley in his Preface to Hellas, “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. … The modern Greek is the descendant of those glorious beings whom the imagination almost refuses to figure to itself as belonging to our...

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Criticism: Utopianism And Feminism

Carol Pearson (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Coming Home: Four Feminist Utopias and Patriarchal Experience,”* in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, edited by Marleen S. Barr, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981, pp. 63-70.

[In the following essay, Pearson observes affinities in modern feminist utopian novels and suggests that such works “seek to transcend the limitations of female experience.”]

Feminist utopian fiction implicitly or explicitly criticizes the patriarchy while it emphasizes society's habit of restricting and alienating women. Each work discussed here assumes that the patriarchy is unnatural and fails to create environments conducive to the maximization of...

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Nan Bowman Albinski (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “‘The Laws of Justice, of Nature, and of Right’: Victorian Feminist Utopias,” in Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin, The University of Tennessee Press, 1990, pp. 50-68.

[In the following essay, Albinski surveys the major themes and fictional modes of nineteenth-century British women's utopian fiction.]

For the utopian idealist, fiction offers advantages that the essay form lacks: it reaches a potentially wider audience while peopling one's vision and bringing it to life.1 Description and dramatization can, however, be uneasy partners, and sometimes the fictional elements are overwhelmed by...

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Thomas Galt Peyser (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Reproducing Utopia: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Herland,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Peyser argues that Gilman's utopian novel Herland, rather than being a “playful deconstruction of patriarchal thought,” remains “ground[ed] in the dominant culture.”]

According to the prevailing view of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, the utopian novel suited the aims of a radical feminism by subverting the confinements of a realism dedicated to the representation of, and thus acquiescence to, a patriarchal order. Summing up this position, Susan Gubar argues that...

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Rae Rosenthal (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Gaskell's Feminist Utopia: The Cranfordians and the Reign of Goodwill,” in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten, Syracuse University Press, 1994, pp. 73-92.

[In the following essay, Rosenthal considers Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford as a feminist utopia.]

In her landmark essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Elaine Showalter explains that outside of the dominant male culture the muted women's culture has a space, a “wild zone,” that “stands for the aspects of the female lifestyle which are outside of and unlike those of men” (262). According to Showalter, in...

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Val Gough (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘In the Twinkling of an Eye’: Gilman's Utopian Imagination,” in A Very Different Story: Studies on the Fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Val Gough and Jill Rudd, Liverpool University Press, 1998, pp. 129-43.

[In the following essay, Gough analyzes the utopian vision and technique of Gilman's novel Moving the Mountain, and contrasts this work with her later Herland.]

Many recent theorists of utopian thinking have pointed out that the strength of a literary utopia lies not so much in the particular social structure it portrays, but rather in how the utopian vision is portrayed. Since narrative strategies and formal devices...

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Further Reading


Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Iron Heel and Looking Backward: Two Paths to Utopia.” In American Literary Realism 1870-1910 9, No. 4 (Autumn 1976): 307-14.

Explores the affinities of the dystopian novel The Iron Heel and the utopian work Looking Backward.

Coleman, Stephen. “The Economics of Utopia: Morris and Bellamy Contrasted.” In The Journal of the William Morris Society VIII, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 2-6.

Distinguishes between the views of economic distribution presented in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwardand William Morris's News from Nowhere.


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