Utopianism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.