Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: Dystopia before Dystopia

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the looking-glass world of Samuel Butler’s pioneering anti-utopian novel

When I was an undergraduate English student at Loughborough fifteen years ago, I took an optional second-year module called ‘Other Victorians’. As this title implies, the module was intended as a sort of companion-piece to the core module ‘Victorian Literature’, which covered the canon of Victorian writing. On the one hand, you had George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam. On the other, you had Florence Nightingale’s essays, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, and Arthur Hugh Clough’s Amours de Voyage.

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) would stand firmly in the latter camp containing those ‘other Victorians’. His anti-utopian novel is part science-fiction, part social commentary, part adventure fantasy, part comic satire. Like many experimental Victorian works of literature, it resists easy categorisation. Is it even a dystopian work, a forerunner to Brave New World, We, and Nineteen Eighty-Four?

‘Erewhon’ (‘nowhere’ backwards, or almost backwards) is meant to be pronounced ‘er-e-whon’, as Butler made clear in the preface, although many nevertheless pronounce it as ‘air-one’. (It’s tempting to suggest that George Orwell, who praised Erewhon in 1945, may well have had Butler’s novel in mind when he set his own dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in Airstrip One. An appealing idea, anyway.)

The plot of Erewhon is easy to summarise, since the novel is more about setting than story. The narrator, Higgs, and his companion stumble upon a mysterious land beyond a mountain range (supposedly located somewhere in New Zealand). The land is called Erewhon and everything seems to be an inversion of the world Higgs has left behind: crime is cured while sickness is punished (one of the many Darwinian-influenced aspects of the novel), while the universities are ‘Colleges of Unreason’ where nothing of any real use is taught. What we might call Grundyism – essentially, Victorian puritanism – is the state religion, with Ydgrun (Grundy reversed) worshipped as a goddess.

Indeed, just as Erewhon is ‘nowhere’ backwards (or almost), many of the characters (Yram, Nosnibor) have names which are more familiar names reversed (Mary, Robinson), because it is devised to be a mirror of our world, holding up a mirror to Victorian society. It is a world of reflection and reversal, much like another book of 1872 (albeit one that actually came out in 1871 and was merely post-dated on its title-page), namely Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.

In his afterword to the battered old second-hand edition of Erewhon which I own, Kingsley Amis pointed out how Butler presents each aspect and institution in the novel from two angles, even while satirising the university (as the Colleges of Unreason) and the church (the worship of ‘Mrs Grundy’ in the form of Ydgrun). It’s always weighed up from two sides. Thus Erewhon is strictly speaking, we might say, neither a utopia nor a dystopia but rather what we might call an equitopia, a world that is weighed in the balance and neither painted as a nightmare hell-on-earth (or elsewhere) nor depicted as a heavenly paradise. In Erewhon Butler (who is also known for his novel The Way of All Flesh) is impatient with utopias – after all, by their very definition, and the etymological derivation of the word, they acknowledge themselves to be too good to be true – but he doesn’t quite give us full proto-Orwellian treatment either.

Nevertheless, Butler does critique a number of ideas which were being hotly debated in the early 1870s. The shockwaves of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which had been published in 1859, were still being felt, and one year before Erewhon was published, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, which explicitly addressed our own evolution from, and kinship with, other primates, had appeared. The Victorian era was also the machine age, ‘this iron time’ as Thomas Carlyle had memorably put it; and one of Butler’s strokes of genius in Erewhon is to apply one to the other. If Darwinism reduces all biological entities to machines of a kind, with material but not spiritual significance, then why not apply natural selection to machinery itself? This is why you won’t find any machines in Erewhon. They have been outlawed, because Darwinian natural selection implies that they might, one day, evolve to attain consciousness. As well as being a great Victorian satirist, Samuel Butler is also the grandfather of the idea underpinning The Terminator.

Erewhon is amusing, thought-provoking, imaginative, and surprisingly readable for a utopian book – perhaps precisely because, like Thomas More’s foundational text in the genre, it is as much a satire of the idea of utopia as it is utopian fiction itself.

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.

3 thoughts on “Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: Dystopia before Dystopia”

  1. It’s a marvellous book, sadly overlooked, as is its sequel; I’ve loved it ever since I came across it as a student over 40 years ago. I really like your surmise about Airstrip One!


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