I think most people will remember the dystopian YA craze in the early 2010s. Although the genre is not seen as the pinnacle of quality by many, it was where my love of books grew when I was younger and so I hold it dearly. I also credit this phase for compelling me to choose what turned out to be one of my favourite modules in my final year of university; Utopia and Dystopia. I didn't know much at all about utopia, but I have come to learn just how fascinatingly nuanced the term is; in many ways, (in both fictional iterations and real societies) utopia and dystopia exist simultaneously and have a real complicated relationship.
To explain a bit further I have inserted an edited version of a blog post I made for this module. In the post I talk about a story which could be considered, quite literally, the birthplace of 'utopia' as a genre. Thomas More's Utopia was where the term was first used and so, I decided it would be a good place to start ...
Thomas More’s Utopia, published first in Latin in 1516, is an exploration of the complexities of human ‘goodness’ and the implications of a perfect society. The Utopians, having existed for nearly 2,000 years, have a successfully balanced system in which all property is shared equally. The desire to be useful to the community is felt strongly by all which leads to an eradication of poverty, hunger and other social problems. For the most part it seems perfect; although, is it too good to be true?
When people refer to something as utopian conversationally, it’s likely that they refer to utopia as the flip-side to dystopia, i.e. to the likes of The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World (post-apocalyptic worst-case scenario realities). But in More’s Utopia, where it all began, this word is given a much more contradicting meaning and some very blurry lines. His society may seem perfect, but I’m sure you’ll agree, there are some disturbing elements.
A line does appear in Utopia that is echoed in Aldous Huxley’s famous Brave New World, ‘everybody’s happy now’, but while in Huxley’s novel this functions as a grim reminder of the World State’s synthetic, hedonistic imitation of happiness, the Utopians actually seem to have cultivated a true happiness which is tied to virtue. Although this society appears to be successful and ideal, particularly, from my perspective, in that the citizens are not burdened by consumerism or capitalism, this is not to say that More intended to map out a real, optimistic vision of ideal society that could exist in some far off place or in the future. In truth, the text often turns to satire and irony, maybe to undermine the idea that perfection is even a possibility.
More puts himself in the text, although the author’s perspective on things is left fairly ambiguous; after all, can we assume that the character’s voice mirrors More's own thoughts exactly? The satire and irony that runs throughout is mostly what leaves you with this feeling. More coined the word ‘utopia’ itself, and from this we can already derive two main features of utopia from its greek etymology that feel like an ironic contradiction; it is both known as "good" (eu-) and “no-place” (ou-topos)¹. A place of goodness, and yet it does not exist. What’s more, the explorer who tells him about the inner-workings of Utopia is named Raphael Hythloday, whose first name alludes to an ‘angelic messenger’, but his surname amusingly refers to ‘an idle talker, a dealer in nonsense or an expert in trifles’², suggesting humorously that his grand tales are made up. If utopia is ‘nowhere’ and the explorer is not to be trusted, it is safe to assume that More feels this ideal scenario is either far out of reach or perhaps not as completely perfect/ideal as is explained. In my opinion, More is alluding to both.
The very notion that wars have ensued in the past which Utopians have participated in entirely negates their theoretical principles of pacifism and their general distaste for wasting useful human life unnecessarily. Although ‘they loathe’ war, they ‘devote themselves, women as well as men, to regular military training to ensure that they won’t be incapable of defending themselves when the need arises.’ Ultimately, the presence of war in the world is inescapable, they are trapped within a culture of conflict which they have to participate in. Maybe More is communicating that no real ideal society could even escape the human habit of war. However, not only do they participate, they ‘devote’ themselves to defending their island which seems hypocritical, ironic and eerily reminiscent of the contemporary nuclear arms race.
Utopia remains a patriarchal society to a degree, in which women have a lesser status than men. Despite having equal rights to education and leisure pursuits, according to Hythloday, ‘the oldest male rules each household; wives serve their husbands.’ As ‘servitude’ is largely used in the text in reference to those who have been reduced to lower statuses in society and forced to pay back to the community accordingly, this certainly implies that men hold more power in Utopia (socially if nothing else). A more disturbing tradition in the text is that ‘husbands discipline their wives, as parents do their children’ revealing a mentality that men are more upstanding or virtuous citizens by nature and are permitted to look down on women accordingly.
What surprises me the most is the Utopians’ attitude to crime and justice. While the citizens are known to be happy, and value their places in society, wrongdoing is not completely eliminated. There are times in which people would like to visit other cities, but first they must get the approval of the governor; if they are found without a pass from the governor they are ‘brought back like a fugitive and severely punished.’ If this occurs twice ‘he is sentenced to slavery.’ I think it is glaringly obvious that slavery existing as a form of punishment in Utopia is cruel and unexpected in such a ‘good’ place.
Slavery is used in multiple cases, for adulterers and sometimes for those on death row in other countries. However Utopians who are condemned to slavery are treated the most severely, since ‘they had an excellent education and the best of moral training, yet still couldn’t be restrained from wrongdoing.’ To be subjected to the punishment of others, regardless, sounds entirely non-utopian. Any supposed requirement for enslaved individuals indicates that society still has flaws, since, aside from it being cruel, it also implies that class hierarchy is still present. When Hythloday states that if slaves ‘rebel and resist such treatment, then - like wild beasts that can’t be controlled by either bars or chains - they are put down,’ this hierarchy is disturbingly evident in the connections to wild, feral animals, as though the enslaved are a lesser species altogether. This ‘ideal’ society seems broken, since not every single citizen experiences an ideal life (in this case barely a life at all); ideally, happiness would be shared by everyone rather than only those who are deemed ‘somebody’ by society.
There are traces in the text of a familiar problem encountered in utopian fiction; the issue of free will and individuality. The notion of acting as a community is productive and enables the Utopians to never be without a basic necessity such as housing or food; however, this creates the problem of lack of freedom. The Utopians requiring permission to travel is restrictive and sounds almost as though they are prisoners rather than citizens. According to J. C. Davis, ‘in Utopia dress is almost entirely uniform, as is housing, which is regularly reallocated’³ which is presented as part of the good of the community. However, in my opinion, independence and spontaneity are key components to life. As such, a question which arises is: if individuals had different desires to others in Utopia would they be able to pursue them?
I wonder if the idea of not being able to pursue individual desires reminds anyone else of reading the Divergent series (dystopian) as a teenager. All the people of a post-apocalyptic Chicago are given a 'faction' supposedly according to their personalities, however they are sort of hilariously limited to five choices. This is instead a method of preventing people from acting on individual will and causing a threat to the government. When I think of dystopia my worst fears align most with Margaret Atwood’s horrifying Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale where women are second-class citizens and essentially big baby machines. However, interestingly, having no freedom to leave as you please, and having less power as a woman are also both elements of More’s ‘perfect’ society.
Utopia is certainly not a perfect paradise. Although their ideas surrounding virtue and the immorality of ‘pursuing our own advantage at the expense of others’ in theory counters a major issue of capitalism, and represents what an ideal society would be in my eyes, there seems to be inconsistencies in practice. The parameters of usefulness and sharing property/workload only causes there to be room for the opposite and thus, the requirement for enforcing these values and consequently, punishment. Overall, there is a sense that human flaw is inescapable in this society which raises the question: is this flawed version the closest to idyllic More believes society could get? As Thomas More was widely known as Christian humanist and Catholic, we can assume that he was likely to believe that Heaven was the only paradise and that a perfect life is not possible as an earthly being (the idea that only when one is in the presence of God can one truly be happy). There is definitely an interesting point behind the notion that human life is inherently imperfect, although I would not personally approach this idea from a religious standpoint. Perhaps happiness will always demand the presence of unhappiness, and perfection imperfection.
1 Elizabeth Knowles, ‘Utopia’, in The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), n.p. 2 J. C. Davis, ‘Thomas More’s Utopia : Sources, Legacy And Interpretation’, in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. by Gregory Claeys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 28-50 (p. 29).
3 J. C. Davis, ‘Thomas More’s Utopia : Sources, Legacy And Interpretation’, in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. by Gregory Claeys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 28-50 (p. 42).