Utopian Novels in Victorian England

Three comments on the possibility and desirability of Utopia

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



The aim of this paper is to compare three of the most influential Utopian novels of the Victorian era in Great Britain: William Morris´ News from Nowhere, Samuel Butler´s Erewhon and Edward Bulwer-Lytton´s The Coming Race.[1] To be able to appreciate the special aspects of the Utopian mode of literature[2] in the comparison it is necessary to find a useful definition which will distinguish its form and contents from other kinds of literature.

On an abstract level Utopianism is defined as “the desire to establish or discover a more perfect society”. (Clayes, 1997: xiii) This definition refers to the older works of literature, which, in the tradition of Morus, depicted a perfect form of society as an alternative to the current situation. Offering an alternative is based on criticism of the existing system which is always part of a Utopian work, formulated directly or indirectly. So the main theme of Utopian works is the tension of the existing and the imagined society as several authors point out. (cf. Seeber in Voßkamp, 1985: 148; Wuckel, 1986: 75) But in newer Utopian works it is not always the case that the imagined society is better but the worst possible society may be depicted. These are anti-utopian works, of which Wells and Orwell probably wrote the most famous examples. So it is very difficult to find a definition which will cover all possible notions of Utopianism, as they change with time. Seeber emphasises this point and the Europäische Enzyklopädie zu Philosophie und Wissenschaften cites Hermand, explaining why literary forms are only a reaction to their respective times:

“Denn schliesslich gibt es keine Kategorien oder Genres a priori, sondern immer nur deren historische Manifestationen, die selbst dann, wenn sie wie die U. [Utopie] ins scheinbar Ahistorische vorausgreifen wollen, doch Ausdruck ihrer eigenen Zeit bleiben.” (Europäische Enzyklopädie, 1990: 679)

So the specific influences of the Victorian era should be included in an approach to a definition.

In the nineteenth century there was a great increase of Utopian fictions when compared with the times before. (cf. Europäische Enzyklopädie, 1990: 680; Biesterfeld, 1982: 78; Baker, 1976: 252) The Victorian era introduced new ideas, especially the natural sciences, which were dealt with and found their expression in literature. For example the ideas of Darwin were integrated in many works. (E.g. Otten, 1990: 160ff.) Another novelty was that the social and political sciences used scientific methods – formally restricted to the natural sciences – as can be seen most clearly in the works of Marx and Engels (Otten, 1990: 157ff.). Probably the classification of Utopian literature as a subdivision of Science Fiction originates from this time. There is a link of hypothesising about technological possibilities and their implications and social and political possibilities and their influence on a society. The link and also the distinction of natural and social sciences seem to have led to Wuckel´s understanding of Utopian fiction as a literary mode. In his anthology of Science Fiction he includes a chapter on “Sozialutopien”, describing them as literary works which explore possible societies (Wuckel, 1986: 15f. and 47ff.).

But the Victorian era did not only introduce scientific ideas and technologies, but it also caused doubt and confusion which eventually led to the modern anti-utopian works. I would suppose that one presupposition of imagining perfect societies is the hope of their (if only partial) realisation.[3] But the anti-utopian works show a great distrust in humankind and warn the readers of possible negative tendencies in society. Such elements can already be found in Victorian Britain and so it follows, that Victorian novels are not a mere depiction of perfect societies. These works are much more complex and so a comparison of the three mentioned works cannot only describe and discuss three differing alternative societies. A comparison must look at more subtle differences, respecting the possible variety in content and intention.

But such a detailed comparison can not be done in the frame of this paper. I will therefore concentrate on a specific aspect which struck me as most interesting. The question I want to pose is in how far the works are still hopeful and positive and how far they are already disillusioned and negative. Do they consider the idea of a utopian and perfect society to be desirable and possible?

I found that Morris’ News from Nowhere is still a classic Utopia as it depicts a hopeful prospect of an ideal state of society, but it also introduces a new notion. A utopian society is not something out of human reach, but can be realised entirely. Morris’ basis was Marx’ theory and he really believed in the possibility of a truly communist and happy nation.

Butler’s work Erewhon should be rather called a satire, as it is mostly a criticism of Victorian society. But still, it uses the frame of a Utopian fiction and therefor also comments on it. From Erewhon can be concluded that mankind is not capable of true improvement and that a perfect system is intolerant and oppressive.

Lytton’s work The Coming Race is a mixture of criticism, offering answers and for the most part a discussion of the perfectibility of men and the desirability of perfection, coming to the conclusion that perfection and the desire for it is rather a threat to mankind.

William Morris: News from Nowhere; or being some chapters from a Utopian romance (1891)

Morris’ News from Nowhere (NfN) is the only ‘true’ Utopia, because in opposition to Butler and Lytton, it displays an ideal society with all the necessary constituents. It is a positive society with no anti-utopian tendencies, but all the people in ‘Nowhere’ live happily and are free. This makes it a rather old-fashioned example of its kind. But also in comparison to preceding works from older times, it describes a society which could be possible. ‘Nowhere’ is not a place out of reach, but it is the future England, as Morris imagines it after having gone through changes socialists like Marx predicted.[4]

NfN is a time-utopia, i.e. the utopian society is separated from the current society by time, instead of place, as in most of the older Utopian works. The narrator wakes up one morning just where he lives, but about 150 years later. It is London, in England, but it has changed totally. Then he undertakes a journey around the countryside and is amazed because of all the improvements. But the progression is not of a technological kind but a return to pre-industrial times. The countryside resembles some perfected image of the Middle Ages strongly modelled after Morris’ liking of medieval architecture and styles. Morris simply reversed the negative effects of the industrialisation and the progression has been made concerning the well-being and the morality of the people.

Readers can very easily imagine the beauty of the future England, as the narrator describes his surroundings in detail and very vividly:


[1] These works and Edward Bellamy´s Looking Backward are most often mentioned in the literature about Utopian fiction. (Cf. Otten,1990: 159ff.; Clayes,1997: xxxviii; Biesterfeld,1982: 78.)

[2] It is still under discussion whether Utopian literature is an independent genre. In German literary science it is much more independent than in Britain, where it is often dealt with as a subdivision of Science Fiction. (Seeber in Voßkamp (ed.), 1985:143ff..)

[3] The term ‘utopian’ often has the derogative connotation of ‘unrealistic’ and ‘hopeless dream’. So ‘Utopian fiction’ could be defined as unrealistic and fantastic literature. But I would claim that the motifs of authors must be hopeful if they make the effort to imagine an alternative society. It is only natural that an ideal can never be realised entirely.

[4] The ideas Morris’ presents in his book belong to a real political discussion. Morris criticised Edward Bellamy’s version of a socialist state in Looking Backward, 1888-2000 on a theoretical level in an edition of the socialist newspaper The Commonweal in January 1889. That is why some authors consider his bookd to be a reaction to Bellamy’s work. (cf. Morton, 1978: p. 201)

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Utopian Novels in Victorian England
Three comments on the possibility and desirability of Utopia
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Victorian Novels
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Utopian, Novels, Victorian, England, Three, Utopia
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Silke Bosch (Author), 2004, Utopian Novels in Victorian England, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/139245


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