Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Erewhon. Samuel Butler’s Ambiguous Utopia

Scientific Essay, 2014

16 Pages, Grade: University

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Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Erewhon:

Samuel Butler’s Ambiguous Utopia


This article seeks to analyse Samuel Butler’s satirical treatment of Victorian institutions and values in Erewhon (1872). It focuses on the function of the utopian genre to account for the ideological struggles that inform society, and its capacity to suggest cures to social ills. Taking its theoretical bearings from Paul Ricoeur’s Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (1975) and Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia: A Sociology of Knowledge (1932) it attempts to explain why Butler faces the difficulty of reflecting objectively on a society in which he was culturally immersed; In describing this difficulty, Ricoeur uses the expression “Mannheim’s paradox” to refer to the ambivalent intersection of ideology and utopia in utopian thinking. A symptom of this ambivalence in Erewhon , as we argue in this article, is the resort to satire not only to mock and make a clean sweep of the values of Victorian society in compliance with the work’s utopian impulse but to re-establish those same values on firmer ideological basis by resorting to carnivalisation.

Keywords: Butler, Erewhon, satire, carnival, ideology, utopia, ambiguity, Victorian values


Century ends are known to be periods of great expectations, and the end of the nineteenth century which had begun to reap the fruit of Enlightenment was no exception to the rule. Indeed, the triumph of empirical knowledge and reason over ignorance and superstition had produced scientific and theoretical breakthroughs, technological innovations and social progress, all of which had turned Great Britain into an orderly body politic, a busy workshop and a powerful, self-confident economic and military world power under the rule of enlightened elites. The gradual discovery of natural laws increased man’s control of natural forces, opened unlimited horizons before him and strengthened his belief that “laissez-faire” and Free Trade were the best way to establish an ideal state.

The fin-de-siècle was a period during which the hopes of the rising working classes for an improved future were echoed by the apprehensions of the middle classes that rule by the many may lead society back to anarchy. These conflicting feelings of aspiration and apprehension pervaded British society and produced a culture of expectancy that found expression in utopian writing. As the growing economic and political influence of the workers was not translated into political terms, a feeling that something ought to be done to meet the workers pressing demands for recognition pervaded British society. However, this feeling of empathy which stirred some middle class intellectuals to act as the voice of the workers through utopias hardly concealed their fear of a proletarian revolution as the inevitable outcome of historical evolution.

For Mathew Beaumont (2005), the utopias produced at that period were meant by their authors as imagined virtual answers to the concrete demands expressed by certain social strata, which if fulfilled here and now might cause the disruption of the ongoing established order. They represented an external view-point from which their authors tried to understand the contradictions of their society and hint at possible schemes whereby the tensions threatening their society could be released. However, holding an intermediate position between the working classes and the middle classes, the utopian writers displayed an ambivalent attitude which seemed to reflect their difficulty to situate themselves socially and culturally. It is the purpose of the present article to look into the origin and the function of this ambivalence as expressed in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) .

Review of the literature, Issue and Hypothesis

Published anonymously by Trubner in 1872, Erewhon has already been the object of numerous critical studies. Indeed critics could be anything but indifferent to a daring work of art that undertook to strip naked the inconsistencies of Victorian society. However, while purportedly meant to ‘hold a mirror up to Victorian society (Kumar, 1991: 106) to reveal its incongruities, critics and readers alike have been baffled by the intended function of the satire. Butler’s deliberate vagueness may explain the consensus reached by critics that “for all its qualities, [Butler’s novel] might have been written by the Erewhonian professor of inconsistency and evasion”, to quote Darco Suvin who best epitomises this view (quoted in Parrinder, 2005:353).

Although meant by its author to function as a utopia, considering the anagrammatic relationship of his romance to Sir Thomas More’s “Nowhere”, the supposedly ideal society portrayed by Butler is deficient in the traits of a conventional utopia. In his discussion of the novel, T.J. Remington concludes that it is closer to a Swiftian satire than to ‘a conventional utopian or dystopian fiction, or with modern science fiction for that matter. Set neither in an ideal future nor in an ideal past, Erewhon ’s imaginary society falls short of utopian fiction or dystopian satire’ ( Remington,1983:37). Unlike most of Butler’s critics, Remington refuses to read the views expressed by the writer in the chapter entitled “The Book of the Machines” as the precursor of science fiction, anticipating the horrific developments of science, but rather as a deliberate exaggeration of both the Darwinians who hold positivist views, and of the way evolutionary ideas could be distorted by conservatives in order to counter progress.

Much the same ambiguity in Butler’s attitude is noted by Krishan Kumar. According to this critic, this ambiguity manifests itself through the writer’s use of “utopian form to satirise Darwinian ideas, but also to portray an alternative that [he] equally mocks and praises” (Kumar, 1996:65). Butler’s possible intended aim is to warn against the quest of utopia, for any utopia is pregnant with a potential dystopia. Kumar notes ‘[a parallel between] the literary form of satire [and] the social form of the Saturnalia, an annual festival of mockery and destruction that was also a positive re-enactment of the pleasures of the Golden Age (ibid: 104) Like the Saturnalia, satire might be assigned a “carnivalesque” function insofar as it provides an imaginary dimension in which the conventions, the values and the taboos that bind the social subject can be safely violated. These transgressions, as Simon Dentith reminds us, function as a sort of safety valve playing a cathartic function (1996: 73). While it allows the participants to indulge in all sorts of excesses within the limits of the carnival, it actually prevents creative praxis for it helps the order to regenerate and perpetuate itself in non-marked time, once the tensions threatening to shatter it have been released. This form of criticism is ideological in nature for rather than transforming the established order, it tends to strengthen it. Although Kumar hints at the uneasy position and vague aim of the satirist, he does not, discuss the causes of this ambivalence.

The critic who probably best accounts for Butler’s ambiguity is A.L. Morton who describes Erewhon

[as] the prospect of a utopia from the study window of a country rectory through the eyes of the rector’s brilliant, eccentric son. And it is one of the characteristics of the rector’s clever son that he is able to feel extremely detached while in fact remaining very much a part of his environment. [adding to describe the paradox in which Butler is caught: to be at the same time in an out of the system whose mores he scrutinises that] . . . he is like a weak swimmer, forever striking out from the shore and as often heading back in panic the moment he finds he is out of his depth. (Morton , 1969: 185-193).

Morton realises the difficulty Butler felt as a middle class intellectual, who is too content in the enjoyment of the material comforts of his position, to emancipate himself from the outlook of his group. It is, in part, this ambivalence of the utopian writer towards the “inconsistencies” of his society which this article aims to account for. More specifically, this article is premised on the assumption that Samuel Butler who set out to satirise Victorian mores was so constrained by the ideological outlook of his class that he finishes by complying with those values that he had initially intended to debunk. As an observer-participant, trying to look at his society from an ideologically neutral point of view, Butler seems to have been caught in a paradox.


The Butlerian paradox will be analysed with the theoretical framework that Karl Mannheim and Paul Ricoeur have outlined, respectively in Ideology and Utopia: A Sociology of Knowledge (1932) and Ideology and Utopia (2005) . This appeal to theory about the dialectic of utopian and ideological thing will be supplemented by Butler’s public pronouncements made in two of his major essays: “Life and Habit” and “Unconscious Memory,” which might shed light on his doxa and paradoxa with which he started the writing of his utopian fiction. The ambiguity of his ideological position, as we shall argue, has led to fall in the trap of “Manheim’s paradox”.

16 of 16 pages


Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Erewhon. Samuel Butler’s Ambiguous Utopia
Mouloud Mammeri University of Tizi-ouzou  (Department of English)
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politics, ethics, aesthetics, erewhon, samuel, butler’s, ambiguous, utopia
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Bouteldja Riche (Author), 2014, Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Erewhon. Samuel Butler’s Ambiguous Utopia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/267290


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