The Good Place? Tracing utopia and dystopia through literature

Today we often hear the words utopia and dystopia used in informal conversations and in the media. But what do these words really mean? To find out, let’s trace the ideas behind utopia and dystopia through the history of literature and thought.

Utopia (from the Greek for ‘no place’ or the good place’) was coined for the first time in 1516 by the English philosopher and lawyer Sir Thomas More

Published by his close friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, another famous humanist, More’s novel Utopia is ‘a little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in the new island Utopia’. In fact, it is a satire describing a fictional island’s social and religious structure, which interestingly includes slavery as an unavoidable consequence of its functioning. Influenced by the discovery of the new continent by Columbus and the possibilities for the foundation of a new world order (which resulted in one of the most horrific genocides and the beginning of European colonialism), the book gave rise to a literary genre which features ideal places and well-organised societies. 

Some of the classical examples are the New Atlantis (Francis Bacon), Erewhon (Samuel Butler), or Candide (Voltaire).

In the 18th century, the French Revolution and its American counterpart brought the idea of universal rights and the need for political and social transformation to the utopian movement. 

But it was during the 19th century, a prolific period for philosophical and technological changes due to industrialisation and great advances in science (Darwinism, railroads, telegraphs), that utopian literature as a genre started to flourish. Movements against slavery and for women’s rights began to be prominent. 

Regardless of these scientific and humanist advances, the society of that time remained one of great social injustice and economic inequality. Thinkers and philosophers were interested in how the extreme labour conditions of the emerging working class could be improved.  Debates emerged about how to implement the ideas of utopian socialists like Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, Robert Owen or William Morris. 

The textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist, William Morris was deeply concerned with environmental degradation and overpopulation in cities.

Unlike the utopians, Karl Marx – the most important figure for socialism – advocated for a more egalitarian, communal, and meritocratic world using science and technology as driving forces. 

At the end of the 19th century, Marx as well as author H. G. Wells were able to imagine the huge impact of new scientific developments for future societies, and thus ignited a turning point for utopian literature: the beginning of science fiction.

H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are considered among the fathers of the science fiction genre. Wells was an exceptional writer who was nominated 4 times for the Nobel Prize. His novels foresaw some of the breakthroughs of our modern society like space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television, and the World Wide Web. 

Wells was also interested in biological engineering, particularly eugenics, controversial practices of that period that inspired some of the Nazi’s racial policies and experiments. The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and A Modern Utopia (1905) are the best examples of his imaginary future world. 

In his novel Time Machine (spoiler alert), set in the futuristic world of Elois and Morlocks, Wells suggests that by creating a utopia for some, we may subjugate others to live in a dystopia. 

This reflection – which has been shared since in many books and films (for example: Blade Runner, Matrix, The Truman Show) – brings us to some crucial questions: ‘Is there a real chance for the betterment of humankind and the design of fairer and more equal society? Are we condemned to live perpetually in the ‘best’ place possible? Do we live in a utopia for a few or a dystopia for many? And very pertinent now, are technology and science a positive or a negative enabler?’

A different chapter in the utopian genre is represented by feminist utopia, which is especially concerned with the role of women in the power dynamics of a patriarchal society.  

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Lady Florence Dixie were important authors in the early movement at the end of the 19th century. Both have influenced the work of more contemporary writers like Margaret Atwood and her popular book and (later) television series The Handmaid’s Tale.

The 1950s marked another crucial moment of the genre with what scholars consider the ‘dystopian turn’. The world then was divided into two geopolitical areas and the threat of a nuclear war, but at the same time has started to experience the pleasure and immediate rewards of consumerism. Many artists, philosophers, writers, politicians, and thinkers are beginning to debate overpopulation and environmental devastation.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are two well-known examples of dystopian literature. 

Orwell based his novel on the experience of communist dictatorships and repression. Huxley understood that in the future, the control of the state and other hegemonic forces were going to be deployed through leisure and entertainment, instead of violence and censorship. He envisaged the reality we currently live in, where we all gladly exchange freedom for security and we ignore the truth to live in our happy bubble or ‘utopian island’.

READ IN EUROPEANA:

Utopia, 1516, Sir Thomas More (English)

Gulliver’s Travels, 1726, Jonathan Swift (French)

Candide: Optimisme, 1759, Voltaire (French)

Amazing Journeys, 1863-1905, Jules Verne (French)

The Mysterious Island, 1875, Jules Verne (English) 

Isola, Or The Disinherited: A Revolt for Woman and All the Disinherited, 1877, Lady Florence Dixie (English)

The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (German)

The Island of Doctor Moreau, 1896, H. G. Wells (French)

A Modern Utopia, 1905, H.G. Wells (English)

By Isabel Crespo, Europeana Foundation

Featured image: Vízakna bath 100 years from now. Traffic, future, airship, balloon, automobile. Balatoni Múzeum – Keszthely. CC BY-NC-ND

4 thoughts on “The Good Place? Tracing utopia and dystopia through literature

  1. Thank you, Isabel, for this comprehensive account of some of the most relevant texts that, chronologically, make up the utopian literature, voice the dawn of science fiction and articulate the dystopian turn.

    It so happens that I have just finished Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (first published in the USA in 1924, in Russia 64 years later!), prompted by a movie trailer for its adaptation for the big screen in 2021 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFxWTYExvYY) that I watched earlier this week. The book had been sitting on my nightstand for a while, waiting for a push in the direction of my end-of-the-school-year (and what a year!) mind.

    This is a dystopian novel that pre-dates Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) and Orwell’s “1984” (1949), and it has been utterly underrated. Both Huxley and Orwell partly derived their respective novels from it; Orwell even wrote an article in 1946 reviewing the Russian’s book and pointing out that Huxley had had some inspiration when writing his novel (the article is here: https://orwell.ru/library/reviews/zamyatin/english/e_zamy); he never mentioned Zamyatin’s influence on his own work though… Long story short, I do hope the movie is a step towards a proper –and long awaited – recognition.

    I look forward to watching it! I can also hardly wait for the month of October to come, as on the 2nd of this month the new Wonder Woman movie will be released (if all goes well). Entitled “Wonder Woman 1984” and with a plot still shrouded in mystery 4 months before it hits the cinemas, the upcoming blockbuster (I am sure of this!) has got only one official trailer so far (it is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfM7_JLk-84) but it seems plausible to assume a connection to Orwell’s fiction because of carefully woven and briefly presented moments of the movie in the trailer (offered to the fans last December).

    Dystopia keeps finding its way, just as I too revel in my ‘happy bubble’ while reading/watching/listening to all sorts of stories…

  2. Many thanks Daniela for your message and this fantastic insight on the dystopian genre! I also didn’t know about Yevgeny Zamyatin. I will include it in my reading list for the summer 🙂
    It’s a fascinating topic because of all the philosophical implications and open questions about our social systems and relations with technology. On the other hand, it gives also a great opportunity to reflect individually and as a community members to discern what kind of societies we want to live in.
    Long life to the genre!

  3. Indeed, the importance of Zamyatin’s We for the evolution of the genre couldn’t be greater. It never sold much and many fans of the genre haven’t read it. Yet, it’s influence in the other two great dystopias, Brave New World and 1984, was enormous. Kurt Vonnegut admitted in a 1974 interview that he had “cheerfully ripped off the plot of BNW, whose plot had cheerfully been ripped off Eugene Zamyatin’s We.
    Orwell reviewed We from a French edition when he was writing 1984, and said that he found a striking resemblance between We and BNW… just like many readers found striking resemblances between We and 1984.
    I think We started a sub-genre, one that is set against the backdrop of a totalitarian society and are narrated in a fairly realistic way, reading as a plausible story but always set in the future and involving technological and scientific fiction. However, they are not SciFi as such, as Atwood said of 1984.
    Other defining motives are the abolition of culture, or at least of high culture, the destruction of love and family ties, and the use of sex as a tool to control the individual. I believe Zamyatin shaped the modern dystopian genre, one that Huxley, Orwell, Atwood, Bradbury and many others helped become one of the most defining genres of the 20th century

  4. Sorry I posted without reading Daniella’s full comment; I’m on my mobile, on the move. I was referring to the very same review Orwell did, which you had already cited and even provided a link for.
    I also hope Zamyatin’s We finally gets the recognition it deserves. Perhaps a movie would do the trick, get the public to know and appreciate it. Honestly, I didn’t even know this film was coming, and now I can’t wait! Thanks for the tip!

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