The Utopian World of “Erewhon”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

In 1870, a little-known Englishman, Samuel Butler, wrote a rather unusual novel after returning home from a stint in New Zealand as a sheep farmer. The novel’s name was difficult to pronounce, and it talked about a lost civilization with some rather perplexing features. Then, why was it published?

Sheep farming in Central Otago, New Zealand.
Higgs, the narrator in Erewhon, is a sheep farmer in New Zealand. (Image: Janelle Lugge/Shutterstock)

Genre Fiction

The mid-century saw the birth of genre fiction as part of a new publishing industry that included very cheap fiction—the penny dreadfuls in England and the dime novels in the U.S.—as well as an increasingly profitable middlebrow press, which is where Samuel Butler published.

The books in this genre, sometimes called the hollow Earth novels, were largely imitators of The Coming Race by Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which introduced a kind of resurgence of utopian novels with its introduction of a hidden subterranean society.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Books of Genre Fiction

These books speak to Victorian anxiety about the vanishing frontier. In Thomas More’s time, it was easy to imagine an undiscovered island that contained a people markedly different from any the Europeans had ever encountered. Even in the 18th century, with Jonathan Swift’s obviously outlandish voyages, it was at least possible to conceive of unchartered territories.

Erewhon, in fact, isn’t exactly a hollow Earth novel. It’s actually set on a large, lush tract of land located beyond a mountain pass, in a space unmapped but completely mappable.

There’s actually something a little nostalgic about this setting, something that makes clear that the myth of idyllic expansion that had long driven colonialism was still at least partially alive. Perhaps this partly explains the immediate popularity of this novel.

Learn more about genre short fiction in America.

Erewhon‘s Popularity: Then and Now

Butler wasn’t well-known, so the book waspublished anonymously at first, in March of 1872. Soon known as The New Gulliver, it went into several editions, with Butler putting his name to it in the fifth edition, published only a few months later in 1873.

The novel has remained quite popular to this day, keeping its appeal for three reasons. One, it has a certain timeless quality. Two, it’s a lot of fun, employing the most attractive generic features of utopia effectively, providing earnest details about the hidden society, a lot of satire, and a minor romance plot that leads to an outlandish grand finale in which the utopian visitor escapes by a hot air balloon, taking a utopian lover with him.

And three, it includes a rather unwieldy treatise called Book of the Machines, which speaks to the anxieties of 21st-century readers just as much, maybe even more, than it speaks to Victorian anxieties.

Higgs: The Narrator of Erewhon

Like most utopian narrators, Butler’s narrator Higgs does not reveal the location of this adventure, but he does explain that he had been sheep farming in a colony, so the savvy reader might notice the terrain looks a lot  like New Zealand, especially when we know that Butler was also a sheep farmer there.

Map of part of New Zealand to illustrate Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited.
Erewhon is a lush tract of land located in a space unmapped, but completely mappable. (Image: Samuel Butler’s executors/Public domain)

Higgs is an intrepid young man, handsome and blond, who, once the shearing is done, goes exploring in the company of an alcoholic aboriginal guide named Chowbok. Eventually, they reach what Chowbok says is a forbidden valley, and the aborigine deserts the explorer in terror. There is something way too scary up that mountain, evidently. Higgs is unperturbed.

Traveling alone, Higgs builds a raft and makes a difficult river crossing before climbing up to a mountain pass where he is faced with a ring of 10 giant statues with wind blowing through them, and creating this eerie melody that he has heard Chowbok perform. The statues themselves, terrifying, with what Higgs describes as “superhumanly malevolent expression on their face”. Faced with these statues, Higgs faints dead away.

The Near-death Experience in Erewhon

Gulliver passes out repeatedly when standing at the portal of an unknown society. Miles Coverdale, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, almost dies just before he fully begins the utopian project.

This is a feature of utopian fiction, where a character entering an unknown society is presented with challenges and portents that lead to a real or symbolic near-death experience. It is a kind of rebirth that opens up the narrator’s perspective as he prepares to see utopia.

Learn more about Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Religious Conversion of the Erewhonians

Upon recovering, Higgs walks past and into Erewhon, where the people are gorgeous and healthy, the land is lush and productive.

Perhaps the first fully developed satirical moment in the novel comes when Higgs looks upon the fine people of Erewhon and wonders where in the world they came from:

Was it possible that they might be the lost ten tribes of Israel, of whom I had heard both my grandfather and my father make mention as existing in an unknown country, and awaiting a final return to Palestine? Was it possible that I might have been designed by Providence as the instrument of their conversion?

He has mentioned briefly that he would like to make Chowbok’s apparent conversion to Christianity a real conversion. Not only does he worry that religion will not be able to “take deep root in his impenetrably stupid nature”, he also decides to ply Chowbok with alcohol instead of focusing on the teachings of Christ.

Higgs’s Scheme to Earn Profit

Since Higgs never thinks about God except with regards to converting the heathens, and he never shows any sign of being particularly pious, he can be read as a clear jab at Hythloday’s instant conversion of the Utopians in Thomas More’s Utopia.

This is what he says:

As soon as this—the scheme—is forthcoming I will guarantee that I convert the Erewhonians not only into good Christians but into a source of considerable profit to the shareholders.

The most common reading of this passage is that Higgs wants to sell the Erewhonians into slavery. The English of the 1870s considered this practice totally dissonant with Christian teachings, even though the coercive recruitment of slave labor, known as blackbirding, was still very much practiced in the South Pacific.

Butler may well be making fun of the notion (as seen in the Utopia) that a group of people living in a perfect society will happily adopt a new religion. He might also be critiquing Christianity as justification for what is fundamentally an economic scheme.

Common Questions about the Utopian World of Erewhon

Q: Why does Higgs faint in Erewhon?

Higgs faints in Erewhon when he encounters a ring of 10 giant statues with wind blowing through them, creating an eerie melody.

Q: What is Higgs’s plan for the Erewhonians in Erewhon?

In Erewhon, Higgs plans to convert the Erewhonians into Christianity and sell them as slaves.

Q: What does Higgs decide to do to Chowbok in Erewhon?

In Erewhon, Higgs decides to ply Chowbok with alcohol instead of focusing on the teachings of Christ.

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