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Samuel Butler Erewhon, or Over the Range. Published 1872. Imaginary topoi. From the earliest writings to the present, authors have been fascinated by imaginary locations One of the earliest was Atlantis, an island in the western ocean Plato speaks of it as huge, wealthy, powerful, corrupt.

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Samuel butler erewhon or over the range l.jpg

Samuel ButlerErewhon, or Over the Range

Published 1872

Travel Literature 7

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Imaginary topoi

  • From the earliest writings to the present, authors have been fascinated by imaginary locations

  • One of the earliest was Atlantis, an island in the western ocean

  • Plato speaks of it as huge, wealthy, powerful, corrupt

Travel Literature 7

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The end of Atlantis

  • The citizens of Atlantis may have enjoyed unimaginable luxuries

  • Before becoming power-crazy and decadent

  • And then disaster struck the island …

Travel Literature 7

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  • Written by Thomas More in 1516

  • May be read on-line at:


  • Utopia: eutopia or outopia?

  • A land in the Americas, ruled by a wise monarch motivated by reason and humanity

Travel Literature 7

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Imaginary worlds

  • Range from Atlantis and Utopia via Lilliput, Brobdignag and Erewhon to Metropolis, Bergonia, Cyberia and the virtual reality of

Travel Literature 7

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From Utopia to dystopia

  • Imaginary worlds fall into two groups:

    • Utopian states: improvements on reality

    • Dystopian (or cacotopian) states: worse than reality

  • Common to both as a strongly satirical purpose

  • And sometimes it may be hard to unscramble the positive from the negative

Travel Literature 7

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Samuel Butler 1835-1902

  • Grandson of Samuel Butler (1774 - 1839), a classical scholar and schoolmaster at Shrewsbury, and later Bishop of Lichfield

  • Obtained a First in Classics from Cambridge

  • Was destined to take holy orders but questioned his faith when he discovered that baptism made no difference to people’s morality

Fell out with his father; emigrated to New Zealand (1860-1864)

Travel Literature 7

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  • Butler returned to England in 1864

  • Erewhon published 1872; Erewhon Revisited in 1901

  • The Way of All Flesh (1903) attacked the Victorian way of life, in particular the ecclesiastical environment in which its author had grown up

  • Butler also developed a theory that The Odyssey was the work of a Sicilian woman

Travel Literature 7

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The Narrator

  • Butler chooses a young and naïve narrator who has no idea what he is about to stumble on

  • A typical would-be colonist

  • Seeks to ‘better his fortunes more rapidly than he could in England’ (1)

  • In pressing on across the mountains, he his motivated by no more than a desire to acquire new land ‘determined to monopolise’ (17)

  • Once there, is purpose is twofold: conversion or making money out of them (40)

Travel Literature 7

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A naïve perspective?

  • The narrator claims to be a young man, but expresses sophisticated opinions

    • And has travelled widely

    • Is ‘deeply interested in the people’ (35)

    • Makes comparisons between Erewhon and North Africa, Italy

    • Assumes the inhabitants of Erewhon must be the Lost Tribes of Israel

Travel Literature 7

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The qualities of Erewhon

  • In some respects it is idealised

    • People are very handsome, women very pretty

    • the religion is humane and logical

  • In other respects Erewhon mirrors nineteenth century England

    • Prisons, hypocrisy, bogus medical practices, a religion that no-one really believes in, colleges that teach ‘unreason’ and ‘hypothetical language’

Travel Literature 7

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The language

  • The Erewhonian tongue reverses English, so that

    • Erewhon becomes Nowhere

    • Yram becomes Mary

    • Nosnibor becomes Robinson

    • Thims equals Smith

    • Ydgrun resolves itself into ‘Grundy’

  • But this is not maintained throughout

Travel Literature 7

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A topsy-turvy world

  • The narrator chronicles the customs of Erewhon as any traveller would

  • It soon becomes obvious that in Erewhon everything is different

  • The narrator speaks of ‘extraordinary perversions of thought’ (39)

    • Machines are banned

    • Illness is regarded as a character flaw

    • Criminal behaviour is condoned and treated with sympathy

Travel Literature 7

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The people of Erewhon

  • Do their best to keep foreigners out of their country

  • Are handsome and gentle

  • Yet fall into three categories

    • Beautiful and noble

    • Comely and agreeable

    • Snobs pure and simple (39)

  • Thus Erewhon is not a clear-cut Utopia nor a Dystopia, but a conflation of the two

Travel Literature 7

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  • Erewhonians hate it

  • They used to sacrifice ugly captives in order to propitiate the gods of deformity and disease (43)

  • This seems to have had the consequence of producing an aesthetically pleasing race

    • Compare ‘eugenics’

  • They also spend time contemplating beautiful statues

  • But their knowledge of music is limited and their musical productions sound awful: ‘melancholy cadences that at times degenerated into a howl’ (75)

Travel Literature 7

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  • Illnesses and ugliness are considered offences

    • Sick people (under 70) are tried by a jury

    • They are condemned to hard labour in prison

    • The worst crime in their eyes is typhus fever

    • Illness in young children is accepted (53)

  • Butler seems to be arguing the case for eugenics; the Erewhonians are beautiful and healthy because they have ‘criminalised’ ill-health

    • Or driven it underground (‘they conceal ill health by every cunning and hypocrisy and artifice which they can devise’, 49)

Travel Literature 7

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The trial of a sick man

  • Chapter 11 describes the trial of a man suffering from an advanced state of consumption, ‘almost at the point of death’ (56)

    • He is blamed for this condition and regarded as a threat to able-bodied society

    • His defence argues in vain that he was trying to defraud an insurance company

    • He is sentenced to forced labour and two spoonfuls of castor oil per day, for the rest of his miserable existence

    • There are indications that earlier ages would have sentenced him to death

Travel Literature 7

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  • The narrator comments on the fairness and impartiality of the trial – the sick man is given every opportunity to defend himself (56-59), the judge is a ‘kind and thoughtful person’ (61)

  • But is later assailed by doubts, because the judge paid no attention to hereditary factors

  • He is clearly commenting on the way in which the English system punishes people for personal misfortunes and accidents of birth

  • The travelogue is used at several points to discuss imperfections in the British social system (compare with Stevenson, George Orwell)

Travel Literature 7

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  • Erewhon harbours a minority of radical who disapprove of the way sick people are sent to jail

  • They agree that society needs to be protected against the ill, but argue that the sick need only be put away, not actually punished

  • These are the equivalents of Victorian reformers of the penal system, which was notorious for its harsh punishments

Travel Literature 7

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  • Criminal behaviour (theft, embezzlement) is viewed with sympathy

    • An ‘attack of the socks’ is a standard apology

    • The perpetrator is treated by a ‘straightener’

    • Parallels are drawn with Italian and Muslim societies (48)

  • A further reaction against the harsh Victorian penal code

  • Also an indication that the people of Erewhon have devoted too much effort to the elimination of ‘outward’ deficiencies and not enough to immorality

Travel Literature 7

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The Straightener

  • Must practise the vices he intends to treat

  • Sometimes this has fatal consequences

  • The treatments prescribed by straighteners are harsh and very painful; bread and water, flogging

  • Yet everyone submits to them willingly

    • Even the narrator

Travel Literature 7

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  • Butler appears to be imagining what our society might look like in 500 years time

  • He often states that some years earlier, Erewhon was much like Europe, with machines, railways, public statues

  • Modern Erewhon has moved on, not necessarily for the better

Travel Literature 7

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  • One of the first things that happens to our narrator is the confiscation of his watch

  • He is shown a museum of old pieces of machinery

  • It emerges that when Erewhonian technology was far in advance of our own, a professor argued that machines would ultimately supplant the human race, so all less than 271 years old were abandoned (44; 118-138)

  • His watch is regarded with suspicion, and his stories about hot air balloons are thought to be lies

Travel Literature 7

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Progress and Education

  • Erewhonians are hostile to progress, wishing to keep things as they are

  • They believe progress leads to wars, and that people should not strive to be better than their neighbours (113)

  • Many other reasons persuaded them to abandon machines

  • Yet they waste time learning a ‘hypothetical language’ in their ‘Colleges of Unreason’

Travel Literature 7

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  • The main point Butler is trying to make is to view contemporary society through the device of an alienating perspective

  • Thus focuses on our hypocrisy in refusing to acknowledge our moral deficiencies while spending a great deal of time and money on treating physical ailments

  • In Erewhon the situation is reversed: immorality is treated, illness is punished

Travel Literature 7

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  • Erewhonians are cremated, and can choose where their ashes should be scattered

  • They send each other a certain number of artificial tears as a token of sympathy when someone dies

  • Everyone realises that this is a symbolic gesture that has relatively little meaning

  • In earlier times, they stuck the tears onto their faces with some kind of glue! (69)

Travel Literature 7

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Erewhonian hypocrisy

  • Many Erewhonians turn out to be deeply hypocritical

  • They cover up their illnesses

  • Even pretending to be criminals when really they are ill

    • Mahaina has a weak constitution but pretends to be an alcoholic (70-72)

    • Pregnant women also have to conceal their condition

  • ‘In their eagerness to stamp out disease, these people had overshot their mark’ (72)

  • Also, the scholars and professors he meets are terrified of ‘giving themselves away’ (115)

Travel Literature 7

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The ‘Musical Banks’

  • This is one of Butler’s most biting satires

  • There exist Musical Banks which everyone considers it honourable to belong to

    • They have tedious ceremonies which are accompanied by hideous-sounding music

    • The currency which they distribute has no commercial value

    • They are almost empty most of the time, visited mainly by women and children

  • They resemble our churches, which play music and preach virtues which cannot easily be implemented and which no one follows

Travel Literature 7

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  • The narrator is strongly attracted both to Yram and Arowhena

  • Cannot marry Arowhena as he is expected to marry her older sister, whom he dislikes

  • The sequel makes it obvious that the relationship with Yram, who taught him the Erewhonian language, was not confined to language lessons …

Travel Literature 7

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The End

  • For a time it seems that the narrator will never escape from Erewhon

  • He has been taken to the capital blindfolded

  • His love for Arowhena runs counter to the laws of the country

  • But in the end, an opportunity does present itself

  • Note that Butler wrote a sequel, Erewhon Revisited, in which his narrator returns to find that a new religion has been established around himself

Travel Literature 7