Utopian and Dystopian Literature to 1800

Steve Mentz and Erin M. Gallagher

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Utopian and Dystopian Literature to 1800


Few subgenres of European literature can be said to emerge from a single human imagination, but Thomas More’s Utopia (see Thomas More and the Invention of Utopia) claims pride of place as the instigating text of utopian literature. More’s book, first published in Latin in 1516 on the Continent and in an English translation in 1552, was not entirely sui generis; it engages with a variety of sources, many quite ancient, as well as a wide range of reference across European literatures. But the word utopia, which has come to define the genre, was More’s invention. The word plays off two different Latin phrases: it is built from ut-topos, “no place,” but it also sounds exactly like eu-topos, meaning “good place.” From its early modern origins, then, the genre exploits the tension between the imagined and the good: Can Utopia be a real place, or must the utopian vision insist on seeing the “good” as always “not real”? Even though More’s text draws on a large number of previous works (see Precedents for Utopia), his particular combination of these essential strains would structure early modern literary utopias. Many of More’s intellectual heirs before 1750 would extend his efforts to imagine a good place and, sometimes more directly than others, to imagine how that place might influence the existing political world. Especially during the tumultuous 17th century in England, with its Civil War, execution of King Charles I, Interregnum, and, eventually, restoration of Charles II, the utopian genre would become increasingly intertwined with political realities. The disillusionment with political progress that defines the modern dystopian works of writers like H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell (see Claeys 2010 under Panhistorical Overviews of Utopian Literature) appears fairly late in this history, with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) arguably a foundational text. For early modern writers, utopia may not have been a real place, but it was imaginable, and that imagining, whether in the form of an island kingdom or a fictitious plan for British government, was thought to have productive real-world consequences.

Article.  10990 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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