By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
In Erewhon, Samuel Butler uses the most attractive generic features of utopia with a lot of satire. There are a lot of social norms to choose from to think about exactly how Butler constructs his satire in Erewhon, but let’s focus on three: religion, health and education.
Religion in Erewhonian society
Erewhon has two religious movements, both containing substantial humor: the Music Banks and the goddess Ydgrun. The Musical Banks are the official churches of Erewhon. They are beautiful buildings and everyone insists that the currency exchanged in the Musical Banks is worth much more than the mundane currency with which they get their hands dirty every day.
Higgs visits the Musical Banks with great interest, only to find that they are mostly empty – completely lip service, but in reality seen as empty old institutions. There is nothing subtle about building devotion as a word, or building the Church as a kind of bank, thus emphasizing the intersections of religious institutions with money and power.
Goddess Ydgrun of the Erewhonians
Higgs also learns that many Erewhonians actually worship the goddess Ydgrun. Ydgrun an anagram for Grundy, as in Mrs. Grundy, of an 18e-the game of the century, a namesake for hypocrisy and prudery.
And Ydgrun is the goddess that the Erewhonians aren’t supposed to care about, but most of them actually worship in secret. In Erewhon, perhaps like everywhere else, hypocrisy is publicly denounced but secretly accepted.
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Disease and crime in Erewhon
Another interesting feature of Erewhonian society is the approach to disease and crime, which might be Butler’s best joke in the whole novel.
In Erewhon, a person is liable to a penalty for having a physical illness – imprisonment or even, in the case of incurable or chronic ailments, execution. If you do commit a crime, on the other hand, you get medical attention and a lot of sympathy from friends and family.
If you have a headache, you would never tell anyone other than your most intimate acquaintances. Higgs is at first amazed at the seemingly uniform beauty and health of the Erewhonians, but it becomes a little more understandable when he learns that they disguise minor ailments and are imprisoned or executed for major ailments.
Learn more about the origins of the utopian genre.
Comedy of Butler’s Mistakes
Erewhonians are just as surprised to hear of European approaches to health and crime – completely flawed – as Higgs is to learn of theirs. They explain that there are doctors who secretly live among them and that they are not actively prosecuted.
After all, it’s understandable that people want to hide their illnesses to avoid punishment, and might even encourage family members to do so. But if doctors were allowed to “become frequent visitors to every home,” one of the Erewhonians told Higgs, “their organization and intimate knowledge of all family secrets would give them power, both social and political. , which nothing could resist. “
There is a certain element of comedy of error in Higgs’ – and perhaps the reader’s – misunderstanding of the treatment of crime and disease, but is there more? What does it mean to imprison or even execute those who are sick? Is it a form of eugenics?
The concept of eugenics in the Victorian era
Following the incredible influence of Charles Darwin The origin of species in 1859 other thinkers, most notably Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton, began to speculate on the possibility of selective mating for humans.
It was not a new idea, Plato suggested it in the Republic, but it began to gain ground during the Victorian era.
Butler’s use of eugenics
Eugenics, a Greek compound, meaning good genes, was not named until 1883, by Galton. But still, ideas were circulating in 1872 when Butler wrote Erewhon, and the Erewhonians seem to practice negative eugenics, the idea of ââlimiting reproduction by the less able, but not positive eugenics, the idea of ââencouraging reproduction by the more able.
So what exactly does Butler say about eugenics? Well, that’s a tough question to answer, given that Erewhon is utter utopia, with a mix – maybe even a balance – of positive and satirical portrayals. The reader is certainly not meant to take all Erewhonian ideas seriously.
The Erewhonian education system
A promising young Erewhonian attended one of the Colleges of Unreason, which trains scholars in the advanced study of hypotheses as well as the basic disciplines of inconsistency and evasion.
Higgs is told – but absolutely refuses to accept – that the problem with Reason is that it “betrays men in drawing hard and fast lines, and in defining by language – language being like the sun, which rises and then burns. ”
The study subjects are fun, and the reader can certainly enjoy a laugh over Higgs at the very concept of College of Unreason. But it’s still an interesting thought, isn’t it? This Reason justifies the human tendency to see the world in black and white; that the notion of such a rigid language, capable of faithfully representing the world, involves very real dangers for the Erewhonians.
Learn about science and technology in Victorian Britain.
Diet of the Erewhonians
Higgs tells readers at some length about the Erewhonians’ long battle to find what to do against vegetarianism. At one point, centuries ago, a great thinker – an expert on unreason – decreed that animals are intelligent creatures and therefore should not be killed. It was considered acceptable to eat the meat of animals that died of natural causes, including suicide. Here’s how Higgs puts it:
Animals have been found to continually die of natural causes under more or less suspicious circumstances. Suicidal mania, which until then was reserved exclusively for donkeys, has become alarmingly even among mostly self-respecting creatures like sheep and cattle.
Things continued in this absurd way until another Unthinker came along and made another argument, this one even more extreme: Vegetables are intelligent creatures too. The result? The Erewhonians stopped worrying about eating intelligent creatures, as they certainly could not survive without animal and plant substance, and the mindset of the Erewhonians on the important question of what to eat changed to new, nimble and without much stress.
This is how Butler presents the difference between Europeans and Erewhonians, in a satirical construction that at first glance is laughable.
Common questions about the social norms of Erewhonians
Erewhon has two religious movements: the Musical Banks and the goddess Ydgrun.
In Erewhon, a person is liable to a penalty for a physical illness – imprisonment or even, in the case of incurable or chronic conditions, execution.
In Erewhon, a promising youngster would attend one of the Colleges of Unreason, which trains academics in the advanced study of hypotheses as well as the basic disciplines of inconsistency and evasion.