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Dystopian features in "Utopia" by Thomas More and their effects on reliability and perception

Seminararbeit 2011 26 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


1. Introduction

“Throughout more than four hundred years a book called Utopia, written in 1515-1516 by an Englishman named Thomas More, has been read by thousands of people in dozens of countries- usually, it seems, with fascination and enthusiasm. […] But […] generalities cannot explain why More's Utopia has had such a wide and continued audience when thousands of similar books have died. […] It seems that the explanation must lie, largely, in the content of the work- in its scope, its breadth and depth, its humanity, its truthful reflection of life...” (Ames 135).

This term paper will identify and analyse ambiguous or dystopian aspects in More's Utopia. First of all, I will dwell upon the author's personal background and see to what extent and why his own vita can be recovered in several passages. As exemplification of such inconsistencies within this 'perfect state', both the names of the most important figures and places in the work, and the issue of the Utopians' concept of warfare and punishment are going to be examined. By showing the contradiction between a name's translated meaning and the persons' character traits, and respectively between what is said and what is in fact done, the cause for distrust can be explained. Next, I will illustrate the resulting impacts not only on the trustworthiness of Utopia's narrator Raphael Hythloday, but also on the reliability of a possible similar existence of a society like the one he depicts. We will see that the dystopian facets which Thomas More included affect the perception and interpretation of his entire work, with a reader's reaction being determined by the binary structure and interplay of the aforementioned ambiguities, and his or her own capacity to decide how to deal with them.

Finally, I will sum up both Utopia's positive as well as its negative sides; and I will look at other relevant dystopian elements and the work's inherent power which those two sides allow only due to their simultaneous existence.

2. Historical background

“He published his Utopia for the purpose of showing what are the things that occasion mischiefs in commonwealths; having the English constitution especially in view, which he thoroughly knows and understands” (Erasmus, qtd. in Morton 59).

Sir Thomas More was a person about whom nowadays exist numerous divergent opinions and ideas. His own contradictory life raises questions such as whether he was a traditionalist or a reformer, a saint to whom must be paid homage or rather a fanatic whose actions and attitudes can only be evaluated as incomprehensible. His many-sided character is to some extent reflected in his work Utopia. First, More was an educated man and held the position of the Counsellor of King Henry VIII who made himself head of the Church of England.

On the one hand, More was a deeply religious man and thus actually forced to accept the selfappointment of his king; on the other hand, in spite of his own political position, he criticizes Henry for doing so. Due to his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy, he was finally imprisoned and beheaded.

This inner conflict of Thomas More effects, for example, not only the aspect of religion in Utopia, but also its political organization in general, given the fact that the citizens can participate in elections and are at least on the surface independent and perfect people. What is more, we have to keep in mind that the situation of England in the sixteenth century also had an impact on certain features in Utopia.

Book I can be seen as an indictment, a harsh social critique facing all those 'dystopian elements' from which people at that time had to suffer. War was going on, and among the poor many diseases, famine, unemployment and crime prevailed.

In contrast to this, the upper class made proof of corruption and egoism. Such inequalities between the rich and the poor further emphasized the differences between More's England and his utopian state, and his concern with the issue of money, for instance, has made the author reflect on it: by establishing a community without any private property, money was abandoned and the problem 'resolved'. Nevertheless, the author's consequence of the former m rich-poor-divide, namely the uniformity of the Utopians, is also a matter I will deal with, as it constitutes an unattractive side of their society reputed to be the best.

To sum up, in Thomas More's work his own experiences as a lawyer and mainly the crucial problematical questions of his time are present in the 'not-entirely-utopian' state. The reader is thus left behind with queries whether he or she has to read the book as an author's look into the future, or what, then, is the aim of those concealed inconsistencies. It must be admitted that it is impossible neither to say with certitude which the ultimate intention of the author was, nor to give one single reaction and position on the readers' side.

By this oscillation between clarity and obscurity, a strong dubiety remains about how to deal with the incompatibility of an author who displays his dissatisfaction with the situation in England while at the same time disguising some dystopian aspects, although trying to illustrate the best possible state contrary to his own. Such open questions affect the case of reliability of the narrator, especially when More, who knew Greek and Latin very well, encoded a message on another level, such as those tell-tale names and charactonyms in Utopia. It could be the case that he was forced to hide his animadversion on England because he feared censorship and serious consequences by revealing too overtly what he was actually thinking.

But this is not the only way of coming up against Thomas More's Utopia. In fact, the complex interplay between directness and equivocality, the playful and the serious, and finally the utopian and dystopian elements connected with reliability, create disparate effects among readers. The paradoxes may be difficult to deal with, but they can become enriching when engaging in the work, and only after the contemplation of more important details we can form a view on it.

3. Ambiguous and dystopian subjects

3.1. Names in Utopia

By a closer examination of some names, we must assert that Thomas More did not randomise his designation of several people and places, as they represent a signal for the fictionality of this work.

To begin with, the title of the book itself gives cause for distrust. The word 'Utopia', coming from Greek 'ou' ('not') and 'topos' ('place'), was invented by More in order to describe his allegedly ideal society. He actually envisaged at first the Latin title 'Nusquama' (also meaning 'nowhere'); but with him being fluent in those languages this does not imply that a contemporary reader is able to translate them, too. Thus, the decision of whether to translate the words or not is probably out of question and of course influences the formation of opinions.

However, when we consider the English pronunciation 'Eutopia' ('good place'), we get confronted with a duality of meaning. As it remains unclear which sense is to be filtered out of the word, not only the reliability of Hythloday's depictions are challenged by the reader, but the intention of the entire work, that is, the question of how should one react to it, becomes an unanswerable one.

The punning, tell-tale names often display some tracks of irony, as it is the case of Utopia's principal river Anyder, which is in fact 'waterless' and flows through the capital Amaurote, also deriving from Greek and meaning 'dim city', veiling itself in darkness and in this way blurring its visibility in a literary sense.

Thomas More himself says about his choice of some names in a letter to his friend Peter Giles:

“I do not indeed deny that if I had determined to write about a commonwealth […] I would not perhaps have thought it a sin to add fictitious details so that the truth […] might be more palatable to my readers. But in that case even if I had wished to abuse the ignorance of the unlearned, I should certainly not have omitted to insert indications by which scholars would easily have been able to see through my design. If I had done nothing else I should at least have given such names to the prince, the river, the city, as would have warned the skilful reader that the island exists mmmm nowhere, that the city is of shadows, the river without water, and the prince without people. […]

Unless truth had compelled me, I should certainly not have been so stupid as to use those outlandish, meaningless names [...]” (More 137-138).

Despite these bemusing contradictions, Utopia in some aspects, like the river and the city, comes to resemble, but contemporaneously also differs, from More's London. At this point, Utopia's binary structure is visible, too. Given this fantastical reproduction of a real city with the lines between reality and fiction becoming indistinct, one is again confronted with the controversial matter of the effect; as it is possible that the parallels either support the reliability of an otherwise all too flawless picture, or that the likelihood of a reader's willingness to deal with such deformations is rather about to decrease.

In addition, the Polylerites constitute another case where the agreement of 'meaning and form' is cleared away, so to speak, that is, how they are described by Hythloday and how they should actually be according to their name identifying them as 'nonsensical people'. But not only their name provokes suspicion, the topic of war and punishment is another inherent dystopian feature to which we will need to pay attention.

Next, it is necessary to analyse the name of the principal narrator of almost the entire Book II. The meaning of 'Hythloday', which also derives from Greek, is 'peddlar', 'expert in trifles', 'speaker of nonsense' or 'skilled in pleasant speech'. Knowing this, the issue of the reader's only available person who is able to tell something about Utopia gets difficult and confusing. Although he is depicted as a conversant traveller and as being very wise and learned, his name radically contradicts his description by Peter Giles. This charactonym makes a reader put into doubt the whole account of Hythloday's experiences on the island and the existence of him as a real person in general. He is absolutely sure that Utopia is indeed the best of all possibilities of a state, but it has to be scrutinized by every reader whether to acquiesce to it or not.

We can see that the meaning of 'Hythloday' stands in opposition to his task of a narrator that includes the correct rendering of facts, as his first name 'Raphael', who is 'the messenger' and m one of God's archangels, evokes a religious association. In that perspective also this part of the name's meaning is connected with the question of reliability.

In view of those ambiguities, a reader has to look into the subject of the whole purpose. Can the author More's object in endowing his places and figures with discrepancies be found out, and do the first's intention and the reactions on the side of perception go hand in hand as projected?

Formerly, the two most extreme poles of positions towards Utopia were the following: either the jocular and playful character of the work was highlighted while by doing so depreciating its ability to cause changes in man and his surroundings, thus denying the existence of a more profound notion. Or it was seen as a downright serious statement of how the best society in the world has to be like, but this means not being capable of explaining these antagonisms within the names and also in terms of other really dystopian characteristics (cf Bruce).

Thus, a reader could say on the one hand that Utopia is nothing but a satirical work, yet thereby considering it as absurd and the situation of humankind as hopeless because one does not believe that there are also some precious information within More's virtual island with lots of whimsical facets.

On the other hand we may come to the conclusion that the author did not just have in mind a book which is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. By reflecting on the ambiguousness of the names, for instance, the first makes us think, and he accentuates the need for being aware of what we are told and how to handle this.

Eventually, what is also a factor influencing a reader's sensation for reliability is the conveyed impression of reality: Thomas More or also Amerigo Vespucci are well-known names from history, so this is the reason why the content of the work can also sometimes be perceived as being a trusted historical fact. To Bernard Schilling,

“Morus and Gilles stand security as trustworthy and well-known 'witnesses' for the tale. The punning names, in the other hand, begin seemingly by following suit, being apparent 'eye- witnesses' for the story told. Soon, however, they bring an augur's smile onto the face of any reader

whom knowledge of Greek provides with the precise bearings of the happy but unreal island by explaining to him: that island is not of this world” (253).

Actually, this affects the evaluation of certain statements by Hythloday and others, as well as the resulting effect of plausibleness.

Furthermore, King Utopus is the only individual in Utopia endowed with a proper name and this just in order to explain how the island ostensibly got its name. This already anticipates the problem of uniformity, an additional negative element in More's 'best state of a commonwealth' (cf Schilling).

To sum up, the ambiguity with regard to names of places and figures even by now points to the adumbration that it is not commensurable to regard Utopia as an impeccable model. It cannot be seen as a strict proposal for men, but on the way to discover this, the author did not leave out several obstacles that impede a univocal interpretation.



ISBN (eBook)
529 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Stuttgart
dystopian utopia thomas more




Titel: Dystopian features in "Utopia" by Thomas More and their effects on reliability and perception