In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Utopian and Dystopian Literature to 1800

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Early Modern Utopian Literature
  • Panhistorical Overviews of Utopian Literature
  • Precedents for Utopia
  • Continental Humanist Contexts
  • The 16th Century

British and Irish Literature Utopian and Dystopian Literature to 1800
Steve Mentz, Erin M. Gallagher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0082


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.

Thomas More and the Invention of Utopia

More’s ur-text defines the field of early modern utopian literature. Perhaps the most important structural feature of the book is its split between a critical portrait of 16th-century England in Book 1 and a description of an imaginary island in Book 2. While Book 2 has garnered more popular attention, the focus in Book 1 on the failures of English government has also proved a rich mine for criticism. Logan and Adams 2002 emphasizes the text’s place in a tradition of political thought. Traditional scholarship such as Surtz 1949 and Adams 1941 contextualizes the work through More’s humanist circle and its attempt to reconcile Christian belief and classical literary culture. More recent work such as Hough 1991 and Freeman 1992 emphasize divisions and complexities within More’s writing. In Wegemer 1990, the fictional figure of Raphael Hythloday serves as a counterweight to the more practical and skeptical character of More himself. The text’s vast influence and geographic vision are addressed in Fenton 1975 and Morgan-Russell 2003.

  • Adams, Robert P. “The Philosophic Unity of More’s Utopia.” Studies in Philology 38 (1941): 45–65.

    This essay summarizes early attempts to connect More’s text with ancient sources, especially Plato’s Republic and Augustine’s City of God, as well as Amerigo Vespucci’s more recent reports from the New World. Adams argues that Utopia amounts to a philosophic defense of “reason” in its natural state. Available online by subscription.

  • Fenton, D. B. “England and Europe: Utopia and Its Aftermath.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 25 (1975): 115–135.

    DOI: 10.2307/3679089

    This article explores the pan-European influence and appeal of More’s text. Fenton engages the split between a “medievalist” and a “modern” view of the text, noting that the latter often treats it as a protosocialist or Marxist reform text, while the former emphasizes More’s roots in medieval political ideas. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Freeman, John. “Discourse in More’s Utopia: Alibi/Pretext/Postscript.” ELH 59.2 (1992): 289–311.

    DOI: 10.2307/2873344

    This essay reads Utopia as an “oscillating” text, the intentions of which seem unknowable largely because of the opposition between Books 1 and 2. Freeman argues that the two books have a complex and entangled relationship, in which Book 2 is an “alibi” and Book 1 a “pretext,” but both books entangle each other and cannot be separated. Available online by subscription.

  • Hough, L. E. “Disaffected from Utopia.” Utopian Studies 3 (1991): 118–127.

    Responding to readings of More’s text and the subsequent history of utopian political thought, this essay focuses on the leverage provided by being “disaffected” with some aspect of the present “real” world. It distinguishes utopian from dystopian works based on the explicitness or intensity of this disaffection.

  • Logan, George M., and Robert M. Adams, eds. More Utopia. Rev. ed. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Logan and Adams’s edition, first published in 1989 and revised in 2002, is one of several fine modern editions of Utopia. Their introduction is thorough and erudite, especially on the place of More in the history of political thought, and they print all the ancillary material, including several letters, poems, and a reproduction of Ambrosius Holbein’s “Map of Utopia.”

  • Morgan-Russell, Simon. “St. Thomas More’s Utopia and the Description of Britain.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 61 (2003): 1–11.

    Morgan-Russell explores the relationship between the fictional Utopia and the historical early modern Britain. He connects More’s narrative to a tradition of “topographical description” that includes contemporary descriptions of Britain as well as New World narratives such as Vespucci’s Voyages (Vespucci 1992, cited under Precedents for Utopia).

  • Surtz, Edward L. “The Defense of Pleasure in More’s Utopia.” Studies in Philology 46 (1949): 99–112.

    This traditional approach connects More’s rhetoric to his friend Erasmus’s 1511 essay The Praise of Folly (in Latin, Encomium Moriae, i.e., “praise of More”) and its understanding of humanist declamatio. By defending philosophic pleasure, the pleasure that comes from living a just and good life, More’s text connects the almost pagan viewpoint of the Utopians with the Christian humanism of his own circle. Available online by subscription.

  • Wegemer, Gerard. “The Rhetoric of Opposition in Thomas More’s Utopia: Giving Form to Competing Philosophies.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 23.4 (1990): 288–306.

    This article claims that Hythloday and “More” in the text represent competing philosophical positions, with Hythloday representing a scholastic philosopher and More a more worldly or “civil” figure. The tension between intellectual purity and civic engagement that these two figures represent poses a core dilemma for Utopia and its humanist readers. Available online by subscription.

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