Wednesday, March 16, 2011

389. Erewhon – Samuel Butler

History: This book was published anonymously in 1872. The title is also the name of a country, supposedly discovered by the protagonist. In the novel, it is not revealed in which part of the world Erewhon is, but it is clear that it is a fictional country. Butler meant the title to be read as the word Nowhere backwards, even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed, therefore Erewhon is anagram of nowhere. It is likely that he did this to protect himself from accusations of being unpatriotic, although Erewhon is a satire of Victorian society.
The first few chapters of the novel, dealing with the discovery of Erewhon, are in fact based on Butler's own experiences in New Zealand where, as a young man, he worked as a sheep farmer for about four years (1860–1864) and explored parts of the interior of the South Island.
One of the country's largest sheep stations, located near where Butler lived, is named "Erewhon" in his honour.
The greater part of the book consists of a description of Erewhon. The nature of this nation is intended to be ambiguous. At first glance, Erewhon appears to be a utopia, yet it soon becomes clear that this is far from the case.
As a satirical utopia, Erewhon has sometimes been compared to Gulliver's Travels (1726), a classic novel by Jonathan Swift; the image of utopia in this latter case also bears strong parallels with the self-view of the British Empire at the time.
Plot: Higgs, a young man of twenty-two years, worked on a sheep farm. From the plains, he looked often at the seemingly impassable mountain range that formed the edge of the sheep country and wondered about the land beyond those towering peaks. He learned from an old native named Chowbok that it was forbidden to visit that land. Chowbok assumed a strange pose when questioned further and uttered unearthly cries. Curious, Higgs persuaded Chowbok to go on a trip with him into the mountains.
They were unable to find a pass through the mountains. One day, Higgs came upon a pass that led into the mountains.. to a gorge far off but he felt he could make it. However, Chowbok left him running home and without supplies. Higgs journeyed several days through the gorge, across the river... Eventually he comes to large statues that make whistling noises when the wind blows. This leading him to the settlement of Erewhon. He met the residents, and was astounded at their beauty. He was interviewed.. examined by women and then put in jail for up to 3 months. Eventually he was let out, and he was allowed to journey.
In this country, illness is considered a crime. Sick people are thrown in jail; sickness is their own fault. Even sad people are imprisoned, for grief is a sign of misfortune and people are held responsible for actions that made them unfortunate. People who rob or murder, on the other hand, are treated kindly and taken to the hospital to recover. No machines are allowed in Erewhon as one philosopher thought that machines could rapidly evolve and take over the world.
Higgs is invited to dinner with Nosibor, a recovering embezzler. He stays with his family and falls in love with his youngest daughter Arowhena. Nosibor insists that the eldest daughter marry first, so Higgs goes to study at the University of Unreason, where students study anything that has absolutely no practical purpose. Arowhena and Higgs meet there secretly and when Nosibor finds out, he is very angry. Higgs and Arowhena fly away on a balloon. They land in the sea and are taken to England where they marry and plan a missionary trip to Erewhon.
Review: In Butler's Erewhon, characters are ciphers and narrative an afterthought—they exist just as an excuse to present the alternative society and allow the author to comment on it. Or rather, give the author an way to present his own ideas as though they are someone's else's.
Erewhon is really more a work of philosophical, religious and scientific speculation. The novel is often called dystopian—since it purports to describe a bad imaginary society—but really Butler is more concerned with showing us our own world. Each aspect of the ridiculous nature of the state of Erewhon has its counterpart in our own society, or at least in Western society of Butler's time
Opening Line: "If the reader will excuse me, I will say nothing of my antecedents, nor of the circumstances which led me to leave my native country; the narrative would be tedious to him and painful to myself."
Closing Line: "Address to the Mansion-House, care of the Lord Mayor, whom I will instruct to receive names and subscriptions for me until I can organize a committee."
Quotes: "Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only."
Rating: Okay.

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