"The Mirror up to Nature": Reflections of Victorianism in Samuel Butler's Erewhon
"The purpose of playing...both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
At first glance, Samuel Butler Erewhon1 is likely to seem a Victorian oasis to the student of twentieth-century utopian and dystopian literature; the oasis, alas, reveals itself as a mirage in many ways when it is closely examined. To be sure, a critic like U. C. Knoepflmacher can call Butler's imaginary country "an idealized utopia"2 while Joseph Jones can see the book as a step in the direction of Brave New World and 1984.3 Nevertheless, the consensus of Butler's published critics is to see him as "a satirist" as opposed to "genuine Utopists,"4 and sees Erewhon the country -- despite its anagrammatic parallel with Thomas More's coinage -- as "no utopia."5 In this case, the consensus is right, unless we recognize that in Erewhon Butler stretches the conventional utopian form considerably. Erewhon is not an idealized picture of Victorian society at its best or its worst; rather it is a work which holds a mirror up to that society, presenting it recognizably as it is, but in a strangely reversed perspective. It is this aspect of Butler's work which makes it so much richer and more complex than such roughly contemporary and more conventional utopias as Edward Bellamy Looking Backward ( 1887) and William Morris News from Nowhere ( 1891).
The most usual touchstone chosen by critics to try Erewhon's value is Gulliver Travels. The comparison was frequent in reviews following the book's publication, and continues to echo through later criticisms by P. N. Furbank, Basil Willey, Joseph Jones, A. E. Dyson, and Robert Philmus.6 It is important to add that none of these critics