Regular readers of my blog know that I really enjoy a good Victorian novel. So I have to say I’ve struggled to pull together my thoughts on Erewhon by Samuel Butler (published 1872) simply because it’s not one of the good ones.
As a satirical look at Victorian society in the form of a dystopia, Erewhon fits in with the tradition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (not Victorian, but one of the first), Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, and Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. But for me, the satire in Butler’s novel was overshadowed by dull prose and extensive explanations of the society. The result is a dull treatise barely worthy of the term “novel.”
As in the other dystopias, the narrator, who is searching for adventure, travels to a different land and finds a completely insulated society that has existed for thousands of years.
For me, finding an interest in the things Butler is satirizing is rather difficult. First, in Erewhon, machines are against the law because of a fear that they will become “smarter” than humans, a commentary on both Darwin’s survival of the fittest concept and the industrial era that Butler was well in the middle of. It’s hard to take the arguments seriously, and yet, from what I read (on Wikipedia) Butler actually was serious:
I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin….
Besides the machinery issue, the society was also rather conflicted in it’s view of sin and criminality. Sickness was considered a crime and immoral behavior such as stealing or drinking was considered a complaint that must be treated with medicine. I found this an interesting concept to satire in Victorian society, although I struggle to pinpoint just what his implication was for society. Add to that concept a satire of religion (there are two different kinds of banks in Erewhon; people only use the “unofficial” money and make a show of visiting the official banks) and we have the complicated and strange world of the Erewhonians.
The chapters when there was action were somewhat interesting. Yet, for the majority of the book, the narrator quoted from a book of history or policies. These were dry as dry could be. Although Erewhon was a short volume, it dragged. I can’t say I liked it, although it certainly has an interesting place in context as a Victorian satire.
(Writing this post prompted me to demoted the book from two stars to one star on goodreads. Oh dear. The more I think of it, the less I like it!)
At any rate, despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it, I’m willing to send on my used mass market paperback to an interested reader. If you want it, let me know in the comments. First to request it is the winner. I can send it somewhere in the USA. If no one wants it, it goes to the library book sale!
I’m interested. Utopian and dystopian novels (even the bad ones) fascinate me.
I read The Way of All Flesh by Butler a few years ago, when I first started reading classics. I only picked it because it was in the Modern Library’s Top 100 list. I hated it, and I’ve wondered if it was just me — maybe I wasn’t used to classics and/or Victorian writers. Reading your post I feel better — maybe Butler just isn’t that good.