Samuel Butler, Erewhon


Publiziert von Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1961


Erewhon does not exist - the name already gives it away. 'Erewhon' is nothing more than an anagram of the word 'nowhere'. The play of words is a hint at the literary genre of utopias, since 'utopia' means 'no-place' in ancient Greek. This idea of the no-place is at the centre of Samuel Butler's novel "Erewhon".


The book revolves around a young shepherd by the name of Higgs, who reports about his journey to Erewhon. Upon arrival, he is instantly arrested.  He later finds out that the inhabitants of Erewhon were irritated by his watch, because all kinds of technology and machines are forbidden there. But Higgs is also surprised by other things. To him, Erewhon appears like a looking-glass world. While it is illegal to be ill there, breaches of etiquette or flashes or anger are perceived as ailments. Banks and financial transactions have a religion-like status and all children have to learn the 'hypothetical language' in school. It is a language that is no longer spoken but still seen as important.


Readers will quickly notice that all of these rules have a direct connection to our, or rather to Samuel Butler's society. Surely everyone who had to learn Latin in school will smirk when reading about the 'hypothetical language', which is allegedly essential for science but has no use in everyday life. These kinds of parallels appear throughout the entire novel.


"Erewhon" (1872) can therefore neither be called a traditional utopia nor a dystopia. Instead it is somewhere in between. It is not a draft for an ideal world but it also doesn't present a society of terror à la "1984". The most accurate term would probably be satire - a utopia-shaped satire to criticise Victorian England.  

The fact that breaches of etiquette are seen as illnesses in Erewhon humorously demonstrates Butler's opinion towards the rigid society he lived in. After all, Butler is known for his famous quote: "All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it." This image is reflected in "Erewhon".


But not all parts of the novel should be taken lightly. For instance, Butler regretted that the ban of machines in Erewhon was perceived as a joke, allegedly as a corruption of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Butler was not directed against Darwin. He rather used his novel to express his honest worry that machines might eventually become self-aware. Surely he should not be blamed for it. His scepticism towards machines is still here today, if not stronger than ever.  


 It is thus all the more exciting to read "Erewhon" in our time and age. The no-place Erewhon makes us aware of how arbitrary and narrow-minded Butler perceived his own society to be. But it is even more interesting to realise that our world has become an even more absurd place. Butler neither knew robots nor the internet. He could not know that we would still teach the 'hypothetical language' to our children in the 21st century. Yet so many aspects of our world are mirrored in "Erewhon". In this way, our society will seem somewhat utopian to us. Or dystopian? Well, in any case, it will seem like a highly implausible, highly unreasonable place.


Christina Schlögl

Signet Sunflower Foundation