Utopian and dystopian fiction

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From Plato to JG Ballard

by Valentina Tenedini – March 2014

adapted from Ansaldo, M. EL, English in Literature, vol. 3 , 2005 ed. Petrini

Thomson, G., Maglioni, S. New literary landscapes, 2006, ed. Black Cat

The word 'utopia' was first used in English literature in 1516 when Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was published. The word refers to the Greek terms outopia = no place and eutopia = “good place, and has been used ever since to indicate a place which is too good to be true.

Utopian fiction seems to have been inspired by Plato’s Republic (360 BC) which portrayed an ideal society based on strong philosophical principles; another forerunner of the utopian genre may have been Columbus’s journey to Americas in 1492, whose land was seen as a second Eden and thus the ideal territory to establish a new society. The most famous utopian fantasies apart from More’s Utopia, is Francis Bacon ‘s New Atlantis, and Tommaso Campanella La città del sole (1602).

More‘s Utopia is an island where there is no private property, which is considered the origin of all the evils of society. People live sharing all goods, education and medical treatment are free whereas all religions are tolerated; people work for six hours only so as to have enough time for relaxation and entertainment. Laws are kept to a minimum and are so simple that everyone can understand them and respect them.

With his work More gave origin to a new literary genre, dealing with imaginary places in which everything is perfect and which are in contrast with the world of reality.

The next utopian work was The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon, which was published in 1626. It describes a completely isolated society which has complete nature control, where people use devices suggesting the future development of airplanes, submarines and telephones among other fantastic achievements.

In the 18th century the most famous utopian writer was Jonathan Swift with his famous Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which was a masterpiece of the so called semi-utopian narrative. The use of this term derives from the fact that of the four types of worlds described in the book only one seems to be truly utopian, the one ruled by the Houyhnhnms, talking, intelligent horses. The other three, Lilliput, (the land of tiny people), Brobdinag (the country of giants) and Laputa (the island of scientists and philosophers), cannot be regarded really as utopian societies because they are characterized by both positive and negative aspects. Gulliver’s travels has been classified as a book for children, a novel of the fantastic, a parody of travelbooks, however it is a satirical book which attacks civilized man’s hypocrisy, vanity, cruelty, small-mindedness and absurd pretensions.

The utopian genre became popular again during the 19th century, among Victorian social reformers, with 2 novels:

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