Sunday, 23 January 2011

Penguin no. 20: Erewhon
by Samuel Butler

"..but so ingrained in the human heart is the desire to believe that some people really do know what they say they know, and can thus save them from the trouble of thinking for themselves, that in a short time would-be philosophers and faddists became more powerful than ever, and gradually led their countrymen to accept all those absurd views of life....I can see no hope for the Erewhonians till they have got to understand that reason, uncorrected by instinct, is as bad as instinct uncorrected by reason."

These are such interesting words to have been written in 1872. They presage the coming century: Communism, Fascism, and the many other 20th Century cults that led people astray. It is a perceptive comment on human nature. This book contains a number of interesting insights of this kind, but unfortunately they are dispersed amongst a large amount of dull and dreary writing. I didn't find it an enjoyable book to read. There were many times I longed to quietly return the book to the shelf and pretend I had never taken it up, and find something more exciting to read.

In general, I believe that the plot is the least interesting aspect of a book; the important part is the collection of ideas it explores. Here is a novel that seems to have been written with that precept in mind. It has virtually no plot: the narrator crosses a previously unexplored mountain range and comes out on the other side to find an unknown insular society. After living amongst them for nearly a year, he has a balloon made and escapes, accompanied by the Erewhonian girl he wishes to marry. The crossing of the mountain range is covered in mind-numbing detail for over 20 pages, the unlikely escape covered in about 15 more. The remainder of the book is given over to a description of the appearance, culture and history of the Erewhonian people. And in this it is clearly a satire commenting on aspects of European history and Victorian society.

It is a crime to be ugly in Erewhon. In fact virtually everything with a stochastic element, everything which an individual cannot control, is a crime, and this includes illness, bereavement, ill-luck or being the victim of a fraud or malicious campaign. Conversely, actions over which an individual might be expected to exercise some control such as drinking to excess, kleptomania or embezzlement are tolerated, the perpetrator being pitied though still subject to correction. The possession of any mechanical contrivance is also a crime. The society had previously been a technological one, but all machines had since been destroyed following a civil war sparked by a book forewarning of the possibility that machines may develop consciousness through natural selection.

These ideas point to one of the major problems I had with the book: its impracticality. I am happy to co-operate with the author in accepting the assumptions that form the framework of the story, no matter how fantastic these assumptions are, but within that framework I want consistency. How is balloon constructed and filled with a gas lighter than air without any machines? How does the society function without clocks and watches? And the mathematical concepts which underpin random events and the spread of disease are ignored. There is a chapter on the operation of the banking sector, in which the narrator describes Erewhon's Musical Banks. These are clearly cathedrals, and the observations on these banks are clearly references to Victorian religion. But the narrator, while describing it so thoroughly that the reader can see the connection, never makes the connection himself, despite having grown up in England. I found this very frustrating.

Erewhon is an anagram of nowhere, with the letters written in reverse order but with two interchanged. Many of the characters in the book also have names which are recognisably anagrams or almost reversals, including Yram, Senoj Nosnibor, Ydgrun and Mr Thims. Much of the satire is as frustratingly obvious as this, lacking all subtlety. And yet there are moments of originality and ideas worth exploring, but perhaps not enough to compensate for how dull the novel is overall.


  1. I've never tried to read this book, having run foul of Butler with 'The Way of All Flesh'. He has always struck me as a man who wrote for himself , with little thought for the fact that the audience who would be reading him might have a different view of life from his own. Perhaps he should have taken that passage you quote at the beginning a little more to heart himself.

  2. The "Way of All Flesh" is sitting there on my book shelf and I shall have to tackle it sometime, but at least I will be forewarned. I wish I could understand what it was about Erewhon that made it such an enduringly popular book.



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