The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Utopia: (1) An ideal place that does not exist in reality. (2) A work describing such a place. The word utopia, which evokes the Greek for both outopia, meaning “no place,” and eutopia, meaning “good place,” is itself a pun referring to a nonexistent good place. English writer Sir Thomas More coined the term in 1516, using it as the name of his model society as well as the title of his book Utopia.

Utopian literature, which reached its height in Anglo-American literature in the nineteenth century, describes, but does not necessarily promote, an author’s vision of the ideal place. Utopias are frequently depicted as distant and delightful lands lost, forgotten, or unknown to the rest of the world until their (re)discovery by an adventurous traveler who returns to tell the tale. Some utopian texts subtly satirize the specific utopia described; others satirize humanity’s yearning for utopia in general. Dystopias, by contrast, are horrific places, usually characterized by degenerate or oppressive societies.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Plato’s The Republic (c. 360 B.C.); Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627); Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666); Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000—1887 (1888); William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890); Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915); James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933); Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957); Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), which explores how an anarchist utopia might function and the limitations it might present; and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), which envisions an ecostate formed by Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Contemporary examples of utopian literature include James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy (1993) and Garrett Jones’s Ourtopia (2004).

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) is a utopian satire. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) depicts a false utopia; so, in a way, does the Wachowskis’ movie The Matrix (1999), in which Agent Smith characterizes the original matrix — which humans rejected — as “designed to be a perfect human world.”