Utopie Dystopie Dissertation Abstract

Peter Fitting

A Short History of Utopian Studies

Utopian scholarship is in the state of most sciences in the nineteenth century when better description was the basis of building toward more effective understandings of the phenomena being studied.—Lyman Tower Sargent, “Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited” (3)

1. Introduction. There are evident links between science fiction and utopia, although the former term only came into general usage in the middle of the twentieth century, while “utopia” dates back to More’s classic (although as we shall see, the term only came to refer to a genre of literature in the nineteenth century). In the 1950s, such utopian scholars as Glen Negley and J. Max Patrick were dismissive of the role of science fiction in utopian literature, although utopian and dystopian currents have always been important to science fiction.1 By the 1970s, however, there was a revival of utopian writing in English, particularly in the United States, most of it published as science fiction and much of it written by sf writers.2               

Utopian studies—like utopia itself—found a new life with the revival of utopianism in the 1970s—most obviously following the general social upheaval of the 1960s, which contributed to efforts to understand better radical traditions and alternative visions, particularly in a US in which the Cold War and McCarthyism had nearly silenced a generation of activists.3 In fact, the revival of utopian writing was in many ways made possible by science fiction, for as non-realistic fiction, as a genre of fiction that in many instances was set in or on imagined worlds and futures, science fiction provided a way to imagine and describe alternatives to an inadequate present. Today the utopian project of finding a different way of organizing social reality seems more vital than ever, and to that end I will offer here a brief review of the constitution and development of utopia as a field of study.4               

As Lucian Hölscher argued in 1990:

The creation of the literary generic concept “utopia” is a complex process which has until today eluded complete explanation. A reconstruction demands distinguishing between the formation of the literary genre itself and the adaptation of the term “Utopie” to it. (7)

Hölscher’s article “Utopie” is an account of that reconstruction, a tripartite “history of the concept” that includes “the history of the literary genre ... the history of its use in ... language and finally the history of theoretical reflection on the concept of utopia” (1). I am primarily interested in the third of those concerns here.                

The first steps in the development of utopia as a field of study emerged long before there was a journal called Utopian Studies or conferences on utopia, in those instances in which the object of study itself came to be acknowledged as a specific genre, rather than as simply part of a larger category such as the “Imaginary Voyage” or the philosophical novel. There are numerous studies of More’s Utopia (1516), for instance, but at what moment did commentators acknowledge it as part of a genre? Similarly, there are numerous studies of the Imaginary Voyage, but at what point were narratives of the discovery and description of a utopian land acknowledged as a specific genre its own right?

2. Prehistory: The Origins of Utopian Studies. There are some obvious places to look for acknowledgments of utopia as a genre, first of all in introductions and prefaces to works that we now consider utopias. In the 36 volumes of the late eighteenth-century anthology of imaginary voyages edited by Charles-Georges-Thomas Garnier—“Les Voyages imaginaires, Songes, Visions et Romans cabalistiques” (Imaginary Voyages, Dreams, Visions, and Cabalistic Novels, 1787-89)—the term “utopia” does not appear. Instead, the editor calls Ludvig Holberg’s The Voyage of Niels Klim to the World Underground an “allegory” (Vol 19, xv); while in the preface to Denis Veiras’s 1681 Histoire des Sévarambes (History of the Sevarambes), Garnier labels that work an “imaginary voyage,” classing it “among our best philosophical and moral novels” (“Avertissement,” vol 5, vii). Veiras’s own introduction to his utopia, however, begins with an interesting caution:

Those who have read Plato’s Republic or the Utopia of Thomas More or Chancellor Bacon’s New Atlantis, which are in fact nothing more than the ingenious inventions [“imaginations”] of these authors, may think perhaps that this account of newly discovered countries, with all their marvels, is of a similar type [“sont de ce genre”]. (Vol 5, xi; my translation)

Rather than situating his own work in the lineage of these classic predecessors, Veiras attempts to distinguish it from that tradition, insisting that, unlike those “inventions,” this account is in fact true, and that it will fill in the general lack of knowledge about the “austral lands” (Vol 5, xv). Pointing out that it has “all the characteristics of a true story,” Veiras then turns to an explanation of how he came by the document. Although such cautions are typical of the period and found in many imaginary voyages, what is notable here is the situation of the manuscript alongside three well-known works which we now consider fundamental instances of the utopian canon—a juxtaposition that certainly suggests an awareness of the similarities of what will come to be called utopias, even as Veiras distinguishes this work from those earlier texts.                

Another way of tracking the emergence of the utopian as a discrete object can be found in the existence of studies of utopian writing. Lucian Hölscher considers that in France, “Louis Reybaud was one of the first [in 1849] to point out [the] intellectual relationship of [the socialist movements in France and Germany] to the political novels of Plato, More and others ...” (Hölscher 13); Hölscher cites Robert von Mohl’s 1845 essay “Die Staats-Romane” (The State Novels) as the beginning in Germany of the “real study of utopias within the history of literature” (14).5 In English, on the other hand, John Dunlop’s History of Fiction (1814) deals with utopias, but “under such traditional terms as ‘Romance,’ ‘Voyages imaginaires,’ etc. and not grouped together as a distinct genre” (Hölscher 13).6               

In his annotated bibliography The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction, Philip Gove discusses a series of articles by James T. Presley in the 1870s that attempt to reply to a request for “information about works similar to More’s Utopia” (Gove 75).7 Over a four-year period Presley produced a list of 97 titles, as well as an elementary classification system that is worth quoting in full:

1. “Utopias” proper; works which describe an ideal state of society, according to the notions which the author may entertain of what political and social conditions it is probable or desirable that the human race should hereafter attain to.
2. Those which satirize, under feigned names, the manners, customs, pursuits, and follies of the age or nation in which the writer lives.
3. Those which pretend to give a somewhat reasonable account of the possible or probable future state of society or course of historical events, either near at hand or in remote ages.
4. Those which, merely for the sake of amusement, or sometimes for the purpose of travestying the wonderful adventures related by actual travelers in remote regions, profess to recount travels or adventures in imaginary countries or inaccessible worlds, in which generally the most extravagant fancy runs riot. (Presley, “Bibliography of Utopias and Imaginary Travels and Histories,” qtd. in Gove 76)

Early in the twentieth century, one of the first studies of utopia in English that uses the term in its title is Joyce Hertzler’s 1923 The History of Utopian Thought.8 Although he considers a number of literary utopias, his Preface makes no mention of literature, continuing the blurring of literary and non-literary genres, a practice that has characterized the study of utopia until recently.

This book embodies two related and yet distinct types of sociological endeavor. It is a study in the history of social thought ... and attempts to give an historical cross-section of representative Utopian thought. But it is also a study in social idealism, a study in the origin, selection and potency of those social ideas and ideals that occasionally men conceive, with particular emphasis upon their relation to social progress. (Hertzler v)

Despite the emphasis on “social thought,” Hertzler mixes prophets, social dreamers, and utopian authors and planners rather indiscriminately. He begins his historical review of “social utopias” with the “Ethico-Religious Utopians,” from the Prophets through Jesus and Augustine, before turning to more familiar texts such as Plato’s Republic (c.380 BCE) and More’s Utopia, as well as Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626) and Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623). Then, after chapters discussing various utopian thinkers, including a chapter on the “utopian socialists” from Morelly to Cabet, St. Simon, Fourier, and Owen, as well as a brief look at Bellamy and the Wells of A Modern Utopia (1905), he turns to “An Analysis and Critique” of Social Utopias. Here is Hertzler’s definition:

The very essence of the various Utopias [described here] was the delineation of the means whereby the writer’s vision of social perfection is to be realized. This spirit of hope expressing itself in definite proposals and stimulating action, we have called “Utopianism,” meaning thereby the role of the conscious human will in suggesting a trend of development for society, or the unconscious alignment of society in conformity with some definite ideal. We may also think of it in its working out as the realization in life of ideals that prompts men eventually and yet unconsciously, to make them real; they breathe a spirit which gives hope, and encourages action. (268)

Another way of tracking the emergence of the utopian as a genre following from the preceding examples lies in the gradual establishment of a utopian canon. In addition to Presley’s attempt to find “works similar to More’s Utopia” or the works studied by Hertzler, this development manifests itself in the publication of anthologies devoted to utopias, of which the first in English is probably Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick’s 1952 The Quest for Utopia: An Anthology of Imaginary Societies. Negley and Patrick divide their anthology into two sections. The first, “Modern Utopias: 1850-1950,” begins with excerpts from Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890) and ends with H.G. Wells’s  A Modern Utopia (1905). After a brief section entitled “Classical Utopias: 900 B.C.-200 B.C.,” the editors turn to “Utopias from 1500 to 1850,” beginning with More and continuing through most of the classics, and ending with Cabet’s A Voyage to Icaria (1845). There is finally a short ten-page chapter on “Contemporary Utopian Thought” followed by a “utopian fragment” written by a student in 1947.9

3. The 1960s and After. As I stated at the beginning of this overview, the 1960s—particularly in the English-speaking world—saw a vigorous revival in utopian writing, and concomitantly, in the study of the genre. Today the study of utopianism involves a considerable range of scholarly activities, from articles, books, and bibliographies to the founding of library collections, learned societies, journals, and centers. In 1964, for instance (to cite one of the earliest examples), Glen Negley (the co-editor of The Quest for Utopia) donated the first books of what would become the Glen Negley Collection of Utopian Literature at the Duke University Library. Lyman Tower Sargent published the first version of his “Three Faces of Utopianism” in 1967 and the first version of his bibliography, British and American Utopian Literature, in 1979. The first version of Darko Suvin’s influential “Estrangement and Cognition” was published in 1972, and his “Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia” in 1973, while Robert Elliott’s influential The Shape of Utopia was published in 1970. Finally, Carol Farley Kessler’s “Bibliography of Utopian Fiction by United States Women” was first published in 1984; an updated version was published in the inaugural issue of Utopian Studies in 1990. The Society for Utopian Studies was founded in 1975, while its European counterpart—the Utopian Studies Society—was founded in 1988. There are also a number of research centers, including the Center for Utopian Studies at the University of Bologna, the Interdepartmental Center for Utopian Studies at the University of Lecce, and the Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies at the University of Limerick. These are all signs of the emergence of the study of utopia as a full-fledged academic field over the past decades.10               

As Lyman Tower Sargent has repeatedly pointed out, the study of utopianism has been hindered by the “use of a single dimension to explain a multi-dimensional phenomenon” (“Three Faces” 4). Instead, it is important to distinguish the different uses to which the concept of the utopian is put so that it can be understood and discussed in a more systematic fashion. Sargent stresses that there are three aspects of utopianism that should be distinguished from one another and clearly defined: the literary (to which could be added other artistic representations and imaginings of alternatives), the communitarian, and utopian social theory (“Three Faces” 4).   

Certainly these different aspects of utopianism seem at times to be linked, and one might summarize that complex interrelationship as the formulation of utopian ideas and projects, as well as their expression in literature and attempts to realize these ideals concretely. Critics have examined, for instance, how much Cabet’s or Fourier’s utopian schemes were realized in their respective colonies (Nauvoo, La Réunion, etc.); or how much this or that literary utopia is the expression or manifestation of particular utopian ideals or theories. But Sargent’s tripartite distinction is an essential step in the renewal and progress of utopian studies, an essential part of the clearing of the underbrush in what Darko Suvin famously called a “genological jungle.”                

The crucial first step in the modern study of utopia was, of course, the definitional one. Important initial work was undertaken by Darko Suvin and Lyman Tower Sargent in particular, both of whose definitions were based on a careful survey of existing definitions. Darko Suvin’s formulation is the most comprehensive in its review of earlier definitions, although he makes no reference per se to the political features of the utopia; instead he “confine[s] [his] consideration [to] utopia as a literary genre” (38; emphasis in original). He defends this decision by arguing that “In the last twenty years [i.e., since 1953], at least in literary criticism and theory, the premise has become acceptable that utopia is first of all a literary genre or fiction” (46). Here is Suvin’s definition:

Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community.... (49)

Sargent basically accepts Suvin’s definition (with a few small cavils), but his “Three Faces” is addressed to the entire field of utopian studies insofar as it goes beyond the literary to clarify and distinguish two other essential areas of the utopian: communitarianism and utopian social theory. Sargent defines communitarianism in terms of “intentional societies”: “A group of five or more adults and their children, if any, who come from more than one nuclear family and who have chosen to live together to enhance their shared values or for some other mutually agreed upon purpose” (“Three Faces” 15). This aspect of utopianism is the most straightforward (although it sets the threshold for a utopian community somewhat lower than what we might expect). As Sargent points out, existing definitions of communitarianism have usually been based on the study of a specific community, “but most are too specific to include what we know to be the range of institutions actually established. They generally assume a particular model to be the only model” (“Three Faces” 14). Moreover, because such communities almost always have written rules or are based on specific writings, there is usually a connection between them and the literary utopia, as Sargent has argued elsewhere.11               

Sargent sets the second of his categories—utopian social theory—within the history of the idea of progress. Sargent then looks at what he considers the most important current of early twentieth-century utopian social thought, which he sums up in Hans Vaihinger’s “theory of fictions”—that utopian thought “is a form of fictive activity” (“Three Faces” 22).12 Using this approach, Sargent argues that we can find a defense of the necessity for utopia in the work of Karl Mannheim and Frederick Polak in their contention that “our images of the future help to shape our actual future” (27). Sargent also points out, however, that there are a number of philosophical and political currents that critique the idea of utopianism (e.g., Karl Popper). Of the three “faces,” this seems to be the area that needs the most development.                

Sargent’s third “face”—the literary utopia—brings us back to the area with which we are most familiar and certainly, since the utopian revival, the area that has attracted the most attention. This is also the most contentious area, since following the work of Ernst Bloch, the utopian impulse can seemingly be found everywhere, including in most literary works. Unfortunately this sometimes leads scholars to move from pointing out the utopian impulse in a particular work to claiming on this basis that the work is a utopia. The overly loose designation of works as utopias is far too common—hence the usefulness, if not the necessity, of clear distinctions and definitions.                

Sargent suggests two other areas for study, in the form of some further clarifications and precisions in defining the literary utopia. In the first place, he makes an interesting distinction (one that has been virtually ignored) between what he calls “body” and “city” utopias. The former are sometimes overlooked insofar as they are “achieved without human effort,” in contrast to the “city utopia,” which is “the utopia of human contrivance” (“Three Faces” 10-11). Secondly, he attempts to clarify some terminological confusion by distinguishing between “eutopia,” “utopia,” “dystopia,” and “anti-utopia.” The latter two terms in particular are sometimes used synonymously and given a variety of meanings. Here are his definitions:

Utopianism—social dreaming.
Utopia—a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space.
Eutopia or positive utopia—a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which that reader lived.
Dystopia or negative utopia—a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived.
Utopian satire—a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as a criticism of that contemporary society.
Anti-utopia—a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as a criticism of utopianism or of some particular eutopia.
Critical utopia—a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as better than contemporary society but with difficult problems that the described society may or may not be able to solve and which takes a critical view of the utopian genre. (“Three Faces” 9)

4. The Dystopian Turn. While it is the revival of utopian writing in the 1970s that led to an equivalent revival in utopian studies, the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by what Tom Moylan calls the “literary utopia’s shadow” (Scraps 111)—the dystopia and the anti-utopia. In this context it is important to mention not only the renewal of interest in the dystopia in the 1980s (as the world became increasingly less utopian), but also the awareness, among a number of sf critics writing before the resurgence of utopian studies, of a strong pessimistic current in science fiction that reflected a larger resistance to technological advances and the better future implied in some of the genre’s inventions and visions (a reaction to the new reality of the Soviet Union as much as—in post-war writing—to the consequences of the use of the atom bomb against Japan). This can be seen in the focus—and the titles—of a number of important studies of science fiction written before the 1970s: Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell (1960), Chad Walsh’s From Utopia to Nightmare (1962), and Mark Hillegas’s The Future as Nightmare (1967).            

The reexamination of the dystopia and the concept of the “critical dystopia” has been associated with the work of Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan, who co-edited an important collection, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and The Dystopian Imagination (2003). In his earlier Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (2000), Moylan writes: “Moving beyond the engaged utopianism of the 1970s and against the fashionable temptation to despair in the early 1980s, several sf writers turned to dystopian strategies as a way to come to terms with the changing, and enclosing, social reality” (186). He cites Baccolini’s definition of the critical dystopia “as texts that ‘maintain a utopian core’ and yet help ‘to deconstruct tradition and reconstruct alternatives’” (188).13           

Another area of recent research is the exploration and discovery of utopian literature and traditions outside the Christian West (which was the primary focus of utopian studies until the 1970s), in conjunction with attempts to understand utopianism in terms of historical moments and countries. Lyman Tower Sargent’s bibliographical work on English-language utopias led him to the discovery that such production was not uniform in the different English-speaking countries; from country-specific bibliographies, he has begun to look into the question of utopianism and national identity.14             

Another form of questioning and rethinking utopia is to be found in the work of Fredric Jameson. In a sense, the entire history of utopian studies flows from or is built on the link between ideas and their expression in literature as much as upon attempts to put these ideas into practice. Jameson does not question this connection; rather, he questions the assumption—if not the conviction—that the literary utopia is meant to be a representation of what the better society would look like: “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment ... [and] therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (xiii):

[I]t is a mistake to approach Utopias with positive expectations, as though they offered visions of happy worlds, spaces of fulfillment and cooperation, representations which correspond generically to the idyll or the pastoral rather than the utopia. Indeed, the attempt to establish positive criteria of the desirable society characterizes liberal political theory from Locke to Rawls, rather than the diagnostic interventions of the Utopians, which, like those of the great revolutionaries, always aim at the alleviation and elimination of the sources of exploitation and suffering, rather than at the composition of blueprints for bourgeois comfort. (12)

As can be seen from this brief sketch, the study of utopia has flourished in the last decades of the twentieth century. It has gone well beyond the question of definitions and the establishment of a canon (or of the study of an author, or new interpretations of More’s Utopia or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four); it also tries to understand utopia’s relationships to its more negative cousins—dystopia and anti-utopia—and it asks questions about why they wax and wane, and why they prosper at particular moments and in particular countries.

I would like to thank Lyman Tower Sargent for his advice and encouragement.
                1. “The once and often suggestive field of utopian fantasy has been exploited, perhaps under the comic-book definition, into a bastard literary device known as ‘science fiction.’ This product bears about the same resemblance to utopian speculation that the tales of Horatio Alger bore to the economic theories of Adam Smith” (Negley and Patrick 588).
                2. There is not space in this essay to examine the specific relationship of these two genres. Darko Suvin has argued that, “precisely speaking, utopia is not a genre but the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction. Paradoxically, it can be seen as such only now that SF has expanded into its modern phase, ‘looking backward’ from its englobing of utopia” (61; emphasis in original). Lyman Tower Sargent disagrees, admitting that while in “the current situation many utopias are published as science fiction, both historically and with utopianism treated as here, utopias are clearly the primary root” (“Three Faces” 11). For more on this debate, see Moylan’s Scraps of the Untainted Sky (77).
                3. I will raise the question of the relationship between historical events and literary utopias later in this essay. For a brief overview of this utopian revival, see my “‘So We All Became Mothers’: New Roles for Men in Recent Utopian Fiction.” See also Moylan’s Demand the Impossible.
                4. In defining a field such as Utopian Studies, there is a very useful precedent in the July 1999 special issue of SFS on “A History of Science Fiction Criticism,” particularly Arthur B. Evans’s “The Origins of Science Fiction Criticism: From Kepler to Wells” and Gary Westfahl’s “The Popular Tradition of Science Fiction Criticism, 1926-1980.” For this essay, I have relied on three important contributions to the history of utopian studies: Lucian Hölscher’s “Utopie” (originally published in German in 1990), Tom Moylan’s Scraps of the Untained Sky (2000), particularly chapter 3, and Lyman Tower Sargent’s pioneering essay, “The Three Faces of Utopia” (first published in 1967). See also Peter Stillman’s “Recent Studies in the History of Utopian Thought” and Toby Widdicombe’s “Early Histories of Utopian Thought (to 1950).”
                5. Toby Widdicombe gives the “laurels for writing the first history of utopianism ... to Henricus ab Ahlefeld, who in 1704 wrote a dissertation entitled Disputatio philosophica de fictis rebuspublicis as part of his studies at Christian Albrecht University in Kiel, Germany” (3). This work seems to have had little or no influence and has been dismissed by the few critics who are aware of its existence—until Widdicombe.
                6. Toby Widdicombe’s account of some “Early Histories of Utopian Thought (to 1950),” which covers some similar ground, refers to some of the same works covered by Lucian Hölscher’s “Utopie.” Widdicombe describes his own account as a “review” (and description) of twenty “early histories of utopianism,” rather than a study per se, while Hölscher more explicitly studies the emergence of the concept of utopia as an object of study in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
                7. Philip Gove’s The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction includes an “Annotated Checklist of 215 Imaginary Voyages from 1700 to 1800,” as well as a 185-page “History of Its Criticism and a Guide for Its Study” which could certainly serve as a model for what I intend to do here in a few pages. Gove’s “History” also includes an extended discussion of Garnier’s anthology.
                8. “To my knowledge [this] is the first book that attempts to give an unprejudiced, systematic treatment of the social Utopia as a whole” (Hertzler v). Hertzler does not seem to have been aware of Lewis Mumford’s The Story of Utopias, published in 1922, the year before his own study. Widdicombe gives a lengthy description of Mumford’s study (17-21), pointing to its weaknesses. I have accordingly focused here on Hertzler’s much less well known book. 
                9. As well as a number of forgotten utopias published between 1850 and 1950, Negley and Patrick include:

1871: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race
1872: Samuel Butler, Erewhon
1875: Mark Twain, The Curious Republic of Gondour
1887: W.H. Hudson, A Crystal Age
1888: Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward
1890: Ignatius Donnelly, Caesar’s Column
          Theodore Hertzka, Freiland
           William Morris, News From Nowhere
1895: H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
1897: Edward Bellamy, Equality
1898: Paul Adam, Lettres de Malaisie
1903: Daniel Halevy, Histoire des Quatre Ans
1904: Gabriel Tarde, The Underground Man
1905: H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia
1907: Jack London, The Iron Heel
1908: Anatole France, Penguin Island
1909: Mark Twain, Extract from Capt. Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven
1914: H.G. Wells, The World Set Free
1923: H.G. Wells, Men Like Gods
1924: Eugene Zamiatin, We
1932: Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
          Stephen Leacock, Afternoons in Utopia
1933: James Hilton, Lost Horizon
1942: Austin Wright, Islandia
1944: C.S. Lewis, Perelandra
1946: Franz Werfel, Star of the Unborn
1948: Stanton Coblentz, The Sunken World
          B.F. Skinner, Walden Two
1949: Robert Graves, Watch the North Wind Rise
          George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four
                10. There was, of course, scholarly work in utopian studies before the 1970s. As Kenneth Roemer has pointed out, papers on utopia have been presented almost yearly at the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association. See his “Petition for an MLA Discussion Group in Science Fiction, Utopian, and Fantastic Literature” (internal document, Modern Language Association, 20 February 1997).
                11. See his “Utopian Literature and Communitarian Experiments before Bellamy.”
                12. Hans Vaihinger was a German philosopher who proposed a theory of fiction in terms of the “as if” (from the title of his book originally published in 1911): while fictions are not “true,” they are useful because they enable us to cope with what would otherwise be the unmanageable complexity of things.
                13. The classic examples would include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991).
                14. This research has been developed in the following articles, all of which have been pubished in Utopian Studies over the past decade: “Australian Utopian Literature: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography, 1667-1999,” “Utopian Literature in English Canada: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography, 1852-1999,” and “Utopianism and the Creation of New Zealand National Identity.”

Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction. New York: Harcourt, 1960.
Baccolini, Raffaella, and Tom Moylan, eds. Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2003.
*Donawerth, Jane L., and Carol A. Kolmerten, eds. Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1994.
*Elliott, Robert C. The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.
Evans, Arthur B. “The Origins of Science Fiction Criticism: From Kepler to Wells.” SFS 26.2 (July 1999): 163-86.
Fitting, Peter. “‘So We All Became Mothers’: New Roles for Men in Recent Utopian Fiction.” SFS 12.2 (July 1985): 156-83.
*Fortunati, Vita, and Raymond Trousson, eds. Dictionary of Literary Utopias. Paris: Honoré Champion,2000.
Garnier, Charles-Georges-Thomas, ed. Voyages imaginaires, Songes, Visions et Romans cabalistiques. 36 vols. Amsterdam: n.p., 1787-89. Available online at <http://gallica.bnf.fr/>.
Gove, Philip Babcock. The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1941.
Hertzler, Joyce. The History of Utopian Thought. 1923. New York: Cooper Square, 1965.
Hillegas, Mark. The Future as Nightmare: H.G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.
Hölscher, Lucian. “Utopie.” 1990. Trans. Kirsten Petrak. Utopian Studies 7.2 (1996): 1-65.
Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005.
Kessler, Carol Farley. “Bibliography of Utopian Fiction by United States Women, 1836-1988.” Utopian Studies 1.1 (1990): 1-58.
*Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia.Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1990.
Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. New York: Methuen, 1986.
─────. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000. 
Negley, Glen, and J. Max Patrick, eds. The Quest for Utopia: An Anthology of Imaginary Societies. New York: Henry Schuman, 1952.
*Parrinder, Patrick, ed. Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000.
*Pordzik, Ralph. The Quest for Postcolonial Utopia: A Comparative Introduction to the Utopian Novel in the New English Literatures. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.
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─────. “Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited.” Utopian Studies 5.1 (1994): 1-37.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction
1.1 Research Field
1.2 Selection of Novels
1.3 Structure and Methodology

2. Theoretical Aspects
2.1 Definition of Utopia and Dystopia
2.2 Traditional Stereotypes in Literature

3. The Representation of Women in Herland
3.1 Historical Context
3.2 A Country Called Herland
3.3 Gender
3.4 Women in Herland

4. The Representation of Women in Brave New World
4.1 Historical Background
4.2 The World State
4.3 Gender
4.4 Women in the World State

5. The Representation of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale
5.1 Historical Context
5.2 The State of Gilead
5.3 Gender
5.4 Women in Gilead

6. Discussion and Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Until 'mothers' earn their livings, 'women' will not.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This quote of Charlotte Perkins Gilman hints to the fact that the representation of women is determined by certain factors. To analyse these factors, the research question of this paper is: To what extent is the representation of women and their status in the fictional societies determined by gender relations in the context of the distribution of power? To explore this question the distribution of power and the resulting gender relations are regarded as important. As the quote cited above explains, women are often stereotyped according to their gender. Therefore I will observe the stereotypes to find out in which ways they are influenced by the power and gender relations, why they are used and what they can tell us about the representation of women. Moreover, the historical context in which s/he wrote the novel is assumed to be important.

1.1 Research Field

My bachelor thesis will combine the fields of Literary Studies and Gender Studies. Literature, for many centuries, has been a male dominated area. Female writers were oppressed, excluded or greeted with only a weary smile. Successful female writers, like Jane Austen, were the exception. In her last novel Persuasion, she enables her character Anne to describe the situation for women: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story, education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”(Austen 280). Jane Austen chose the past tense as if she was optimistic for the circumstances to change.

However, the pioneer of feminist literature was Virginia Woolf. She was not only a successful female writer during the male dominated modernist period but she also influenced and empowered many women:

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young--alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. (Woolf 133)

Virginia Woolf evoked the feeling of an ‘us’ along females and created a fundament for female writers. However, a real change of the canon did not happen until post-modernism. The feminist movements lead to a shift of female writers from ‘the margin to the centre’. Moreover, a re-reading of history and literature took place. In the 1970’s history changed into ‘herstory’, a feminist perspective focussing on the representation of women in history from a female point of view (“herstory” Oxford English Dictionary). This approach will be continued in my bachelor thesis. Moreover, in the 1980’s a second movement began to rise. The Gender-movement differentiated sex from a socially constructed identity called gender. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman introduced the concept of „Doing Gender” (West, Zimmerman) in 1987:

Our purpose in this article is to propose an […], understanding of gender as a routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment. We contend that the ‘doing’ of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production. Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine ‘natures’. When we view gender […] our attention shifts from matters internal to the individual and focuses on interactional and, ultimately, institutional arenas. (West, Zimmerman 4)[1]

Therefore gender is socially constructed, interactional and influenced by the ‘norm’ of how a female or male person has to behave according to the society he or she lives in. The doing of gender is influenced by institutions like the state and the media which need the people to have a clear gender identity in order to address and influence them. Also smaller institutions, like relationships, need gender as a guideline. In this thesis, I will focus on the representation of women within a gender context behind the background of the power relations in the particular utopian or dystopian society. My literary focus will lie on how the authors create particular ‘types’ of women. To do this, I will briefly introduce traditional female stereotypes in literature.

Stereotypes are concepts created by human kind to understand and simplify the world. They are produced and reproduced by certain institutions, for example by the media. Looking back in history, one the first media was literature. Literature reflects the society and time it is originated in. Stereotypes mirror society’s perception and expectation of a certain kind or group of people. We have to consider, that the history of literature is dominated by the white, male ruling class. For this reason, the stereotypes I will mention were designed by men. On the other hand, men would not be able to create stereotypes, without having people “acting” (West, Zimmerman 5) them. Therefore, they are the result of gender.

During my research I found a master thesis with a title which was very similar to mine: The Role of Women in Utopian and Dystopian Novels, by Jelena Vukadinovich. This thesis also contains analyses of Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. Moreover, she also uses traditional stereotypes to analyse the representation of women in these novels. Nevertheless, her approach is very different to the one I preferred for my thesis. She concentrates mainly on the stereotypes themselves, without questioning and analysing them in the context of feminism and gender.

1.2 Selection of Novels

In the following I will briefly introduce the selection of novels for my analysis. Because it is insightful for the analysis to have a male and a female point of view, not only by the choice of the authors, but also the narratives, I have chosen the novels Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Moreover, the novels are written in different historical contexts and offer diverse approaches on the construction of gender. In addition both genres, utopia and dystopia, are represented.

Utopias illustrate ideas of a perfect future and advices of how we can reach this goal. For this reason I chose the utopia Herland. It was written by the American female author Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915, during the women’s right movement in the US. It describes an overall female society, were men are excluded. The women in Herland have learned to reproduce via pathogenesis and are therefore independent from men. It will be enlightening to analyse how women are represented in an exclusively female society with regard to power relations and gender issues.

Brave New World was written during a time of technological and political changes in the Britain of 1932. As a modernist piece of art, it is characterised by a sense of pessimism and the fear of the loss of values. The ‘lost values’ in Brave New World are inter alia motherhood and family, due to technical reproduction. Women are mostly ‘redeemed’ from their reproductive function. Therefore, Brave New World offers a great possibility to examine how the loss of these ‘values’ influences the representation of women.

Afterwards, I will analyse the dystopia The Handmaids Tale which was published in 1985 during the second wave feminism and the rise of conservatism in the US. It can be characterised as a post-modernist novel. It describes a totalitarian theocracy were the values of motherhood and family are practiced in an exaggerated way. Reproductive women are exploited as ‘bearing-machines’, but although they have to bear children, they are not allowed to be mothers. Therefore, The Handmaids Tale is a counterpart to Brave New World. Whereas Huxley illustrates a society in which women are ‘redeemed’ from reproduction, Atwood shows a society in which women are reduced to their biological functions.

1.3 Structure and Methodology

In order to analyse the representation of women in the context of power relations and gender in the chosen novels, I will firstly explain what defines the genres utopia and dystopia. In the following section, I will introduce traditional stereotyped female roles in literature.

The novels are analysed chronologically, beginning with the utopia Herland. Gilman’s novel introduces ideas of an all female utopian society and therefore forms a strong contrast to the following dystopias. I will continue my analysis with Brave New World, followed by The Handmaid’s Tale. All novels are examined under the same aspects. I will start my analysis with a short introduction to the historical background of the novel. Afterwards, I will analyse the power relations in the fictional societies. Accordingly, I will examine the resulting gender relations. Within this context the representation of women will be analysed with the help of traditional female stereotypes in literature.

I will close my thesis with a discussion and conclusion. In the discussion, I will portray in which aspects, regarding the research question, the novels differ or coincide. The conclusion will proof whether and to what extent the representation of women is dependent on the power and gender relations in the fictional society and the context in which the novel was written.

2. Theoretical Aspects

2.1 Definition of Utopia and Dystopia


A utopia is, in the author’s point of view, a perfect society. The word derives from the Greek morpheme ‘ou’ which means ‘not’ and the morpheme ‘topos’ which means 'place' (“utopia” Oxford English Dictionary). It is therefore a fictional place, an “ideal nowhere” (Kessler 3). The utopian nowhere can be a state, a country or a city which has a metaphorical function. It mirrors ideals and wishes and can “change minds” (Kessler 4). Lee Cullen Khanna defines utopia: “We can find Utopia in the process of experiencing a convincing fiction [...] not ‘out there’ in another time and place- but within the self” (58-59). Utopias always include an idea of ‘how things could be’ and an advice of ‘how things should be’. Therefore, utopias are often used to address and influence people through fiction.


Many critics distinguish between dystopia and anti-utopia, like Lyman Tower Sargent:

[An anti-utopia is] a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as a criticism of utopianism[...]. (Sargent 9)

[A dystopia is] a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived. (Sargent 11)

In my opinion, it is hardly possible to differentiate between dystopia and anti-utopia, because a dystopian society is always a negative result of a utopian ideal. For example, in Brave New World the World State was built to be a perfect and safe place for human kind but developed to be a totalitarian regime. Therefore, I will continue using the term dystopia for my analysis.

A dystopia can be characterised by the following aspects[2]:

1. The society is controlled by a totalitarian regime;
2. The understanding of the own world is distorted due to limited, or completely prohibited communication and the undermining and controlling of culture;
3. The individual is oppressed and ‘melts’ into one functioning society;
4. The state presents itself as a utopian place.

2.2 Traditional Stereotypes in Literature

Stereotypes are concepts created by human kind to understand and simplify the world (Cardwell 225). As stated above, they are produced and reproduced, for example by literature. Literature offers a wide range of different stereotypes, but I will merely concentrate on stereotypes which are useful for my analysis of Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and Herland.

In the following I will introduce the main characteristics of the relevant stereotypes according to my own reading experience. I will create these stereotypes due to my own perception.

Since stereotypes change over time, as they are a mirror of society, I will concentrate on traditional stereotypes. They will be portrayed in a very brief and general way so they can be applied to the characters in the novels and it can be analysed to what extent they differ or coincide.


Stereotyped mothers are often completely reduced to their status of being a mother. They are valued for their ability to bear children, especially sons and are reduced to domestic areas. Therefore, mothers do not take an important part in literature. They belong to the background information of the plot. Their life is not ‘interesting’ enough to be part of it. This is true as long as the mother behaves right. As soon as she ‘fails’, she is ‘supported’ to be an important character, presenting the abandoned woman, or the failed mother.


Angels are virtuous, often married women who completely dedicate their life to their husbands. They live a chaste and pure life, radiate asexuality and are always submissive to male authorities. Like mothers, angels are reduced to domestic areas. They don’t have children; otherwise their angel status would switch into the stereotype of the mother. Their main duty is to support the hero of a novel in all possible ways. If angels fail to meet the expectations, for example if they show sexual affection, they are doomed to the status of a ‘fallen angel’.

Tempted Women

Tempted women use their female attractiveness to turn the heads of men and to undermine their objectivity. Tempted women are aware of their female sexuality and they are in no way virtuous. This is seen as highly dangerous. They are often compared to Eve in Genesis, who convinced Adam to eat from the forbidden tree and is therefore responsible for the fall of mankind.


The spinster, or old maid, is a woman who lives alone and has no children. In the 17th century the word ‘spinster’ was attached to the name of an unmarried woman to signalise that she is not married. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word developed to “a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed” (“Spinster” Oxford English Dictionary). Furthermore, in literature she is often used to illustrate a middle aged or old asexual women. This woman is regarded as conspicuous and odd, because it is taken for granted that it must be her fold that no men wanted to marry her.

3. The Representation of Women in Herland

3.1 Historical Context

Herland was written in 1915 and published as a serial in Gilman’s own magazine The Forerunner. It was written in a time when industrialisation and capitalism reached its climax so far. On the one hand, the roles of men as wage earners and women as housewives and mothers were deeply established in society but on the other hand, working class women had to combine tasks of mothers, housewives and wage earners. This was necessary to maintain a livelihood but it was also discredited in society. Gilman was engaged to emancipate women in this role, which is also visible in her prior book Women and Economics –A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution published in 1889, but she also criticises the social injustice due to capitalism. These aspects are illustrated and discussed in Herland by three male visitors from the United States. She also offers us a solution in the utopian society of Herland. In addition, Gilman criticises the notion that women are inferior to men, which was deeply anchored in the time and place in which Gilman wrote her novel. As a counterpart, the women’s suffrage movement was established in the US to gain equal rights for women. In Herland Gilman tries to eliminate the prejudices towards women.

3.2 A Country Called Herland

The country called Herland[3] is a utopian place which is only inhabited by women. It is placed on a plateau, separated by inaccessible high mountains in South America. Charlotte Perkins Gilman sends three male characters out on a journey to find this country. It had not been explored before, because the invention of airplanes was necessary to reach it. What the three men find is a nearly perfect, peaceful, highly developed society.

Approximately 2000 years ago, most of the male population of Herland has died in an earthquake. Afterwards, the women killed the remaining men, mainly slaves, because they revolted against the remaining women (Gilman 47). The women were desperate because they were convinced that their population would extinct without men. Nevertheless, they didn’t stop caring about their country and a few years ago a woman became pregnant without having contact to a man. This process is called parthenogenesis (49). This woman is regarded as the mother goddess of Herland. Without male aggressors, the children grow up in a peaceful environment and receive excellent education (ibid). The principles of this society are sisterhood, motherhood, community spirit and a deep connection with nature. Although they worship their mother goddess and elderly wise women, there is no hierarchy in Herland. The division of labour is organised by intrinsic motivation and labour is not paid, but regarded as a contribution to society (65). Every decision regarding the country is discussed collectively, therefore Herland`s political system can be analysed as a grassroots democracy which is comparable to the ideal of socialism.

3.3 Gender

In Herland gender distinctions do not exist. Nevertheless, we experience gender characterisations not only through the eyes of the three male visitors but by the way Gilman illustrates those three men. She illustrates three different male stereotypes. Van, the main character, is a sociologist and views the world scientifically and reasonable. Jeff is a purely romantic person who idealises women. Terry is a macho and a chauvinist who views women as inferior to men (Gilman18). The male visitors are used to introduce social and ideological patterns of the United States to contrast with the ideology of Herland. In the beginning, they have a very clear meaning towards the idea of a country which is inherited by women. They think of it as a country of “a strictly Amazonian nature” (5). Van imagines it to have a matriarchal structure in which men are evacuated and only invited to the women to make “an annual visit- a sort of wedding call” (7). Terry, in his macho-like manner thinks of Herland as a “sort of sublimated summer resort- just Girls, Girls and Girls” (6). To him it was no question that the women would feel attracted to him, because he “was popular among women” (ibid). He expected Herland to be a land of milk and honey, regarding sexuality. Jeff’s imagination of the country is closest to reality. He imagines it to be “blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies [...]” (6) and “a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood” (7). This illustration enables us to clearly characterise those three stereotypes and it helps to understand their reactions and feelings towards Herland when they finally experience it in reality.

The most important similarity of all three imaginations: They are all convinced that there must be men, because in their opinion women would not be able to form a civilised country (10). This is one of the main criticisms which Gilman had probably in mind while writing Herland. The idea of women being inferior can only work if there is someone who is regarded as superior. In a patriarchal society women are therefore regarded as inferior to men because men see themselves as superior to women. The fact that, in a patriarchal society, men hold the power solidifies this notion as a common gender ‘truth’. This gender ‘truth’ was deeply established in the society Gilman lived in while writing Herland. She solves this problem by presenting a perfect society built by women. Kathy Casey, in the preface of the 1998 edition of Herland, correctly observes that Gilman “indeed had radical ideas about women’s role in the patriarchal society in which she lived, and about women’s potential to create a much healthier, happier way of living if they were free from male domination” (iii). It is astonishing how clearly Gilman observes gender even if the notion of gender did not made its way into science, yet. She clearly illustrates that gender relations and characteristics are not given but created and acted. For example, Gilman distinguishes between the subject “woman” and the adjective “feminine”. Terry, who hoped to find a country full of Amazonian beauties, is frustrated because in his opinion the women of Herland “aren’t womanly” (50) which leads to an outburst that reveals what use he sees in women: “What a man wants of women is a good deal more than all this ‘motherhood’” (ibid.). This clearly shows that he objectifies women because what he wants of them is sexuality and devotion. It is Van, the sociologist, who observes:


[1] The “Doing Gender” theory does also include factors like race, ethnicity and social status which will not be considered in my analysis due to the limitation of pages.

[2] For further research and discussion on dystopia, utopia and anti-utopia see: Mohr, Dunja, Worlds Apart? Dualism and Transgression in Contemporary Female Dystopias, page 11-49.

[3] The real name of the country isn’t revealed. Terry, one of the male visitors calls it Herland. This name is used throughout the story.

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