Places: Erewhon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1872

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Utopian

Time of work: 1870’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedErewhon

Erewhon Erewhon (ee-ree-whon). Utopian land set vaguely in the South Pacific region–possibly in New Zealand, but because of Erewhon’s vastness, some scholars have argued that it is more likely located in Australia. Early chapters show the struggle of the narrator, Higgs, to cross the unnamed mountain range between a coastal sheep pasture and the interior. He is in the company of Chowbok, an elderly Erewhonian. They travel on horseback to begin with, following the course of a river. After they spot the main range of mountains, with glaciers on their summits, the route becomes rockier, so they release their horses and continue on foot. Many gorges are unscalable or dead ends. After Chowbok deserts him, Higgs continues on alone. The difficult river crossings, dangerous precipices, snowy saddles, and magnificent views (often obscured by clouds) are described in great detail.

As Higgs descends toward the interior of the country, he sees the first evidence of another society: ten huge statues of semihuman forms. However, the people he encounters there are of normal human stature, handsome, and Mediterranean in their coloring. Their villages resemble those of northern Italy, where Samuel Butler spent many pleasant holidays.

As Higgs is taken, without force but on foot, from village to town, it becomes obvious that the vegetation of this land is similar to that of both New Zealand and the Mediterranean. However, the inhabitants’ language is different, and the society completely rejects machines. The first evidence of a difference in Erewhonian philosophy comes when Higgs’s pocket-watch is confiscated and placed in a museum of old and broken machines that houses fragments of steam engines, clocks, and other things that appear to be hundreds of years old. Higgs calculates that the society’s culture is technologically similar to that of Europe in the twelfth or thirteenth century.

Imprisoned for his possession of a watch, Higgs comes to realize that illness is regarded as a crime; even catching a cold can result in a prison sentence. However, over the years, the law has produced a healthy and athletic people. Here, Butler puts Darwin’s principle of the survival of the fittest into operation. On the other hand, criminal activities, such as embezzlement, are considered to be illnesses that should be treated.

Capital

Capital. Higgs is transported to Erewhon’s unnamed capital city in a small carriage drawn by a single horse. Butler avoids description of the countryside by having Higgs travel blindfolded. Higgs estimates that his journey covers no more than thirty or thirty-five miles a day for a period of a month–figures that suggest a total of one thousand miles, a distance equivalent to almost the entire length of New Zealand’s major islands. As Higgs gets closer to the metropolis, his blindfold is removed, and he sees towers, fortifications, and palaces. All the buildings Higgs describes are attractive and luxurious.

Nosnibor’s home

Nosnibor’s home. Palatial house of Senoj Nosnibor in which Higgs is lodged. The house is a mansion on raised ground on the outskirts of the city, with rooms set around a central courtyard in the Roman style and with ten acres of terraced gardens. Nosnibor’s name, like many in Erewhon, is an anagram of a familiar British name (Jones Robinson). “Erewhon” itself is an anagram of “nowhere.” Butler uses anagrams as a technique of satirizing contemporary society through inversion of conventions.

Musical Banks

Musical Banks. Important Erewhonian institution to which Higgs is taken by Zulora, the daughter of his host. Situated on a large central piazza, the building is an example of classical architecture, with pillars, towers and sculptures. Only its stained glass and choral singing seem unusual for a bank, but although money does change hands it soon becomes evident, to Higgs and to the reader, that this is Butler’s satire of the established church. The money obtained from the Musical Banks is acceptable socially but is of no use in commerce. In contrast, the commercial banks are vital but not talked about.

Colleges of Unreason

Colleges of Unreason. Educational institution in the countryside outside the capital, to which Higgs is taken by a friendly Musical Banks cashier named Thims. The college buildings–like all other buildings in Erewhon–are exquisitely beautiful. Higgs reports that it is impossible to see them without being attracted to them. However, the institution itself does not offer teaching about the nature of tangible things; they mainly teach “hypothetics,” or what might be, as the best way of preparing their students for life.

After many months living in Erewhon and learning how its society works, Higgs plans his escape, taking with him Arowhena, a young woman whom he loves. He excites the king and queen by mentioning balloon travel, and the queen allows him to construct a balloon and fill it with a lighter-than-air gas. When Higgs flies out of Erewhon, he notes that the ranges of mountains that separate the country from the rest of the world are about 150 miles across. Higgs and Arowhena pass over a plain and eventually come down in the sea.

*Sheep station

*Sheep station. Higgs is introduced when he is contentedly working as a shepherd. He enjoys the grand countryside of plain and mountain, accepting the monotony as a trade-off for the view and the healthy life. This is a direct account of Butler’s own feelings when he left England and his Cambridge studies after a quarrel with his father and went to New Zealand to farm sheep.

BibliographyCannan, Gilbert. Samuel Butler: A Critical Study. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1969. A sound, general introduction to Butler’s literary work, diverse talents, and interests.Greenacre, Phillis. The Quest for the Father: A Study of the Darwin-Butler Controversy. New York: International Universities Press, 1963. A psychoanalytic account of Butler’s connection with Darwin that sets “The Book of the Machines” into interpretative context.Holt, Lee E. Samuel Butler. New York: Twayne, 1964. A fine overview of Butler’s work.Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Earnest Atheist: A Study of Samuel Butler. London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1936. A lively and insightful account of Butler’s attitudes. Helps to explain the ferocity of his attack on religion in Erewhon.Stillman, Clara G. Samuel Butler: A Mid-Victorian Modern. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972. Offers a helpful chapter on Erewhon, analyzing Butler’s satirical methods.
Categories: Places