Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
By anchoring his story to the events of a real embassy and real people, such as Giles, More gives his book plausibility, which is further enhanced by his making Hythloday a member of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s crew. Vespucci’s highly fanciful account of his voyages to the New World had been published widely only a few years earlier and contributed greatly to the European perception of the Americas as a land of strange peoples and creatures. So successful was More in making his book look like a true account that he was accused by a contemporary critic of having merely written down what someone else told him.
*London. England’s capital city figures only peripherally in Utopia; however, More–through Hythloday–makes a number of pointed references to people and places in London, in particular the head of England’s church, the archbishop of Canterbury. Although at pains to praise the intelligence and wisdom of the archbishop, Hythloday uses a debate about social and legal issues as a way of illustrating deficiencies in the English way of doing things.
Utopia. Far-off island adjacent to a larger landmass, somewhat like England in relation to the continent of Europe, which Hythloday reaches by a long, roundabout route and a series of strange adventures after being left behind in the New World by Vespucci. Hythloday’s adventures serve to hide the exact location of Utopia, but it is possible to place it in the Western Hemisphere–on the other side of the globe from England. More places Utopia both physically and symbolically opposite to England.
The name Utopia is a Greek word, which contains a pun: In Greek, the name could be either U-topia, meaning “no place,” or Eu-topia, meaning “better-place.” Renowned not only as one of the most learned men of his day but also as a great wit, More almost certainly intended the pun. He describes his book as a comedy, and though not a comedy in the modern sense, it is clearly a work whose details are intended to amuse, one that uses a lightness of touch as a way to deflect the consequences of his criticism of religious and political institutions, which were, at the time, supposedly above criticism.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first records a conversation between More and Hythloday that introduces Utopia; the second is a discourse by Hythloday on the institutions and practices of Utopia. This latter is the main focus of the novel. More’s intent in questioning the social and political institutions of his own country is served by presenting the ideal social and political institutions of Utopia. The nature of the location, therefore, enters only peripherally into the second part of the novel. It is more closely described in the earlier dialogue, when it becomes clear how well ordered the country is.
What makes Utopia “utopian” is how rational everything is, such as the treatment of criminals and the Utopians’ relations with neighboring states. Utopia maintains its own peace in the face of ceaselessly warring neighbors through a Machiavellian mixture of alliances and corruption. The utopian ideal contains a healthy dose of reality: Their marriage practices require brides and grooms to be revealed naked to one another before their betrothals. The layout of Utopia is also rational; the ordered patterns of cities and towns–their roads and farms–clearly reflect the sensible way in which the country is run and contrast noticeably with the disordered pattern of towns and cities in the real world of England. While More is careful not to make the landscape seem artificially regular and contrived, he uses the shape of his imaginary island as a mirror for the sensible ordering of this ideal world that makes Utopia such a sane and happy land.