A “utopia” can be defined as the perfect place or state of being. The characteristics of a utopia are admired and desired for their perfection. These characteristics, however, change from person to person, and one’s ideal utopia can totally differ from another person’s outlook.
Dystopia is the antonym of utopia. Dystopia is a place or state of being where everything is unpleasant and corrupt. It is important to know the definition of dystopia in order to get a fuller understanding of utopia because one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia. As we read in Angels in America, Harper’s utopia is Antarctica, a barren, lifeless place and Prior’s utopia is on Earth, with all of its craziness and hardships included (Kushner).
The purpose of a fictional “utopia” is to critique a current world situation. Essentially, it is a writing device used to describe the qualities we want to change in order to make our society more “perfect.” The positive qualities in a utopia reflect the desired qualities of our world and the outcome of our imagined futures. Essentially, it is one’s ideal environment.
Thomas More, an English lawyer and scholar, published his book Utopia in 1516. He created the word “utopia” which stems from both meanings of “good place” and “no place.” The irony in the translation of the word has led readers to wonder whether More’s book is satiric or meant to be serious (Sommerville).
In his book, More retells the stories of Raphael Hythloday, the explorer of the fictional society, Utopia. Hythloday describes Utopia as having a superior system of political and economic customs over the European customs. Hythloday says these things are what makes Utopia so perfect: presence of a monarchy, communal living, freedom of religion, plentiful resources, capital punishment for thieves, and gender binary (More).
Because a utopia criticizes one’s current world, perhaps More was reaching out to sixteenth century problems including: lack of freedom of religion/occupation, disease, property loss, poverty, and feudalism. However, many people today find numerous aspects of More’s new world very dystopic. As time evolves and society changes, our idea of a utopic world will focus on new and different characteristics. Thomas More challenged many aspects of life in sixteenth century Europe and opened a door to a new way of thinking and writing.
In 1916, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a feminist novel, called Herland, which describes a society in which only women live and reproduce. Three male explorers are overcome with curiosity to discover more about this place. With a male narrator, it is easy to gather that the men have definite preconceived and socially constructed views of masculine/feminine roles, viewing women as less capable than men. As they fly their plane over Herland, they assume the presence and dominance of males for a country to be so advanced and sophisticated. As we learn more about the perfection of Herland, the male explorers realize just how capable and educated these women are. This realization results in relationships forming among the men and women.
What makes Herland utopic is its sense of “peace, beauty, order, safety, love, wisdom, justice, patience, and plenty” (Gilman 85). The ordered life among these skilled and learned women depicts a sense of community and strength, as well as demonstrating female capabilities beyond what the male characters have ever experienced.
However, not every part of Herland is utopic. First, not every woman in Herland has the option of becoming pregnant. Some women are forbidden to carry a child in order to rid the society of bad characteristics based on the woman’s behavior. Second, the women seem to lack sexuality and desire for sexual pleasure. This state of asexuality evolved over time, and so the romantic relationships among the three men and three of the women is a new experience for everyone in Herland. Terry, one of the explorers, decides to force himself on his partner and attempts rape. However, we find out later in the book that Terry does not succeed (Gilman). Charlotte Perkins Gilman is showing that male/female sexuality creates the potential for sexual violence. From a feminist point of view, the perfect world would be free of sexual violence against women.
Living in a strictly gendered world, with our varying gender narratives can be difficult and at times excruciating. A perfect world, as expressed in Herland through a feminist lens, would ensure equality for all to express and live their gendered lives freely, with one’s identity protected and nurtured. Utopic fiction has the power to inspire us to take action.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1998. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1995. Print.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Hollywood, FL: Simon & Brown, 2011. Print.
Sommerville, J.P. "J.P. Sommerville." Thomas More, Christian humanism, Catholicism and Utopia. Web. 13 Jan. 2013. <http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/283/283 session02.HTM>.
Picture: Welcome to Utopia: Keep it Nice. 2006. Open UtopiaWeb. 13 Jan. 2013. <http://theopenutopia.org/look/>.
Video: “Utopia – The Perfect World.” 27 Jan. 2009. Youtube. Online Video Clip. 13 Jan. 2013.