Literature Word of the Week – Utopia

26 Weeks to a Better Understanding of Literature

I’m aiming to improve my knowledge around all things English literature, and to help me do this I thought I’d start by learning a new literary word every week,  A-Z.  Although knowing me it might not be in any alphabetic order.  I might treat this more like a list on random shuffle.

So, I find a word that relates to literature and research the following on it:

  • How does it sound?
  • What does it mean?
  • Who invented it (if known)
  • When did the word come about?
  • Example to be used in a sentence (preferable in spoken form).
A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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Week 8:

Utopia

I always think this word reaches beyond a meaning of ‘the good stuff’.  It’s quite possibly the best place you can be, but depends very much on what or how that place is described.  In literature terms I’d class many books I’ve read as having at least some Utopian elements to them because I like the style of the writer and what they describe with their words.

But what’s it’s real meaning?

Greek. outopia no place and eutopia good place.  The word was created by Thomas More as part of the tile of his book De optimae rei publicae statu deque nova insula utopia 1516 (On the best government and on the new island Utopia), which describes in detail a society with ideal political structures and an ideal way of life.  The word has since been used to denote ideal social and political conditions, and writings that describe such conditions.  Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy

Interesting to note that the political stance of More’s work was communism, with education being made to both men and women while freedom of religious expression granted.  No wonder it was popular!

Most examples of Utopian I can think of, in literature, tend to be most noticeable in Science Fiction novels, although they do start in mostly dystopian states first, such as Day of the Triffids, Harry Potter, or the Wasp Factory).

My experience of reading Science Fiction is limited (although it’s very much expanding every day), but I do believe any novel can give the appearance of sharing some parts of the meaning with Utopia, whether it’s in the interaction between characters, the background descriptions that are given throughout the text or even the technology the hero has at their disposal can put a slant to our impression of life against theirs. Many stories can be epic in their hero’s quest for depicting life and relationships.

As a child I’d have quite happily have lived with Anne at Green Cables or Heidi over in Mayenfield Switzerland because they lived in such small, rural communities.  It was simple and pure living with plenty of space for running about – perfect for any 8yr old!

Even in non-human worlds such as Wind in the Willows, their lies a definitive class and political structure but once evil is over come Badger, Toad and Mole are just left to their own devices, not needing any political interference to just enjoy the Wild Woods by themselves in harmony with the rest of the other animals.

Going back to More’s work, which I haven’t read, but have had a little look through the complete edition online I found a short passage which could be equally as heartfelt today as written nearly 5 centuries ago.  It is a discussion between two characters, one a lawyer who appears to revel in the amount of hangings taking place in recent times due to so many crimes committed, the other, Mr More explaining his feelings on this state of affairs:

One day, when I was dining with him, there happened to be at table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, ‘who,’ as he said, ‘were then hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet!’ and, upon that, he said,’he could not wonder enough how it came to pass that, since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left, who were still robbing in all places.’

“Upon this, I (who took the boldness to speak freely before the Cardinal) said, ‘There was no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for, as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual; simple theft not being so great a crime that it ought to cost a man his life; no punishment, how severe soever, being able to restrain those from robbing who can find out no other way of livelihood. In this,’ said I, ‘not only you in England, but a great part of the world, imitate some ill masters, that are readier to chastise their scholars than to teach them. There are dreadful punishments enacted against thieves, but it were much better to make such good provisions by which every man might be put in a method how to live, and so be preserved from the fatal necessity of stealing and of dying for it.’

Thank goodness most of the Western world has stopped hanging, although as a society we’d still rather punish all crimes than work with the reasons behind the crimes…or maybe that’s just too simplistic?

What’s your Utopian place?  Does it have fluffy bunnies, or something more sinister?

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