Written for Utopia taught by Karen Koehler at Hampshire College, 9 September 2018
Narrative Structure in Thomas More’s Utopia
While reading Utopia by Sir Thomas More, my mind continued to wander to where the author himself stood on the question of Utopia’s realization, and, for that matter, where he wants us to stand. The immediate instinct is to conflate More the author with More the character (To mimic David Wootton who wrote the introduction to the Hackett edition, I’ll refer to More the character as Morus from now on to avoid confusion), who stands at odds with Hythloday’s uncritical praise of Utopia. But it’s hard to imagine writing a book with such an involved description of a so-called perfect society just for the sake of ridiculing it as, well, utopian. I don’t have the answers to the complex questions this book poses, but I do know that they are more nuanced than a simple binary choice between two characters.
To begin with, Morus is the first person narrator of the book. He spends Book 1 in dialogue with Hythloday as well as others and Book 2 simply recounting all that Hythloday told him. We as readers are forced into Morus’s position, that of trusting Hythloday and taking his stories at face value. Morus often praises Hythloday, describing him as “someone who is both immensely learned and extraordinarily widely experienced in the affairs of humankind” (160). This does lend some credibility to Hythloday, though it seems that both we and Morus still have reservations about his absolute trustworthiness.
Both Book 1 and 2 end on a critical note, with Morus either openly arguing with Hythloday or biting his tongue and saving the discussion for next time. This critique begins to add complexity to Morus’s initial reverence for Hythloday’s knowledge and experience. Morus is “left with the impression that many of the customs and laws established in that country were simply absurd” (159). He’s particularly opposed to the communal nature of the county’s wealth. While I personally am not opposed to communal ownership (in fact I’m often supportive of it), I do think Morus is right that there are some critiques to be had of this society.
The contradictions in what Hythloday describes to Morus were not only abundant, but some were exceptionally troubling. Hythloday spends multiple pages critiquing violent English prison systems and contrasting them with the Utopian punishments for theft where the prisoners “receive no ill treatment” (71) and have “nothing unpleasant about their lives” (71). This is immediately followed by the fact that “if the convict is lazy, his employer is permitted to whip him”, “the tip of one of their ears is cut off”, and execution is the punishment for offenses such as discarding ones identifying badge, talking to a slave from another district, or plotting to escape (72). This punishment, even in comparison with England’s capital punishment, seems violent and excessive for a society that claims to be Utopia. Contradictions such as these found throughout the narrative not only lead us to question Hythloday’s trustworthiness, but also the very utopian nature of the island at all.
Throughout Utopia, we’re pressured to choose between the uncritical narrative Hythloday provides or the rejection that Morus offers. I think the answer isn’t quite as straightforward as choosing between the dichotomy we’re presented. Perhaps More didn’t know that his book would survive him over five hundred years, but the conflicting ideas presented in Utopia can’t be accurately translated entirely to our present material conditions. Reading Utopia requires a careful balance between the idealism of Hythloday and the criticism of Morus in order to apply any of these ideas to our current reality.