Social Norms of the Erewhonians

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

In Erewhon, Samuel Butler uses the most attractive generic features of utopia with a lot of satire. There are a lot of social norms to choose from in thinking about exactly how Butler constructs his satire in Erewhon, but let’s focus on three: religion, health, and education.

Utopia and utopian highlighted on a white sheet of paper.
Samuel Butler presents the difference between the Europeans and the Erewhonians in Erewhon. (Image: Sohel Parvez Haque/Shutterstock)

Religion in Erewhonian Society

Erewhon has two religious movements, both containing substantial humor: the Musical Banks and the goddess Ydgrun. The Musical Banks are the official churches of Erewhon. These are beautiful edifices and all the people insist that the currency traded at the Musical Banks is worth far more than the worldly currency with which they dirty their hands every day.

Higgs visits the Musical Banks with great interest, only to find that they’re mostly empty—completely respected by lip service, but in actual fact considered old, empty institutions. There’s nothing subtle about constructing devotion as lip service, or about constructing the Church as a kind of bank, thus underlining the intersections of religious institutions with money and power.

Goddess Ydgrun of the Erewhonians

Higgs also learns that many Erewhonians actually worship the goddess Ydgrun. Ydgrun an anagram for Grundy, as in Mrs. Grundy, from an 18th-century play, a namesake for hypocrisy and prudery.

And Ydgrun is the goddess that Erewhonians aren’t supposed to care about, but that most of them actually worship secretly. In Erewhon, maybe like everywhere else, hypocrisy is publicly denounced but secretly accepted.

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Illness and Criminality in Erewhon

Another interesting feature of the Erewhonian society is the approach to illness and criminality, which might be Butler’s best joke of the whole novel.

In Erewhon, a person faces punishment for having a physical ailment—jail time or even, in the case of incurable or chronic conditions, execution. If you commit a crime, on the other hand, you get medical attention and a whole lot of sympathy from friends and family.

If you have a headache, you would never mention it to anyone but your most intimate acquaintances. Higgs is initially astonished by the seemingly uniform beauty and health of the Erewhonians, but this becomes a bit more understandable as he learns that they disguise minor ailments and are jailed or executed for major ones.

Learn more about the origins of utopian genre.

Butler’s Comedy of Errors

The Erewhonians, are just as surprised to hear about the European approaches to health and crime—completely misguided—as Higgs is to learn about theirs. They explain that there are physicians living secretly among them and these aren’t actively prosecuted.

After all, it’s understandable that people would want to hide their illnesses to avoid punishment and might even abet family members in doing so. But if doctors were allowed to “become frequent visitors in every household”, one of the Erewhonians explains to Higgs, “their organization and their intimate acquaintance with all family secrets would give them a power, both social and political, which nothing could resist.”

There’s a certain comedy of errors element to Higgs’s—and perhaps the reader’s—misunderstanding about the treatments of criminality and illness, but is there something else going on? What does it mean to imprison or even execute those who are ill? Is this a form of eugenics?

A portrait of Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species made the people think about eugenics. (Image: Henry Maull and John Fox /Public domain)

The Concept of Eugenics in the Victorian Period

Following Charles Darwin’s incredibly influential Origin of Species in 1859, other thinkers, most notably Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton, began to speculate on the possibility of selective mating for humans.

It wasn’t a new idea, Plato suggested it in the Republic, but it started to gain traction in the Victorian period.

Butler’s use of Eugenics

Eugenics, a Greek compound, meaning good genes, wasn’t named until 1883, by Galton. But still, the ideas were circulating in 1872 when Butler wrote Erewhon, and the Erewhonians seem to practice negative eugenics, the idea of limiting reproduction by the less fit, but not positive eugenics, the idea of encouraging reproduction in the more fit.

So what exactly is Butler saying about eugenics? Well, that’s a hard question to answer, given that Erewhon is a true utopia, with a blend—maybe even a balance—of positive and satirical representations. The reader is certainly not meant to take seriously all the Erewhonian ideas.

The Erewhonian Education System

A promising young Erewhonian would attend one of the Colleges of Unreason, which nurture scholars in the advanced study of hypothetics as well as the basic disciplines of Inconsistency and Evasion.

Higgs is told—but absolutely refuses to accept—that the problem with Reason is that it, “betrays men into the drawing of hard and fast lines, and to the defining by language—language being like the sun, which rears and then scorches.”

The topics of study are funny, and the reader may certainly enjoy a superior laugh along with Higgs at the very concept of the College of Unreason. But still, it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? That Reason justifies the human tendency to see  the world in black and white; that the notion of language as rigid, as able to accurately represent the world, contains perils that are for the Erewhonians very real.

Learn more about science and technology in Victorian Britain.

Diet of the Erewhonians

Higgs tells the readers at some length about the Erewhonians’ long battle in figuring out what to do about vegetarianism. At one point, centuries ago, a major thinker—an expert in Unreason—made a decree that animals are intelligent creatures and should thus not be killed. It was considered fine to eat the meat of animals that had died of natural causes, including suicide. Here’s how Higgs puts it:

It was found that animals were continually dying natural deaths under more or less suspicious circumstances. Suicidal mania, again, which had hitherto been confined exclusively to donkeys, became alarmingly prevalent even among such for the most part self-respecting creatures as sheep and cattle.

Things continued on in this absurd way until another Unthinker came along and made another argument, this one even more extreme: vegetables are intelligent creatures, too. The result? The Erewhonians stopped worrying about eating intelligent creatures, since they certainly couldn’t survive with neither animal nor vegetable substance, and the Erewhonian mindset on the important issue of what to eat changed again, nimbly and without any great stress.

This is how Butler presents the difference between the Europeans and Erewhonians, within a satirical construct which, at first glance, is laughable.

Common Questions about Social Norms of the Erewhonians

Q: What are the two religious movements in Erewhon?

Erewhon has two religious movements: the Musical Banks and the goddess Ydgrun.

Q: What happens to a person who has a physical ailment in Erewhon?

In Erewhon, a person faces punishment for having a physical ailment—jail time or even, in the case of incurable or chronic conditions, execution.

Q: What is the education system in Erewhon?

In Erewhon, a promising young person would attend one of the Colleges of Unreason, which nurture scholars in the advanced study of hypothetics as well as the basic disciplines of Inconsistency and Evasion.

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