The history of utopian literature from the mid-seventeenth century to the present cannot be treated in detail here, since there are more than 50 works that ought to be included in such a study. A brief survey will have to suffice for present purposes. A few of the better known and more influential works will be analyzed briefly and classified according to the main directions of development of the theme.
The reader, following the narrator's shifting attitude from admiration to surprise and finally to contempt, is led to believe that the author is bent on demonstrating the vast inferiority of the Erewhonians to his fellow Englishmen; but it gradually becomes clear that he attributes to Englishmen much of the irrationality and the ingenious equivocations that make the Erewhonians look foolish. The difference is only one of degree. The technique is close to that of Swiftian satire. In some places it is confused and inconsistent, but in other passages it is both clever and devastating, worthy of the master.
Bellamy's optimism for the future of mankind is further revealed in his confidence that human ingenuity will continue to contribute inventions for comfort and convenience of mankind. Specifically, he predicts that there will be canopied sidewalks for the protection of pedestrians, and he describes piped-in home entertainment obtained by merely pressing buttons and turning knobs for sermons, lectures, or a wide selection of musical programs. He does not develop this aspect of modern living at length, his preoccupation being in the fields of economics and sociology; but he is clearly not in the camp of those later writers who fear the further advances of technology.
There is another passage in Rabelais's Gargantua that is cited among the celebrated Renaissance descriptions of an idealized society; namely, the section called the "Abbeye of Thélème." The society portrayed is confined to a monastery that is regulated in an original and thoroughly unconventional manner. All of the members are happy because, being exempt from any kind of restrictions or regimentation, they are at liberty to pursue their inclinations and encouraged to develop their special talents to their full potential. Among the unconventional monastic features are: the absence of bells to regulate a schedule of activities, the wearing of attractive clothes of varied colors and styles, and — most unconventional — the integration of male and female initiates. Finally, the members of the community are free to leave it at will and also to marry. The whole idea, which at first strikes the reader as one of Rabelais's absurd jests, is discovered to express a fundamental feature of Rabelais's serious philosophy. What he is saying is that people are, by nature, good and, if given free scope and encouraged to live full lives, will develop into healthy and bright creatures, full of grace.
The idea behind the references to the "Golden Age" in the literature of the ancients represents a nostalgic yearning for a kind of life which they imagined was free from the stresses of their more competitive, more commercial civilization. Similarly, the poetic creations of imaginary gardens, the earthly paradises described by Medieval writers, often reflect yearnings growing out of dissatisfaction with things as they are. Another familiar manifestation that took literary form was the pastoral, an idealized representation of simple, happy shepherds. Examples can be found ranging from the eclogues of Theocritus and Virgil to Tasso and Spencer in the Renaissance. In several of Shakespeare's comedies the escape from the city and the court into "the green world" is described in appealing terms. The Duke Senior in As You Like It contrasts his life of exile in the Forest of Arden with the ways of the court in these terms:
Utopia is a society under full and strict regimentation. Its culture is, in effect, nothing but what is a consequence of social regimentation. Nothing exists in the culture that is not a result of this pervasive social control. Utopians believe they do not live in a tyranny only because they accept and desire the collective regimentation under which they live. They are the perfect slaves.
The features of Erewhonian society that surprise the author are those that differ from the England that he knew. According to the early impressions of the travelers, the people all appear to be exceptionally healthy, exceedingly handsome, and altogether contented. Their life style is characterized by simplicity and gracious manners, best described as Arcadian. Gradually, however, oddities, or what appear to be oddities to the visitor, begin to surface. Duplicity pervades every aspect of thought and action. The natives habitually profess agreement to a proposition although they do not believe in it, and their friends are perfectly aware that they do not mean what they say. There are two separate banking systems in operation and two sets of religions. The people give lip service to what they call the Musical Banks, but they transact all serious business with the currency of the other chain of banks. Similarly they recognize a group of deities representing the personification of human qualities — justice, hope, love, fear — and erect statues to them; but their pragmatic morality is evidently dictated by a goddess — Ydgrun (Grundy). More and more they reveal themselves to the traveler as victims of self-deception and inverted logic. Their universities are called Colleges of Unreason, and the principal course of study is Hypothetics.
Utopia was the book that invented a new genre of fiction. It was the first book to use a made up world, a “Utopia” in its framing. This spawned books and stories that have continued to dominate the industry of storytelling to this day. Books like “The Hunger Games,” and “Divergent” can all trace their origins back to Thomas More's most famous work (Getty 321). More wrote this story to make a point about collectivism, whether in defense or as a criticism of. It could be argued, however, that Utopia's greatest impact could be in its world creation. More was the first to create his idealistic world, and the framework he created has stuck around for hundreds of years (Getty 321).
Still further afield from sailors' tales of island kingdoms but nevertheless enlightening in the broad study of man's aspirations toward a better world, one may consider some of the more sober expository documents such as: Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and his Social Contract, De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Carlyle's Past and Present, Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto, and Engel's "On Authority" from Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
Among the works that Wells wrote before World War I, the closest to a classical utopian piece is A Modern Utopia. It is utopian specifically in that Wells held a firm belief in the progress of mankind toward perfection; hence, he confidently pictured a bright future. The term "modern" in the title was meant to convey the idea that he intended to keep his picture within the realm of reasonable possibility, avoiding excessively visionary treatment of the theme. For that reason he was unwilling to adopt certain features that were traditional among the majority of earlier utopists.
There is, of course, nothing new in all of this program, nothing fantastic such as Huxley's "Hatchery and Conditioning Centre." The reader, while he cringes at the horror, keeps repeating to himself, "It can't happen here." Nevertheless, Orwell compels us to recognize not only Nazi devices but also certain telltale symptoms in our own social and political practices that cannot help but undermine our complacency.
Sir Francis Bacon, New Atlantis. Although he never completed it, this utopian novel by one of the great philosophers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras is well worth reading. It was published posthumously in 1627 and outlines a perfect society, Bensalem (its name suggesting Jerusalem) founded on peace, enlightenment, and public spirit. Available in Three Early Modern Utopias Thomas More: Utopia / Francis Bacon: New Atlantis / Henry Neville: The Isle of Pines (Oxford World’s Classics) along with More’s Utopia and another early utopian novel, Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines.