The literary term utopia denotes an illusionary place that projects the notion of a perfect society to the reader. Here, the “perfect society” refers to ideal conditions achieved within the material world as opposed to the expected idealism of afterlife in Christianity or other religions. Further, the citizens presiding in such utopias are bearers of a perfect moral code, or at the least, every violator of the moral code is harshly punished. A utopian society is one where all social evils have been cured.
An important distinction to be appreciated is that between imaginary utopias and live heterotopias. However, the terms should not be treated as opposites of each other. They denote a midway experience referring to instances that are real as well as unreal. Most of the examples that Foucault provides of heterotopias include several utopian aspects. However, the relationship between these two notions has tended to be ignored in the interpretation of heterotopia.
Description of Utopian Literature
A piece of writing that concerns itself with the description of a perfect society in the physical world as opposed to the perfection of afterlife is termed as Utopian literature. However, the original motives behind utopian novel were political, social and philosophical. Plato’s Republic, is usually considered the first in history among the examples of utopia.
Some traces of utopian elements can be found in Arthurian literature in the idealization of King Arthur’s court at Camelot, but the trend followed by medieval poets involved romanticizing an imaginary past rather than using hypothetical utopias for the purposes of criticizing political institutions and suggesting alternatives. It was by the time of Sir Thomas More (in his book Utopia in 1516) that the notion of utopia was practically manifested, and his name for the imaginary kingdom then became the new name for referring to the genre.
Utopia examples show common characteristics. These include an elaborate description of the geographic structures of the imaginary landscape by the native guides that familiarize the narrator to the ways through the region. He is an outsider to the utopian society, and harbors extensive skepticism regarding modern political, social, economic, or ethical problems. One of the common misunderstandings is that utopian models serve to project a better way of life. To the contrary, the reason behind such literature is to help the reader envision the problems, paradoxes, or faults entrenched within the existing political framework.
The examples quoted below portray various scenarios of utopia.
Campanella’s City of the Sun
Bacon’s New Atlantis
Samuel Gott’s New Jerusalem
Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom in a Platform
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward
William Morris’s News from Nowhere
Theodor Hertzka’s Freeland
H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia
Functions of Utopia
Over the time, the vision encapsulating the notion of utopia has suffered radical transformations. Events as war, church reform, revolution and economic changes have contributed towards the construction of a new type of utopia.
The term utopia formulated new shapes and new prefixes, each type having its own function and its own use. They are generally employed as a means of constructing an organized society in the reader’s mind. The writer makes use of the tool to highlight the discrepancies prevalent within an existing political and legal framework.
A utopian society is framed in a manner, which presents to the reader an ideal sociopolitical culture. The writer is presenting his audience with a standard example of a socially and morally fit society with the use of utopia to make them realize the various deficiencies of their existing societal framework. It is a tool for exposing the flaws prevalent within an existing political structure. Further, the tool has been widely employed in writings where the writers have intended to make an impact on the conscience of the reader. The writer uses utopia in order to portray a scenic picture in the eyes of the reader, in an attempt to make him fully appreciate the various diverging factors contributing towards the failings of the existing society. It deals with constructing a standard sociopolitical society in the reader’s mind in order to criticize the prevalent legal norms.