Tuesday, December 11, 2007

EREWHON by Samuel Butler

Originally published in 1872 and now billed as the "second great satire of the nineteenth century," Erewhon is a critique of Victorian society. In it, a British man comes across a never-before discovered society (which he is convinced is the lost tribes of Israel).

Erewhon has no plot to speak of. Here is its pattern: Butler gives us a bizarre scenario that seemingly makes no sense, takes us through it, and finally explains its parallel to Victorian life. Then this repeats. This is the whole book, book-ended by forty pages of setup (most of which is unnecessary) and a convenient and tidy ending. As such, the reader may feel like he is reading a work on nonsense philosophy rather than a work of fiction.

This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile here. Occasionally, there are flashes of brilliance, and there are some thought-provoking elements. Erewhonians, for example, treat the sick like criminals and treat criminals like they have diseases. In a modern-day version, perhaps, those who have self-inflicted poor health, like some of the obese and diabetic, would be considered criminal.

On the whole, working through the philosophical meanderings of Butler's scenarios is tedious. It certainly does not help that many aspects of Victorian society are now foreign to us. Erewhon hasn't held up. Stick with Swift.