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58 pages 1 hour read

Thomas More

Utopia

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1516

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Originally published in 1516, Utopia is a short work of political and social satire. It was written by Sir Thomas More, an English attorney and the Lord High Chancellor in the court of King Henry VIII. Famously, More was executed in 1535 for refusing to publicly support Henry’s break from the Catholic Church.

Utopia describes an ideal island nation from which the novel receives its name. More combines various elements from philosophical dialogues (such as Plato’s Republic) and New World travel literature (such as the pamphlets of Amerigo Vespucci) to frame the discussion. The complex, multigenre framing allows More to cultivate some distance between his views as an author and the philosophical and political positions espoused in the book. The book shifts, for instance, between fictional documentary evidence like poems and letters to More’s recollection of his meeting with Raphael. Although told primarily from the limited first-person vantage of More (who also appears as a character ), the work is mostly presented as faithful recollection of the words of a character named “Raphael Nonsenso.” In the original text Raphael’s name appears in Greek as “Hythlodaeus,” meaning “dispenser of nonsense.” For these reasons, it remains unclear whether More is primarily satirizing communist views or capitalist and monarchist views, or both. The reception of the work has been shaped by this ambivalence; audiences have interpreted Utopia both as an excoriation and a defense of communism.

The novel has taken on broader cultural significance in the centuries following its publication. More coined the name “Utopia” from Greek terms meaning “no place.” This may allude to the fact that no such ideal society yet exists or is even possible . The term “utopianism,” describing an optimistic but impracticable faith in the possibility of an ideal society, derives from the title of ’ this novel.

This study guide is based on a widely available edition of Utopia translated by Paul Turner and published by Penguin Books in 1965 and again in 2003.

Plot Summary

Utopia expresses both the dreams of an ideal society and criticisms as to whether such a vision can be instituted. The discovery of the New World provided More with a geographical location on which to project an imaginary society in which the problems of Europe’s emerging mercantile economic system , driven by desire for profit rather than concrete human needs, might be solved. The plot itself is sparse, driven largely by the discussion of ideas and the descriptions of places and institutions. The central conflict is an intellectual disagreement between More and Raphael over the practicability and desirability of a communist society.

The book opens with a selection of fictional documents intended to frame the narrative which follows as a record of actual conversations and events. First, More depicts the Utopian alphabet and translations of Utopian poetry. These poems provide an initial glimpse of Utopian life and values. The first poem notes Utopian generosity, humility, and openness to new ideas. The second extols the universal value of the Utopian way of life and insists that Utopia has realized the ideal society which Plato only dreamed of in his Republic.

In the first book More and his friend Peter Gilles meet a Portuguese sailor named Raphael Nonsenso, who explains his views on social and political problems and how they might be solved. Raphael insists that a just social system will only be possible where private property is totally abolished. When More disagrees, Raphael insists that the island nation of Utopia has perfected this way of life. If More knew more about it, Raphael claims, he would be won over to the communist view.

In the second book Raphael recounts various details of Utopian life. As author, More uses the character of Raphael and the fictional land of Utopia to describe how a society might be organized through communal ownership. By the end of the novel, the character of Thomas More remains unconvinced that communism is practicable. Still, he admits that he would like to see certain elements of Utopian life instituted in European nations.

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