Utopia: Finding Truth in Fiction

Reader response is an incredibly diverse class of criticism.  In Lois Tyson’s text Critical Theory Today, she proposes that “readers actively make meaning, [which] suggests, of course, that different readers may read the same text quite differently” (Tyson 154).  Further, she explains that “a written text is not an object, despite its physical existence, but an event that occurs within the reader, whose response is of primary importance in creating the text” (157).  Clearly, in such a diverse field there would be a variety of applications of this type of criticism.  Transactional reader response focuses (obviously) on the interaction between the reader and the text:

The text guides our self-corrective process as we read and will continue to do so after the reading is finished if we go back and reread portions, or the entire text, in order to develop or complete our interpretation.  Thus, the creation of the poem, the literary work, is a product of the transaction between text and reader, both of which are equally important to the process (158).

This type of analysis calls for an aesthetic interpretation of the text.  By taking this approach to reading “we experience a personal relationship to the text that focuses our attention in the emotional subtleties of its language and encourages us to make judgments” (158).

By applying transactional reader response to Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels we can easily see how readers create meaning through interaction with each novel.  It is easy to see how the inherent natures of utopian fantasy cannot help but evoke an emotional response during this reader/text interaction.  The critical lens provided by reader response, combined with an understanding of how utopic themes function in literature, can help us discern what the work as whole is saying about the culture that created it.

In order to gain a greater comprehension of what is being said about utopia in each novel, we should first consider utopian fiction as a genre and its historical significance, beginning with the etymology of the word “utopia.”  Utopia is “a name formed by the Greek negation ou and the noun topos: Utopia is no place, nowhere” (Hutchinson 170).  Sir Thomas More coined the term during the same period in which Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, and it is widely accepted that he intended it as a joke.

By the end of the sixteenth century the name had become a noun in English and by 1800 had narrowed in meaning in both English and French to refer only to literary works presenting “good” or “desirable” societies though it guarded some vestiges of the etymology in its imaginary, chimerical character.  The original joke with its far-reaching significance has been stifled ever since (170).

When we consider that The Giver was written approximately 250 years after Swift published Gulliver’s Travels it is easy to see how this shift in the definition and usage of the term utopian could be relevant to a comparison of the two books.  To that end, the Bedford (a decidedly modern guide) defines utopia as “an ideal place that does not exist in reality” (Murfin 493).

Interestingly, according to Hutchinson: “Utopia’ as a name attaches itself to a given somewhere and affirms the existence of that place while negating this positive onomastic function through its meaning.  Into the nonspace of nowhere a fully inhabited world is projected by the imagination” (171).

(Webster’s defines onomastic as “of or having to do with a name or names” (947).)  Defining a fictional setting as utopia, or nonplace, the author creates a very definite sense of place in the reader.  By continuing to describe the setting through how the characters interact with it, the text builds and corrects that sense of place.  Essentially, defining and shaping the nowhere, giving it both form and function, and making it real in the mind of the audience.  Within the framework of Gulliver’s Travels, and the island of Huoyhnhnms, specifically, we can see how defining that island as a utopia “signals both the negative ontological status of the island and the fictive nature of the text that self-mockingly describes a nonexistent world” (Hutchinson 171).  While The Giver is neither satirical, nor as openly critical of utopia as Gulliver’s Travels, it is still making a sharp statement about the nature of utopia.

Utopia, both as a plot element in fiction and as a real world potential, has always been of interest to me.  I was raised on the idealistic worldview created by Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek.  Idealism and enlightenment through knowledge are key themes in Trek, people are encouraged to follow their dreams and work for the betterment of themselves and others.  Discrimination and prejudice are virtually nonexistent.  Uniqueness and achievement are valued and rewarded.  The primary governing body, The United Federation of Planets, is motivated more by morality and discovery, and less by commerce and conquest.  My interactions with both texts, therefore, are colored by my experiences with TrekTrek made me an idealist; made me believe in the potential of humanity to create in reality something very close to the fiction of utopia.  Obviously these beliefs have influenced my transactions with both Gulliver’s Travels and The Giver.

Before we delve into the somewhat more complex nature of the utopia created in Gulliver’s Travels, we can consider Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award winning young adult novel The Giver and what it has to say about the nature of utopia.  Even without the complexity of detail and language that infuses Gulliver’s Travels, The Giver seems to be making a similar statement about the impossibility of utopia in the real world.

The Giver is most often classified as either soft science fiction or speculative fiction.  Soft sci-fi is a classifier that denotes where a specific piece of fiction falls on a continuum that encompasses the entire sci-fi genre.  This scale relates to the role and nature of actual science content in a story.  Soft sci-fi deals more with social, psychological, philosophical, and political issues, whereas hard sci-fi would be more firmly based in technology, chemistry, physics, or astronomy.  Speculative fiction is a subgroup of sci-fi that encourages the reader to question their personal beliefs and the true nature of reality.  Knowing how this story is most often categorized gives us as readers a clear idea of what we are in for even before our first interaction with the text.

The story itself is set in a future society which is first presented at utopian.  This society has completely eliminated fear, pain, and conflict by removing those elements that lead to individuality.  After presenting this civilization as a utopian paradise, the text sets out to contradict itself and change the way the reader interprets the setting.  The main character is a twelve-year-old boy named Jonas, who is selected to become the new “Receiver of Memory” for the community. We learn that the Receiver is the member of the community who stores all the memories of the time before “Sameness,” just in case they are ever needed.  These memories are considered to be dangerous, as they could destroy the carefully crafted utopia of their society.  When Jonas receives this assignment the old “Receiver of Memory” becomes the Giver, and begins the process of transferring his memories to Jonas.

As Jonas learns more about what his civilization used to be, he starts to realize how shallow, stagnant, and complacent they have become.  This is the main point in the story where the text actively corrects the interpretation of the reader.  Jonah begins to question the core tenets of his society, this supposed utopia, and we question along with him.  He sees color for the first time and realizes what he has been missing, what everyone else he knows has never experienced.  He asks:

“‘Why can’t everyone see them?  Why did the colors disappear?’

The Giver shrugged.  ‘Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness.  Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back.  We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with differences.’  He thought for a moment.  ‘We gained control of many things.  But we had to let go of others.’

‘We shouldn’t have!’ Jonas said fiercely” (Lowry 95).

This passage doesn’t just show us how the text is working to change meaning the reader was taking from the story, but also to make a point about the nature of utopia.  It is telling us that happiness cannot be found in this type of idealized society.  That utopia will not be found in the removal of the differences between people, but perhaps in the embracing and celebrating of those differences.

Edward Gondolf, in his article “Teaching about Utopian Societies,” has his own opinion on what utopias in fiction are telling us: “Most utopian societies, in fact, have been boldly devoted to creating a “new man” and ultimately a new society.  Their lofty idealism, nevertheless, is most often translated into attainable practices.  The utopias, in sum, demonstrate that good intentions and high ideals do not automatically turn into good deeds and accomplishments.  The successful utopian societies had social mechanisms, that is, a set of deliberate social conventions, which were designed to help the group attain its common goals” (Gondolf 230).

This opinion is clearly supported by The Giver.  By starting out showing the society as a utopian ideal and slowly changing the reader’s experience of that setting through the interaction between the two we can see how meaning is being created.  This same process occurs within Gulliver’s Travels, with the addition of satire as a literary element that creates meaning and allows for interaction.

Gulliver’s Travels, functions as a satire of the political and religious aspects of the English society and culture in which Swift lived, and as a representative sample of the birth of utopian fiction as a genre.  In the novel, the main character Lemuel Gulliver is an intrepid Englishman and explorer who, through a combination of happy accidents and prodigious luck, has some quite unusual experiences.  Out of all the lands he visits and undiscovered countries he explores, none affects him as much as his final voyage to the island of the Houyhnhnms.  Houyhnhnmland is meant to be a utopia, a perfect place with a perfect civilization.

From our discussion of the nature of utopia as a theme in literature, we know that it is an invented, rather than a discovered plot device.  Utopia is located in nowhere, in a cosmological and hence ontological void where a fictive space opens up for it.  Without any correlative terrain, the phantom island is sustained only in the imagination: nowhere, if it is anywhere, is in the mind.  Utopias in general a nontemporal and nonspatial—and this of course applies as much to those set in a hypothetical sometime as to those in a hypothetical somewhere (Hutchinson172).

Using these utopic elements, which can be see in Gulliver’s Travels, serves to illuminate the faults of humanity, and of utopia itself.

The Houyhnhnms are a race of thinking, speaking horses.  Their society is quite reminiscent of Jonas’s people; rationality of conduct is a common element of utopic fiction.  Unlike in the beginning of The Giver, the audience here does not begin by assuming this world to be a utopia.  Just like in The Giver, the reader here is encouraged to go along with the perceptions of the main character, and in the beginning Gulliver is assuming these horses to be some sort of shape shifting magicians.

“Upon the whole, the Behaviour of these Animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at last concluded, they must needs be Magicians, who had thus metamorphosed themselves upon some Design; and seeing a Stranger in the Way, were resolved to divert themselves with him; or perhaps were really amazed at the sight of a Man so very different in Habit, Feature and Complexion from those who might probably live in so remote a Climate” (Swift 211).

Eventually Gulliver comes to realize their true nature.  The Houyhnhnms and their society embody the standard elements of rational, logical thought, advanced justice and intelligence, and an air of overall superiority that are often seen in utopic fiction.

Also populating the Houyhnhnm’s island is a race of savage brutes, the Yahoos.  Though the Yahoos are in fact human, Gulliver does not initially recognize them as such, and describes them thusly:

“Their Heads and Breasts were covered with a thick Hair, some frizzled and others lank; they had Beards like Goats, and a Long Ridge of Hair down their Backs, and the fore Parts of their Legs and Feet; but the rest of their Bodies were bare, so that I might see their Skins, which were of a brown Buff Colour” (209).

He continues this unflattering physical description for most of the page, ending with, “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my Travels so disagreeable an Animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy” (209).  Eventually, Gulliver comes to the realization that these beasts he is describing are actually the humans of this island.  In fact, Swift has done some role-shifting, placing humanity’s oft-used beast of burden in the rational civilized position and making the humans the subservient, barely sentient animals.  The reader is just as shocked at the revelation of what these creatures really as Gulliver is.  This is another example of the interaction between the reader and the text creating meaning.

After living quite some time with his Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver adopts the Houyhnhnm disdain for the dirty, irrational, base Yahoos.  Gulliver further applies this opinion to the world (and people) he left behind.  When he is aboard Capt. Mendez’s ship on his way home after being banished by the Houyhnhnms he is almost frantic to escape, preferring life among the Yahoos in Houyhnhnmland to the “civilized” life he is being returned to.  Upon considering his former life, Gulliver reflects:

“When I thought of my Family, my Friends, my Countrymen, or human Race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in Shape and Disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech; but making no other Use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren in this Country [Houyhnhnmland] had only the Share that Nature allotted them” (260).

The Yahoos are meant to be seen as savage and brutish.  They serve a specific function within the satire Swift is creating.  Gulliver sees them as subhuman, but one must wonder if they are, perhaps, Swift’s view of humanity at its worst, without reason, able to display only the most basic of emotions and instincts.  Interestingly, as lowly as they seem to Gulliver, he prefers them over the men of the world he left behind.  Indeed, Gulliver professes to prefer death over banishment.

I was struck with the utmost Grief and Despair at my Master’s Discourse; and being unable to support the Agonies I was under, I fell into a Swoon at his Feet:  When I came to myself, he told me, that he concluded I had been dead.  (For these People are subject to no such Imbecilities of Nature.)  I answered, in afaint Voice, that Death would have been too great a Happiness (262).

By painting the Houyhnhnms as rational and reasonable the text is helping the reader to see them as an example of an idyllic society.  Eventually, they are revealed to have several major failings, this interaction changes how the readers react to them.  The Houyhnhnms reject fun and pure entertainment (including sex for any reason beside procreation).  The Houyhnhnm practices of marriage and childrearing are very specific and reasonable.

“The young Couple meet and are joined, merely because it is the Determination of their Parents and Friends:  It is what they see done every Day; and they look upon it as one of the necessary Actions of a reasonable Being.  […]  And the married pair Pass their Lives with the same Friendship and Benevolence that they bear to all others of the same Species, who come in their Way; without Jealousy, Fondness, Quarrelling, or Discontent” (250-51).

This rejection is based in their deeper rejection of fiction and imagination.  They do not understand the concepts of lying or pretending.  Gulliver explains, “My Master heard me with great Appearance of Uneasiness in his Countenance; because Doubting or not believing, are so little known in this Country, that the inhabitants cannot tell how to behave themselves under such circumstances” (223).  To this reader’s way of thinking this lack of imagination is a major, and possibly intentional, flaw in the utopia.  At the very least, it would not be my idea of utopia.  By removing all the elements of humanity that could lead to violence, unhappiness and pain, Swift has also removed the possibility for pleasure, happiness and joy, leading the reader to a realization of the flaws of utopia and utopian fiction could be one of the intentions of the novel.  Swift designed the transactional nature of the text to illustrate to the reader the flaws in his utopia, thus pointing out the flaws in humanity.  Lowry uses a similar transaction in The Giver to lead her reader’s to the same conclusion.  W. K. Thomas sums it all up well in his article, “The Underside of Utopias.”  He says, “This is our dark side, the torments beneath the triumphs. But when the Utopia of conditioned conduct removes the pits of hell, it also takes the heights of heaven and leaves in their place the featureless and shifting sands of limbo” (Thomas 360).

Works Cited

Carnochan, W.B.  “Gulliver’s Travels: An Essay on the Human Understanding?”

Modern Language Quarterly.  25 (1964): 5-21.

Gondolf, Edward W.  “Teaching about Utopian Societies: An Experiential Approach

to Sociological Learning.”  Teaching Sociology.  12.2 (1985): 229-41.

Hutchinson, Steven.  “Mapping Utopias.”  Modern Philology.  85.2 (1987): 170-85.

Lowry, Lois.  The Giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray.  The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary

Terms.  2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

“Onomastic.”  Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English.  3rd College Ed.


Sayre, Robert F.  “American Myths of Utopia.”  College English.  31.6 (1970): 613-23.

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels.  Ed. Claude Rawson. Oxford:Oxford UP, 2005.

Thomas, W. K.  “The Underside of Utopias.”  College English.  38.4 (1976): 356-72.

Tyson, Lois.  Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York:Garland

Publishing Inc., 1999.

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Utopia: Finding Truth in Fiction by Lindsay Brunner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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