A Review of Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Limited Editions Club

Erewhon is a classic of utopian/dystopian literature, by Samuel Butler, first published anonymously in 1872. Written as a satire of Victorian society, Erewhon (meant as an anagram of nowhere) is the name of the fictional country discovered by the protagonist of the novel.  Butler’s satire and philosophical inquiry is broad, covering religion, evolution, treatment of criminals, dealing with the ill, parenting and anthropocentrism.

The brunt of the novel is told as a story within an adventure, somewhat in a similar vein to Gulliver’s Travels.  The book starts with Higgs, the narrator, telling the story of how he found Erewhon, while exploring for sheep grazing land that would make him wealthy. Higgs is found and ‘captured’ by the Erewhonians, from which Butler uses most of the balance of the book having Higgs describe the inhabitants of Erewhon, delving deeply into their customs and philosophies. Ultimately, Higgs escapes with Arowhena, an Erewhonian and returns to England.

The adventure itself, by which I mean the discovery of Erewhon, happenings while in Erewhon, and the escape, plays a minor role in the book.  It is the satire stemming from describing Erewhonian philosophy that is the book’s raison d’être and provides the reader with enjoyable contemplation of Butler’s intent. As Aldous Huxley states in the introduction, Erewhon is a work of critical intelligence, amusing us, instructing us and stimulating us, but it is not something that elicits deep emotional response.

The best way to give you a feel for the critical thinking Butler asks of the reader is by example, many of which follow.  Early in the book Butler gives us a piece of wisdom that we would all do well to  keep in mind.

We next to never know when we are well off: but this cuts two ways,–for if we did, we should perhaps know better when we are ill off also; and I have sometimes thought that there are as many ignorant of the one as of the other…and there area few of us who are not protected from the keenest pain by our inability to see what it is that we have done, what we are suffering, and what we truly are.  Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only.

In a similar vein, Butlers reminds me of something I have learned the hard way myself:

Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as to not deserve the name.

When Higgs stumbles into Erewhon, he describes the physical beauty of the women in a manner that gives a good example of Butler’s descriptive style.

The women were vigorous, and had a most majestic gait, their heads being set upon their shoulders with a grace beyond all power of expression.  Each feature was finished, eyelids, eyelashes, and ears being almost invariably perfect. Their color was equal to that of the finest Italian paintings; being of the clearest olive, and yet ruddy with a glow of perfect health. Their expression was divine…

As Higgs begins to get to know the people and their culture, we get to the heart of Butler’s satire with many examples of Erewhonian beliefs, all presented with underlying reasoning that causes one to think critically of the object of his satire.

…it came out that illness of any sort was considered in Erewhon to be highly criminal and immoral; and that I was liable, even for catching a cold, to be had up before the magistrates and imprisoned for a considerable period.

Illnesses are subdivided into crimes and misdemeanors, depending on the severity of the issue (the most severe getting the worst punishment).  On the other hand, crimes like embezzlement are considered a sickness, where ‘straighteners’ are used to help them recover from their “suffering”.

If a man forges a check, or sets a house on fire, or robs with violence from the person…he is either taken to a hospital and most carefully tended at the public expense, or if he is in good circumstances, he lets it be known to all of his friends that he is suffering from a severe fit of immorality…and they come and visit him with great solicitude.

Erewhonian’s strange moral philosophy continues with the belief that misfortune, or ill treatment at the hands of others is:

…considered an offense against society, inasmuch as it makes people uncomfortable to hear of it.  Loss of fortune, therefore, or loss of some dear friend on whom another was much dependent, is punished hardly less severely than physical delinquency.

While punishing misfortune sounds strange to us, think about this:

What is the offense of a lamb that we should rear it, and tend it, and lull it into security, for the express purpose of killing it? Its offense is the misfortune of being something which society wants to eat, and which cannot defend itself. This is ample. Who shall limit the right of society except society itself?

Or this:

…a man on board a ship with yellow fever is held responsible for his mischance, no matter what his being kept in quarantine may cost him…surely it would be desperate unkindness to add contumely to our self-protection, unless, indeed, we believe that contumely is one of our best means of self-protection.  Take the case of maniacs.  We say that they are irresponsible for their actions, but we take good care…that they shall answer to us for their insanity, and we imprison them in what we call an asylum if we do not like their answers.

As you can see, Butler presents some interesting reasonings behind these beliefs of Erewhon society.  However, he mainly is trying to make clear how sure Erewhonians are that their thinking and approach on these things are right; just as we think our beliefs are right:

That had no misgivings about what they were doing…This universal unsuspecting confidence was imparted by sympathy to myself, in spite of all my training in opinions so widely different.  So it is with most of us: that which we observe to be taken as a matter of course by those around us, we take as a matter of course ourselves.

Should we be so sure of ourselves?  Are we blind to our own injustices, hiding behind the veil of societal norm?

When it comes to religious belief in God, Butler gives us more to think about when he has Arowhena tell Higgs:

She asked me what I should think if she were to tell me that my God…was but the expression for man’s highest conception of goodness, wisdom and power; that in order to generate a more vivid conception of so great and glorious a thought, man had personified it and called it by a name; that it was an unworthy conception  of the Deity to hold him personal, inasmuch as escape from human contingencies became thus impossible; that the real thing men should worship was the Divine, wheresoever they could find it; that “God” was just but man’s way of expressing his sense of the Divine; that as justice, hope, wisdom, etc., were all parts of goodness, so God was the expression which embraced all goodness and all power; that people would no more cease to love God on ceasing to believe in His objective personality, than they had ceased to love justice on discovering that she was not really personal; nay, that they would never truly love Him till they saw Him thus.

In Erewhon, children choose to be born, no blaming the parents.  In fact, in what may be an appropriate warning to give to those wanting to become parents:

Imagine what it must be to have an unborn quartered upon you, who is of any entirely different temperament and disposition to your own…who will not love you though you have stinted yourself in a thousand ways to provide for their comfort and well-being,– who will forget all your self-sacrifice, and of whom you may never be sure that they are not bearing a grudge against you for errors of judgment into which you may have fallen, though you had hoped that such had been long since atoned for.  Ingratitude such as this is not uncommon, yet fancy what it must be to bear!

It seems that the Erewhonians may have been the world’s first supply-siders, believers in trickle down economics:

This is the true philanthropy. He who makes a colossal fortune in a trade…and by his energy has succeeded in reducing the price of woolen goods by a thousandth part of a penny in the pound, this man is worth ten professional philanthropists.  So strongly are the Erewhonians impressed with this, that if a man has made a fortune…they exempt him from all taxation, considering him a work of art, and too precious to be meddled with…saying “How very much he must have done for society before society could have been prevailed upon to give him so much money.”

Erewhonians eliminated machines from their society hundreds of years earlier, becoming concerned that machines were ultimately destined to “supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animals to vegetable life.”

Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organized machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes..Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years; see what strides machines have made in the last thousand!  May not the world last twenty million years longer?  If so, what will they not in the end become?

He goes on to present reasonable arguments on where consciousness begins, believing that we are becoming so interwoven with machines that drawing the line on consciousness of machines is getting tougher and tougher.  At some point, they will surpass us:

But the servant glides by imperceptible approaches into the master, and we have now come to such a pass that, even now, man must suffer terribly on ceasing to benefit the machines.  If all machines were to be annihilated at one moment…and if all knowledge of mechanical laws were taken…we should become extinct in six weeks.  Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as his thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as for theirs…machines serve that they may rule. They bear no malice towards man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development…is it not plain that the machines are gaining ground upon us, when we reflect on the increasing number of those who are bound down to them as slaves, and of those who devote their whole souls to the advancement of the mechanical kingdom?

He sums up this march of the machines with a warning:

The air we breather is hardly more necessary for our animal life than the use of any machine, on the strength of which we have increased our numbers, is to our civilization; it is the  machines which act upon man and make him man, as much as man who has acted upon and made the machines; but we must choose between the alternative of undergoing much present suffering, or seeing ourselves gradually superseded by our own creatures, till we rank no higher in comparison with them, than the beasts of the field with ourselves.

Butler closes the book with “I can see no hope for the Erewhonians till they have got to understand that reason uncorrected by instinct is as bad as instinct uncorrected by reason.”  Clearly that is meant for a society marching blindly forward, warning that reason is not the end all, we may “reason” ourselves out of existence.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a Victorian era intellectual and author, most famous for his novels The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon.  Butler was not firmly in the religious orthodox camp, nor the evolutionary camp, and his controversial theories often alienated followers of both.  Butler thought of himself as a philosophical writer. A reading of Erewhon certainly supports that self assessment in its many satirical reflections, including various topics like the evolution of machines, the rights of animals (and vegetables!), and the study of unreason.

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), the illustrator of this edition, was a famous American artist and book illustrator. Collectors of fine books are very familiar with his work, especially Moby Dick, his illustrations of which are credited with helping it become the classic it is today. I personally have a hard time with Kent’s egregious sympathy with the Soviet Union.  He donating hundreds of his works to the Soviet ‘peoples’ and was awarded the paradoxically named Lenin Peace Prize in 1967, not exactly a badge of honor for freedom loving people.  Yet, there is no questioning the excellence of his works as an illustrator.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), who writes the introduction to this edition, is considered one of the leading intellectuals of the early twentieth century.  His novel Brave New World is considered one of the greatest works of the twentieth century.  Huxley was influenced by Erewhon, and the parallels between the two utopian/dystopian novels are hard to miss.  Huxley has some good quotes worth thinking about in the introduction, putting the reader in a proper mindset for starting the novel.

Men show at least as much zeal in mischief as in well doing, in folly as in wisdom…to be able to destroy with a good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your behavior ‘righteous indignation’–this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.

Pictures of the Limited Editions Club Edition

Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase Spine
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Book Spine
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Book Cover & Spine
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Second Sample Page with Text and Illustration
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Third Sample Pages with Text and Illustrations
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Fourth Sample Pages with Text and Illustrations
Erewhon, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

5 thoughts on “A Review of Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, Limited Editions Club

  1. Dear Alexandra,

    Could you please explain the following?

    Is this report, available on the website I supplied to you, fraudulent?

    Thank you for you consideration.

    Peter Wills

    On 12/10/2011, at 8:48 PM, Easton Press Cust Serv wrote:

    Unfortunately that is a title we do not offer at this time.


    Alexandra McGregor
    Customer Service

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Peter Wills [mailto:peter.wills@guest.uni-tuebingen.de]
    Sent: Monday, October 10, 2011 8:31 AM
    To: Easton Press Cust Serv
    Subject: Erewhon

    I have seen a review of your edition of Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon”,


    but a search on your website yields a null result:

    1. Peter, what do you mean by “is this report fraudulent”? I have no idea what you are talking about. Erewhon was part of EP’s Famous Editions series, and is now out of print. What is it you are asking them to explain?

  2. I have a mint copy of the 1934 LEC edition of Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’. If you provide an e-mail address that I can send them to, I will take a series of pictures for you to post and compare with your Easton Press edition.


Leave a Reply