Good Place-No Place: The Lost Genre of Utopia in British Fiction

Sir—or Saint in Catholic colloquialism—Thomas More coined the term and rolling visual of utopia, in leap year 1516, turning out a deeply philosophical, spirit-minded book of the same name. More, a controversial intellectual, tweaked two Greek words—“eutopia” (good place) and “outopia” (no place)—to formulate Utopia: a culturally astute narrative about a mysterious island with an overtly streamlined culture of inhabitants. The book’s embedded, inspirational parables went largely misinterpreted, but gained the author vast popularity, captivating readers across England including Henry VIII, who would later sentence More to death—and, inadvertent martyrdom—for an alleged act of treason. With a revolving respect for More, I insist that a true genre of utopia died with him, that a secondary, distorted version of the utopian genre was birthed in the form of a physical, tangible place—far-flung from More’s interpretation of utopia that was a paradigm of internal versus external peace, or, simply-put, faith—and what’s more, I argue that the antonymic genre: dystopia, secured the extinction of utopia chiefly after the Bosnian and Gulf Wars, where, beneath a global umbrella of fear and panicky disillusionment, any utopian life still clung to a precarious crag was uprooted. 

            A dog-eared definition of utopia is “a fiction describing an imaginary ideal world” (Harmon, 492); but according to its founder, this description is fundamentally false. Rather, utopia is a psychological state of being, or living—a calm soul, a moral compass. Definition aside—as early follow-on British writing exemplifies, fragments of More’s utopia cling to mangroves against the banks of nearby streams of conscious fiction-writing, such as Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, a novel that American author, Scott Turow, foot-in-mouthedley dubbed a “thriller,” in 2010 (Turow, 1). The Power and the Glory is not a thriller. It is beneath the surface (of that iceberg) that Greene is creator and experimentalist of a genre that analyzes Catholic truism: a writing crux that later permeates the works of American short-story bewilder Flannery O’Conner, respectively.  

            An early account, exemplifying false representations of the utopian genre is A Crystal Age, written in England by W.H. Hudson in 1887. A review of the book, and an accurate critic, said Hudson’s writing had “a graceful style, which ought not to be wasted in transcendental fiction” (Wallace, 340). Perhaps this is true, as Hudson’s beautiful language was transcendental itself—too many good things to sandwich between book-covers. The man-after-Eve premise of Hudson’s ideology (a la Green Mansions of 1904) and metaphysical utopian romance also incorporates an abiding, intra-supportive and mystical society, but seems wavy fathoms far from More’s mark of utopia, as Smith, the narrator confirms in the conclusion of A Crystal Age:

…and the troubled sounds came back to me, now loud and now low, burdened with an infinite anguish and despair, as of voices of innumerable multitudes wandering in the sunless desolations of space, every voice reverberating anguish and despair; and the successive reverberations lifted me like waves and dropped me again, and the waves grew less and the sounds fainter, then fainter still, and died in everlasting silence. (184)

           Southbound, beyond the nudge of the twentieth century, the genre takes a radical dive down a progressive Chunnel, with H.G. Wells behind the wheel releasing A Modern Utopia on 1905 England, and likewise, across several international ponds. The heavily-detailed and logical albeit fictional account of Wells’ vision was acclaimed and well-received; a review stated: “Modern Utopia has brought him [Wells] back to his art or trade… of an imaginary writer, a writer who tries to present an ideal which is both possible and more desirable than the world in which we live” (Chapman and Hall, 414).

            A more desirable world made possible; what about good place-no place? 

            James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1930) was also falsely considered a ‘quintessential’ utopian novel, and one that ‘reading for reading’s sake’ followers ate up with a spoon—and with it, in the context of the era, some suspense-induced nail-bits, no less. The novel was sublimated into a Hollywood film in 1937, captained by Italian-American—and “Horatio Alger” of his time—Frank Capra, who directed both tense and thought-evoking scenes that brimmed with adventure, love, spirituality and the supernatural. The book, and film alike, have equally sustained several theories regarding Hilton’s true meaning behind Lost Horizons, or the red-herring conclusion for that matter. At face value, the novel presents utopia in the form of Shangri-La of the Blue Moon Valley, a location inadvertently discovered by protagonist Hugh Conway alongside other hijacked and crash-proof travelers who’d been flying in blizzardy mountain ranges of Tibet. Soon transformed into revered guests within Shangri-La, Conway and the others cycle through many opinions about their host, Chang, and mysterious stories that encompass the commune and the story, that is always lamely illuminating the tempting ideology that ‘the grass is always greener,’ never denying the possibility of its bearing on truth—but for few pessimists—and rises and falls in power like a fizzling neon sign. But there is evidence that—in Conway’s opinion—living in Shangri-La, or London: where he will be welcomed as a hero, doesn’t matter. Conway finds his own, inner utopia—with notes of More—and that may be enough, as narrated:

There seemed, indeed, something almost preordained… as if in Conway all secret tensions were relaxed, giving him, when he came away, a sumptuous tranquility. At times he had the sensation of being completely bewitched by the mastery of that central intelligence, and then… would contract into a liveliness so gentle and miniature that he had an impression of a theorem dissolving limpidly in a sonnet. (Hilton, 122)

            Like an unbroken colt, The Power and the Glory (1940) has been routinely corralled in a genre of its own. Paralleling Lost Horizon, there is inconclusive symbolism and an open-ended conclusion; but out of the many experimental British writers of the time, Greene’s entrenchment in spiritual overtones—within the concealment of distraught humanity (personally witnessed by Greene in southern Mexico)—snake far nearer to More’s evolutionary breakdown of utopia through God.

            Greene—as a writer and a man—was himself a living, breathing, walking confession. His capstone biographer, Norman Sherry—hand-selected by Greene (who was impressed by Sherry’s biography of Joseph Conrad)—revealed that “Greene, who once wrote a list of 47 prostitutes with whom he had had sex, along with coded details of the encounters” (Smith, 1), was no saint, and may have empathized with his own characters, and through them vicariously paid penance.  The anti-hero of The Power and the Glory—the whiskey-priest—who contends to stumble around, breaking all sorts of commandments, and almost incessantly on the run from anti-Catholicism frontier justice, reencountering face to face and in his mind, his illegitimate child, Brigitta. But even his fatherly love for Brigitta does not keep him from attending to others as a father of the priesthood, consoling the fallen—although himself the same—in their darkest, or most trying hours. Tangled in the fear of his own environment, the priest is nonetheless mindful, and always with some compassion, inspiring others to forge through the thicket. Says the priest: “’here now, at this minute, your fear and my fear are part of heaven, where there will be no fear any more ever’” (Greene, 70). In the end, in an undramatic scene when the priest is shot dead by a firing squad, Greene measures the ingredients as to what actually constitutes a martyr; something I am sure More wrestled with in his own right, and heavily, in his own sentence of solitary.

            Prior to Greene’s The Power and the Glory, utopia had already been infiltrated by the dystopian genre, popularized by Aldous Huxley’s dismally reflective vison of a Brave New World in 1931. Following off-suit, and with tragic reality, was George Orwell’s Cold War transparency of 1984 (1949 and transposed into film in 1956) which even today remains buoyant in the reservoirs of the dystopian genre. But not until 1997 does a loosely memoir-esque novel with persuasive dystopia themes challenge to undermine post-More utopia. With the global backdrop of two fast-paced, destabilizing wars, not to mention a strew of culture-clash skirmishes, twenty-six-year-old London-based author Alex Garland—through blipping vignettes—incorporates a resurrection of hallucinatory themes of Vietnam War artistry, film, canvas or paper, juxtaposed with coming of age, overtly cultural visions of grandeur with hints of William Golding’s Lord of The Flies, Generation-X and video gaming, all of which are paper-machete-dried into one; the definitive dystopian genre of fiction: The Beach. “I’m fine. I have bad dreams…” The Quixotian protagonist Richard says, in epilogue: “I play video games. I smoke a little dope. I got my thousand-yard stare. I carry a lot of scars” (Garland, 436). In an interview narrative from The Independent, a year after the The Beach was released to shelves, and shelved and shelved, Garland gets thrown in the ring with Greene, their contrasting—although intersecting (according to J.G. Ballard)—writing styles analyzed. Greene’s writing is said to encompass “’the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’” (Urquhart 2). [,] while Garland “polishes his limpid prose with this [the] stark demonstration of how coincidence holds no moral dimension” (2). The novel was magnetized by Hollywood, shot on location in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand and starred Leonardo DiCaprio, still riding the coattails of Titanic’s success.          

           Although Green Mansions, Lost Horizon, The Power and the Glory (as The Fugitive) and 1984 were all translated into screenplays and filmed and distributed, none matched the rattling genre-defining power of The Beach’s visually-jerky dystopia.  Like the film Fight Club, based on the 1996 book by Chuck Palahniuk, young-to-middle-aged adults watched the film and read the book The Beach—interchangeably stylish, and influenced largely. Garland induced a pattern of dystopia fit for film, a trend that modernly saturates a great deal of novel-to-film works. And as for purist dystopia in literature, the genre has been lightly absorbed in works by American novelists like Margaret Atwood, Justin Cronin, and Thomas Pynchon.

          And though the utopia genre that was distinguished post-More bled out in the twentieth-first century, in hindsight, this was the understanding that More was providing readers—that utopia in a physical sense is futile, dead, a mockery; that utopia can only be reached spiritually. Therefore, reality is dystopia but not for the soul. But, on the ground, even dystopia has a potential lemming-leap, as post-dystopian genres threaten.   


                                                                    Works Cited

Chapman and Hall. “A Modern Utopia.” The Academy. 15 Apr. 1905. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct.

Garland, Alex. The Beach. New York: Riverhead, 1997. Print.

Greene, Graham. The Power and the Glory. New York: Penguin, 1940. Print.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. Twelfth ed. Glenview: Pearson Education, 2012.


Hilton, James. Lost Horizon. New York: Oxford City, 2010. Print.

Hudson, W.H. A Crystal Age. Colecção: Editora Griffo, 2014. Print.

Smith, Dinitia. “Graham Greene Biography, Heavy on Sex, Draws Some Outrage.” The New

                     York Times. 4 Nov. 2004. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

Turow, Scott. “Scott Turow: Feeling ‘The Power and the Glory.'” NPR Books. NPR, 21 June 2010. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

Urquhart, James. “The Thriller from Manila; is Alex Garland the New Graham Greene?” The

                    Independent. 5 Sept. 1998. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

Wallace, William. “A Crystal Age (Book Review).” The Academy. 14 May 1887. ProQuest.

                   Web. 5 Oct. 2014.



About Hudson Saffell (36 Articles)
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