Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Historical & Literary Utopias

Utopian Literature & Communities

The word “utopia” comes from the title of Sir Thomas More’s utopian novel / tract of 1516, Utopia.  The word is made up of Greek parts, formed either from ou (no) + topos (place, as in “topography”) to mean “no place,” or from eu (good, as in “euphoria”) + topos (place) to mean “good place.”

In late 20th-century popular or scholarly usage, the word “utopia” may be used in several ways:  

“Utopia” may refer to an actual or historical commune in which participants agree to particular rules or modes of behavior that distinguish them from everyday society and are designed to promote greater happiness, fulfillment, or harmony between humans and their environment. (see list of examples below) Such actual historical communes may be known as "Intentional Communities" or "Experimental Communities."

“Utopia” and especially the adjective “utopian” may describe visionary political attempts to improve or reform society.  Usually such usage is negative or contemptuous.  For instance, slogans associated with Hillary Clinton such as “It takes a village [to raise a child]” may be criticized by Rush Limbaugh as “utopian,” meaning “hopelessly impractical.”

A “utopia” may also be a novel or a non-fiction book or essay describing an ideal or planned community or the adventures of a person in one.


Famous historical utopias in American history:

Shaker Communities (1800s, early 1900s); celibate lifestyle, dignity of labor, “simple gifts”; celibacy practiced because Shakers thought they were the last generation before the Apocalypse; thus only a few Shakers are left.

Brook Farm (1840s): “Transcendentalist” community outside Boston; attempted to reconcile intellect and labor, later remodeled on principles of Fourier.  Attended by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, R. W. Emerson

Oneida Community (mid-1800s): "complex marriage" community in New York state; eventually became corporation marketing Oneida silverware & stainless

Twin Oaks in Virginia (1960s—present), functions partly on behavioral principles outlined in B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two

Puritan settlement of Boston (1600s): often seen as utopian in purpose, as the Puritans aimed to create a model society that Europe would observe and imitate.

Cult compounds such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, the Fundamentalist Mormon Yearning for Zion compound near Eldorado, TX, or survivalist or militia compounds like those in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana, are analogous to utopian communities, but are usually not considered utopian. 

Why not?  They are usually isolated and hostile to the rest of the world rather than serving as a model for the larger society; they react against social trends rather than trying to reform them; or they are seen as “charismatic cults,” centering less around ideas than around the leadership of a charismatic figure--as are many utopian groups.


Utopian texts (fiction and nonfiction, often mixed, some with dystopian edges)

Genesis (“Eden”); Revelation (Heaven)

Plato, The Republic; Laws (ca. 375 BCE)

St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei (The City of God)  (413-426)

Sir Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

Campanella, The City of the Sun (1602)

Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1627)

James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656)

Daniel Defoe, Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726)

Charles Fourier, Theory of the Four Movements (1808)

Etiene Cabet, Voyage in Icaria (1840)

James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater (1847) (Cooper = author of Leather-Stocking Tales, e.g. Last of the Mohicans)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

Bulwer Lytton, The Coming Race (1871)

Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872)

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887  (1888)

William Morris, News from Nowhere (1890)

William Dean Howells, A Traveller from Altruria (1892-3); Through the Eye of the Needle (1907)

Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1904)

H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1909); The World Set Free (1914)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Eugene Zamiatin, We (1920)

James Hilton, Lost Horizon (1933) (i. e., Shangri-La)

B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

John Wyndham, Consider Her Ways (1956)

Aldous Huxley, Island (1962)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974); Always Coming Home (1985)

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)

Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976; orig. title Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia)

E. M. Broner, A Weave of Women (1978) (Jerusalem women's commune, adapting Judaism to feminism)

Iain M. Banks, The Culture Series (Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, The State of the Art, Look to Windward) list of utopian fiction


Dystopias or satirical utopias

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1727)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852) (based partly on Hawthorne’s brief residence at Brook Farm in the 1840s)

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) (Time travel to medieval past)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932); Brave New World Revisited (1958)

Ayn Rand, Anthem (1937, 1946)

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003)

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (2009)

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008) [Young-Adult post-apocalyptic reality TV + gladiator-survival; expanded to trilogy]

More Young Adult / Teen Dystopias