Blog Post

Utopian Voices

More's Utopia, like the humanist ideology it represents, celebrates dialogue—it is probably not going too far even to say that the fiction fetishizes dialogue. And yet, the depiction of Utopia is notably monological, for reasons that bear on both humanism of this moment and on the emergence of prose fiction as a vehicle for ideological critique. We hear of Utopia through the monologue of Raphael Hythlodaeus, a Portuguese explorer whose exuberant conversation with his fellow Europeans in Book One halts abruptly at the border of Book Two and Utopia the island. From here on, we will hear of Utopia's ostensibly discursive culture—where everything is discussed to death—only via Hythlodaeus's synoptic narrative, which owes more to contemporaneous genres like the relación and the respublica, both overviews of alien societies, than to the high Renaissance dialogue.  

But something is vividly missing in this fiction: the voice of a Utopian.  

There is only one episode in which a Utopian speaks.  In the section concerning the Utopian disdain for precious metals, we are told of the visit of ambassadors from Anemolia who arrived wearing gold, pearls, and gems as signs of their eminence.  "Why, you might have seen also the children," writes Hythlodaeus, "who had themselves discarded gems and pearls, when they saw them attached to the caps of the ambassadors, poke and nudge their mothers and say to them: 'Look, mother, what a big booby is still wearing pearls and jewels as if he were yet a little boy!'" ("Quin pueros quoque uidisses, qui gemmas ac margaritas abiecerant, ubi in legatorum pileis affixas conspexerunt, compellare matrem ac latus fodere.  En mater, quam magnus nebulo margaritis adhuc & gemmulis utitur, ac si esset puerulus?" [154-55]).

But this episode is cast in the subjunctive: if such a thing had happened, and you had been nearby, you might have seen the children and heard this remark. But it didn't happen, and you didn't hear it. Why is the voice of a Utopian given and then taken away here? Why is Utopian speech off limits to the fiction? 

Roland Greene's picture
Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.