Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a satirical novel detailing the adventures of an unnamed narrator into the fictional country of Erewhon. The novel was written by Samuel Butler, though it was published anonymously in 1872. Butler was known for his controversial views on religion and science, wavering between support of and condemnation of both the Church of England and the Darwinian scientists. As such, his own views influence the satire of the novel, and Erewhon is essentially an exploration of the issues that Butler observed in Victorian England, such as flaws in the legal, educational, and scientific institutions of the time.
Although Butler did not subscribe to any particular literary school of thought, he was writing in the Victorian period, which roughly encompasses Queen Victoria’s reign from 1832-1901. The dominant writing styles of the time were aesthetic, romantic, or decadent, but the tone of Erewhon hearkens back to the satirical works of the early 18th century, echoing the stylistic trappings of the work which likely inspired it: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. Erewhon did not win any awards, nor did Butler have much critical success during his lifetime, but in the 20th century, Erewhon inspired such writers as Aldus Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, George Orwell, who wrote 1984, and Frank Herbert, in whose Dune series exists a “Butlerian Jihad” combining the Erewhonian distaste for machines with the Islamic concept of a holy war.
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The novel follows the unnamed narrator, who, like Butler, has started a job at a sheep station in New Zealand. Wishing to find his fortune, the narrator decides to investigate the mountain ranges by the sheep station with the help of an Indigenous New Zealander named Chowbok. Although Chowbok abandons him, the narrator finds his way to Erewhon, a fictional country that is strangely similar to different European countries. There, the narrator encounters various contradictions between Erewhonian beliefs and laws and those that the narrator, as a Victorian Englishman, holds himself. These contradictions offer opportunities for Butler’s satire to criticize the Victorian belief systems, and the novel therefore includes a wealth of thinly veiled examinations of issues surrounding crime, medicine, education, and technology in the Victorian Era. In the end, the narrator escapes with an Erewhonian woman named Arowhena, and the two return to London, where they are married and immediately form plans to return to Erewhon. The novel has a sequel, Erewhon Revisited, which was also written by Butler and was published in 1901. In this sequel, the narrator, now named Higgs, returns to Erewhon. The sequel is narrated by Higgs’s son, John, and it details how Higgs became a figure for worship in Erewhon after his escape; however, he is now threatened by those who think that his return will destroy the new religion, and he once again escapes back to England.
This guide uses the Signet Classics edition of the text, published by the New American Library in 1961, and including an afterward by Kingsley Amis.
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Content Warning: The source text and this guide include descriptions of prejudices against Indigenous peoples, as well as descriptions of violence and discrimination.
The novel is written in the past tense, as the narrator describes his journey to New Zealand and into Erewhon, as well as his return to England and his plans for the future. The narrator travels to New Zealand in the hope that he can work at a sheep station until he has the money to either start a station of his own or return to England with his wealth. The station is located on the edge of a mountain range, and the narrator wants to discover new, usable land farther in the mountains. His guide, an Indigenous man named Chowbok, offers to lead him into the mountains, but Chowbok flees when they approach a specific part of the range that leads even farther into the mountains. After a perilous solo journey into the mountains, the narrator finds people herding goats, and they lead him to their country: Erewhon.
In Erewhon, the narrator struggles to understand the language of the Erewhonians, but he manages to prevent himself from upsetting them. The Erewhonians are impressed by his light skin and hair, while he is impressed by their overall beauty and similar appearance to Italian people. He is imprisoned, but he is well treated. A magistrate becomes upset with him for bringing a pocket watch into the country, and the narrator discovers that technology of almost any kind is outlawed in Erewhon. In prison, the narrator befriends a teacher who helps him learn the Erewhonian language, and he also interacts with the jailer’s daughter, Yram, with whom he shares a brief, implied romance. Eventually, the king and queen of Erewhon request to meet with him, and he is brought to the capital.
In the capital, the narrator stays with the Nosnibor family and learns that Mr. Nosnibor has recently embezzled a large sum of money from a widow. Through this encounter, the narrator learns more about the Erewhonian system of laws and medicine, in which people are imprisoned for physical illness, bad luck, or “ugliness,” while those that commit crimes are prescribed sessions with a “straightener,” or psychologist, to treat their immorality. This reversal from the English system’s pattern of punishing crimes and treating physical illnesses is jarring for the narrator, and he hopes to effect social changes during his time there. Likewise, the narrator suspects that the Erewhonians are a lost tribe of Israel, and he hopes that he can convert them to Christianity.
However, the Erewhonians have their own religion, including worship of a number of gods whom they believe are physical beings that live far away and are invisible to humans. These gods are similar to the Greek pantheon, and the narrator finds them ridiculous, especially the goddess Ydgrun, who has a significant following in Erewhon. The narrator appreciates those he calls High Ydgrunites, for they worship Ydgrun without mentioning her, while he criticizes others whose worship of her resembles idolatry. Through the Nosnibors, the narrator is introduced to the Musical Banks, which are a kind of church that exchanges currency as tokens of spirituality, though he notes that most people do not have faith in the Musical Banks as an institution.
During this time, the narrator falls in love with Arowhena, the younger daughter of the Nosnibors, but they cannot get married because Arowhena’s elder sister, Zulora, must be married first according to Erewhonian custom, and also because the narrator suspects that he is about to be brought to court after a period of losing his standing in society. The narrator leaves the Nosnibors’ home, traveling to the Colleges of Unreason, at which he finds the curious practice of “hypothetics,” which Erewhonians study alongside “unreason.” This premise allows Butler to engage in a satirical critique of English educational institutions.
Following the trip to the Colleges of Unreason, the narrator returns and transcribes translations of some key texts that he acquired there. These include the Book of the Machines, a treatise on the evolution of technology; its publication centuries prior to the narrator’s arrival led to the outright destruction of all machinery in Erewhon. The book’s primary argument asserts that machines have a kind of consciousness that will eventually allow them to reproduce themselves and enslave all of humanity. The narrator also discusses a prophet’s text, which promotes the rights of animals and argues in favor of vegetarianism, and a philosopher’s text, which posits that almost all consumption is immoral and therefore indirectly argues for the repeal of laws enforcing vegetarianism.
During a drought, the narrator sees an opportunity for escape and asks the queen for permission to make a hot air balloon, which he claims will allow him to request rain from the air god. The queen agrees, but the king is suspicious, asserting that he will arrest the narrator if he fails. The narrator sneaks Arowhena onto the balloon, and the two escape using a trade wind above Erewhon. They crash at sea, but they are rescued and make their way back to London. From London, the narrator immediately plans an expedition back to Erewhon armed with men and weaponry to force the Erewhonians into labor contracts with the English colonies.
By Samuel Butler