Utopias and Anti-Utopias (Professor Steven Lee, English 190)

Utopias & Anti-utopias

Professor's Welcome

Stephen LeeWelcome:

Amid our enforced separation, it seems like an apt time to reconnect through the idealized spaces of utopia. By semester’s end, hopefully it will seem as though both utopia and anti-utopia are all around us. I’m looking forward to hearing voices from beyond our empty, utopian campus.

Steven Lee

Course Description

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.  And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.”

-Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man” (1891)

Utopia brings to mind the elusive dream of heaven on earth, and a better place in the form of “no place.”  It captures the desire not only to reimagine and remake the world, but to use literature to achieve these ends.  However, this literary genre is inextricably bound to an anti-utopian tradition that has portrayed utopian thought as naïve, dogmatic, even murderous.

Over the semester we will encounter a wide range of utopias and anti-utopias—from imagined islands and planets, to communal societies and communist states, to theme parks, gardens, and borderlands.  Our goal will be to understand the variety of political projects and literary techniques associated with utopia and anti-utopia, which we will also consider in relation to science fiction and post-apocalypse.  We will see how the romantic socialist utopias of the nineteenth century gave way to the mass industrial utopias of the early twentieth century, and then the ecological, ethnic, and neoliberal utopias of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  Throughout the semester, we will consider the viability of utopian thought  and vision for our current, anti-utopian times.

Go here to see the course-description page on our website.

Monthly Readings



Utopia by Thomas More, or read it online, or download the .PDF.

Discussion Questions:

1. According to its Greek etymology, “utopia” can mean either “no place” or “good place”. How does More’s text play with this ambiguity? In what ways does the text make Utopia seem like a non-existent place, and in what ways like an actual place? In what ways does Utopia seem like a good place, and in what ways does it seem less-than-desirable?

2. Given that “utopia” is a spatial term, how does time and history function in More’s text? What is the Utopians’ relationship to the past and future? Is this a society marked by stasis or progress?

3. The frontispiece for the second, 1518 edition of More’s Utopia featured an island and a ship departing it. Together these approximate the shape of a skull, while a soldier in the foreground stands poised to invade this new world. You can see it on this page. Why do you think the artists created this design?