Utopia

A Guide in 6 Literary Elements

An efficient way to present an important literary work using a step by step method.

If you need further help please refer to the didactic aid (a map) my students use with great success. 

  • Title and sources
  • Genre
  • Structure and plot
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Themes

Title and sources

The term utopia was coined by Thomas More drawing from Greek.

U = eu/ou = no

topia = topos = place

The Greek word means a good place.

The title hints at a place that doesn't exist and has become in time a synonym for "ideal society".

Sir Thomas More's work borrows from Plato's Laws in which the philosopher depicts the basic political structure and laws of the ideal city, Magnesia.

Genre

Utopia is a prose work written in Latin in 1516. Latin was the lingua franca of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The book had and enormous success. In 1551 Ralph Robinson, a London Goldsmith, translated it into English.

Structure and plot

The book is divided into two parts. The second part was composed in 1515, before the first part which was written the following year.

Thomas More provides the readers with a framework: More's travel to Antwerp, on a mission for the King, which is the occasion for the meeting of the three main characters (more, Giles and Hythloday) and their introduction to one another.

The first part of the book deals with Hythloday's travels across England. During his visit of the country (under King Henry VII) Hythloday meets various important people and has the opportunity to suggest to Cardinal Morton, the king's Chancellor some reforms: the abolishment of the death-penalty, the end to the enclosure of the common land, the use of mercenary soldiers and cheaper prices for commodities. By telling about Hythloday's travels and suggestions the author is preparing the readers to the description of Utopia.

The second part is extensively about the ideal country, described by Hythloday who had visited it several times. Utopia is a kingdom, founded by King Utopus. It is separated from other countries by a channel constructed to protect the kingdom. King Utopus thought that if his experiment were to succeed, it should be isolated and protected from its warlike neighbours.

The population is divided into units of 30 families ruled by a man, elected every year. Each 10 units of families elect a member of the council. The council elects the prince who is in charge throughout his lifetime.

Important matters for the people are dealt with by the council that meets every three days but no decision is taken on the same day a problem is exposed.

Everyone works in Utopia for six hours, divided equally between the morning and the afternoon.


[...] The chief, and almost the only, business of the Syphogrants is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently; yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden, which as it is indeed a heavy slavery, so it is everywhere the common course of life amongst all mechanics except the Utopians: but they, dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and at eight o'clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours: the rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating, and sleeping, is left to every man's discretion; yet they are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness, but must employ it in some proper exercise, according to their various inclinations, which is, for the most part, reading. [...]

Syphogrant

idle

diligently

perpetual

toil

beasts

burden

indeed

amongst

utopians

appoint

sup

discretion

abuse

interval

idleness

various

inclinations

for the most part

each year 30 families choose a magistrate

(not operating or working now, but able to)

(with great patience and care)

constant (forever)

hard work

wild animals

heavy load

in fact

among

perfect people

(assign to a position)

eat supper

(ability to make wise decisions)

(treat or use in a very mean, unfair way)

period of time (or space)

(state of doing nothing or having nothing to do)

different

tendencies

mostly


All goods are in common. Everyone has enough for himself and does not desire to have more. Since childhood Utopians are educated to despise jewellery (used as toys by children), gold and silver (used for chamberpots and chains for slaves).


[...] Every city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each there is a market-place. What is brought thither, and manufactured by the several families, is carried from thence to houses appointed for that purpose, in which all things of a sort are laid by themselves; and thither every father goes, and takes whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange. There is no reason for giving a denial to any person, since there is such plenty of everything among them; and there is no danger of a man's asking for more than he needs; they have no inducements to do this, since they are sure they shall always be supplied: it is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous; but, besides fear, there is in man a pride that makes him fancy it a particular glory to excel others in pomp and excess; but by the laws of the Utopians, there is no room for this." [...]

thither

several

from thence

appointed

whatsoever

inducement

shall

ravenous

pomp

there

(more than two, but not a lot of)

(from that place or time)

selected/hired

at all

motivator

will

extremely hungry

decorations

There are hospitals in each quarter of each city.

The meals are occasions of encounters: they are prepared and served by slaves in mess halls.

The slaves are criminals or adulterers who are punished in this way instead of being put to death.

Marriage is encouraged: males have to be at least 22 and women 18.

The Utopians are religious people but tolerant.

Utopia by Hans Holbein (Public domain)
Utopia by Hans Holbein (Public domain)

Characters

The main characters are More, the author, Peter Giles, More's friend and citizen of Antwerp, who introduces more to Raphael Hythloday.

Hythloday. in Greek Hythloday means 'a talker of nonsense' but in the book he proves to be wise and experienced. The readers learn that Hythloday was a companion of Amerigo Vespucci. During one of his voyages with Vespucci Hythloday discovered Utopia.

Setting

The story is set in More's contemporary time.

The island of Utopia is placed by Hythloday's account in the oceans near the Western hemisphere. It is a crescent shaped island, about 500 miles in perimeter, divided into 55 shires, each with its own town. The capital is Amaurote, the central city and seat of the prince.

Themes

The themes are travel, discovery, bad/good governance, property, labor, education and Utopian society.

Here is a map and a presentation by a student (3LSA)

LnT suggests

LnT Thomas More's biography as well.

LnT A LibriVox recording of Utopia https://archive.org/details/utopia_rg_1401_librivox/utopia_01_more_128kb.mp