Hidden Things in Utopia
November 1, 2009

Thomas More's Utopia (1516) is an odd but inescapable model for early modern European and transatlantic prose fiction, including the first novels. In the next few weeks I will reflect here on how an aspect of More's fictional commonwealth has a predictive power over later fictions: that is, what cannot be seen, done, or said in Utopia. I am exploring the idea that at least until Don Quixote (1605), much of European fiction is counter-Utopian, in the sense that it explores in an almost programmatic way those things that remain off-limits in Utopia the place (and seductively off-page in Utopia the fiction).

Perhaps More's testing of the boundaries of humanist ideology—often by proposing civic practices that are at once impeccably humanist and utterly extreme—becomes an agenda of further inquiry in prose fiction; or it may be that, less ideologically than pragmatically, early fictions in prose were drawn to these hidden things because they were as unspeakable in past fictions as in More's imaginary society. Either way, Utopia is some sort of blueprint even for fictions that seem anything but Utopian.

With these possibilities in mind, here is a passage from Book Two that anticipates much of what will emerge within forty years in picaresque fiction. More's narrator presents this episode as demonstrating the limits on license. We might see it as the seed of a hundred stories and novels, starting with the first picaresque, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554):

If anyone is seized with the desire of exploring the country belonging to his own city, he is not forbidden to do so, provided he obtain his father's leave and his wife's consent. In any district of the country to which he comes, he receives no food until he has finished the morning share of the day's work or the labor that is usually performed there before supper. If he keep to this condition, he may go where he pleases within the territory belonging to his city. . . .
Now you can see how nowhere is there any license to waste time, nowhere any pretext to evade work—no wine shop, no alehouse, no brothel, no opportunity for corruption, no lurking hole, no secret meeting place. (Complete Works, volume 4, ed. Surtz and Hexter, trans. Richards, p. 147).

Next: the hiddenness of the open road.

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