“He finds the land of the Houyhnhnms to be a kind of utopian society where all is perfect despite its glaring flaws.”

“He” is Gulliver, eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift’s great comic satire.

And she, my student, has ruined a perfectly good observation by giving in to the itch to define a word she thinks her reader may not know.

How many English-speaking college students (and beyond) need the word “utopian” defined? Of those who might, how many wouldn’t turn to a dictionary for a basic meaning, especially now that dictionaries can be consulted via cellphone? Okay, well, maybe a lot. But I don’t know that my student should care about them. Certainly she shouldn’t interrupt a serious reader with unnecessary explanations.

Because she does want to interrupt me, she misplaces the adverbial phrase that is the point of the sentence: “despite its glaring flaws.” I believe (well, I hope) she meant that despite its glaring flaws Gulliver believes the land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopia, a civic paradise. That is a fair observation, although most readers would defend Gulliver’s gullibility because the flaws actually are not particularly glaring: Gulliver and his Houyhnhnm “master” compare notes on the many differences between the culture there and British society ca. 1700, and like Gulliver the reader is more and more convinced of the superiority of the former, based as it is entirely on Reason. Politics, religion, law, warfare, economy—Reason wins on every count. Only when the master’s complete indifference to matters like paternal love comes into the picture does the reader blink and begin to doubt. At that point, alas, Gulliver himself doesn’t flinch; he continues to believe Houyhnhnm society is the ideal, even after being ejected from the country and returning home to England, where he prefers to stay in the stable with the horses rather than in the house with the family who now seem like Yahoos to him.

So, flaws not so glaring, but significant once the reader sees them. The sentence could have stood.

BUT she decided to define “utopian society” with an adjective clause, “where all is perfect,” and that clause introduces a second verb into the sentence. The adverb phrase that follows, then (“despite its glaring flaws”) seems to modify “is,” not “finds,” and “its” obligingly consents to modify “all.”  The most accessible reading of her sentence is that in a utopian society all is perfect despite its glaring flaws. And that doesn’t make any sense. Moving that adverbial phrase would have fixed it. But she didn’t move it.

Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia about an ideal (imagined) place, and he named it Utopia from the Greek, “no place.” We sometimes use the term ironically, but More’s decision to announce in the name itself that the place didn’t exist would suggest that he was indeed trying to imagine a society that didn’t exist, a society without flaws, glaring or otherwise, no matter how many scholars debate whether he was writing philosophy or satire.

My student is right that Gulliver finds the Houyhnhnm society utopian. Gulliver believes the society to be perfect despite serious flaws that are obvious (eventually) to the reader. The Houyhnhnms themselves are pretty smug—with reason, ha ha—but they don’t put the label on.

In a self-styled utopian society, the residents might insist that all is perfect no matter how often its flaws are pointed out to them. This phenomenon can be found in certain areas and creeds in U.S. society, where the chant “We’re Number One!” substitutes for thought.

I believe that we wouldn’t call such a society “utopian”; I believe we’d call it a “fool’s paradise.” And I believe we’d be right.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““He finds the land of the Houyhnhnms to be a kind of utopian society where all is perfect despite its glaring flaws.”

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