Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pre-Industrial Dream


  • Robert Rich


In his 1871 hollow-earth novel, The Coming Race, Edward Bulwer-Lytton created a society in which nobody lives in want, has to toil endlessly to earn a living, or is wealthy enough to incite envy in others. The people are strong, healthy, attractive and long-living. Their widespread prosperity does not require the abolition of private property nor does their good health depend upon Erewhonian eugenics. Neither do they lack outlets for their impressive creative and intellectual energies. For all of this, very few critics in the century-and-a-half since its publication have attempted to take the utopian character of this society literally, opting instead to read it as satirical, dystopian, or anti-utopian. One critic even considers it the father of the anti-utopian novels (Seeber 39). I argue, however, that The Coming Race should be read not as an anti-utopian “Condemnation of Advanced Ideas” but as a counter-industrial utopia evoking pre-industrial-era cultural norms and values in a way that casts those of the Victorian era as inferior (Campbell 125). Bulwer’s novel performs this move primarily by undoing the industrial era’s ascendency of labor over workmanship and contemplation, an ascendency described in detail by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958). Insofar as the novel “reject[s] utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream” and places significant emphasis on the “conflict between the originary world and the utopian society” as well as the imperfections within the utopian society itself, the novel is best understood as a precursor to the “critical utopia” of the twentieth century (Moylan 10).