Utopian Spaces and Mormon Fiction

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Utopia” as “[a] place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.”  The original terms, of course, derives from Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book, Utopia, which describes how such a place would be run.

Today, when we talk about utopian spaces, we generally refer to safe-havens perfectly suited for people who have been given a raw deal by society. Early in Mormon history, Joseph Smith and his followers attempted to build utopian spaces in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Later, Brigham Young and the pioneers tried again in Utah and its surrounding regions. In each case, the Saints tragically came up short.

Today, the Mormon utopian dream is a dream deferred, although remnants of it still exist prominently in practices like tithing, temple work, service, Church welfare, and home and visiting teaching. While these practices do much to ease the burdens of the persecuted and create a more utopian space, they are not perfect. Zion is yet to be redeemed.

In “realistic” fiction, utopian spaces occasionally pop up. For instance, in John Steinbeck’s classic Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family visits the Weedpatch Camp, an idyllic government-run haven for migrant workers in California. For the Joads, as well as for Steinbeck’s readers, the Weedpatch Camp presents the perfect remedy for the squalid living conditions, abuses, and exploitations that workers were then subjected to.  The suggestion is that if there were more places like the Weedpatch Camp, families like the Joads would be able to stay together and survive.

In many ways, the Weedpatch Camp episode injects much needed hope and idealism in an otherwise bleak novel. At the same time, however, something about Steinbeck’s depiction of it makes it seem a little too perfect and idyllic—and that kind of perfection is suspicious to me.  As a reader, I’m happy that the Joads find a clean, safe place to stay for a while. But, at the same time, I also want a whole picture. What’s the other side to the Weedpatch Camp?

My point is this: perfect places don’t exist in this life—not since the days of Enoch, at least—and safe-havens are impermanent and not without dangers of their own.  When we begin to believe otherwise, the pessimist in me says, we take our first steps toward disillusionment. I think this is true in real life and in realistic fiction. In my opinion, unproblematic utopian spaces in fiction are usually cop-outs, easy-outs for authors who wish to avoid complexity.

As Mormons, following the words of Lehi, we believe that nothing exists—at least for now—without opposition. Our goal for mortal life, therefore, is not to be rid of opposition, but to exist well despite of it. This means that everything we do or are, every space we make, will be imperfect, subject to dissolution.  Real spaces are flawed.

Although I recognize that writers often use utopian spaces powerfully in fiction, particularly in political works, I think realistic Mormon fiction ought to avoid them—especially when they’re meant to be uniquely Mormon.  Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming the worst kind of fiction—propaganda that seeks to “pacify, and lull [readers] away into carnal security,” leading them to believe either that “All is well in Zion” or that “All is Well but in Zion.” I’ve read Mormon fiction of both types.

Besides, I think the longing and striving for Utopia or Zion is far more interesting than the achievement of it–at least in fiction. The Bellamysian Utopia at the end of Added Upon is nice, and fascinating in a lot of ways, but not as compelling as the flawed utopian efforts depicted in novels like Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels and Margaret Young’s Salvador. 

Note: A slightly shorter, slightly different version of this post appeared about a year ago on my personal Mormon literature blog. 

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12 Responses to Utopian Spaces and Mormon Fiction

  1. The concept of Utopian spaces reminds me of the song in An American Tail, about there being no cats in America and the streets being paved with cheese.

  2. Wm says:

    I’d also note that several Mormon YA authors are having success with dystopian novels.

    • Scott Hales says:

      I think the dystopian genre is an altogether more useful (and interesting) genre. It assumes all utopias have other, more disturbing sides. I haven’t read a great deal of dystopian fiction, but my impression is that rather than glossing over the complexities that would take the shine off of the utopian space, it makes them the focus.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    It strikes me, Scott, that what you’re calling for is less the exclusion of Utopian spaces from Mormon fiction than the exclusion of unrealistic ones. Anyone who is going to include a Utopian space needs to grapple with the real challenges of creating such a space, including the reality that it must still be inhabited by fallible human beings.

    Most utopias are marked by a commitment to the idea that changes to external circumstances can lead unproblematically to changes in human behavior. That’s a tendency toward which Mormons aren’t immune, despite scriptures that flat-out state that the Zion is the result of righteous individual choices, nothing more and nothing less.

    On the surface of it, the notion of a utopian space within realistic fiction seems inherently problematic for reasons of genre, if nothing else. Classic utopian novels make no attempt to be realistic. Which leads me to think that you’re using “utopian spaces” as shorthand for something that doesn’t have to that much to do with classic utopian fiction. I also suspect that your concern extends to a lot of Mormon fiction that doesn’t necessarily fly under the banner of “realistic” (as opposed, say, to genre fiction).

    I’ll go one step further and suggest that the flipside of utopian thinking is a belief that the world outside of utopian space is unrelievedly corrupt and bleak. That’s a tendency as much to be guarded against as the notion that things are unproblematically happy within a specific guarded space.

    • Scott Hales says:

      “It strikes me, Scott, that what you’re calling for is less the exclusion of Utopian spaces from Mormon fiction than the exclusion of unrealistic ones. Anyone who is going to include a Utopian space needs to grapple with the real challenges of creating such a space, including the reality that it must still be inhabited by fallible human beings.”

      Yes. What I’m writing against is the tendency in some works of fiction to resolve complex conflicts by creating spaces where these and all conflicts seem to disappear magically–much like what happens in “The Grapes of Wrath.” My thought is that while certain conditions may resolve certain tensions, they do not necessarily preclude the possibility of more tensions or conflicts arising. I read a novel about Mormons a year ago or so which depicts an alternative Mormon church to the mainstream church–one that seemed to resolve tidily all the cultural tensions in Mormonism. The scene in the novel bothered me not so much because I didn’t want to see the tensions resolved, but because I didn’t feel like the novel did an adequate job of showing how those tensions could be resolved and at what cost. The novel, in a sense, created a utopian space without offering a way for it to happen that would remain true to its lofty ideal.

      I like the idealism of the utopian space, but I find it unsatisfying when it offers me no clear path for how to achieve the idealism they present.

  4. MKHutchins says:

    “Utopia” was kind of a word play — it means both “good place” and “no place.” It’s actually fascinating to read Sir Thomas’ Moore’s original. Even he admits that the place isn’t perfect, and as a modern reader, it certainly isn’t any place I’d want to live.

  5. I think a big problem with utopia stories, for me, is they feel preachy. More preachy than dystopia stories, even though most of those are also inherently preachy. Reading this, I realize that, maybe, the preachy vibe comes from what you describe–that there is no such thing as utopia, at least until people are perfect. To take your own ideas of what you believe will benefit people and depict them in story as inherently perfect, to not describe that other side you mention, is to basically be saying, “I’m right in every situation and you can’t argue with me about this because it is good for everyone and nothing wrong can come of it.” The only utopia stories that really work are those that actually happened–ie, city of enoch. I honestly can’t think of any other examples. And there is so much mythology surrounding the city of enoch, one isn’t even exactly sure what took place to create such a perfect society.

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