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.