In Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional scenario is laid out where More meets a man named Hythloday who tells the tale of the land of Utopia. Structured in government and daily activities, Utopia is supposed to be an ideal land inhabited by ideal people, and by the way Hythloday vividly describes it, it seems to be so. More, portrayed as more or less as fictional a character as Hythloday in this prose piece, takes in all of the information presented to him, and becomes very intrigued by the land of Utopia. More then wrote a fictional prefatory letter from the More in Utopia to Peter Giles, who was also fictionally portrayed in Utopia as the man who introduces More to Hythloday, discussing the book he had recently finished on the island of Utopia. In this letter, More comments about the publication of this book, both concerned about the public reaction and Hythloday’s personal reaction. He also makes general comments about his dedication to the book, due to external elements.
More, the author, realizing the possible inconsistencies that could be raised in Utopia, wrote this letter to cover them up, allowing the reader to enjoy his text without nitpicking the details.
The first thing that must be realized to understand the prefatory letter is that readers of Utopia originally thought it was a real place. This letter to Peter Giles inflates that lie, making the story of Utopia even more believable to readers. Not only that, but it covers up inconsistencies that could be found by critical readers. More furthers the image of the meeting between him and Hythloday, and even asks Peter Giles to contact Hythloday for him. He also speaks of actual characters, such as John Clement. With the real characters, and More’s ability to write fiction with a straight face, he makes the land of Utopia and his letter to be fact in the real world. This facilitates him in covering up inconsistencies.
Some possible inconsistencies in Utopia could be covered up by the part of More’s letter where he explains the time restrictions he was under. He explains that “the task was rendered almost impossible by my many other obligations” (109). More is a lawyer, and is dedicated to his work in public service. Furthermore, he is a family man, and needs to spend time with his loved ones, as he considers them “part of my business, since they have to be done unless a man wants to be a stranger in his own house” (109). With that being said, More explains that the time he dedicated to writing Utopia was a sacrifice from time that he otherwise would have been eating or sleeping. This raises the issue of his recollection of the story, as a year is a long time, and facts can be remembered and forgotten easily in that time period. The entire text is based around recollection of the facts, as it is supposed to be “More’s experience,” and if the facts are distorted, the book is a failure. The letter, though, clears up any of this, and allows the reader (assuming under the impression that Utopia is a real place), to read the book without a fine-toothed comb, and take it for what it is.
Furthermore, More, in the letter, is concerned with the accuracy of the facts he presents. Not with their factuality, per say, but more along the lines of how Hythloday described it. More’s apprentice, John Clement, points out that the bridge over the Anyder at Amaurot is not as long as Hythloday had said. While More would like the book to be correct, he is more concerned with being true to what Hythloday. “In short, I would rather be truthful than correct” (110). If More is writing a book about Utopia for the public, it would serve his audience much better to be accurate to the facts of Utopia. If his intentions are to retell the tale of Hythloday, then his word is much more powerful than fact, if the two contradict. Throughout the letter, though, it becomes clear that More’s intent in Utopia is to be the telling of Hythloday’s tale, whether it be fact or fiction. This would be made consistent when More becomes concerned with Hythloday’s reaction to the publication, and the fact that he would like Hythloday to read it over and correct any falsities that appear in the text. More, all in all, though, states that he is confident with his recollection of the facts, but wants to be meticulous about his writing.
Reaction seems to be More’s main concern in the letter, both public reaction and that of Hythloday. As for the public, More says that he is “still of two minds whether I should publish the book or not” (111). Most of the concerns expressed here are with the reaction of the public to his book. The land of Utopia is a super-efficient, almost ideal world, and should be taken in well by readers, as they can take in the ideas of Utopians and adopt them to their own world. On the other hand, More’s main concern with the public most likely stems from his initial conversation with Hythloday. During the course of that conversation, Hythloday told of how he served in the King’s court, and tried to apply his vast knowledge of the world upon the court, but was turned away, as he did not stay consistent with the political views of the King. For instance, Hythloday’s proposition on what to do with thieves. The current penalty, supported by the king, is death. Hythloday, however, believes that the severity of this penalty does not match that of the crime. Therefore, he suggests a new method of punishment, more along the lines of the Utopians, but is shot down. This is due to Hythloday’s ideas being a change to the system which everyone is familiar with, and people cherish familiarity; change scares them. This can be applied to the public reaction. People of the time, familiar with the then current rules and penalties, may find Utopia to be offensive, as in a way it undermines the system of government installed currently. Utopia is presented as a superior society, and people may become offended when it is suggested that their way is inefficient, while these Utopians, whom no one reading the book obviously have never heard of, are considered to be of a greater people.
Another concern of More’s concerning the reaction to the book is the general public cynicism that comes with many authors. More leads a life committed to public service, as exemplified in his career as a lawyer and the amount of time he devotes to it. He is writing this book to further his service to the public, telling them a tale of a place like no one has ever hear of before. To be criticized and sometimes laughed at is the fate of all books, but more so with Utopia. It is not every day that a book is written about a place that no one has heard of, making this an important text. More wishes it not to be laughed at, as his book is serious (or so he would have us believe). He also does not want the book to be unappreciated as, he says, a guest who enjoys a full meal and leaves without thanking the host. None of these reasons seem compelling enough to deter publication, but they are placed in the letter to create sympathy from the reader. He knows that these are generally the reactions of the public, and he is preempting them. The critics are described unflatteringly. People reading the book would not want to be considered in that regard, therefore may take the reading of Utopia more seriously.
There are other inconsistencies that More leaves out of his letter, though, or addresses indirectly. First, he asks Peter Giles to contact Hythloday about the specific location of the island of Utopia, as he bemoans the fact that it slipped his mind to ask him at their meeting. More is a very educated, intelligent man, as he had proven throughout his lifetime. When a place that is fascinating and unique is described, it is almost reaction to ask where this place is located. Since there is no actual Utopia, More leaves this out of the text. In the letter, though, he expresses his concern for knowing where Utopia is. This covers up the inconsistency somewhat, preempting the reader, but still leaves a trace of non-believability. Furthermore, it appears odd that More has to ask Peter Giles to contact Hythloday for him. More is engrossed with Hythloday, himself and his tale, in the story, and it would seem normal for More to make a formal contact with Hythloday. This is not done, obviously. More also did not take the time to visit Utopia before writing a book about it. True, his career takes up the bulk of his time, and his family and studies the rest, but there is always time for vacation, especially since it took a year for More to complete his book. This is further covered up by More saying the book is intended to be a retelling of Hythloday’s tale, but the fact remains that the book would be ultimately better off had More visited Utopia prior to completion. It seems odd that More would go through the trouble to write about a place he had never been to, only heard of, with as much passion as he did. More also seemingly expresses no desire to visit Utopia even after publication, but he states that a friend of his whom he has told the story of Utopia to wishes to visit it. There are many more reasons for More to visit this island than one of his friends or colleagues, yet there is no expressed desire on his part at all.
The prefatory letter from Thomas More to Peter Giles not only inflates the believability of the story, but covers up inconsistencies that could be found by the reader. More explains in full the process in which he undertook in the writing of Utopia and the comments and concerns he had after he completed it. Peter Giles is one of his most esteemed friends, and was present for the telling of the Utopian tale, making him an excellent source to send a letter of concern to regarding the book. Giles is familiar with the situation, and has a formal contact with Hythloday. Throughout the letter, More expresses various concerns he has with the content of the text he has produced and the repercussions of publishing it. All in all, it seems as if More is satisfied with what he has done, but is simply seeking further approval. The letter’s main intent, taken with the knowledge that the entire story is a fabrication, is to ease the reader’s doubts about Utopia and allow them to take it in as a real, ideal place.
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