There is perhaps no more philosophical genre of literature than the utopian and dystopian novel. Going beyond the older philosophical literature of ideal regimes in speech or faraway locations, utopian and dystopian novels draw on contemporary social ideals and theories and deploy science fiction to project their social orders into our own futures. Their depiction of futuristic political communities allow utopian and dystopian authors to critically examine our social practices, political institutions, and cultural ideals in a fictive context.

In this course, fellows will explore three version of the scientific future: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Bacward: 2000–1887 (1888), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1922), and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). A careful reading of these works will help fellows consider such topics as progress and social justice, human perfectibility and human nature, the relation of science, technology and human freedom, and the meaning of human happiness and flourishing. More than anything, however, fellows will grapple with the question of how we instantiate our highest ideals and dreams, and what price we might pay to achieve that goal.

Image: Richard A. Florsheim, Sleeping City, 1965, color lithograph, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Darren Staloff on Thomas More's Utopia


Darren Staloff

Darren Staloff is a retired Professor of History from the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Professor Staloff has published numerous papers and reviews on the subject of early American history.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Read the book in its entirety, but focus on Chs. 1–12


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is Julian West’s social position at the beginning of the novel? How does he see the social issues of the day?
  2. What significance do you attach to the celebration of “decoration day”?
  3. What, if anything, is the source of West’s insomnia?
  4. In Ch. 5, Dr. Leete claims that the utopian society of 2000 was “the result of a process of industrial evolution which could not have terminated otherwise.” What is he referring to? Why is this an “evolution” rather than a “development”?
  5. Dr. Leete insists in Ch. 6 that human nature has not changed, but humans have due to changed social conditions. Which motives are dominant in 2000 as opposed to 1887?
  6. Dr. Leete defends the distribution and compensation schemes of his society (Ch. 9) by claiming that “desert is a moral question, and the amount of the product a material quantity.” What does he mean? How does this play out in his society?
  7. What two innovations predicted in the novel did you find most impressive. Why?
  8. Discuss the use of military models and metaphors in the novel. What do you make of these images?
  9. Why is the guild system used to organize the “industrial army”?


  • Read the book in its entirety, but focus on Chs. 13 to the end


Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe the political structure of the utopia. How much of the world shares this structure? What are their aspirations?
  2. In the future utopia, the object of labor is ultimately to secure leisure. What do citizens do with their leisure?
  3. Dr. Leete contrasts rational self-interest with selfishness. What is the basis for this distinction?
  4. What is the central principle of gender relations in 2000?
  5. In Ch. 25, Dr. Leete speaks of the “principle of sexual selection.” What does he mean? How is this achieved?
  6. What does Dr. Leete mean when he describes crime as an “atavism” that is treated medically? Is there no anti-social behavior worthy of punishment?
  7. What do you think of Mr. Barton’s sermon? How would you characterize his religiosity?
  8. What role does the romance of Elizabeth and Julian play in the novel? Is it important that she is a “Bartlett”
  9. What is the function of Julian’s dream in the final chapter?
  10. Why do the citizens of 2000 insist on universal higher education?


  • Read the book in its entirety, but focus on Records 1–21


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the Integral? Why does it have that name?
  2. In the very first record, D-503 predicts his writings will comprise an epic. Why does he think that?  What is the significance of his statement that “I believe and I know it will”?
  3. What does it mean that OneState is built of glass?
  4. In Record 2, 6-503 describes beauty as the result of unfreedom that is, he says, “an organic part of man.” What do you make of this claim?  How does it relate to the introduction of O-90?
  5. How are sexual relations arranged in OneState? What is their principle of “sexual selection?”
  6. How did OneState come about?
  7. What are “Taylor exercises” and the “table of hours”? How do the citizens of OneState experience regimentation?
  8. How is OneState governed?


  • Read the book in its entirety, but focus on Records 22 to the end


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is the revolutionary organization called “Mephi”? What does this suggest about I-330?
  2. Discuss the conflict between energy and entropy or nature and culture in the novel.
  3. What is the Day of Unanimity? What is its significance and function?
  4. What happens to D-503 when he passes beyond the Green Wall? What does this suggest about the order of OneState?
  5. The self-proclaimed purpose of OneState is social happiness. What does this entail?  Is it successful, and if so, at what price?
  6. In Record 36, D-503 is finally confronted by the Benefactor. What did you make of their exchange? How does he defend his role as “executioner”?
  7. What meaning do you attach to the diet of the OneState?
  8. Why does D-503’s neighbor believe the universe is finite? What does he think is its significance? Do you agree?
  9. What does the final record imply about the importance of imagination? Is it compatible with the utopian quest for social happiness?


  • Read the book in its entirety, but focus on Chs. 1–8


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the significance of the World State’s motto? How is it instantiated in the social order?
  2. Mustapha Mond claims that the purpose of the World State is human happiness. How is that understood?  How is it achieved?
  3. Discuss the imagery of the hatchery. What does the Bokanovsky Process suggest about the World State’s conception of reproduction and the family and/or science and nature?
  4. In Ch. 3, Mond details the origins of the World State. Why does this scene take place in a garden?
  5. Bernard, Lenina, and Helmholz are all misfits. Why? What particular features alienate each one from their social norms?
  6. What is the meaning of Solidarity Services? How does it relate to the Snake Dance in Ch. 7?
  7. What was your initial reaction to Lenina’s recollection of her date with Bernard? Why does he want to go to the Lake District? How will that help him be an “adult all the time”?
  8. Why is the reservation called “Malpais”? What does this suggest about Huxley’s view of uncultivated nature in relation to Zamyatin’s?


  • Read the book in its entirety, but focus on Chs. 9 to the end


Discussion Questions:

  1. The works of Shakespeare are central to Huxley’s novel, as evidenced by the title. What does Shakespeare represent for both John and Huxley?
  2. Identify two Shakespeare plays “enacted” in Brave New World. How do these enactments differ from the orignals?
  3. In Ch. 12, John says “I’d rather be unhappy than have the sort of false, lying happiness you were having.” What does he mean? What does this say about World State society and the savage’s integration into it?
  4. What prompts John to revolt in Ch. 15? What are his allusions? What are his motives?
  5. What is the significance of the Cyprus and Ireland experiments?
  6. Why does Mond keep Ford on his desk and lock works of religion in his safe? Is he happy?
  7. What were the two most striking innovations in the novel? Why?
  8. How does Shakespeare figure in the final scene?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Reflect on the human consequence of modern thought with Doestovesky's 1864 novella.

Dostoevsky’s Demons

Study Dostoevsky's great novel on the nature, logic, and social origins of revolutionary politics.

Living with Artificial Intelligence

Engage in literary, scientific, and ethical study of Artificial Intelligence.

Modern Science and Politics

Reexamine the purpose of science, and the relationship between science, technology, and politics.

Contemporary Political Ideologies

Examine the ideology of “neoliberalism” and its challengers.