William Morris – News from Nowhere (1891)

Page numbers from Penguin (2004)

Sub-titled “An Epoch of Rest,” which is a polemic to keep in mind, since most of the novel describes scenes of labor.

A socialist fantasy that manages to combine Morris’ spiritual-romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages with his radical political beliefs. William Guest, the main character, falls asleep one night and wakes up in the year 2102. He is led around the new England by Dick Hammond. He gets a long history lesson from “old Hammond.” He takes a boat trip up the Thames all the way to Oxford and beyond, to a harvest party. On the way, he meets Ellen, a fairy-like woman prone to making elegant political speeches. Ellen guesses Guest’s secret just before the final dinner. When Guest sits down, he realizes that no one recognizes him. Despondent, he walks back to town, sees an old, dying, ragged man and everything goes black. He wonders, Was it a vision or a dream?

The bulk of News from Nowhere is a thinly veiled didactic exposition on what socialism could/would enable. But the narrative frame should not be ignored. Morris has to work pretty hard to justify the first person–in short, there is a conflation of the first and third person:

But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person….which will indeed be the easier and more natural for me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world. (45)

This cumbersome “getting over into the I” is matched by the task of getting over into the future, one could say. The possibility of assuming the position of self-narrating narrator depends on a temporal problem, which gets staged towards the end of the novel:

I said, falteringly: ‘I was saying to myself, The past, the present? Should she not have said the contrast of the present and the future: of blind despair and hope?’ (222)

Guest is pulled between despair and hope, as “Nowhere” pulls between past and future. So at times he reminds other characters of a melancholic, “wanting to nurse a sham sorrow, like the ridiculous characters in some of those old queer novels” (217). This is precisely what Morris wants to refuse, and what makes this novel so different…almost not a novel. Do we contrast the present with the past (depressed 3rd person) or the present with the future (hopeful 1st person)? [still trying to work this out….] Perhaps this draws the difference between the creation of myth, or the telling of fictional history. The Golden Age becomes something to anticipate rather than long for. Thus the obvious pastoral nostalgia is paired with a practical politics and sustainable environmentalism.

Specific things to remember:

Art is called “work-pleasure.” It is, in short, consonant with modes of self-preservation and community. (160)

People don’t understand the idea of something’s value exceeding its use (81)…and, in line with Morris’ commitment to beautifying the everyday, there is a commitment to making basic things beautiful: clothing, tobacco pipes, etc. “You have added the utmost refinement of workmanship to the freedom of fancy and imagination” (201).

Children are educated in practical things. “Book-learning” is is casually taken up according to their interests. Contrast this utopian vision with Jude the Obscure. Morris’ portrait of Oxbridge dovetails with Hardy’s critique: the centers of learning are catering to an upper class intent on reproducing the relations of production. (103)

Morris is skeptical of technology and labor-sacing machines in general. He follows the Marxist critique: more extraction of labor, etc. Labor itself is glorified as and end in itself. “The reward for labor is life” (122).

As Guest journeys into the heart of England, his intellectual activity slowly gives way to instinctual desires…those things that have been suppressed or perverted by industrial capitalism.

The idea of the sojourner. There is a disturbing unremarkable quality to Guest’s entry and exit into “nowhere,” which could be read in terms of “open secrets.” The intrusion of the narrative voice that would narrate the perfection of the future is both acknowledge and not acknowledged. [work on this…]

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