Thomas More is a public servant living in London with his family. He writes a letter to a friend in Antwerp (Belgium) named Peter Giles. Giles is a printer and editor, as well as a clerk for the city. In More's letter, we read that More is sending Utopia to Giles for editing and publication. Utopia chronicles a conversation that More and Giles enjoyed with a man named Raphael Hythloday.
Thomas More and Peter Giles are real persons. In Utopia, they are fictionalized. Their mutual acquaintance, Raphael Hythloday, is entirely invented and fictional. In Book One, Utopia recounts the initial meeting of Hythloday, More and Giles. Book One introduces Hythloday and vaguely mentions the New World island of Utopia. More visits Giles in Antwerp, and this is when Giles introduces Hythloday to More. Hythloday is a Portuguese man who sailed to the New World with the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Hythloday stayed behind in the New World and traveled to a few additional locations, eventually making his way back home to Europe. During these travels, Hythloday became acquainted with the Utopians.
The three men make their way back to More's lodging place in the city and they enjoy a conversation in the garden. Hythloday is quite a talker; More and Giles can barely get a word in edgewise. Hythloday gives his opinions on a wide range of topics. Having toured Europe, Hythloday believes that many of the Utopian customs are morally superior to European customs. Hythloday especially focuses on political and economic issues (the distribution of labor, capital punishment for thieves, land reform, the abolition of private property). Hythloday's arguments are rather surprising and the Utopian society is quite unlike the European commonwealths.
Neither More nor Giles professes deep belief in or total support of Utopian policies. Nonetheless, both men are interested in hearing more about the island nation. The three men break for lunch and Book Two chronicles the continuation of Hythloday's presentation, in which he presents the details of Utopia.
Book Two is a long commentary on Hythloday's part. It is not very much of a dialogue and there are few interruptions from More or Giles. Hythloday describes Utopian history, geography, social customs, legal and political systems, economic structures, religious beliefs and philosophy. Utopia is quite unlike the negatively portrayed New World villages with primitive levels of social organization and development. 1760 years before Raphael's commentary on the island, the general Utopus conquered and civilized the area, giving the land and the people his name. As a demonstration of mastery over nature, Utopus formed the land into an island, organizing a labor force that cut through the thin isthmus connected Utopus from the rest of the continent.
Hythloday notes that the Utopians have retained many of the plans and values initially established by Utopus. The rulers are selected from the order of scholars. Language, social customs, religion, dress, architecture and education are identical in Utopia's fifty-four cities. There is a large degree of uniformity and very little individual expression. Laws and social customs heavily regulate the private decisions of individuals. A child is re-assigned to another household if the child wishes to learn a trade other than his or her father's. Households are composed of extended families, but family members can be relocated to other households if the distribution of adults per household becomes uneven within a given city.
In terms of natural geography, the Utopians have capitalized on their natural resources. The capital city, Amaurot, is in the center of the island. The city is a major trade port, sitting on the banks of the Anyder River. Hythloday's depiction indicates that Amaurot is an improved London and the Anyder River is a cleaner version of the Thames River.
The Utopians are a morally developed people though they are not Christians. Hythloday mentions that the Utopians were eager to hear more about Christianity and that many Utopians had already converted. Most Utopians are monotheists and their religion is similar to Christianity. Some of the Utopians' beliefs run counter to the moral traditions of the Christian church (e.g. the Utopians encourage euthanasia when the patient is terminally ill). The Utopians believe that pride is the root of great evils. Accordingly, the Utopians have eliminated wealth, the nobility, private property, and currency. Labor and goods are distributed equally. Property is held in common. Everyone works the same hours and even though the rulers are exempt from public labor, they work to set a good example for the others. Work hours are equally distributed and there are no monasteries, convents, alehouses, or academies wherein an individual might withdraw from the rest of society. All Utopians are socially productive.
Utopia ends with another letter from More to Giles. In the letter, More positively reflects upon the initial reactions to the published work Utopia. More also gives the reader enough jokes and puns to fix the idea that Utopia is an imagined and unreal place. The writer has presented Utopia as an entertaining way to stir contemplation of serious issues. As such, the book is "medicine smeared with honey."