Looking Backward Essay - Critical Evaluation

Edward Bellamy

Critical Evaluation

Considered one of the most influential nineteenth century American novels and surely the most enduring of the American utopian stories, Looking Backward was ideally suited to appeal to middle-class readers of the era in which it first appeared. The book endorses a socialist future while at the same time denying the inevitability of class warfare and portraying a world in which individuals are given carte blanche as long as they do not dominate or exploit others.

Throughout the novel, Edward Bellamy contrasts the domestic and international strife of the nineteenth century with the harmonious relationships of his utopian late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Gone are the social and economic conditions that separated people into antagonistic groups and compelled them to attempt to advance at the expense of others. Gone, too, are the structural limitations that forced some to remain forever subservient to those who, either through hard work or through the benefit of birth, had attained economic security.

To underscore the absurdity of distributing rewards on the basis of social position, Bellamy uses the analogy of a prodigious coach carrying those seeking to avoid contact with the seamier side of life; the coach’s course roughly parallels the economic fluctuations that made life inherently unstable and unsafe. Bellamy reinforces the alienation implicit in such an arrangement by depicting Julian as a member of the moneyed elite who felt compelled to insulate himself further by constructing a hermetically sealed sleeping chamber. In Bellamy’s view, the attempt of the wealthy to protect themselves through the construction of artificial barriers merely increased their vulnerability.

To eliminate such barriers, the new society provides everyone with a solid education and access to cultural refinements once reserved for the elite. In this way, the level of appreciation of life is raised, as is the quality of life. Though seen by many as a sign of Bellamy’s elitism, his emphasis on education and culture reflects his belief that nurture, rather than nature, determines social outcomes. Bellamy believed that people could create a humane society only by reconstructing social institutions in such a way as to change the objective circumstances of the lives of everyone. He asserted that an individual, much like a rose, will flourish if transplanted to a more hospitable environment, and that in such an environment individuals who once felt excluded will identify with the common...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)