The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Using the form of a conventional romance, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 tells the story of Julian West, a wealthy young Bostonian who is an insomniac. Besides sleeping in a soundproof vault deep in the bowels of his home, he employs a hypnotist to ease his sleeping problems. One night after West has retired, his house burns down. He is not discovered until the year 2000. Somehow, his underground chamber and the deep sleep induced by the hypnotist have protected him for 112 years.
West’s discoverer, Dr. Leete, cannot convince him that he really is in Boston in the year 2000. Once on the roof of Dr. Leete’s house, however, West finally realizes that he is in a time far removed from his own. Boston now is alien to him. Later, he learns that the city, culture, society, and government that once were familiar all have disappeared.
The city is now cleaner because of the absence of air pollution from coal heating. No longer are there extreme differences between poverty and wealth. All citizens have government-issued credit cards, thus restricting the use of cash. Most private industry has been nationalized, eradicating corporate competition.
Everyone has a job in the “industrial army.” The labor force, or industrial army, has changed. Service in it begins at the age of twenty-one and ends when a worker is forty-five. All jobs are equal, although there are four classes of workers. First, there are common laborers, a class to...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Leete house. Private residence of the retired physician and scientist Dr. Leete in which Julian awakens. At first the Leete home appears so similar to the private homes to which Julian is accustomed that he does not perceive that any appreciable time has elapsed. He thinks he is in the home of some contemporary who is his social equal and a member of the educated middle class. In 1887 members of the middle class signaled their status with possessions. This fact suggests that when he awakens, he finds himself within a typical Victorian home, with heavy draperies, dark and ornate wooden furniture, and an abundance of bric-a-brac and works of art. The most dramatic changes are ones that to West are not immediately apparent, such as delivery of music to homes via the telephone system and the absence of household servants. It is not until West sees the city outside Leete’s house that he recognizes that he really did sleep through the twentieth century.
Boston (2000). The future Boston is a city startling to Julian in its orderliness, cleanliness, and quiet. From the roof of the Leete home he sees the city laid out in neat blocks with wide tree-lined streets and numerous park areas. The only features he recognizes from his own time are geological, such as the Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge. Islands in Boston Harbor confirm that he is indeed in his native city. When he...
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Looking Backward was written in the late 1800s about the late 1800s. America had just been through two very difficult decades: the 1860s brought the War Between the States and Reconstruction; the 1870s saw an agricultural depression, a labor panic in 1873, and a major railroad strike in 1877. The power of corporate trusts and political machines seemed uncontrollable. Banks and railroads exploited western lands and the people who lived there. Coal smoke choked the air and gave miners black lung disease. Anarchists blew up buildings and threatened political stability. The Labor Movement and the Women's Movement gained momentum as labor problems continued to boil and female suffrage became a major issue. Militant political groups such as the Grangers and the Populists came into being.
The demand for labor brought many new immigrants to America and many farm families to the cities. The conditions of the urban tenements were horrific. People lived amid filth, noise, and danger. Several families might live in one small apartment with inadequate sanitation. Disease was rampant. With no laws to protect them, women and children, as well as men, worked very long hours under unsafe conditions. Children were sometimes beaten. Eventually, the poor rebelled. For example, in 1886, a rally for an eight-hour workday turned into the bloody Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Boston, the setting of the story, was virtually paralyzed by strikes by the mid-1880s. Bellamy brings...
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One of the most famous elements of Looking Backward is the coach allegory in the first chapter. In an allegory, the writer tells a story, or parable, in which the people, things, or events described have a different meaning; that is, they are symbolic of the lesson or explanation the writer is giving. Bellamy compares the society of the nineteenth century to the image of a "prodigious coach" to which the masses are harnessed and driven by hunger, while the elite sit on top trying not to fall off and lose status. Diction
Bellamy's diction—that is to say, his manner of writing and of the speech of his characters—is nineteenth-century prim and effusive. His book on the year 2000 might still be read as widely as George Orwell's 1984 if its language were easier for a modern audience to read. Other notable writers of Bellamy's time largely used ordinary language, but perhaps Bellamy's proper New England upbringing was too deeply imbedded in his manner of speaking for him to make the transition. It is ironic that a writer who wanted to save the masses could not write in the language they used.
Bellamy's style is didactic, in that Looking Backward was intended to be morally instructive. Although the reforms that led to his utopian society were in government and industry, it is obvious that Bellamy believed that the elimination of poverty and greed would result in a completely...
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1800s: Booming industrialization demands a large, cheap workforce. The numbers of women and children laborers increases dramatically, but living conditions for poor families often remain squalid. Demands for better pay and working conditions lead to strikes and violence. Between 1881 and 1905 there are approximately 37,000 strikes across the country.
Today: Labor unions and laws protect worker interests. Children are prohibited from working until a certain age, and all workplaces have regulations about safety, hours, and wages.
Monopolies and trusts control most of the industrial power in the country, and enormous wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few such as Rockefeller (oil), Vanderbilt (railroads), Morgan (banks), Carnegie (steel), and Duke (tobacco).
Today: Antitrust laws prevent the use of unfair competition by conglomerates to drive small businesses out of the market. The most notable recent antitrust case involved Microsoft.
Late 1800s: Many new inventions appear, including the typewriter, the telephone, electric street lamps, electric streetcars, the first electric generating plant, the gasoline motor, and the transatlantic cable.
Today: Patents continue to be issued at an astronomical rate. Computers, word processors, solar and nuclear energy, automobiles, airplanes, and cell phones have evolved from the industrial age, as well...
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Topics for Further Study
Although the dream structure was only an intermittent part of the novel, the reader is momentarily led to believe that what is happening in the year 2000 is a dream. What other novels or films use the dream structure throughout (Examples: The Wizard of Oz and The Family Man)?
Make a list of the developments, both technological and social, that Bellamy predicts. Note those that have come to pass in some form or another. Why did his other predictions fail to come true?
Compare Bellamy's proposed economic and governmental system to that of communism. What are the similarities? What are the differences?
How would you rewrite this story to make it a better and more interesting novel? What elements of composition (dialogue, action, characters, scenes, etc.) would you change or add to make this more a work of literature than a social commentary?
Research the labor situation of the late 1800s and compare it to that of today. What improvements have been made? Name some laws that have been passed to protect the workers.
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What Do I Read Next?
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) is Mark Twain's time-travel novel. After being knocked unconscious in nineteenth-century Connecticut, Hank Morgan wakes up in the Camelot of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What ensues is both an enjoyable comedy and a disturbing satire about human society.
The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, is the ultimate time travel story. First published in 1895, it is still a popular publication. Wells paints a dark picture of the future of civilization as he transports his Time Traveler to the year 802,701 when there are only two races of human-like people left in a world of horror. The traveler's quest is to find his stolen time machine so that he can escape.
Equality is Edward Bellamy's sequel to Looking Backward. Published in 1897, this novel clarifies some of the theories that Bellamy proposed in the first work. However, the large buildings and mass services of the city are replaced by technologically connected small villages where the advantages of community are enhanced by more space and a closeness to nature.
Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) provides an excellent picture of society in the Gilded Age. This novel illustrates many of the class status problems outlined in Looking Backward, most specifically those of women who are forced to marry for social and economic security instead of love.
The rise of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Collins, Gail, "Tomorrow Never Knows," in Nation, Vol. 252, No. 2, January 1991, p. 60.
Gardner, Martin, "Looking Backward at Edward Bellamy's Utopia," in New Criterion, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Sept. 2000, p. 24.
Jacoby, Russell, "Looking Backward: From 2000-1887," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 301, Issue 1807, December 2000, pp. 79-80.
Patai, Daphne, "Introduction—The Doubled Vision of Edward Bellamy," in Looking Backward, 1988—1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, p. 14.
Peyser, Tom, "Looking Back at Looking Backward," in Reason, Vol. 32, Issue 4, Aug. 2000, p. 34.
Simon, Linda, "Looking Forward," in World and I, Vol. 14, Issue 6, June 1999, p. 291.
Strauss, Sylvia, "Gender, Class, and Race in Utopia," in Looking Backward, 1988—1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, edited by Daphne Patai, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 71, 74.
Bowman, Sylvia E., Edward Bellamy, Twayne Publishers, 1986.
Considered one of the best of the Bellamy biographies, this analytical study covers his life, his philosophies on reform, and the impact of his works.
Halewood, W. H., "Catching Up with Edward Bellamy," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, Spring 1994, pp. 451-61.
Halewood examines the elements of Looking Backward...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Aaron, Daniel. “Edward Bellamy: Village Utopian.” In Men of Good Hope. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951. Discusses Looking Backward as part of the progressive reform movement. Provides insights into Bellamy’s military model and transcendental religious perspective and highlights the safeguards Bellamy includes to guard against authoritarian and bureaucratic domination.
Berneri, Marie Louise. “Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward.” In Journey Through Utopia. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950. Contends that Bellamy’s utopia is based on a naïve faith in experts and technological progress. Berneri is troubled by the inherent regimentation and argues that the need for compulsion and the prohibition of dissent belie the supposed happiness within the industrial republic.
Bowman, Sylvia E. Edward Bellamy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Offers an interdisciplinary analysis of Bellamy’s intellectual development and considers Looking Backward within the context of his other writings. Chapter 5 focuses on the book’s influence on sociopolitical developments and major nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers.
Parrington, Vernon L. “The Quest of Utopia.” In Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 3. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930. Following a brief contextual summary,...
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