Critical Evaluation

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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 good and be motivated to contribute to the fullest extent of their abilities. With money and material goods devalued and the issues of security and safety resolved, selfishness can be eliminated, and no one will want to manipulate the system to gain a valueless advantage.

To demonstrate the feasibility of his arguments, Bellamy uses the military analogy of conscripts unselfishly defending their country in times of war. The motivations, in times of war as in times of peace, he argues, could be very similar: patriotism and the gratitude of their fellow citizens.

Because their incomes are equal and they gain nothing by attempting to upstage others, Bellamy’s citizens of the twenty-first century select occupations that are ideally suited to their talents and temperaments; as a result, society is able to make the best use of individual and collective resources. Even those who are relegated to the more trivial tasks have no reason to feel envy or remorse because they know that their services will be more than repaid. While coordinating such a system might promise to be a bureaucratic nightmare, Bellamy argues that such a government, though more encompassing, is simpler and more benign. It blends the principles of meritocracy and Jeffersonian democracy and is staffed by those who...

(This entire section contains 1030 words.)

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have proven their commitment to the general well-being and have been “mustered” into retirement.

To guard against influence peddling among those who select the leaders, Bellamy excludes members of the active workforce from taking part in elections; voting is left to those who are retired. He justifies this suspension of the popular vote by arguing that government as an institution is needed only in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Its sole function seems to be maintaining a set of conditions that make most legislative activities passé. To authenticate his point, Bellamy notes that much of the legislation that was thought necessary in the past was actually the result of the inherent instability of a society that rewarded the few at the expense of the many.

Despite the sanguine portrait that Bellamy paints, the question arises as to the quality of individual human life and whether his society of the twenty-first century includes any provision to ensure that innovators have a means of influencing the society at large. Perhaps most important, Bellamy’s future vision fails to include legitimate channels for dissent. Notwithstanding his claim that a change in objective circumstances will result in a change in subjective responses, in his utopia those who defy authority or refuse to work are placed in solitary confinement.

Women, too, get short shrift. Although they are allowed to work and receive individual stipends, their career choices are strictly limited. It is also curious that while women are supposed to be full participants in the society, the twenty-first century Edith does not appear to attend school or work for a living; she is, instead, described by her father as a consummate shopper. This portrayal may very well result from the fact that Bellamy is far more interested in advancing his arguments than in developing his characters. Even Julian and Dr. Leete remain two-dimensional mouthpieces for particular points of view. It is not, therefore, surprising that Edith’s main function in the novel is not as a representative woman but as a tool that allows Bellamy to incorporate some of the elements of the standard romance into his novel.

Bellamy’s use of the dream vision, however, is anything but standard. Rather than using the dream as a convenient travel mode, Bellamy allows the dream to become the reality. When Julian is returned to the nineteenth century, it is as if he were going through an expiation for his past indifference and self-absorption. He is, as the title suggests, looking backward and realizing the limitations inherent in outmoded social and economic arrangements.

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