The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Leete house

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)

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 explores the city on his...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Looking Backward was written in the late 1800s about the late 1800s. America had just been through two very difficult decades: the...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

One of the most famous elements of Looking Backward is the coach allegory in the first chapter. In an allegory,...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

Late 1800s: Booming industrialization demands a large, cheap workforce. The numbers of women and children laborers increases...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

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 entire section is 173 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Looking Backward has been recorded in unabridged form by Blackstone Audiobooks. It is available for both rental and purchase at...

(The entire section is 24 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) is Mark Twain's time-travel novel. After being knocked unconscious in...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Collins, Gail, "Tomorrow Never Knows," in Nation, Vol. 252, No. 2, January 1991, p. 60.


(The entire section is 300 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 263 words.)