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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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Major Theme

The major theme of Looking Backward is the application of rationality to economic and social problems. The idea that the new society is “the logical outcome of the operation of human nature under rational conditions” is repeated in different forms throughout the novel. It means that people are basically good and generous. If rationality is used to create a society that reflects that goodness and generosity, then society will look like the one Bellamy envisions.

Minor Theme

Part of the same statement quoted above gives one the minor theme of the novel. The idea of solidarity--people acting in concert for their mutual benefit instead of competing against each other as individuals--is the basic assumption upon which Bellamy builds his utopia. For Bellamy, society should be organized around people’s innate need to live in a good community where everyone has an equal share of responsibility and benefit, and where people are cared for because they are people, not because they perform some service.


The mood of the novel is that of a rational discussion, although at certain points, the author indulges in sentimentality, as he attempts to make the intellectual aspects of the novel palatable with touches of romance. There is also a mood of confusion and unease as Julian West adjusts to his new world.

Edward Bellamy - Looking Backward 2000-1887 Free Study Guide/Notes/Summary
Edward Bellamy

Edward Bellamy - BIOGRAPHY

Edward Bellamy was born March 26, 1850 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. His grandfather and father were ministers in the Calvinist tradition. Both men eventually lost or resigned their positions, due to ideas which ran counter to the doctrine of the church. Bellamy himself later left the church because he saw it doing nothing for the present social and economic ills while spending all its energy imagining a better life in the afterlife. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1871, but he soon gave up this pursuit to practice journalism. He worked for a number of newspapers, including the Springfield Union (in Massachusetts) and the New York Evening Post. While working as a journalist, he wrote short fiction and novels.

His fiction includes Dr. Heidenhof’s Process (1880) and Miss Ludington’s Sister (1884). After he married Emma Sanderson in 1882, he gave up his journalism to devote himself exclusively to writing fiction. At the publication in 1888 of Looking Backward, he became famous. “Bellamy Clubs” became popular all over the United States. Edward Bellamy was in great demand as a lecturer and speaker. He returned to the newspaper business in 1891 when he founded the New Nation in Boston. However, his ill health kept him from carrying on with this effort. He wrote a sequel to his famous novel Looking Backward called Equality in 1897. He died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-eight.


Bellamy’s novel is part of a long tradition of utopias. These include Sir Thomas More’s sixteenth-century Utopia, which coined the term. However, the concept of the creation of a perfect life on earth goes much further back in time. The often quoted Old Testament Scripture from the prophet Micah reads as follows: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, / And their spears into pruning hooks: / Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, / Neither shall they learn war any more. / But they shall sit everyone under their vine and under their fig tree; / And none shall make them afraid . . . ” Most utopias are pacifist. However, many utopias contain elements that are far from ideal. Notice Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, which contains the idea of the round table, but which quickly degenerates into petty rivalries and betrayals. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels contains elements of both good and bad. William Morris, a contemporary of Edward Bellamy, wrote News from Nowhere, calling attention to the root meaning of the term, utopia (“nowhere”), and attempting to correct what he saw as faults in Bellamy’s utopia. Most utopias have ignored women, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman corrected this oversight in her feminist utopia, Herland.

Edward Bellamy’s version of utopia comes out of two dominant traditions. The most important of these is the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason. In this version of humanism, reason should be applied to all human questions. Old superstitions and attachments should be critically examined. Doubt or skepticism should be a test applied to all practices, and what is not rational should be thrown out or reformed on rational principles. Secondly, Christianity, with its often muted message of the Golden Rule, can be interpreted as proposing utopian relations among people. Hence, Bellamy envisions the new society of Looking Backward as “the logical outcome of the operation of human nature under rational conditions.”

Bellamy insistently avoided calling his idea of the new society “socialism.” He called it nationalism, just as he does in the novel. Part of this might have been caused by the vilification of socialism in his time, but it might also be because his ideas differed in significant ways from Marx’s ideas. The society he describes is certainly socialist: all means of production are in the hands of the state, there is a complete equality of income, and it is a classless society. However, it differs from Marxism in the centralization of power. All power lies in the hands of the state. Democracy is severely limited: only men and women over forty-five who have served in the industrial army can vote. Marx envisioned the eventual dissolution of the state. Bellamy envisions the state as severely reduced in its function, but nevertheless functioning in perpetuity.


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