Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes|
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LOOKING BACKWARD: STUDY NOTES / BOOK SUMMARY NOTES
Bellamy takes the idea of centralized planning to the level of internationalism, envisioning a future in which all the nations are combined into one. However, he reflects the ethnocentrism of his time when he includes as the “civilized” nations those closest to his own culture: Europe and the United States. Asia and Africa are entirely ignored, and South America is only partially “civilized.” The nations that have made all the advances work with the “backward races” to bring them up to speed.
Julian West’s time in the library creates a pause in the novel. Because
he is writing a novel of ideas, the writer must carefully pace the exposition
of ideas within the plot, so as not to lose the reader’s interest. The
pause in the library is a welcome one for the reader, who must absorb
all the new ideas being discussed.
A heavy rainstorm hits the city, but this does not stop the characters from going out to dinner, because all the sidewalks are covered by a vast waterproof covering. Doctor Leete draws a comparison between Julian West’s time and that of the twentieth century, insofar as the two ages deal with the rain. In the age of individualism, everyone had a separate umbrella; in this new age, a communal umbrella covers all.
The dining hall is very elegant. The Leetes have their own dining room. A waiter comes in to take their orders and Julian West notices him with great interest. When he leaves, Julian West exclaims over his ease of manner in performing such a menial task as waiting tables. Edith Leete points out that the word, “menial,” is obsolete. Doctor Leete explains that all work is regarded as equally dignified. Here, the waiters are part of the unclassified grade of the industrial army. In fact, Doctor Leete served as a waiter in his youth.
After dinner they go to a public hall so magnificent that Julian West is astonished. It has every kind of entertainment the community may need and is sumptuously decorated. Doctor Leete explains that all the nation’s wealth goes to the public space and common needs, and people live simply in their private lives. He says that all the industrial and professional guilds have such clubhouses and that there are also many of these clubhouses in mountain and seaside resorts.
At the end of the chapter, Julian West offers a note to his readers
about the late nineteenth-century practice of young college men working
as waiters during their summer breaks to help pay their expenses during
the year. People of the ruling class raised an uproar about this, saying
that these men could never be gentlemen if they worked as waiters. Julian
West notes that such shame will always be inherent in any system that
sets a price on service. He praises his twentieth-century readers for
the dignity they have given labor by refusing to set a price on it and
abolishing the marketplace forever. By making honor the only reward for
service, they have given all work the distinction that only soldiers got
in the nineteenth century.
The two images of umbrellas and covered sidewalks provide a simple way to envision the differences in these two societies. The old society operates on the basis of individual concerns, and the new society operates according to communal values. The image of covered sidewalks demonstrates the central idea of this book: the communal way is the more efficient way.
The discussion over the dignity of work adds another dimension to the utopian
society Bellamy is envisioning here. Under capitalism, labor is like a
commodity. It is quantified into hours or some other unit and then sold
to the highest bidder. The owners of capital have profit as their only
goal. They make a profit by paying the lowest possible price for the labor
of their workers. The workers make a product. The difference between the
price of the product and the cost of labor equals the profit the capitalist
makes. For Bellamy, this arrangement goes against all human feeling between
people. It makes people look down on those who labor although they are
actually benefiting from these laborers.
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. 09 May 2017