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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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That night, Doctor Leete helps Julian West to adjust the music in his room. The musical instruments are so finely adjusted to each individual that it is possible for one person to listen while another, standing in the same room, hears nothing. He sleeps soundly, having left his insomnia in the nineteenth century, and wakes with a fantasy about being a Turkish leader. The music that wakes him is the Turkish Reveille.

At breakfast, he learns from Doctor Leete about the international situation in the twentieth century. All the nations of Europe, Australia, Mexico, and parts of South America are organized on the model of the United States. The “more backward races are gradually being educated up to civilized institutions.” Every nation, nevertheless, enjoys full autonomy. The nations carry on commerce without money, but by the use of account ledgers that are balanced regularly. The prices charged to a foreign nation must be the same as those charged to a nation’s own citizens. All nations receive the same prices. Doctor Leete explains that everyone is looking forward to the consolidation of all the nations of the world under one head, and good will is extended to other nations, just as it is extended to fellow citizens. People are allowed to immigrate to other countries. The two countries involved make an exchange on that basis. Only “imbeciles” are not allowed to immigrate. People are also allowed to travel at will. They change their credit cards into those of the host nation, just as people in the nineteenth century used to change their money into the currency of the country they were visiting.

As they leave the breakfast table, Edith Leete suggests they dine that evening at the Elephant, a public dining room, where most people have the main meal of the day. Julian West agrees that he would like to and the plan is set.

When he finds himself alone later that day, Julian West encounters Edith Leete, who asks him if he would like to talk to some of his nineteenth-century friends. These turn out to be all the books of his time. She takes him to a library, where he picks up Dickens, who had always been his favorite. He can read only a few sentences because the contrast between Dickens’ time and the twentieth century is so great. Reading Dickens, Julian West is humbled at the thought that it is he, rather than someone more deserving, who gets to see the twentieth century. He also reads Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” wherein the poet imagines a future with no war, where universal law keeps everyone at peace. Doctor Leete finds him in the library hours later and is delighted that Julian West has chosen Dickens, a favorite in the twentieth century because “his great heart beat for the poor.”


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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