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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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The next morning, Julian West goes for a walk and realizes that the state prison in Charleston is missing. When he gets back, Doctor Leete explains that there are no prisons and that “cases of atavism” are treated in the hospitals. Atavism, Julian West learns, refers to behavior that comes from the past and does not belong in the present age. Julian West feels embarrassed at this idea, since the behavior of his age is considered backward and criminal. Edith Leete tells him to consider the twentieth century his age now, and Doctor Leete explains the thinking behind this term.

In the nineteenth century, most crime resulted from inequalities in people’s possessions. He compares the need for money to the “tap root of a vast poisonous growth.” It required all the law, police, and government resources to keep this growth from overpowering the whole of society. Making everyone fully equal was like cutting the tap root. The small number of crimes that were not caused by poverty were largely eradicated by improvements in the education of the populace. Now, all crime is treated as an illness, and perpetrators are treated with firm kindness.

Doctor Leete next explains how criminals are tried. There are no lawyers in this utopia. The criminals usually plead honestly as to their guilt or innocence, and a judge decides the case. In serious cases, three judges hear the case. No jury is used. The president of the nation appoints the judges. There are no law schools because the laws are so simple. They see the great legal minds of the nineteenth century as very smart men who were experts in an abstract subject of study that no longer has a practical application.

Julian West wonders about state governments. Doctor Leete says they have been abolished, central government being more efficient and logical, but that municipal governments are still intact. Julian West wonders how they get legislation passed when their congress meets only once every five years. He finds out that this society has almost no legislation, since the “fundamental principles on which the society is founded settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings” which called for legislation in the nineteenth century. Since the laws of Julian West’s time were set up mainly to protect private property and the relations between buyers and sellers, the disappearance of these entities makes such laws obsolete. Doctor Leete compares the structure of nineteenth-century society to an upside down pyramid. It was always threatening to fall over, and the only way to maintain it was with all kinds of props, like laws. Now society rests on its base and does not need artificial supports.


Like most utopias ever envisioned, this one has no lawyers. Moreover, it has very few laws and no prisons. Since the society is supposedly formed on the principles of reason and common sense, it does not require the correctives of laws and prisons.

Crime is treated as an illness: this notion actually developed in the nineteenth century in response to the rise of psychology and the theories of Freud (1856-1939). However, Bellamy asserts that socio-economic reasons are at the base of much criminal behavior. These evils can be corrected by restructuring society and educating the masses.



Edith Leete asks Julian West if he has thought about visiting the underground vault where he had slept all those years. He tells her he has avoided it for fear of arousing painful feelings, but now he feels strong enough to do so. When they go down to the room, he is amazed at how removed he feels from his former life. He feels as if he has actually lived all these years and that time has healed the wounds of his departure. When Edith asks him about his family and friends, he tells her about Edith Bartlett and weeps. Edith Leete weeps with him. When he recovers, she tells him to remember that Edith Bartlett wept for his death over a hundred years ago and that she has been in heaven now for years. He feels comforted by this and is again amazed at how removed he feels from his former feelings for Edith Bartlett. As they are leaving the room, he notices his safe and exclaims over how odd it is that all the money and gold in his safe would not buy him even a loaf of bread now.


Bellamy finally addresses the separation of Julian West and his former fiancée, Edith Bartlett. In the novel’s time (and the time of Julian’s consciousness), it has been only a few days since he last saw her. Nevertheless, having built up the tenderness of their relationship at the novel’s opening, it is striking that Bellamy does not return to it until this late point in the novel.

In this chapter, as in earlier ones, the subject of religious belief is referred to only in passing, as if the assumption of belief is never questioned and is in no way part of the changes in society. Readers may think this is a strange omission because Bellamy relies on some of Marx’s theories in constructing this “communal” state. The reader may recall Marx’s famous line, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” but Bellamy does not portray religion in a negative light. However, most regimes that have embraced Marx’s philosophy have been hostile to religion.


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