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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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Doctor Leete takes Julian West on a tour of the universities. He says that the compulsory education of the nineteenth century has been extended in the twentieth century to the age of twenty-one. All men and women go to the university. When Julian West wonders about the cost of this education, Doctor Leete assures him that “the principle which makes all operations on a large scale proportionally cheaper than on a small scale holds as to education also.” He adds that the high cost of education in the nineteenth century was largely a result of the extravagance of the wealthy class.

Doctor Leete says that the reason for placing so much importance on higher education is the belief that it would be unbearable to be educated and to have to live among uneducated people. In earlier times, the educated and the uneducated appeared so different from each other that they were like two different species. He gives three main reasons for the emphasis on universal higher education: everyone should get the most complete education possible; everyone deserves educated neighbors; all children deserve educated parents.

Julian West is struck by the emphasis placed on physical education. He thinks there must have been a real improvement in the human body over time. Doctor Leete is glad to get this information. He thinks that since the wealthy of the nineteenth century spent their lives in debauchery and leisure, they did not get much physical exercise. And the poor were so caught up in making a living that their physical health suffered. It is no wonder that Julian West is impressed with the physical health of people of the twentieth century. Doctor Leete also notes that insanity and suicide are very rare now.


Bellamy is careful to cover all aspects of life in this utopia. The life of the mind is as important as the life of the body. Having dealt with all the aspects of the economy, he here discusses the culture of this new society. In the nineteenth century, it was the smallest minority of people (mostly men) who were privileged enough to have a college education. Being an educated man living among the uneducated is not a desirable state in Bellamy’s future world. It would be unfair to everyone if only certain people knew how to think critically. This new society resolves the class difference that results when education is a privilege for the wealthy.



That night after dinner, the women once again leave the men to discuss the new society. This time, the discussion centers around the wealth of the nation. Julian West is curious as to how much wealth is available in this new society. He says that if he had to go back to his time and explain everything to his fellow citizens, they would say it was all a dream unless he could explain how everything was funded.

Doctor Leete first explains that the wastes of capitalism, when eliminated, would equal half the wealth of the nation. On top of that, the new industrial system is more efficient, and thus produces much more wealth. First, Doctor Leete lists the many sources of savings in the new society. There are no national, state, county or municipal debts, and no military or internal revenue service. The judiciary system is very small. There is no criminal class. There are very few physically and mentally disabled people. There are no wasteful rich people. There is no waste in households when cooking and cleaning is done communally.

The distribution system of the government also prevents the huge wastes of the old system, since there are no middlemen and very little handling of the products. Next, Doctor Leete numbers the wastes of capitalism in four major areas. First, there is the waste of capitalists’ undertaking enterprises without any clear way of knowing if they will succeed or fail. Second, there are the wastes of competition among capitalists in the same market. Third, there is the waste caused by periodic gluts and crises. Fourth, there is the waste of idle capital and labor. Doctor Leete offers lengthy explanations of each of these four areas.

He is especially interested in explaining the second of these, the wastes caused by competition. He notes that the producers of the nineteenth century worked for their own profit at the expense of the community. If the common good benefited from their machinations, it was only by chance. As often, the capitalists would “increase their private hoards by practices injurious to the general welfare.” All capitalists dreamed of gaining complete control over some necessity of life and then making people pay huge amounts for it. He tells Julian West that people of the twentieth century are always astounded that this was called a system of production, when in fact, it seems more like a system for preventing production.

Doctor Leete explains that part of the cause of the continual ups and downs of the market was the use of money (a representation of actual products) and credit (a representation of money). The empty promises of these two representative systems caused horrible pain and suffering.

Doctor Leete next describes the how the nation can be so wealthy in the twentieth century. Most of it has to do with efficiency. The nation sees clearly where the demand is, and so it never wastes labor in producing products that are not going to be used. It is big enough to hold onto products that are temporarily over-supplied without putting people out of work. This means workers are never idle.

He tells Julian West that he has still not seen the real wealth of the nation because it is spent mostly on public amusements and aesthetics. He sums up the philosophy that motivates his society in the following: “competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, is another word for dissipation of energy, while combination is the seed of efficient production.”


Perhaps Bellamy waits until Chapter XXII to give such a sweeping critique of the capitalist system of the nineteenth century in order to keep his readers with him. First, he has to show all the benefits of this new world and anticipate some of the basic objections that a nineteenth-century reader would make. Then he must help the reader to identify with the optimism of “utopian” thinking before he can launch into a heavy critique of capitalism. The cornerstone of this critique is, of course, the denunciation of competition. Cooperation becomes the basis for this society.



That evening, Julian West is enjoying music with Edith Leete. He asks her about the conversation he heard when he was coming to consciousness on his first day in the new world. He had heard her make her father promise not to tell him something. Her father had hesitated and had complied only after she and her mother both persuaded him. When he brings this topic up, Edith Leete blushes intensely. She turns up the music and only later asks him not to ask her or anyone else this question. He agrees, but then he cannot sleep all night wondering about it. He cannot figure out how she would know something about him when she had never seen him before the day of his awakening.


This short chapter continues the light theme of the novel, that which Bellamy uses to make it seem more like a novel than a political and economic tract. There is apparently some connection between Edith Leete and Julian West that precedes their meeting. Bellamy waits to reveal this connection to create suspense and to hold the reader’s interest.


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