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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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Doctor Leete asks Julian West if he would like to hear a sermon. Julian West wonders if the new society has an established religion. The Leetes inform him that religion is a free choice and not mandated or controlled by the state. They go into the music room and tune into a sermon by Mr. Barton. Mr. Barton opens his sermon with a reflection on the presence of the nineteenth-century man in the city of Boston. Edith Leete is concerned that Julian West will be uncomfortable as the subject of the sermon, but he assures her that he is interested in listening to Mr. Barton.

Mr. Barton describes the vast changes in people’s moral sensibility since the nineteenth century. He discusses the effect of the social environment on human nature. Whereas the environment of the nineteenth century was founded on greed and selfishness and brought out the brutish aspects of human nature, the environment of the twentieth century is founded on rational unselfishness and therefore brings out the best of humanity. He notes that in the nineteenth century, while an individual might have had a strong sense of fellow feeling with others, if this person got married and raised children, s/he would immediately begin to put her/his family above the common lot. The only way to provide for the family would be “by pressing in before some weaker rival and taking the food from his mouth.”

Mr. Barton reflects on the difficult job of nineteenth-century preachers, who had to preach a message of love in an environment of hate and theft. He remembers a story of the Calcutta Black Hole, where British men were kept for days without air. They became vicious in their efforts to reach the one air hole in the room, hurting their fellows to save themselves. Mr. Barton thinks of this story as a good illustration of humanity in the nineteenth century.

He adds that the nineteenth century acknowledged the pitiable state in which the masses lived. Moral philosophers, writers, and preachers decried the ravages of poverty. However rudimentary, the nineteenth century did have a sense of the vital connections between people. Yet they took as self-evident the notion that people were basically depraved. The twentieth century takes the opposite view as self-evident: people are basically good, and this goodness forms the basic cohesion of society.

Mr. Barton notes that the nineteenth century saw a decline in religious faith. Since people despised themselves, they began to despise their creator. In the twentieth century, on the other hand, it is easy to “believe in the fatherhood of God.” He adds that the “conservatism of despair” in the nineteenth century occasioned the change in the social order. There was no hope for improving society. In the twentieth century, people for the first time stand up straight before their creator.

Mr. Barton compares the change in human nature to a rose that has been planted in a swamp and is finally transplanted to good soil with good sunlight. No matter what earlier generations did to improve the rose bush, it remained sickly because of its environment. When it was finally transplanted to healthier soil, it became thick with luscious flowers.

Mr. Barton ends his sermon with a view of the future: people of the twentieth century feel immense hope in this regard.


There is very little actual religion in this sermon. The sermon is Bellamy’s way of summing up all that has been discussed thus far with a global, world-historical view.

It is impossible to learn the exact details of religion in Bellamy’s twentieth century. Perhaps the author did not want to isolate readers on the basis of religion, and so he did not expand the topic. However, Bellamy’s principal of “communal” values fits comfortably with most Christian ideology. He emphasizes that man’s original state is one of goodness.



It is the Sunday of Julian West’s first week in the new Boston. He feels very depressed after hearing the sermon because he suddenly realizes how different he is from the people of the twentieth century. He feels utterly alone, and his feeling is made worse at the thought that the Leetes pity him more than they like him. He goes to his underground chamber and sits alone. Edith Leete shows up and tells him she has noticed he is feeling sad. He has realized that he is in love with Edith, and he is sure that she can never love him. He tells her that the sermon has made him realize that her and her family’s only emotion toward him is pity. She feels terrible that she let him hear the sermon. She assures him that Mr. Barton does not know him like she does and can therefore not know how good he is. Inspired by her compassion for him, Julian West confesses to her that he is in love with her. She blushes and then tells him she is also in love with him. He embraces her and she pulls away, afraid that he will think she has thrown herself on him when she has only known him for a week.

Inside the house, she whispers something to her mother and then goes upstairs. Mrs. Leete tells Julian West that she is Edith Bartlett’s grand-daughter, and that she named her daughter, Edith, after this ancestor. After fourteen years of mourning his death, Edith Bartlett had married. Edith Bartlett’s portrait and some letters she had kept from Julian West had been passed down to Mrs. Leete. Edith Leete had always been taken with the story of Julian West. She had often teased her parents that she would never marry until she found a man like Julian West. When they found him in the underground chamber, they also found a locket around his neck that held a picture of Edith Bartlett, and they guessed his identity.

Julian West goes up to see Edith in her room. He feels as if he has regained the lost Edith Bartlett in her great-granddaughter: “My love, whom I had dreamed lost, had been re-embodied for my consolation.” He adds that he has since always confused the two Ediths in his thinking. Edith Leete also feels this “confusion of identities” and tells him she half-believes that Edith Bartlett’s spirit has come back to finish what was left undone when he disappeared. She actually has the idea that her real name is Edith Bartlett.

When Doctor Leete comes home, he congratulates Julian West on the news and says he has suspected that it would happen from the moment he discovered him. He thinks of his daughter as fulfilling her great-grandmother’s pledge. That evening, Julian West and Edith Leete stroll in the garden as they revel in their new love. She wonders how women of the nineteenth century were supposed to hide their emotions about love. When they part, she jokes with him, asking him if he is jealous that Edith Bartlett married someone else. Julian West confesses to his reader that he had felt such an irrational emotion, but at Edith’s joke, the bad feeling dissipated, and he assures her that he is not at all jealous.


The lightly drawn romantic plot reaches its culmination, just as the reader would have imagined. In this utopia, the hero does not even have to suffer a broken heart. His lost love is “reincarnated” for him. In effect, Julian West is able to enjoy a new and improved version of his fiancée. This Edith is an enlightened member of a superior society.


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