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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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Julian West is woken up by his manservant, Sawyer. To his horror, he finds himself back in the nineteenth century and realizes he has merely dreamed the new society. He sees the date on his newspaper. It is May 31, 1887. The captions of the news of the day tell of famine, labor strikes, violence against women, theft by rich and poor, and ends with an announcement on “Professor Brown’s oration on the moral grandeur of nineteenth-century civilization.” He is taken aback by this topic and shocked that no one else makes a connection between the rest of the news and this sermon.

He gets up and goes out wandering through the city. He goes toward Washington Street. On his way there, he notices the poverty existing side-by-side with the richness of dress and architecture. He is struck by all the advertising, which was absent from the new society of his dreams. It seems as if all the advertisements call out for the individual to buy their products at the expense of their competitors’. At Washington Street he stands still and laughs aloud in his astonishment. He sees hundreds of stores selling similar products in competition with one another.

He walks over to South Boston, where all the manufacturing establishments are. Before his dream, he had been proud of the great number of these establishments, but now he sees the waste involved in the competition among them. He marvels at the lack of rationality in this plan of production. He also notices many idle workers looking or waiting for work. When he speaks to them, they tell him their grievances and he commiserates with them, wondering at how any of these wasteful manufacturing establishments have the money to employ anyone, much less all the workers of the city.

Next, he moves on to State Street, where the banks and brokers’ offices are located. Everyone is in a great rush. He stands and watches it until a man of his acquaintance comes up to him assuming that he is looking at it in awe. This man calls the “wonderful piece of mechanism” of this business district a poem. He compares the bank to a heart, the heart of the business system. When the man leaves, Julian West thinks of the waste and irrationality of trusting the nation’s livelihood to the “haphazard efforts of individuals.”

Next, Julian West goes to the Common and sits and watches people passing. As he sits there, a military parade passes by. He cannot understand why people do not realize that the organization of the military, so universally admired, should be applied to the nation’s economy.

Then, he walks over to South Cove, a tenement district. Poor people call out to each other roughly. Poor children run and fight in the streets. The squalor of their housing shocks Julian West’s sensibilities. Even though he had seen this sight many times in the past, after his dream, he now sees these people as related to him in the human family, and he feels personally responsible for them. He realizes after a while that all these people are essentially dead. He feels a great sense of guilt over his own complacency within this system.

Finally, he comes to Commonwealth Avenue, where Edith Bartlett lives. It is dinnertime, and her family is entertaining guests. They invite him into the dining room, and he notices all the richness of the setting, as well as the richness of the people’s clothing. They tease him for his absence, and when he answers, he tells them he has been to Golgotha and that he has “seen humanity hanging on a cross.” He asks them if they know what is going on in their society. He tells them of the horrible conditions of their fellow human beings. When he finishes, he notices they are all looking at him in anger and astonishment. Edith looks humiliated and her father looks very angry.

He decides that he did not speak persuasively enough. He thinks the reaction of his audience must arise from their mistaken impression that he was blaming them, so he decides to reframe his discourse and convince them with reason and measure. He speaks calmly, reassuring them that it is not the fault of the rich. He adds that even if all income were suddenly equalized, the problems would not be solved because of the gross waste caused by the present mode of production and distribution. He describes all the waste of this system with examples and illustrations. He paints a picture of a new world possible if only people would reform the present system. The audience reacts even more strongly, calling for him to be thrown out. The men grab him and try to throw him out of the house and he struggles against them crying hysterically.

He groans and suddenly finds himself sitting up in his bed at the Leetes’ home. His return to the nineteenth century has itself been a dream. He is still in the twentieth century. Remembering all the sights of what he had seen in his dream, he feels an overwhelming sense of guilt that he did nothing while he lived to change things. He does not deserve to benefit from the labor and foresight of others. He sees Edith Leete walking in the garden and goes out to tell her of his worthlessness. She shows him mercy.


Bellamy subjects the reader to an emotional jolt in this chapter, as he throws his protagonist back into the nineteenth century with all the newfound knowledge of the perfection society can attain. Since the reader identifies with Julian West, the return to the nineteenth century is regarded as a terrible anti-climax. Bellamy demonstrates to the reader that to return to the nineteenth century’s complacency would be a terrible thing after witnessing the optimism of utopia.



Edward Bellamy responds in a letter to the Editor of the Boston Transcript. The critic had asserted that Bellamy should have projected the new society of his novel seventy-five centuries into the future, rather than a mere fifty years. Bellamy responds that the time is actually ripe for the changes he imagines in his book. He cites many historical instances of vast changes in a short amount of time. He points to the restlessness of nineteenth-century people in the face of the corrupt and unfair system under which they are living. He compares the change to an iceberg about to turn over. When an iceberg reaches warm water, it turns over and causes a great disturbance in the water.


Bellamy’s postscript indicates the seriousness with which he regarded the projections of his novel. He writes that even though it is cast in the form of a “fanciful romance,” it is “intended, in all seriousness, as a forecast, in accordance with the principles of evolution, of the next stage in the industrial and social development of humanity.” Bellamy uses the metaphor of evolution, theorized by Darwin as the developmental path taken by various species, and he applies this to the system of social and economic production. This metaphor makes the changes predicted seem inevitable.


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