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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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Julian West

The protagonist of Bellamy’s novel is virtually two people. At the opening of the novel, he is an aristocrat of late nineteenth-century Boston, and his main concern is hurrying the workers to build his new house so that he can marry his fiancée, Edith Bartlett. While in the nineteenth century, his concerns are limited to his class. Like other wealthy people, he regards labor strikes as inconveniences and poverty as an unfortunate but inevitable state of affairs to be blamed partially on the harshness of the world and partially on the poor themselves. He is a man of leisure, who considers social and economic issues only when they interfere with his own personal plans.

When he wakes in the twentieth century, his character undergoes a gradual change. He is taught compassion for others. He is shown how to think critically and rationally from a global, rather than from a purely personal or class-based, point of view. He eventually sees his own selfish complicity in a system that impoverished the majority for the benefit of the few. The reformed Julian West cannot return to his place of privilege in the nineteenth century. If he returned, he would become a passionate advocate of social and economic change.

In undergoing his reform, Julian West reveals other aspects of his personality. He is interested in what people think of him. He worries that people of the twentieth century will consider him a barbarian. Yet, he also bravely admits to his own limited thinking once he gains new insight into his complicity in the class system of his own time. He is willing to undergo a great deal of criticism in the interest of furthering people’s knowledge of the nineteenth century and his own knowledge of the advances made by the new society. In this, he is a rational thinker and a willing student of progressive thinking.

Julian West’s character is revealed in his responses to gender issues. In the nineteenth century, he is a man of leisure interested in marrying a woman of leisure. His courtship of Edith Bartlett seems devoted, but not outstanding in any way, despite her great-grand-daughter’s estimation of him as a lover. When he wakes in the twentieth century, he does not even think of his fiancée for quite a while and when he does, he gets over her loss with little grief. In fact, he transfers his affections to Edith Leete within a week. Bellamy was non-romantic in constructing this character. The love affair in

Looking Backward is merely a plot device to make the novel more interesting. Julian West is attracted to Edith Leete for her tender compassion, a quality found in many nineteenth-century literary heroines.

Doctor Leete

Bellamy does not develop the character of Doctor Leete very fully. He is the twentieth-century rational man and a representative of the glory of compassion and communal living. He is the kindly patriarch of his family, giving in to his wife and daughter’s ideas, but maintaining his role as the head of the family and the main spokesperson for the new century.

Edith Leete

Edith Leete is also a fairly flat character. Her rationality and assertiveness are mentioned as dominant traits, but her truly dominant traits are those of the nineteenth-century ideal of womanhood: compassion for men, tearful sentimentality, and a love of material goods.


The plot of Looking Backward is almost nonexistent: it is a novel of ideas. Little action occurs. The hero’s character evolves from that of a man who is ignorant and passively corrupt to one who is enlightened. At the end of the novel, he weeps for his “sin” of complicity within the nineteenth century’s dehumanizing mode of capitalist production. The hero’s path to enlightenment, therefore, gives the novel a plot of ascent. The hero ascends to a new level of enlightenment and looks back on his past with shame and pity. The people of the twentieth century share a similar attitude toward the nineteenth century in general.

There is also the minor plot of the love story between Julian West and Edith Leete. They are united after Edith’s mother reveals her daughter’s identity, which is closely linked with that of Julian’s original fiancée.

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