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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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In his novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy demonstrates his intense optimism with regard to the future of humanity. His optimism is supported by two beliefs: the belief in the power of reason to improve human situations and the belief in the basic goodness of humanity. The main improvement needed in the economic system is the elimination of the waste that is caused by the private organization of labor and production in the nineteenth century. Bellamy’s military model provides the system under which the necessary reforms can be worked. The moral argument of the novel relates to this theme. The novel argues for a re-visioning of the individual’s place in the whole of humanity; the focus is on common profit, not individual profit, as a worthy goal for society. The competitive ethos of capitalism is replaced by the cooperative ethos of Bellamy’s version of nationalism.

Bellamy’s utopia is a rationalist’s dream. Every facet of production, consumption, and even leisure has been rationalized. Bellamy demonstrates his belief that the highest level of human evolution is the achievement of super-rationality. The Leete family is a good illustration of rational principles applied to human beings, but the Leetes also reveal the gaps that appear when this theory is examined closely.

Doctor Leete is a man of science. He is happily retired from his service to the state, and he is now exercising his leisure in further study. He had intended to build a laboratory in his garden to study chemistry when the workers discovered the underground chamber of Julian West. Instead of worrying over the interruption in his studies, he goes to work on Julian West to transform him from a selfish, nineteenth-century man to a rational, twentieth-century citizen. In their talks, Doctor Leete stresses the rationality that bolsters the new society with the fervor of a preacher.

But Bellamy’s super-rationality does not apply to the women of the family. In the course of the novel, Mrs. Leete and Edith Leete’s jobs are never named. They are in the household all the time, even though they should be at work, according to Doctor Leete’s descriptions of the work force. Mrs. Leete seems nothing but a place holder in the family. She is named, and she has some part in conversations, but her role is little else. Edith Leete, on the other hand, is the repository of the nineteenth-century’s notions of sweet womanhood still existent in the twentieth century. Doctor Leete asserts that women in the twentieth century choose their mates in an effort to improve the human race. But Edith Leete falls in love with a nineteenth-century man, despite the fact that she has been trained to see the nineteenth century as selfish, lazy, morally corrupt, and irrational. She has no other role in the novel than as the love interest of the protagonist. When she is seen in the public space, it is when she has been asked by her father to take Julian West shopping. Her father indulgently says of her that she is an indefatigable shopper. However, when the reader sees what shopping consists of, the process seems so perfectly rational that it is hard to find what would be so compelling about the activity.

Therefore, in the Leete family, Bellamy demonstrates that his notion of rationality is reserved for men and the public space. In the private sphere of the family, the “irrational” nineteenth-century norms prevail. The women are silent when it comes to the discussion of social and economic questions; all intellectual discussion is left to the men, and the man remains the head of the household.

The second element of Bellamy’s utopia is its sense of applying the golden rule to social and economic questions. The common profit, not individual profit, is the ultimate goal of this state and society. The capitalist society of the nineteenth century is indicted for both its waste and its cruelty. The image of the huge carriage pulled by the struggling many and enjoyed by the privileged few begins the novel and provides a preview of the critique of the novel. Instead of viewing people as having a basic right to sustenance, the capitalist market views people as labor power, deserving of sustenance only if they can support themselves. Doctor Leete points out that no one is self-supporting. The richest person wholly relies on others to live a life of wealth, just as a handicapped person might rely on another person to get around in the city.

Bellamy’s assertion that a change in the economy would cause a change in morality is vitally important. Economy and ethics are very often divorced. For Bellamy, the corruption of politicians would no longer be a problem if there were no profit motive. The conspicuous display of wealth would no longer be necessary for asserting one’s worth as a human being. All work would be regarded as dignified and worthy of respect if all workers received the same pay, and the notion of charity would become obsolete if people were helped because they were people rather than because they produced something.


1. What is the extent of democracy in Bellamy’s new society?

2. Is there any room for dissent or rebellion in the new society?

3. What is the strongest critique Bellamy launches against capitalism?

4. What is life like for women in this society?

5. How much time in the action of the novel is spent in public spaces as opposed to in the home? Speculate on the significance of this ratio.

6. Are there any negative elements in Bellamy’s new society?

7. Why did Bellamy choose a man of the wealthy class as his protagonist instead of someone from the working class?

8. What are all the kinds of waste that the new society corrects?

9. What is different about home life in the new society?

10. What are some of the more interesting gadgets of the new society? What values do they reflect?

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