Looking Backward

To: Mr. Roskom
From: Charlie Gorichanaz
Date: December 19, 2005
Re: Book Review Outline – Looking Backward
Looking Backward
I. Introduction
a. Background
i. Edward Bellamy born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1850.
ii. Not first in family with unorthodox ideas
iii. Interested in social reform, despised human suffering and cruelty
b. Book
i. Story of 1887 man who awakens in the year 2000
ii. Features utopia
iii. Takes place in Boston, MA – not much is the same as in 1887
II. The Body
a. Characters believable, but function more as pawns in Bellamy’s explanation of his utopian ideas
b. Plot likewise is logical, serving as a vehicle for getting the message across. The main character, Julian West, functions as the audience would, asking questions pertinent to the believability of the utopia. Dr. Leete, West’s modern rescuer, serves the purpose of explaining all aspects of the futuristic society.
i. Sometimes the dialog can seem rather absurd as Bellamy tries to get his points across to the audience
c. Theme –Bellamy’s future – a global utopia, where corporations and trusts eventually coalesced into the Great Trust, essentially the one company and government in one, owning all land and capital
i. The benefits of the arrangement
ii. Virtually no cons are mentioned – doesn’t seem very realistic, as Bellamy has an answer to every possible contradiction Julian West comes up with
III. Conclusion
a. Influential to me
i. Benefits of working together for the common good
ii. The real necessities in life are not material, as shown by the characters
iii. Simple astonishment at thought of a world without money, war or social hierarchy
b. Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
i. Published by Random House, Inc.
ii. 1887, 1951
iii. 276 pages
To: Mr. Roskom
From: Charlie Gorichanaz
Date: January 10, 2006
Re: Book Review
Looking Backward
Perfect worlds do exist. The trouble is that sometimes such worlds exist only in the imagination – in the imagination of Edward Bellamy, for instance. One of few who not only thought of ways to improve the world, but also pieced together every aspect of an ideal society and then published that vision, Bellamy certainly stands with a small cluster of distinguished authors of the late nineteenth century. He was born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1850. A product of a family of unorthodox thinkers, Bellamy was interested in social reform. He despised class distinction, money, and all the things that cause human suffering – a disposition which motivated him to publish Looking Backward in 1887. Under the romance-novel façade, the book is really a thought-provoking prophesy that exposes the roots of all human suffering and offers a solution to nearly every problem known to man. Looking Backward, though it lacks a captivating plot, does well to describe Bellamy’s vision of a perfect world and the human ideas, such as money and private enterprise, which prevented that perfect world from existing.
The story begins with an introduction to Julian West’s life. Mr. West is a wealthy man of thirty years, engaged to the beautiful Edith Barton. Together they live in a world of labor-strikes and depression, a world where the rich are very rich, and the poor are very poor. They live in Boston, in 1887. Chapter Three turns Mr. West’s life upside-down. He is awakened from his deep sleep not by his servant, but by a strange man, Dr. Leete. Mr. West had slept over one-hundred years, and it is now the year 2000. Bellamy explains this by stating that Mr. West was put in a deep trance through hypnosis. In this way, Bellamy makes Looking Backward seem not too futuristic, but only slightly beyond the present reality.
At the surface, this is a romance novel about Mr. West’s complicated love for two women of different centuries. The real purpose for Bellamy’s writing this novel, though, is to point out what he sees as the underlying problems with human society in 1887. In Bellamy’s year 2000, money is abolished, no class distinction exists, and all human needs are met by the government. There are no stores, banks, lawyers, or need for them. Not much is left to private enterprise, one of the main faults of the old way, as the author sees it. The problems with privatization are illustrated in Chapter 22 by Dr. Leete’s explanation of old-world wastes:

‘The wastes which resulted from leaving the conduct of industry to irresponsible individuals, wholly without mutual understanding or concert, were mainly four: first, the waste by mistaken undertakings; second, the waste from the competition and mutual hostility of those engaged in industry; third, the waste by periodical gluts and crises, with the consequent interruptions of industry; fourth, the waste from idle capital and labor, at all times. Any one of these four great leaks, were all the others stopped, would suffice to make the difference between wealth and poverty on the part of a nation (p. 188).’

By chapter five, the pacing and structure of the book become fairly consistent. Mr. West becomes the reader’s voice – the critic. Dr. Leete on the other hand is both a mentor and the author, in a way. Dr. Leete explains every aspect of the utopian twentieth century society, and he seems to have an answer to every possible criticism that Mr. West brings to the doctor’s attention. For this reason, Looking Backward strikes me as being a bit unrealistic. Any concessions Dr. Leete makes are then nullified by a description of why that particular point no longer matters. For example, at the end of Chapter 11, Mr. West surmises from Dr. Leete’s explanations that since doctor fees are always the same, and people can choose their own doctors, “good doctors are called constantly and the poor doctors left in idleness (p. 96).” Dr. Leete replies by stating that there are no poor doctors, for “anybody who pleases to get a little smattering of medical terms is not now at liberty to practice on the bodies of citizens, as in your day.”
Each of the chapters covers an aspect of the new society. The book is systematic in this way, taking on one change in society at a time, explaining it, and dispelling any criticisms Mr. West can come up with. Because of this, the dialogue often seems contrived. The author’s purpose was more to describe his utopian vision and the faults of his society than to present a smooth, completely feasible dialogue. This passage from page 124 is typical of the conversation in Looking Backward:
‘Personal service, such as waiting on tables, was considered menial, and held in such contempt, in my day, that persons of culture and refinement would suffer hardship before condescending to it.’
‘What a strangely artificial idea,’ exclaimed Mrs. Leete wonderingly.
‘And yet these services had to be rendered,’ said Edith.
‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘But we imposed them on the poor, and those who had no alternative but starvation.’
‘And increased the burden you imposed on them by adding your contempt,’ remarked Dr. Leete.
‘I don’t think I clearly understand,’ said Edith. ‘Do you mean that you permitted people to do things for you which you despised them for doing, or that you accepted services from them which you would have been unwilling to render them? You can’t surely mean that, Mr. West?’
I was obliged to tell her that the fact was just as she had stated.

Bellamy attempts to make the dialogue seem plausible, but oftentimes it is does not come across as natural conversation. Dr. Leete usually speaks of nineteenth-century society as if he knew exactly what it was like, and what the disadvantages of it were. Another example appears on page 132:
‘To judge from the complaints of the writers of your day, this absolute equality of opportunity would have been greatly prized.’
‘In the recognition of merit in other fields of original genius, such as music, art, invention, design,’ I said, ‘I suppose you follow a similar principle.’
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘although the details differ. In art, for example, as in literature, the people are the sole judges.’

Spreading the ideas behind the dialogue was the author’s main goal. Likewise, Dr. Leete’s explanations often seem artificial because they usually are paragraphs upon lengthy paragraphs for each of Mr. West’s short questions. Dr. Leete obviously has a lot to say, for much has changed in a hundred years, but the style of the book can leave the reader feeling like he or she is reading a simple description of futuristic systems, and not a conversation between two people. Along these lines, the dialogue is not usually incredibly exciting, but the ideas behind it are interesting and thought-provoking. The notion that a near-perfect world can be obtained by a change in philosophy is quite a concept, and Bellamy does a good job of explaining the transformation, even though his story does not involve incredible characters and riveting plots.
Through Looking Backward, Bellamy shows many faults of nineteenth-century society, faults which lead to greed, social inequality, and suffering. The plot is only mediocre, but that does not prevent Bellamy’s message from reaching the audience. Nothing overly-exciting happens to any of the characters for a large portion of the book. Most of the dialogue is Dr. Leete’s explanations of each aspect of the new world. Looking Backward is interesting, nevertheless, because of its ideas about how humans can achieve a better society. As a result, Edward Bellamy is one of the most renowned authors of his time. Even beyond the political motives of the book, readers can gain a great new perspective on life: the real necessities are not material, but exist in the bonds we form with our brothers and sisters who share in our lives.