Looking Backward

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward includes a summary of the novel, teaching suggestions, and enrichment resources.
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Updated on: November 8, 2000
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Looking Backward

by Edward Bellamy


Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy is a novel that takes the reader from the end of the 19th century into an idealistic vision of the 21st century. In many ways Looking Backward is a 19th century romantic novel; yet, on another level the novel is a complex investigation of the possibilities of humanity as the conversations unfold between Julian West, the narrator and time traveler, and Dr. leetee, his 21st century guide and mentor. Through these often Socratic conversations, Bellamy provides the reader with insight into the social problems and ills of the mid-to-late 19th century as well as with a vision of a utopian possibility for the millennium.

This rich, multi-faceted novel can be used successfully in a variety of high school courses. Younger students are fascinated with the time travel aspect as well as the predictions about Julian West's future, which is the contemporary reader's present. Older students are able to explore the frame structure and intricacies of Bellamy's themes.

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) is also of compelling interest to students who enjoy biographical criticism. Attorney, newspaper reporter, novelist, and social activist, Bellamy enjoyed success in his own time. Utopian societies formed after the publication of Looking Backward will also be of some interest to more advanced students.

This guide is divided into three sections. The first section provides a summary of the novel. The second section contains teaching suggestions for the novel. The final section contains further resources for enrichment.


Chapters One and Two

The novel opens with our narrator Julian West introducing himself to the reader, providing some background information about the state of society in the late 1880s, and illustrating how he, as a man of the upper classes, is irritated by the strikes and protests of the working classes. Peeved that the turmoil of society interrupts the comforts and plans of his own life, West encourages his fiancee to move up the date of their marriage. Securing a promise from her, he returns home and prepares for sleep.

At this point, we begin the adventure. West, an insomniac, makes use of a peculiar medical practice of a "Professor of Animal Magnetism" who mesmerizes him into a deep sleep from which his man-servant must awaken him with prescribed instructions. That this is a regular custom for West when he has gone several days without sleep gives him security, and he closes his eyes on May 30, 1887.

Chapters Three though Seven

West wakes up to the voices of three people and learns that it is September 10, 2000. Mildly disturbed by a young female voice imploring that he not be told about something, West is more distressed to learn that his house had burned, apparently during the night of May 30, 1887 and that, 113 years later, the present occupants of the site found his underground bed chamber with him in it. Nursed to health by Dr. leetee, West begins his slow recovery and orientation to Boston in the year 2000. Surveying Boston from the top of Dr. leetee's home, West first learns that wealth is now employed to enhance the city rather than being "lavished in private luxury," as it was in West's time. Slowly, Dr. leetee introduces West to modern society and the change time has brought to America while West slept in his subterranean chamber. West is shocked to discover that government controls industry and commerce; there are no political parties, no corruption, no wars, and no child labor. Society works to educate the young, protect the elderly, and combat poverty. Moreover, to West's astonishment, all of these changes in American society were accomplished without violence or bloodshed.

Chapters Eight through Twelve

West awakens to find himself thoroughly disoriented and despondent. Taking matters into his own hands, he sets off to stroll the streets of Boston. Finding things both similar and vastly changed, he becomes more depressed and returns to the leetees' home and to the comfort of Edith, their daughter. West's evident gloom leads to more enlightening conversations with the good doctor. This series of lessons includes information about the equal distribution of wealth and the educational practices of the 21st century. Edith then takes Julian on a shopping trip, during which he learns first hand about the shopping practices of modern Boston, the use of credit cards and pneumatic transfers of goods. Upon their return home, Edith instructs Julian in the use of phone lines through which all forms of entertainment, which are available twenty-four hours a day at the click of a button, are instantly brought into the home.

Chapters Thirteen through Eighteen

The former insomniac Julian West is lulled to sleep by the musical program offered through these telephone lines. Upon awakening he receives more education from Dr. leetee, learning that there is the equivalent of international currency through the use of the credit cards issued to all citizens. West spends the morning hours reading Dickens after learning that modern society's standards of art equate literary merit with political concerns (p. 110). Dining out that evening, West sees how streets are maintained with coverings against storms and rain and learns that the Boston of the year 2000 is a classless society devoid of social and economic divisions among people. After their meal at the restaurant, West returns to the leetee library and is instructed by Dr. leetee on the fundamentals and changes in publishing. There is no censorship, and the writer himself or herself must finance their first publications.

The following morning Edith greets West before he can slip out alone into the streets. Their conversation reveals the beginnings of a possible love interest and the furthering of the mystery introduced in the second chapter when West heard a feminine voice urging Dr. leetee to keep silent about something. The beginning of a conversation about tracing one's genealogy causes Edith to turn pensive. Dr. leetee then accompanies West on an excursion about the city, visiting the warehouses where goods are stored. The instruction in a classless society is continued and complimented by leetee's lessons about the publishing industry, the service industries, and the intricacies of the functioning of government and the role of the President. A late night conversation with the doctor provides West with additional insight into the integrity and reward offered by service to the national interest. Because of the high status accorded recreation, citizens of 2000 participate in numerous leisurely pursuits negating the need for professional athletes and teams.

Chapters Nineteen and Twenty

The following morning West enjoys a brief visit to Charleston and notices, among other things, the disappearance of prisons. His observation gives Dr. leetee an opportunity to explain how the classless society and equal distribution of wealth have led to a reduction in crime, making the need for prisons and lawyers obsolete. Such crimes as exist are motiveless in a society where no one is hungry, cold or otherwise lacking in the basic necessities of life; therefore, citizens who commit crimes are considered atavistic and treated in hospitals. Furthermore, West learns that the increase in the standard of living for all peoples has ensured equality to the degree that there is no need for lying, and falsehood is unknown. That same afternoon, Edith accompanies West on a visit to his former bedchamber. There he shares with Edith a picture of his former fiancee and his amazement that the gold he had locked in his safe is now useless. While Edith is able to share his interest in the picture in the locket, she is completely unable to comprehend his awe in the decreased capacity of the gold.

Chapters Twenty-one through Twenty-three

The next morning gives West a chance to learn about the educational system which rests on: (1) the right of every man to the most complete education the nation can give him on his own account, as necessary to his enjoyment of himself; (2) the right of his fellow citizens to have him educated, as necessary to their enjoyment of his society; (3) the right of the unborn to be guaranteed an intelligent and refined parentage (p. 153).

That same evening, West inquires about the mode of production and the current status of money and credit. Dr. leetee instructs West about the dangers inherent in a capitalistic society. According to Dr. leetee, a society based on credit is socially stratified with huge breaches between the classes. These inequities brought America close to catastrophe before a radical restructuring eliminated credit and the classed society which accompanied it.

Later that same evening, West brings himself to tell Edith that the morning he awoke to find himself in the year 2000 he heard her beg her father, "Promise me, then, that you will not tell him" (p. 167). West explains to Edith that this mystery has been of some interest to him and he wants her to resolve his questions. Edith, distressed by West's request, refuses to tell him what he wants to know but promises to tell him at some future time, to be determined by West's readiness to hear. This dialogue furthers the mystery and enhances the suspense of the plot. West finds himself falling in love with Edith.

Chapters Twenty-four through Twenty-seven

The next morning West goes in search of Edith, and when he can't find her, he visits again with Dr. leetee, who tells him of the disappearance of anarchists and other divisive parties and the emergence of the national party which worked to unite all citizens. This conversation, combined with West's increasing interest in Edith, leads him to inquire about the status of women. In the year 2000, women are accorded equal status, having the same rights, choices, and responsibilities as men. They are fully independent members of society and are in no way dependent on fathers or husbands for their security. Motherhood, particularly, is deemed of utmost importance to the health of society in general, and women who choose motherhood are applauded for their service to the unborn and to the future of society.

The following morning, West is treated to a sermon brought into the home via the same phone lines through which music and entertainment is selected. The service Dr. leetee chooses, delivered by a Mr. Barton, is occasioned by the minister's awareness of West's presence, "a critic from the 19th century" among them and is a treatise on the moral inferiority of the 19th century. The message of the sermon, the melancholy mood of Sundays in general, and the feeling that the leetees' kindness to him is born out of society's general respect to others rather than individual kindness leads West to a full realization of his love for Edith. Confronting her in the garden, he reveals his love for her and she, in turn, acknowledges similar feelings for him. Directing him to Mrs. leetee, Edith retreats.

West goes to Mrs. leetee and learns that Edith leetee is the great-granddaughter of his former fiancee Edith Bartlett. From Mrs. leetee, West goes to Edith herself and they profess their love for each other. They both proceed to Dr. leetee, who provides his blessing to the couple, and West learns, at last, that what Edith had not wanted her father to tell him upon his awakening was her kinship to Edith Bartlett. The mystery solved, his love requited, West goes to sleep.

Chapter Twenty-eight

West awakens to the sound of his man-servant's voice bringing him out of the mesmerism. He finds himself in Boston, May 1887, having dreamed all of his visit to the year 2000. Wandering the streets of Boston, he sees his surroundings as he never has before. Instead of being irritated by the inconveniences of the workers' strikes, he sees with fresh eyes the injustice of the class society and the horrors of poverty. With his recently acquired twentieth-century awareness, West surveys his own 19th-century surroundings and is appalled. Finding himself in front of his former fiancee's house, he joins her, her family, and their guests at dinner. Overwhelmed by what he has seen and experienced, he attempts to enlighten the company about the plight of their fellows who are in less fortunate circumstances. His passion roused, West exhorts those assembled to take action against the ills of society he has witnessed. Outraged, the diners protest his vision of their society and Edith's father throws him out.

West wakens once again to find himself really in Dr. leetee's house and the knowledge that his awakening to life in the 19th century to have been the dream. Freshly aware of his fortune and enlightenment in the year 2000 and for his complicity in the misfortunes of others during his own era, West runs to Edith leetee begging forgiveness, and, happily, receiving it.

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