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Course Hero, "Looking Backward Study Guide," October 25, 2017, accessed December 13, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Looking-Backward/.

Looking Backward | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The novel's narrator, Julian West, says he was born in Boston in December of 1857. He acknowledges that readers will question this claim because he appears to be only about 30 years old in the year 2000. He asks readers to listen to his account of how he came to live in their own time.

First, he explains that society in the 19th century was divided along lines of wealth and education into four classes, or nations. For his own part, Julian was wealthy and educated and thus enjoyed many benefits others did not. His wealth did not come from his own work but from money he inherited. He now understands that this inherited wealth was "shifting the burden of one's support on the shoulders of others." It was like a "tax in perpetuity upon the product of those engaged in industry which a person possessing or inheriting money was able to levy."

West provides an analogy for the social system which made this way of living possible. He likens it to a "prodigious coach" which is driven by hunger. Those who sit on the top of the coach, as he did, often get their seats from parents and grandparents and hope to pass them on to their children. They come to believe that they deserve this place and that they are in some way fundamentally different and better than those individuals below who strain to pull the coach. The riders may encourage those who pull in difficult places and feel badly for them, but they do nothing to alter things in any meaningful way. If they are unlucky, they may slip off the coach and be forced to pull it. Similarly, those lucky enough to climb onto the coach quickly come to believe they deserve to ride, forgetting those below quickly enough. The narrator claims that no one thought there was an alternative to this system.

In his life in the 19th century, Julian's fiancée, Edith Bartlett, had also been of the wealthy class. They were to be wed as soon as their home was built. Unfortunately for them, labor strikes, which had been "nearly incessant since the great business crisis of 1873," were delaying its completion. The discontent of the working class and economic depression were bringing class and economic tensions to a loggerhead, and many worried about the threat of anarchy breaking out to disrupt everyone's life. The narrator says his main worry at the time was the delay it was causing to the start of his own married life.

Analysis

Julian West comments that he was both wealthy and educated. Moreover, his money was not his own earnings but rather from investments and inheritance. He is describing how the Industrial Revolution created a new class of people, known as the rentier class, who had no need to work but were able to live off of the interest from their investments alone. Julian likens this type of income to a tax the rich are able to oblige the working class to pay "in perpetuity." Now looking back, he claims the rich put the burden of their living onto the backs of the poor.

Julian's analogy of the coach is a memorable and scathing critique of the unregulated capitalist system of the 19th century. The poor working class strain to pull the huge coach, which is loaded down with the weight of the idle rich. Although the rich may pity the poor and offer encouragement and sympathy, they do not get off to lighten the load or offer to help pull. Julian explains to his imagined 20th-century readers, who may well be appalled at the cruelty of the system, that neither the riders nor those who pull believed there was any alternative to the existing system. The coach analogy paints a picture of the 19th century as a time of great inequality, suffering, unmerited privilege, and callousness.

The analogy is apt in many respects. The late 19th century was a time of labor disputes, widespread strikes, and government corruption, just as the author says. Labor conditions were often dangerous, and few regulations existed to protect workers. The gap between the rich and poor widened as industrialists formed trusts to quash competition and the owners accumulated enormous wealth. The narrator points to the depression of 1873 as the start of the economic and social upheaval and says this was the catalyst for the social revolution that gave rise to the new order in which he currently lives.

The author develops the character of the narrator briefly in the first chapter. Julian seems to be a changed man. He describes his privileged position and beliefs in the 19th century while commenting on the cost to others that he was unable to fully appreciate at the time. Of course, he has the benefit of hindsight, living in a new social order, which he will go on to explain in great depth in coming chapters. In this first chapter, however, Julian merely implies that his views have changed. He is aware of how callous, selfish, and entitled he had been, stating that his main concern at the time had been the delay the strikes were causing to his wedding and the construction of their home. By implication, he was not worried about suffering on the part of the workers.

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