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Looking Backward | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

As Edith Leete and Julian West walk to the store, she asks him to explain the system of shopping in his own day. They come to agree it was most inefficient for shoppers to make decisions on what to buy with so many different shops to visit and without a comprehensive understanding of the quality and variety of products available. They arrive at the store for her ward, an impressive, light-filled building with frescoed ceilings, a dome, and a central fountain. It is filled with samples of all of the products available in the country. Edith explains that each store in the country carries the same samples. Shoppers place their order with a clerk who, in contrast to clerks in Julian's day who were motivated by the need to sell their wares, has no motivations in the transaction except to record the orders correctly. The orders are placed in a pressurized tube and speed to the central warehouse in the city to be filled and shipped to the customer through larger tubes. Edith claims her items will likely arrive before she could have carried them home herself. In more rural areas the tubes may serve a series of villages (although Julian adds a timely footnote, just as the book is going into print, that the rural system is being changed so that every village will have its own pneumatic tube for quicker delivery of goods).

On the way back to the Leetes' home, Julian notes the difference in the sizes of houses and asks Edith what accounts for the difference when each person's credits are the same. She says houses are chosen based on personal preference. Some larger homes are affordable to larger families who have numerous members to contribute to the rent, while others are occupied by those who choose to spend a larger portion of their credits in that manner. She says she prefers to spend her credits on fine clothes. It's a matter of personal choice. Everyone understands that "what is spent one way must be saved another," so there is no motive to pretend to have wealth one doesn't have, as in Julian's day.

Analysis

During the shopping trip, Julian West contrasts the pitfalls of 19th-century commerce with the perfect solutions of the 20th-century system. While 19th-century shoppers had to visit shop after shop in order to learn what products were available and at what prices in order to make shrewd buying decisions, 20th-century shoppers had only to visit one store. Shoppers during the 19th century were often preyed upon by deceitful clerks who were motivated by necessity, and sometimes greed, to sell the shopper items at the highest prices they could, sometimes even convincing them to buy things they didn't need or want. Clerks in the 20th century have no such motivations; they simply record the shoppers' choices. While shoppers in rural areas in the 19th century may have had limited products available, all stores in the 20th century carry the same items. Shoppers in the 20th century also have their order filled and delivered quickly and efficiently. The author makes it clear through this contrast that the 20th-century system of his own devising not only has a solution to every problem of 19th-century commerce, it is infinitely superior as well.

The description of the distribution system for goods using pneumatic tubes reminds readers why the utopian novel is a subset of the science fiction genre. Pneumatic tubes work by using air pressure to push or pull items through a tube. Such pneumatic tubes are still sometimes used at drive-up banks, carrying capsules with deposits and money back and forth to the teller inside. Although pneumatic devices were in use at the time the novel was written, their application in an extensive network for delivery of goods was far beyond the capabilities of the 19th century. It would have struck readers at the time as quite fantastic that Edith could place her order, have it fulfilled at a central warehouse, and delivered to her home in the amount of time it would otherwise take her to carry the items home. It would have seemed very futuristic and high tech.

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