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Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 14 | Summary



In this chapter, Dr. Leete, his wife, daughter, and Julian West walk to dinner, sheltered from a downpour by a "continuous waterproof covering" that hangs over the sidewalks. Dr. Leete thinks the difference between the mindsets of the 19th and 20th centuries is perfectly summed up by the fact that in Julian's day "when it rained, the people of Boston put up three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads, and in the twentieth century they put up one umbrella over all the heads."

The public dining hall is an impressive, ornate building with a private dining room for each family in the ward as well as places for visitors. At dinner, they are served by a young waiter. Julian is surprised to learn the man is not embarrassed by his "menial" job, and more surprised still to learn Dr. Leete, too, served as a waiter during his three years of unskilled labor. The Leetes, in turn, are astonished and disapproving that anyone should expect to be served in a manner in which they themselves would not be willing to serve. Dr. Leete claims that "the equal wealth and equal opportunities of culture which all persons now enjoy have simply made us all members of one class," so there is "no sort of difference between the dignity of the different sorts of work required by the nation." In a note to the chapter, Julian expresses the opinion that "the most distinguishing felicity of this age ... [is] the dignity ... given to labor by refusing to set a price upon it and abolishing the marketplace forever."


Dr. Leete provides a striking, symbolic allegory for of the difference in the mindset of the individualistic 19th-century society and the communal concerns of the 20th century. In the 19th century each person carried an umbrella and acted individually to protect himself or herself from the rain. In the 20th century everyone collaborated in protecting themselves from the rain: a single covering goes up all over the city to shield everyone.

Another contrast between the mindset of the two centuries can be seen in the views of menial labor. Julian is amazed to see the waiter contentedly performing his task, which people of Julian's class believed was beneath them. The Leetes, in contrast, are surprised that people in Julian's day would consider such work as beneath them, or that some people might look down on someone who does such a job. The dignity in all work comes, according to Dr. Leete, from the negation of the class system. Because all people have an equal income, or credits, all jobs are likewise viewed as equally useful to the nation. Julian is convinced that equal "pay" for all work gives all work the same dignity, and calls the concept "the most distinguished felicity of the age."

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