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Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 19 | Summary



Julian West goes for a morning walk in Charlestown and notices the absence of the state prison that had once been there. Dr. Leete tells him that prisons no longer exist. The absence of private property and thus of unequal distribution of goods along with universal "education and good manners" has removed the motive for most crime. Any instances which remain are treated as atavism, which is a leftover trait of a less evolved ancestor. As such, it is treated in hospitals, as it calls for "compassion and firm but gentle restraint." Criminals are viewed in much the same way that people of Julian's day thought of kleptomaniacs, people who had a mental problem beyond their own control. Julian remarks that the court system must have very little to do. Dr. Leete explains that motives for lying have also nearly disappeared, so the guilty nearly always plead as such. In the rare cases of a not-guilty plea, a judge appoints two other judges to argue each side of the case. Then all three must agree upon a verdict. Judges are appointed after they achieve retirement age and serve a term of five years with a chance to serve another. Dr. Leete explains that the only federal functions of government that remain are police and judiciary, with a small allowance of workers for municipal organization and work.


Without motivations of greed and the lust for possessions, crime has all but disappeared in the 20th century. Modern readers may find this concept the most difficult to swallow. However, the idea might have been more believable to Edward Bellamy's contemporary readers who had more confidence in the concepts of social Darwinism. This theory argued that humanity was gradually evolving and improving and that its best traits, those of its fittest citizens, would eventually replace those of its worst. Social Darwinism began to lose followers in the 20th century as research began to disprove its assumptions. Readers today are more inclined to find dystopian novels, rather than utopian, compelling given the history which has unfolded since the writing of the novel and the state of the world that really existed in the year 2000.

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