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Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 2 | Summary



As the chapter begins, Julian West recalls May 30, 1887, which was a holiday on which Union soldiers who had died in the Civil War were remembered. With Edith Bartlett and her family, he had visited the grave of Edith's older brother and then dined with her family. He read a report of further labor strikes, and he expressed his frustration. His remarks were met with sympathy, and Edith's mother commented that there were few places in the world that were not experiencing similar struggles. The only exceptions are a few places where residents, including the "Chinamen," resisted Western civilization. Edith looked especially beautiful to Julian that night in her mourning black, and he pulls her aside to suggest they get married despite the house delays. They could spend time traveling until it could be completed. He left early that night to rest, as he suffered from insomnia and hadn't slept the night before. As he kissed Edith goodnight and left, he says he had no idea that this particular night was different from any other.

Julian returned to his home, which had belonged to his parents and grandparents. It was in a part of town that had become unfashionable and would not suit his future wife. He lived there alone with his servant, "a faithful colored man by the name of Sawyer." As he found that the urban noise disrupted his rest, he had a concrete sleeping chamber built under the foundations of the house. It had a heavy metal door and was ventilated through a pipe. He explains that he employed a sort of quack doctor to put him into a "mesmeric sleep" so he could sleep when he went more than two nights without rest. He was supposed to be easily awakened in the morning by Sawyer who had been trained by Dr. Pillsbury, the mesmerist, to wake him. Julian acknowledges that the practice was not without risk, which is why he hadn't told Edith about it. He worried she would disapprove, but he knows he would have to tell her once they were married. Julian learned that Dr. Pillsbury was leaving town that evening to take a new position, but the doctor assured Julian that other mesmerists could be found in Boston. Julian explains that he was put to sleep by the doctor.


The author here uses foreshadowing to create anticipation and tension. Foreshadowing is a literary technique, also found in television and film, which gives the audience a hint of what is to come. It is often an ominous sign. The technique makes readers want to keep reading (or watching) to find out what happens next. In Chapter 2 Julian says he kissed Edith goodnight, and that "there was absolutely no premonition in my mind, or I am sure in hers, that this was more than an ordinary separation." In fact, his statement implies that this night was very different than a normal night and that it would somehow impact him and Edith in some significant way. Readers may wonder if it has something to do with the mesmerist and with Julian finding himself in the year 2000. The connection, however, is unclear as of yet.

The author develops the character of Edith Bartlett in this chapter. She is from an upper-class family and embodies the feminine ideal of the day. She is beautiful, intelligent, and desirable, and has proper pride and sorrow in her brother's death in the war. The narrator treats her like a delicate prize that must at once be protected and feared. He believes his parents' home isn't fit for her. She deserves the best of everything, and he believes he must provide her with a home in a better part of town. He worries she will "set her face against" his use of a mesmerist because of the slight danger to his life, so he resolves not to tell her until after they are married—he fears her disapproval or perhaps the chance she would prevent him from using the sleeping technique upon which he has become dependent.

It is notable that Sawyer is the only person of color mentioned in the novel, aside from a brief mention at the dinner party of "Chinamen" as a group who rejected Western civilization. During this time just 22 years after the end of the Civil War, most African Americans would have been freed slaves or the children of former slaves. Sawyer is described as a dutiful servant who obeys his employer, and that is all. The author's paternalistic view of African Americans is revealed in some of his other writings, including a sequel to Looking Backward, ironically titled Equality. Edward Bellamy supported women's suffrage, but as progressive as his views may have been in his day, modern readers may find that certain passages may also strike their ears as both racist and sexist. Modern readers may wonder as they read the coming chapters what happened to erase people of color from society, but perhaps the fact that these are the only two mentions of nonwhite characters shows that people of color were, in effect, already invisible in some sense to the author.

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