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Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Chapter 28 | Summary



This chapter provides another surprise: Julian West is awakened the next morning by Sawyer and finds himself back in his old bedchamber. He must conclude that his time in the 20th century had been a dream after all. He never left 1887 at all. He picks up the newspapers, which are dated May 31 of that year, confirming his conclusions, and reads the table of contents, which is filled with news of labor disputes, violence, poverty, and global strife. He leaves the house to spend the day walking around Boston. After his visions of a new social order in 2000, he is struck by the disparities between classes that he witnesses around him in the present, the inefficiency of business, the corruption of banks, and the missed opportunity to apply military organization to the industrial system. He finds himself in a tenement amidst "the festering mass of human wretchedness," and he imagines he sees each miserable, dead face "superimposed" with the spirit it could have had if each person had been nurtured properly.

Horrified and heartsick, he finds himself at the door of Edith Bartlett. He is invited inside to join the dinner party. He wonders how the Bartletts and their guests can be so oblivious to suffering so close by. He confronts them about the misery he has witnessed, and they react in anger. Try as he might to explain the alternative social order that could solve all the unhappiness around them, they want nothing to do with him. Anguished, he wakes himself from what he knows is but a bad dream interrupting his real utopia and finds himself back in the 20th century, even more grateful for the chance to live in such a better world of the future. He finds Edith waiting for him, faithful and soothing.


The author uses Julian West's nightmare to contrast the utopia he has come to know with the 19th-century life once so familiar to him. This reinforces the author's argument that the socialist nation is vastly superior to capitalism. Through the eyes of Julian, who has seen a better reality—a peaceful, plentiful, equitable society—the ills of 19th-century Boston stand out all the more. There is power in Julian's horror because he now understands such suffering and inequality is unnecessary. This is why he is so desperate at the dinner party at the Bartletts' home. He wants to convince them all that there is an alternative, that there is a solution. He is frustrated to find that he cannot even convince them to appreciate the problem, which he acutely feels. The author wants the reader to feel this desperation to bring about change, to believe with Julian in the possibility of utopia, of a brighter, hopeful, new nation.

The ending of the novel is a bookend, mirroring the beginning of the novel. The narrator once again wakes to find himself in a different time. This second awakening also serves to tie up some loose ends. Julian's time back in the 19th century cuts any remaining ties he felt to them. He does not feel any sentimentality about the society, place, or people of that time. He can see them for what they really are: miserable, wasteful, and cold. Without those ties, he can now exist fully in the 20th century with no longing for his former life. Notice, however, that the plot twist of awakening in another time takes two turns. First, the reader is to believe Julian's week in the 20th century has been a dream. Then the reader realizes Julian's awakening back in the 19th century was really the dream. In the end, Julian wakens to escape the ultimate nightmare of life under capitalism in 1887, which led Edward Bellamy to write the complex story as a call to real social change.

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