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Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Plot Summary

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The anonymous narrator of the preface, writing in December of 2000, emphasizes to readers that the peaceful society they must be enjoying will likely make it difficult for them to understand the harsh realities of life in the 19th century. To help them appreciate the change, he says the author has written the history in the form of a romantic novel, told in their own time by the narrator Julian West. West was born in 1857, a date that he assures readers is not a mistake. He assumes they will be incredulous because Julian appears to be only 30 years old, not 143! He asks readers to bear with him as he explains how he came to a part of their world in the year 2000.

Julian had spent his last day in the 19th century with his fiancée Edith Bartlett and her family. They were commemorating the death of Edith's elder brother and other Union soldiers on Decoration Day, May 30, 1887. At dinner that evening, the family lamented all the labor strife in the world. Julian resents the strikes because they were delaying the building of his future home with his bride to be.

As he often had trouble sleeping, Julian had designed an underground bedchamber that completely blocked out all noise from the city. Even with this aid, however, he struggled to sleep. When he would suffer through a series of sleepless nights, he called upon a type of amateur doctor, Dr. Pillsbury, to put him into a deep "mesmeric sleep." In the morning his servant Sawyer would awaken him.

The night following his dinner with Edith and her family, the doctor and Sawyer attended Julian in his underground bedchamber. Julian fell into an especially deep sleep, a type of trance. Upon awakening he hears unfamiliar voices. A woman asks a man not to tell him something, and the man urges the women to leave. Dr. Leete introduces himself to Julian as he wakes up in a strange room. He asks Dr. Leete where he is and how he got there. Dr. Leete gradually reveals that he found Julian in a state of suspended animation in his chamber. It had been unearthed in an excavation on Leete's property. Julian has slept for over 113 years, since 1887. His home had burned down, but his chamber remained undisturbed. No one but Sawyer and Dr. Pillsbury knew to look for him there. However, Sawyer probably died in the fire and Pillsbury had left town that evening after leaving Julian in the trance. Julian reacts in disbelief at the news. It is not until Dr. Leete shows him the transformed city of Boston from the house rooftop that Julian accepts that he is in the future.

Julian asks Dr. Leete what has become of the labor conflicts he left behind. Dr. Leete begins to explain the changes the world has undergone during the years since Julian fell asleep. A revolution has created a new type of society. The nation "organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed." The greed and corruption of unregulated capitalism ended. The nation became the sole owner of all industries and property, as well as the sole employer.

Alone the next morning, Julian is overcome with what has happened to him. In distress, he walks aimlessly around the city. Just when he thinks he will lose his mind, Edith Leete reaches out to him in empathy. He credits her kindness with saving his sanity. Edith takes Julian to see the new version of shopping, which is a store with samples of every item produced in the nation. She places her order, which is delivered by pneumatic tube to the central distributing office. This office then rapidly processes orders for delivery to homes via the same types of tubes. She shows Julian another technological advancement which is used in the home. A telephone type of cable system connects homes with live musical performances.

Julian asks Dr. Leete how the rest of the world has fared. Julian is surprised to learn that most of the world has adopted the same social order. Plus, a governing body oversees international relations and economic interactions. That evening Julian dines with the Leetes at the public dining hall. Everything in the nation, he learns, is efficient and logically organized. Money is obsolete, Dr. Leete explains. Each citizen receives the same amount of credit each year from which the prices all of products they could want or need is deducted. Every citizen, even those too ill to work or those who retire (generally at the age of 45) are guaranteed the same credits for life. Much work is done cooperatively, including laundry and cooking. All able male citizens between the ages of 21 and 45 are a part of the industrial army. They are each given a particular type of work suited to his abilities and desires.

Women are part of an allied force with slightly different rules, but they, too, contribute to the workings of the nation. Any excess wealth is spent by the nation on public amenities that are enjoyed by all, such as parks and buildings. Dr. Leete explains the intricate organization of industrial rankings, the government, and judicial systems in the new social order. He answers every question and objection Julian offers, arguing that the nationalistic social order is actually better at creating wealth than capitalism, with none of its ills. The nation makes the welfare of its citizens its priority. Dr. Leete argues that in the new system people are actually freer and more affluent than they had been under the competitive old system.

Julian and Edith develop a friendship, and he realizes he may have known some of her ancestors in his old life. Julian begins to think about becoming a part of the new century, and Dr. Leete tells him he would make an excellent professor of 19th-century history. Edith and Julian visit his old bedchamber. Julian is surprised to find that it doesn't affect him emotionally as he thought it might. He thinks of his past fiancée, Edith Bartlett, as being dead for over a hundred years.

Dr. Leete takes Julian to tour schools. He explains that the new system of universal education along with equality of pay has eliminated class divisions. Julian is impressed with the physical health of the nation's youth. He wonders, based on Edith's beauty and frankness, too, if there has been a change in the species to match the change in social structure. Dr. Leete explains that women are no longer obligated to marry for any other reason than love and desire, because the nation is their source of support. As a result, he believes this freedom of choice has worked to improve the race, not only physically but morally. There is virtually no crime, and any rare instances of it are treated medically as leftover behaviors.

Julian eventually recalls what he overheard as he was waking from his trance. He asks Edith about it, now recognizing her voice as the woman who asked her father not to tell him something. She is embarrassed and won't tell him her secret. He promises not to ask again in hopes she will one day reveal the answer. Meanwhile, Dr. Leete explains that the revolution that birthed the new nation was without violence. Everyone realized it was necessary. It offered hope to desperate people, according to Mr. Barton, a pastor whose sermon comes through the telephone into the Leetes' home. Julian is mortified to hear Mr. Barton's characterization of the 19th century as a poisoned environment that brought out the worst in people. He realizes that it must affect how the Leetes regard him.

Edith then assures him she sees him much differently, and the two reveal their love for each other. She tells him he must understand her true identity before they go any further. Her mother, Mrs. Leete, explains to Julian that Edith is the great-granddaughter of his former fiancée, Edith Bartlett. Edith Leete has long admired him, based on his love letters to her great-grandmother. At one time she promised not to marry unless she could find a lover like Julian West. Julian comes to think of the two Ediths as one.

As the novel moves toward a close, Julian falls asleep only to awaken to find himself back in the 19th century. The horrors and inequality of the time strike him afresh as he wanders the city. He sees poverty, waste, and desperation. He finds himself at the Bartletts' home, and tries in vain to convince them of the wonderful alternative he has witnessed in what he must assume was a dream. They react with anger. In anguish he awakens from the nightmare to find himself back in the 20th century. He is infinitely grateful to be there, though he feels unworthy to be part of it. Yet, his despair is alleviated by the love of Edith.

Looking Backward Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Dr. Pillsbury puts Julian West into a trance in May 1887.

Rising Action

2 Julian West awakens in the year 2000 in the Leetes' home.

3 Julian fears he's losing his mind. Edith Leete helps him.

4 Julian realizes Edith Leete has a secret.


5 Edith and Julian declare their love; he learns her identity.

Falling Action

6 Julian awakens back in the poverty of the 19th century.


7 Julian awakens from the nightmare, safe in the year 2000.

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