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Looking Backward | Study Guide

Edward Bellamy

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Looking Backward | Preface | Summary



The preface begins with the heading: "Historical Section Shawmut College, Boston, December 26, 2000." The unnamed narrator explains the instructive purpose of the text actually being read in 1887, reminding the audience from the imagined year 2000 that the nature of life in the 19th century was quite different from life in their own future time. The author, readers are told, will focus on this contrast. The narrator explains that it may strike them as odd how drastically society has changed in the intervening years. Familiar as readers are with the peaceful, orderly society of their own time, they may wonder why people put up with the inequities of industrial society in the past. The narrator explains that the system and its negative consequences in the 19th century were believed at the time to be inevitable. The author, he says, has cast his informational material in the form of a romance to make it more palatable, but his goal is to look backward in time so readers can fully appreciate the progress the book's author hopes society has made by 2000. The narrator of the preface then leaves readers to follow the time travels of the character Julian West.


Edward Bellamy prefaces the novel by cleverly introducing its purpose, premise, narrator, and setting, all in a few paragraphs. The narrator of the preface, who remains unnamed, claims the purpose of the text will be to contrast the social structure of the 19th and 20th centuries through the premise of a romance told by the narrator, Julian West. The heading of the preface provides the setting. The preface claims to be written at a fictional college in Boston, the day after Christmas in the year 2000. Shawmut was the name early European explorers gave to the area that later became Boston. Readers do not yet know the full premise or how this futuristic text will connect with the past. Clues such as the historical title of the fictional college and the hints that readers from the year 2000 will find the Boston of a hundred years past so strange as to be puzzling are just enough information to intrigue them.

Bellamy uses the preface to draw his 19th-century readers in with a clever hook. The preface is directed toward a fictional audience of the future—far in the future at the time the novel was published. The narrator of the preface invites readers in 1887 to participate in the novel by assuming the role of the imagined audience in the year 2000. They get to pretend they are living in the future with the narrator and that the realities of 19th-century life they know are in the distant past, transformed by a new, utopian social order. The narrator of the preface explains to readers that they are part of a peaceful, logical, new social system. It is so different from the industrial society of the 19th century that they would have trouble even understanding how such a way of life was ever tolerated. Readers from the 19th century would have been immediately drawn in, wondering how society has changed and what has made it so successful. They would have wondered what would make the narrator claim that suffering stemming from their 19th-century social system was, contrary to the prevailing belief, not inevitable after all, and that, if they wished, they could change conditions radically.

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