Places: Looking Backward

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1888

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Utopian

Time of work: 1887 and 2000

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedLeete house

Leete Looking Backwardhouse. Private residence of the retired physician and scientist Dr. Leete in which Julian awakens. At first the Leete home appears so similar to the private homes to which Julian is accustomed that he does not perceive that any appreciable time has elapsed. He thinks he is in the home of some contemporary who is his social equal and a member of the educated middle class. In 1887 members of the middle class signaled their status with possessions. This fact suggests that when he awakens, he finds himself within a typical Victorian home, with heavy draperies, dark and ornate wooden furniture, and an abundance of bric-a-brac and works of art. The most dramatic changes are ones that to West are not immediately apparent, such as delivery of music to homes via the telephone system and the absence of household servants. It is not until West sees the city outside Leete’s house that he recognizes that he really did sleep through the twentieth century.

Boston (2000)

Boston (2000). The future Boston is a city startling to Julian in its orderliness, cleanliness, and quiet. From the roof of the Leete home he sees the city laid out in neat blocks with wide tree-lined streets and numerous park areas. The only features he recognizes from his own time are geological, such as the Charles River, which separates Boston from Cambridge. Islands in Boston Harbor confirm that he is indeed in his native city. When he explores the city on his own, he is baffled by its lack of shops. The numerous small stores with display windows that lined nineteenth century Boston streets are gone, as are the taverns once common to city neighborhoods. Anonymous monumental buildings have taken their place. Bostonians still shop, but in buildings remarkably akin to what twenty-first century readers know as discount stores; exteriors of these buildings provide no clues as to their functions. Inside, customers may examine goods and compare products without the help of clerks, merchants do not haggle, products all bear clearly labeled set prices, and customers pay with debit cards issued by the government.

*Boston (1887)

*Boston (1887). The Boston of Julian’s own time is a noisy, smelly, and crowded city. Its streets are lined with shops in which customers have no direct contact with merchandise. When they enter they see counters behind which the proprietors stand, and they must ask clerks to show them products and tell them their prices. Boston’s streets are narrow, filthy, and winding, still reflecting the original foot paths from colonial times, and the air is thick with industrial pollution and coal smoke. Soot and grime coat everything. Pedestrians crossing streets must dodge mud and horse dung. Although Boston had public parks in 1887, Edward Bellamy does not mention them. Instead, his narrator’s native Boston is a rough and dangerous city, one that is changing and not for the better.

Julian West’s house

Julian West’s house. Narrator’s home in nineteenth century Boston. The neighborhood around his house is filled with squalid tenement buildings and factories. His family has owned his house for generations, but he plans to build a new house in a better neighborhood before getting married, as his old family home is no longer suitable for a middle-class family. The nearby tenements are populated by poor people and recent immigrants, two groups of people to whom middle-class women should never be exposed. Street noises are so noisome and pervasive at all hours of the night and day that Julian had to construct a sound-proof room in his cellar for sleeping The Boston of 1887 is a most unpleasant city in which to live.

BibliographyAaron, Daniel. “Edward Bellamy: Village Utopian.” In Men of Good Hope. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951. Discusses Looking Backward as part of the progressive reform movement. Provides insights into Bellamy’s military model and transcendental religious perspective and highlights the safeguards Bellamy includes to guard against authoritarian and bureaucratic domination.Berneri, Marie Louise. “Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward.” In Journey Through Utopia. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950. Contends that Bellamy’s utopia is based on a naïve faith in experts and technological progress. Berneri is troubled by the inherent regimentation and argues that the need for compulsion and the prohibition of dissent belie the supposed happiness within the industrial republic.Bowman, Sylvia E. Edward Bellamy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Offers an interdisciplinary analysis of Bellamy’s intellectual development and considers Looking Backward within the context of his other writings. Chapter 5 focuses on the book’s influence on sociopolitical developments and major nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers.Parrington, Vernon L. “The Quest of Utopia.” In Main Currents in American Thought. Vol. 3. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1930. Following a brief contextual summary, Parrington describes Looking Backward as a book about democratic political economy that revolves around the moral questions of right and justice. Links Bellamy’s nationalism to trustee theory, which gives the government responsibility for equitable resource allocation.Patai, Daphne, ed. Looking Backward, 1988-1888. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. Contains eight retrospective essays that assess Looking Backward in view of twentieth century developments. Some contributors view Bellamy as a proponent of a dated, patriarchal world; others praise his integration of contradictory principles. Includes a useful annotated bibliography.
Categories: Places