Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy
Reference: Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy
Does Bellamy challenge Spencer? How?
For this paper, consider the question: How do Bellamy and Spencer differ? Construct a brief conversation between Bellamy and Spencer and write that conversation.
What do you make of Bellamy’s ideal future? Are we there yet?
Do we want to live in Bellamy’s world?
Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy
The goal of every civilization is to become as efficient and prosperous as possible. Throughout the course of history people have introduced ways to create a utopian society. With these suggestions come criticisms of society’s current state. One such criticism comes from Edward Bellamy in his nineteenth century novel Looking Backwards. Bellamy expresses his disapproval for society during his time period by presenting an alternative future society. This new “Utopia” represents Bellamy’s idea of the best possible society. The novel introduces readers to Bellamy’s personal worldview, specifically the worldview question, “What’s the matter?” Looking backwards is Bellamy’s way of explaining “the way things ought to be.”
The story begins by describing Bellamy’s view of nineteenth century society. He does this by introducing the audience to the narrator, Julian West. Julian is a thirty year-old Bostonian aristocrat. In the nineteenth century the gap that had been created between the rich and poor had become so large it was thought impossible to be erased. The gap was not limited to monetary factors. Julian and his family believed themselves to be superior to the lower class. “As one of the wealthy, with a large stake of the existing order of things, I naturally shared the apprehensions of my class.”(Bellamy 9) Julian says this in regards to the working class. This was a common characteristic of the wealthy during Bellamy’s lifetime. To Bellamy this is “the problem”. Society has become so focused on economic and community status that it is ruining its own chance for prosperity. “The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow.”(Bellamy 4) Bellamy is comparing society to a coach. He believes that people are motivated by personal gain. The first personal gain is the necessities of survival i.e. food and shelter. Bellamy continues to explain that people work in order to increase social standings. This is due to the common idea that the more wealth one accumulates the better that person is. This individualistic attitude has led to violence, crime, and suffering. Bellamy believes this approach has caused society to fail. “The later part of the nineteenth century, governments had generally given up trying to regulate the subject at all.”(Bellamy 4)
By introducing readers to Julian, Bellamy is actually introducing his audience to themselves. This is because most of the literate people during this time period shared a similar social status to Julian. As the story continues Julian is put into a trance because of his insomnia. A fire destroys Julian’s home and he is believed to be dead. Julian is kept safe in a special underground chamber. He is finally discovered 100 years later, un-aged because of the trance he underwent, by Dr. Leete. Dr. Lette represents Bellamy himself because the doctor is the person who introduces Julian to New Boston. New Boston is presented as a Utopia. For the purpose of this paper the definition of Utopia is a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions.(“Utopia”) Dr. Leete explains that in New Boston the economic system has evolved from private to public. The government now controls nearly every aspect of life. The nation manages all capital. It also is responsible for distributing that capital evenly among all people. The biggest difference presented is that social classes have been eliminated. This in turn has allowed society to shift from an individualistic focus to pursuing the good of society as a whole. “The conditions of human life have changed, and with them the motives of human action.”(Bellamy 29)
The book provides a number of examples in which society has shifted from selfish to unselfish motivation. One facet of New Boston that clearly shows the elimination of social classes comes from the way that money is treated. “We have nothing at all answering to your ideas of wages.”(Bellamy 45) In New Boston people are not paid for the work they do. Each person is given the same amount of credit, which is the monetary substitute in this society. Dr. Leete explains that while this idea may seem unfair in nineteenth century society, the current society is set up in a way to eliminate discrepancies. “We leave no possible ground for complaint of injustice by requiring precisely the same measure of service from all.”(Bellamy 45) The more tedious jobs have shorter hours.
One disadvantage of having social classes is that opportunities available to one class are not available to others. This is not the case in New Boston. Every citizen has the same opportunities. Each individual receives schooling up until the age of 21. During the education process people are given the chance to choose the type of career they want to pursue. Bellamy uses this as one example of how people can remain a sense of individualism in his ideal society. Because each citizen has the same amount of credit everyone has the same shopping abilities. “The sample shop of the smallest village, just like this place gives you your choice of all the varieties of good the nation has.”(Bellamy 52) Art is another area in which anyone who wishes can indulge. “It is bound to print all that is offered to it.”(Bellamy 79) Because every person has equal equity and opportunity New Boston has eliminated conflict. Each country produces its own goods, and international trade is regulated by committee. War is no longer part of life. Crime is relatively nonexistent because everyone is on the same level; no one has anything to gain.
Bellamy presents this Utopia of New Boston as his solution to the problem with society in his time period. He believes that each person can contribute the same amount of work and production to society. This justifies giving each person the same amount of capital. Another key characteristic of Bellamy’s Utopia is that all opportunities are available to everyone in society. This eliminates the need for competition. Every person has the same amount of everything, which means no judgment should occur. This is Bellamy’s solution to the gap that is present in the nineteenth century. No social classes should exist. This is “the way things ought to be” according to Bellamy.
The picture Bellamy creates of a perfect society really captured my attention. He shares many ideas of Karl Marx’s plan of Communism. He addresses the largest critique of communism in theory. That is he eliminates the idea of human error. Throughout the book Leete explains to Julian that humans can be motivated by something other than their own personal benefit. Bellamy’s ideal society completely dismisses human error. It would only limit human error in my opinion. Some major reforms are definitely needed. Bellamy uses Julian’s nightmare to explain that even the people of Bellamy’s time period would believe a change is needed if a solution was shown to them. We need to look backwards in order to move forward
Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. Print.
“Utopia.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/utopia>.
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