The narrator, thirty-year-old Julian West, was born in the nineteenth century, a time when a tiny minority of the human race, including him, enjoyed an unequal share of the world's wealth. Although the privileged few sometimes tried to ameliorate the suffering of the impoverished masses, they were first and foremost concerned with retaining their wealth. In general, however, they believed there was no way to narrow the gap between the rich and poor. Moreover, many members of Julian's class felt that they were intrinsically superior to the toiling masses.
Julian was engaged to Edith Bartlett a beautiful, graceful Boston aristocrat. They planned to marry when their new house was finished, but frequent strikes by the builders delayed the completion of the project for over a year. Strikes were common during that time, but they frequently failed to win the desired concessions from tight-fisted employers. On May 30, 1887, Julian celebrated Decoration Day, a holiday honoring Union soldiers, with Edith's family. After visiting the grave of Edith's older brother, they retired to the Bartletts' home, where they bitterly discussed the most recent strikes.
Julian suffered from frequent insomnia, so he slept in an underground chamber in his house that shielded him from the noises of the street. He also enlisted the aid of Doctor Pillsbury a mesmerist who never failed to put him into a deep sleep. Doctor Pillsbury taught Julian's servant, Sawyer, how to rouse Julian in the mornings. There was a danger that someone who was mesmerized into sleep would fall into a deep trance, but Julian considered the risk manageable. With Pillsbury's help, Julian settled into a deep slumber that night. Afterwards, Pillsbury traveled to New Orleans to take a promising new job.
Julian awakes in a strange house to unfamiliar faces and voices. In response to the strangers' questions, Julian explains that he fell asleep the night before, on May 30, 1887. The strangers inform him that the date is September 10, 2000, as he drifts back to sleep. When he awakes, Julian wonders if his friends are playing a joke on him. However, his host, Doctor Leete assures him that this is not the case. Julian's house burned down the night of May 30, 1887, but Julian was protected by his underground chamber. Leete discovered the chamber when he began preparing the site for the construction of a new laboratory. Inside, he discovered Julian in a deep trance, unaged because his vital functions were completely suspended. To prove his point, he shows him the modern Boston landscape. Julian is astonished to see a beautiful, clean city with open spaces and impressive public buildings.
After introducing Julian to Mrs. Leete and his daughter, Edith Doctor Leete explains that Boston is so clean and prosperous because the old economy of private capital has evolved into an economy of public capital, a natural outcome of the increasing concentration of private capital into fewer and fewer hands. Now, the nation itself owns, manages, and distributes all capital. War no longer exists because the main function of government is to protect the citizens against hunger and poverty. There are no political parties and no corrupt public officials. The citizens are a well-organized labor force that produces all of the nation's goods. Every citizen begins working at twenty-one and retires at forty-five. During their educations, citizens explore possible careers, so that most men are assigned to occupations that suit them. To ensure that there is neither an excess nor a shortage in volunteers for any trade, shorter hours are required for more arduous trades and longer hours for less arduous ones. Workers can also change careers if they find that their original choice was not a good one. Until the age of thirty, citizens can apply for professional training, but only those who pass the rigorous entrance exams attend professional schools. Julian asks how the matter of wages has been settled, but Leete advises him to rest.
The plot of Looking Backward is minimal and simple because Bellamy's main purpose is to educate his nineteenth-century audience about the evils of its social and economic systems. The plot is merely a vehicle for Bellamy's ideas about social and economic reform. The Preface, addressed to a fictional twentieth-century audience, presents Looking Backward as a historical document, not a work of speculative fiction. Hence, Bellamy clearly does not wish for his nineteenth-century audience to regard his book as a fanciful whim, but as an actual blueprint for the improvement of their society.
In the first chapter, Julian West is introduced. As a representative of the nineteenth century transported to the twentieth century, Julian is capable of criticizing nineteenth-century society. He clearly speaks as an enthusiastic supporter of the social and economic structure in Bellamy's imagined twentieth-century utopia. Bellamy well knows that his reading audience is likely to be hostile and incredulous regarding many of his ideas for social reform. He persuades his readers to consider his radical vision of the perfect society by using a narrator with whom his audience can identify. Julian is a well-educated aristocrat, like much of the nineteenth-century reading public. He functions as a guide to Bellamy's strange twentieth-century society.
Julian expounds upon the unfair distribution of wealth in the nineteenth century. The capitalist, industrial economy is a far more efficient way to produce wealth than a feudal agricultural economy was before it. It allows mass production of cheap, standardized goods, so it raises the average standard of living. Nevertheless, the gap between the rich and the poor, the wage earner and his employer, was a vast and ugly example of how this economy concentrated wealth in the hands of the powerful and privileged few in Bellamy's day. Julian quickly dismisses the idea that a few small adjustments to this system would improve nineteenth-century society greatly. Bellamy implies that private philanthropy is much like using a Band-Aid for a hemorrhage where alleviating the suffering of the toiling, impoverished masses is concerned. Worse yet, many of Julian's contemporaries are utterly complacent about the unfair, unequal distribution of wealth. They rationalize their luxury with the belief that they are superior to the impoverished masses or the belief that there is nothing that could possibly remove the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Julian characterizes the conditions of the nineteenth century as a moral outrage. Bellamy softens his harsh critique of his audience's most cherished beliefs by asserting that ignorance largely accounts for the existence of this outrage. Moreover, Julian asserts that the twentieth-century utopia he describes is the logical outcome of the nineteenth century's rapid industrialization. Contrary to his contemporaries' beliefs, the nineteenth century is not the apex of human civilization, but only one stop along the way. By placing his strange, unfamiliar, somewhat threatening vision of the future within the context of rational and logical progress, Bellamy attempts to persuade his incredulous and reluctant readers to give serious thought to his proposals for social reform.
Julian explains that his contemporaries worshipped industrialization because it gave society a more efficient means to produce wealth. The radical idea that publicly owned capital would improve society greatly was immensely unpopular in the nineteenth century. Julian states that the twentieth-century economy, based on publicly owned capital, is far more efficient than that of the nineteenth century. Therefore, Bellamy tempts his readers to consider publicly owned capital by presenting it as an improvement on the things that they admire most about their own industrial economy. Hence, he appeals to their rational, emotional, and moral sensibilities in his attempt to win them over to his proposals for social reform.
Because an economy based on publicly owned capital is more efficient (less wasteful), every citizen is guaranteed a comfortable standard of living equal to that of every other citizen. Personal freedom is not reduced by the absence of privately owned means of production, but increased. Every citizen is well-educated, and every citizen is allowed a great deal of latitude in choosing a career that suits him. This freedom of choice did not exist in the nineteenth century. Education was available only to the privileged few, and poverty forced the rest of humanity to take whatever job was available because starvation was the only alternative. Concerns about social status forced the wealthy to undertake only certain occupations, those that carried a measure of prestige, whether they were well-suited to them or not.
Although Bellamy's proposals for social reform are remarkably radical, he is still subject to nineteenth-century prejudices. Despite Julian's glowing report on the fairness and equality of twentieth-century society, there is no mention of the role of women in this utopia. Bellamy refers to men only, in both general and individual examples of twentieth-century progress. Although he eventually devotes a chapter to women later in Looking Backward, women are still clearly marginalized in his portrait of the perfect society.