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.