Looking Backward belongs to the centuries-old tradition of utopian fiction, fiction that attempts to portray a perfect human society. The plot is simple and minimal, merely a vehicle for Bellamy's ideas for social reform. Bellamy knew that his nineteenth-century audience was extremely hostile to the idea of an economy based on public capital, a premier tenet of socialism, a reviled political movement in the nineteenth century. Therefore, Bellamy had a difficult task in persuading his readers to consider his proposal for an ideal society. He distances himself from the more radical political theories of the socialists and the anarchists. In his ideal society, the separation between the genders remains intact, and marriage remains an important institution. The government remains a respected, powerful means to maintain social order. Personal freedom is not threatened, but enhanced. An individual worker's merit is recognized and valued through a complex ranking system based on the army. Consumer choice is enhanced because every consumer demand is met, and every citizen has easy access to the full range of the nation's products. Citizens are encouraged to choose the careers that best suit them. Overall, Bellamy represents his imagined utopia as a flexible society with a wider range of personal freedom because of publicly owned capital, not in spite of it.
Bellamy also attempts to make his ideas more palatable to his audience with Julian West, a representative of the nineteenth century who is transported to the twentieth century. Because he is like them, Bellamy's audience can more easily identify with Julian, an enthusiastic supporter of Bellamy's ideal social system. Through Julian, Bellamy anticipates the questions and reservations of his audience. Through Doctor Leete, he rationally and systematically responds to these concerns. Doctor Leete, the kindly retired father, functions as an appealing mouthpiece for Bellamy's ideas on social reform. The relationship between Leete and Julian mirrors the relationship between Bellamy and his readers. He hopes that Julian's difficult and confusing conversion to Leete's philosophy will be mirrored in his readers.
Nineteenth-century society was in awe of its industrial system of private capital. Compared to a feudal, agricultural society, an industrial economy based on private capital was a far more efficient means to produce and accumulate wealth. It allowed the production of cheap, mass-produced goods, so it raised the standard of living. However, the wealth produced was concentrated firmly in the hands of the privileged few. Bellamy attempts to persuade his readers to his point of view by arguing that an economy based on publicly-owned capital would enhance the characteristics that nineteenth-century society admired most about their industrial system. He argues that his ideal society would be vastly more efficient; labor would never be idle, and supply would far more closely match demand. He argues that the frequent gluts, shortages, strikes, and business failures under an economic system run on competition are immense wastes that would be eliminated under a system based on communal cooperation.
Although many members of nineteenth-century society were sensitive to the wide gap between the rich and the poor, many felt that there was no way to remove it. Others were insensitive, because they felt that the poor were inferior to the rich. Bellamy characterizes the rigid class stratification of the nineteenth century as a moral outrage, but he is aware of the danger that his readers will be alienated and insulted by the implied criticism directed at them. Therefore, he softens the blow by attributing this moral outrage to ignorance. Hence, Bellamy interweaves the appeals of rational logic and moral imperatives to draw his readers to his point of view. Although his ideal society still has yet to come into existence--and though the brutal, failed career of twentieth-century socialism may make it seem naive or obsolete-- Bellamy's novel was, in its own way, a success. Not only was it a popular hit, but it also influenced famous political, social, and economic theorists such as Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, William Allen White, and others.
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