Julian West, the narrator of Looking Backward, was born into an aristocratic family in the late nineteenth century. The gap between the rich and poor was vast and seemingly impossible to remedy through any means. Like other members of his class, Julian thought himself superior to the toiling masses, and he regarded their frequent strikes with anger and contempt. Julian was engaged to Edith Bartlett, a beautiful, graceful Boston aristocrat. They planned to marry when the construction of their new home was completed, but the frequent strikes by the building trades had delayed their marriage for over a year.

Julian, a sufferer of insomnia, had secretly built an underground sleeping chamber to shield himself from street noises. He also enlisted the aid of Doctor Pillsbury, a skilled mesmerist, who never failed to leave Julian in a deep sleep. Pillsbury trained Julian's servant, Sawyer, to revive Julian from a mesmerized sleep. The night before Pillsbury left Boston for a new job in New Orleans, Julian enlisted his help one last time. After Pillsbury left, Julian's home was destroyed by a fire; Julian was protected by his underground chamber. Because no one knew of his chamber, Julian was assumed dead.

Over one hundred years later, Julian's secret chamber is discovered by Doctor Leete, who was preparing the site for the construction of a new laboratory. Julian has not aged a day because he has been in a state of suspended animation. Doctor Leete revives him and takes him into his home. Julian quickly learns that twentieth-century society is vastly different from that of the nineteenth century. The economy is based on publicly owned capital rather than private, as was the case in Julian's day. The government controls the means of production and divides the national product equally between all citizens. Every citizen receives a college-level education. Individuals are given a great deal of freedom in choosing a career, and everyone retires at the age of forty-five. Society is based on an ideal of the brotherhood of man, and it is unthinkable that any individual should suffer the evils of poverty or hunger. With Doctor Leete's guidance, Julian comes to understand and appreciate the twentieth-century society. Meanwhile, Julian learns that Doctor Leete's daughter, Edith is the great-granddaughter of Edith Bartlett. Julian and Edith become engaged, much to Doctor Leete's pleasure.

Julian has a terrible nightmare, in which he dreams that his transportation to the twentieth century was nothing but a dream. He finds himself trapped again in the cruel and inhumane world of the nineteenth century. To his great distress, he now sees all of the horrendous faults of nineteenth-century society. He tries to explain to his friends--Edith Bartlett and her family-- why their society is so awful and cruel, and how it can be transformed into something much better. However, they are only frightened and angered, so they expel Julian from their company. When Julian wakes from this nightmare to discover that his trip to the twentieth century was not just a dream, he is greatly relieved.