Written By: Edward Bellamy
Reviewed by Justine Manzano
It may be hard to imagine why anyone would have to read an 1888 novel about what the year 2000 will be like for a class called The Culture of Publicity. This semester, I learned that you can indeed have to read a book like this for this class, and you will actually understand why it is necessary by the end!
Beginning its run in 1888, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy follows Julian West, a man of some money and prestige, who is set to marry his love, Edith, once he can get their future home built. Julian, however, faces a problem – the labor he has hired has gone on strike, and he is without workers to build his house. Distasteful of the conditions of his time (labor issues, poverty) and stressed over the constant delay of his marriage to Edith, Julian is having a terrible bout of insomnia. It’s a good thing that he knows a mystic/physician, who is capable of putting someone under a hypnotic trance, which he can then be woken out of by his servant. However, the catch is that, without his servant, not only will Julian remain asleep, but his body will stay in a state of suspended animation until he is awoken. Knowing this, Julian goes to sleep for the night – but while he is asleep, his house burns down! Thankfully, he is asleep in the underground chamber he has built in order to conceal the secret of his insomnia-related trance, and is kept safe through the fire.
When Julian wakes up, it is in the home of a man, Dr. Leete, his wife and their daughter, strangely named Edith as well. Dr. Leete quickly explains that Julian has been in suspended animation…and has awoken in the year 2000! The adjustment is rough for Julian, but the comfort from Edith helps him through, and evokes more of a curious response from Julian. Suddenly Julian is intensely curious about the difference between the world of his day and that of the future he is now in. Through a barrage of questions, Julian finds himself unfolding the mystery behind his new utopist world, and learning where his previous home had it all wrong. But it doesn’t take long for fear to creep in – what is this secret that Edith is holding from him, and is this brave new world simply too good to be true?
Looking Backward is an interesting novel in the way that it is a spectacle. It is well-written in that way that a text book is well written, not in the way a novel would be well-written. While Bellamy does well to fully create the new world in which Julian lives, taking great, detailed measures to explain its entire social structure, the characters are not very interesting, and fall by the wayside of the intense images shown. In the middle of the fourth chapter of a conversation between Dr. Leete and Julian that seemed much more like a Q & A session than a dialogue, I realized that Bellamy had never really intended to write a novel. This book was supposed to be a social commentary on the world as it was in the time he was writing, and the way that an altered socialist view could help to solve those problems.
It ended up that the entire novel was an attempt to lead a change in public opinion, and so, was Public Relations in itself – that’s why the inclusion in our class coursework. Also, Looking Backward is an excellently well-written book. However, it is not a well-written novel. If you are looking for a novel that is anything like what you would think a novel that takes place 120 years after it was written, than the language (which is an antiquated 1800’s way of speech) and the lack of much of a story will get to you quickly. But if you are looking for an intriguing social commentary, examination of the psychology of the human race, and an interesting, albeit unlikely alternative to the way we currently live, than Looking Backward could be the novel for you.