Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward: 2000-1887" is a surprising reflection of modern society

File:Looking Backward.jpg
Dust Jacket of "Looking Backward"
by Edward Bellamy (1888).
Source: Scan from the original
book as shown on
WikiMedia Commons

The setting for the beginning of the novel is the year 1887, but at times, I felt as if I were reading about the year 2012 in relation to economic unrest. Many workers of that time were protesting, demanding higher wages, less exploitation, and safer work environments, much like many of the union workers in Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and more. The narrator, Julian West, is a plutocrat that is disgusted by the protests, viewing them as a nuisance to his plans to refurbish his mansion.
His views about the class system begin to change, but only after he enters a Van-Winkle state of sleep to wake up in the year 2000.
A difference between this novel and other feminist utopian sci-fi novels would be the driving theme. In Mizora and Herland, social issues like children and education were of the greatest import. However, in Bellamy's story, the class and economic system take center theme. Women and their roles do not vary much from 1887 to 2000. West meets two 20th century women, and while he finds one of them attractive (based on her girlish beauty), he ultimately dismisses their import, and instead the male friend Doctor Letee, who discovered West, is given more attention.
In the year 2000, all men are equal and receive equal amounts of work and pay. The class system has been completely abolished, even though there are still jobs that would be considered ‘dead-end’. Menial jobs, as told by Letee, are no longer thought of as menial, only necessary. When Letee and West eat at a restaurant, they are served by a waiter. Letee treats the waiter respectfully, never speaking down to him. Similarly, the waiter does not seem ashamed of the job he is performing, and West notes that the young man appears to be very poised and educated. Letee and his daughter set forth the idea that it is immoral to abhor a person for doing a service that you would not be willing to, in turn, do for them.
There are several societal ideas presented in the novel, a great many of them rooted in Marxism. There is no more capitalism in the year 2000, as the government itself is the sole capitalist, handing out stipends of cash to each citizen every year. Possessions are no longer revered, and nor is wealth. Instead, during their lifetimes, people strive to possess as little as possible, because to have less is better (as the upkeep for large estates is seen as frivolous). If a relative dies and leaves their assets behind to a relative, that is not seen as a boon, but rather as an inconvenience that must be rid of quickly. The same negative thoughts about accumulation of wealth are echoed in the novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder.
After reading about many utopian (and often Marxist) societies in sf literature, I could not find myself sympathetic to the society laid out by Bellamy. It seemed too much like a Stalinist-Russia, one in which individual freedoms where stripped away, leaving a compliant citizen with no rights or dreams for themselves. However, as I kept reading, I discovered that my resistance to Bellamy’s imagined society was mere prejudice, perpetuated by my fear of what a truly Marxist society would mean. The citizens in Bellamy’s novel are not stripped of their individual freedoms, only of their oppression. It was after reading  Equality, the follow-up to Looking Backward, that I fully understood that.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888. Print.

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