Bellamy’s Concessions in Looking Backward

June 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

Humanity constantly seeks change to improve itself, be it through economic restructuring, political reforms, or educational agendas. When a collection of these changes towards progress mesh nicely together, while possessing a common, encompassing goal, an author is able to construct his or her version of utopia-a futuristic, ideal society that appears significantly more attractive and desirable than the current one. Often, this new society will be radically different, disposing of long held political and economic structures, sometimes replacing them, other times leaving them out of the picture. However, such radical changes often encounter skeptical minds-that is, the readers are separated so far from their current society that the new one is inconceivable and thus lacks the full appeal or fair consideration desired by the author. This is the reason many utopists are forced to provide some concessions in their writings, which at times leads to a lack of completeness in the utopia portrayed. This lack of wholeness is one of the crucial problems that Edward Bellamy encounters even as he paints a rather detailed, extensive picture of his version of utopia through the novel Looking Backward. In his book he delineates a futuristic utopia set in the twentieth century in which humanity lives in a much more collaborative and unified manner. No longer do such concepts as currency or laws exist, while the motivation to pilfer or deceive has simply dissolved. The general public, as opposed to private institutions, now possesses control over the capital, holding it as a collective entity. Furthermore, militaristic armies have dissipated, and in place a cohesive labor force, which Bellamy refers to as the “industrial army,” has risen (118). All these innovative concepts are related in most part through the dialogue of the narrator, Julian West, who, through a rather bizarre and lengthy sleep finds himself in the nineteenth century one day and the twentieth century the very next, and Dr. Leete, a denizen of Bellamy’s twentieth century utopia. However, even with such radical changes, Bellamy is forced to provide concessions and leave some questions unattended in order to appease his readers’ minds, circumvent conflicting aspects, and augment the appeal of his utopia. Although these incidents of retraction are limited and few, they still remain crucial, as they limit Bellamy from presenting the full scope of his utopian vision. Most strikingly in Looking Backward, there exist two major aspects that engender this sense of incompleteness along with contradiction and tension for Bellamy’s utopian society. One is the character portrayal of the Leete family, which is depicted using the blueprint of a stereotypical, Victorian era family. The other is isolationism, both on a societal and international level, as the Leete family interacts very little with the other members in this society and as Bellamy allocates very little attention to international concerns. Foremost, Edith Leete’s conventional, Victorian feminine personality is one front upon which Bellamy’s concessions arise subtly yet significantly. Kenneth Roemer, in his essay “Literary Domestication of Utopia,” analyzes the role Edith, the daughter in the Leete family who is rather fond of Julian West, plays to ingratiate the readers of the nineteenth century. Roemer takes note of how Edith is characterized as still retaining those characteristics and interests thought to be held prominently by women, such as shopping and particular concern over the style of clothing. He even points to her episodes of crying as manifestations of typical feminine qualities. Furthermore, Roemer refers to Edith’s sympathetic and nurturing personality, as she supports Julian as he plunges into a state of consternation at the thought of how his life has so quickly been transformed upon entering into a totally different society (110-111). With this character portrayal of Edith, Bellamy is able to maintain the longstanding and conventional qualities that separate the genders, which further allows the audience to hold on to something familiar to their own society.This return to typical gender distinction seems trivial, however, until one sees the contradictory behavior of Edith when put in the light of Dr. Leete’s description of women in this utopian society. When the question arises concerning how women of the twentieth century act in times of love, Dr. Leete responds: “There is no more pretense of a concealment of feeling on their part than on the part of their lovers. Coquetry would be as much despised in a girl as in a man” (Bellamy 201). However, Edith does not live up to this description; soon after Julian professes his love for her, Edith’s countenance is one marked by shyness and timidity (220). Furthermore, when Edith finally garners enough confidence to tell Julian her love for him, she professes it in the most circuitous manner: “Are you sure it is not you who are blind” (221)? Thus, Edith’s actions in this situation contradict the description given by Dr. Leete, which signifies the tension that Bellamy is held between. He seems to be pushing towards a more egalitarian perspective between genders in this society, but makes concessions on certain grounds so that his audience-middle to upper class late ninetieth century Americans-will continue to hold a grasp of this society on the basis of relating to the familiarity of stereotypical, Victorian characters. On an analogous ground, no reference is ever made about Edith’s or Mrs. Leete’s profession in society, while it is clear what Dr. Leete does. Bellamy, in an attempt to revert back to the stereotypical and conventional family structure, emphasizes dependence on the patriarchal figure. This concept of dependence on the father, however, seems highly incongruous with the statement Dr. Leete makes in response to Julian’s assumption that wives are dependent on the husband: “Of course they are not, nor children on their parents either, that is, for means of support…” (199). Bellamy furthers this compromising so that the audience can continue to better relate to the society that he is depicting. For example, the plot again leads the reader to see distinct boundaries in the gender relations: “That evening I sat up for some time after the ladies had retired, talking to Dr. Leete about the effect of the plan…” (159). Although such a subtle incident, it reveals much about the retained air of superiority possessed by the men in this society, showing that discourses on such intellectual or political issues would not pertain or hold much value to women. Again, one must wonder which gender path Bellamy is truly following-his proclaimed egalitarian one or one that still retains distinct boundaries, characteristic of the Victorian era?In addition to this pressing tension that creates a dichotomy between the genders, Bellamy is keen to make sure he reveals the profession of Dr. Leete. In a community in which everyone is equal, everyone is content, and everyone is wealthy, why choose a doctor to be the person to portray such a society? Bellamy’s logic in this case most likely stems from the idea that he needs to show his audience, most of whom own similar types of prestigious positions or vocations in society, that these same, higher class people are still happy in a society where they are considered equal to their neighbors, who may be trash collectors or some conventionally labeled inferior profession. Had Bellamy chosen to portray this utopia through someone else, such as a coal miner, his readers would have been highly skeptical concerning whether the rich still maintain their standard of living, although the marked difference in quality of life between the coal miners of the nineteenth century and those of the twentieth century may have been highly effective in demonstrating the change in quality of life. Nonetheless, one must remember that most of the audience will be foremost concerned with maintaining its luxurious position in society, and only secondly will pursue the aggrandizement of other, lower class members. However, one may argue that the reason Bellamy chose a doctor is to provide someone who is of higher education, thus possessing greater knowledge about the structure of society. Although this may allow the reader to better understand the full scope of the utopian society, Bellamy’s decision to choose a doctor, at the least, serves partly to cater this book towards a specific audience, one marked by high class and affluence. The character portrayal in this novel is not the only aspect that hinders the complete and coherent presentation of Bellamy’s utopia; the concept of isolationism, both on a societal and international level, also contributes to this tension that Bellamy confronts. Foremost, the isolation on the societal level-that is, within the city of Boston-is very apparent throughout the novel. Merritt Abrash, in his essay “Looking Backward: Marxism Americanized,” points out that very little interaction takes place with other citizens, and Bellamy fails to include much of any reference to relatives, family friends, neighbors, or even acquaintances of the Leete family. In situations where it would be opportune to describe social interactions between the citizens of this utopian society, such as at schools (Abrash 238), Julian states, “I shall not describe in detail what I saw in the schools that day,” which seems rather evasive on Bellamy’s part (Bellamy 175). Furthermore, much of the novel takes place in the home of the Leete family, with minimal journeying into the city or enjoyment of the statues and parks that have been built for the public’s pleasure. Why does Bellamy choose to isolate the Leete family to such an extent? Is this utopian society really one of dullness and little human interaction, or once again is Bellamy tangled within the intricate threads of this tension and forced to provide another concession? Possibly, Bellamy faced a length issue, which led him to limit social interaction simply between Julian and the Leete family; however, his lack of practically any interaction between other members of society points to a different motive. As one sees how radical and extreme Bellamy presents this concept of “brotherhood” and common unity, one may discern that Bellamy realized it would be strategic to isolate the Leete family, retaining and emphasizing its individual identity as a family (Bellamy 122). The concept of a family has been built into almost all types of cultures throughout history, and to tamper with it, or even propose the idea of dissolving it, would entail losing the interest and respect of several readers (Roemer, “Utopia and Victorian Culture,” 322). In addition to this isolation on a societal level, little attention is directed to international concerns. Bellamy assumes that all other nations would easily flow in line right behind America in the transformation to utopia and that violence and turmoil would somehow be naturally obviated. Susan Matarese, in her essay “Foreign Policy and the American Self Image: Looking Back at Looking Backward,” analyzes this idea and further expounds it as she points to Bellamy’s use of the term “Nationalism.” Bellamy employs this term as a blanketing, categorical title for the overall structuring of his society. This term does not give the sense of any type of collaboration with other countries, and instead alienates them and focuses on America as the sole nation of concern. In the utopia that Bellamy portrays, it seems as if mankind has been united, and countries are mere geographical barriers, not cultural barriers or anything of that matter, causing this term to seem somewhat out of place. Matarese nicely articulates her proposed reasoning on why Bellamy choose such a term: “His choice of the term ‘Nationalism’ to describe the new economic, social, and political order which he presented in Looking Backward was a deliberate effort to dissociate his ideas from Europeans who shared his socialist ideals” (44). However, this departure from the theme of “brotherhood” that Bellamy seems to champion throughout much of his book may again be attributed to tension caused by his intended readers-that is, those in the nineteenth century held the common belief that America would set the paradigm for all other countries and therefore lead the way towards utopia (46). Although one may contend that it can be assumed that the sense of “brotherhood” would be extrapolated to other countries, upon reading Bellamy’s portion of the novel concerning the remodeling of other nations, this idea quickly dissolves: “An international council regulates the mutual intercourse and commerce of the members of the union and their joint policy toward the more backward races…” (126). Bellamy’s use of such a pejorative phrase as “backward races” clearly demonstrates that he intends to make no provisions for differing ideals, treating them more as barbarians than brothers. Throughout his book Bellamy makes numerous concessions in an attempt to form ties between the society he lives in and the quite radical one he is proposing. However, many of these concessions may reflect a deeper complexity that exists regarding the circumstances in his novel and his vision. For example, the convoluted way in which Edith expresses her love for Julian may be justified by the fact that her grandmother was engaged to Julian during his previous nineteenth century life (Bellamy 220). This fact does cause the relationship between Julian and Edith to be rather awkward, and thus it may explain the indirect expressions of affection and care. In addition, the conflicts surrounding the issue of gender equality may not necessarily be a concession, but rather genuinely intended-that is, these contradictions are simply manifestations of Bellamy’s vacillating thoughts on gender equality. Bellamy may feel that the separation of gender is an ingrained aspect of society and that this idea should continue into the future. Also, the isolationism that predominates in Bellamy’s novel may simply be a strategic move on his part to better present his utopia, not evade the topic. Thus, with all the incidents and aspects of Bellamy’s novel that are referred to in this paper as concessions, it is truly impossible to say with resolved decisiveness whether they truly were concessions. Bellamy may in fact have shaped this utopian society, down to its details, exactly as he desired in order to convey his thoughts and beliefs in a completely authentic manner. Ultimately, there remains a vague sense of ambivalence concerning the issue of whether or not the details within Bellamy’s novel can be labeled as concessions. The inclusion of similarities or connections between the author’s society and the one that he or she is proposing is not incidental or limited to Bellamy, but rather necessary and pervasive among utopists. The utopists realize that they need some form of relation between the differing societies so that the readers do not become completely baffled or dubious when attempting to decipher the ways of a radical, divergent society, and Bellamy considers exactly this tactic when writing his novel (Roemer, “Utopia and Victorian Culture,” 315). However, this tension or compulsion that utopists feel to maintain similarities with the society of the audience often detracts from the full scale of the utopia’s novelty and accuracy, ultimately leading to a lack of coherence and wholeness in the depicted society.

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