Connections through Character Portrayal

March 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Edward Bellamy, in his novel Looking Backward, 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). However, even with such radical and disparate changes, Bellamy is careful to maintain and construct certain connections to the nineteenth century, which is manifested particularly through the character portrayal of Julian West and Edith Leete, so that this utopia he has erected will not be one that seems totally ethereal and inconceivable to his audience.Foremost, Bellamy’s decision to utilize Julian West as the narrator, who, originally from the nineteenth century, mysteriously wakes up to find himself in the twentieth century, proves to be a very apt one. Julian plays a very critical role throughout the novel, because he serves as the primary conceptual link between the gaping disparities in lifestyles between the two societies. Bellamy was cognizant that his audience during the publication of his novel would comprise middle to upper class members, and thus what better narrator was there than one who “…was rich and also educated, and possessed, therefore, all the elements of happiness enjoyed by the most fortunate of that age” (Bellamy, 47)? By employing a narrator holding a socioeconomic position in society similar to that of the majority of the audience, Bellamy affords his readers something to grasp onto and relate to as they, just like Julian, are immersed in a society that is marked by extreme changes. Furthermore, Julian is portrayed as a very curious, critical, and often times defensive person, which further mirrors the attitude of the audience. For example, after Dr. Leete makes a remark concerning the increasing of prices for costly articles, Julian questions how this process could possibly hold when competition between buyers and sellers is nonexistent (Bellamy, 153). Such a question is exactly what the audience would ask, as they are used to this concept of competition as the driving force in society that leads to greater efficiency and production. In addition, Julian often times becomes defensive about his own society, such as when he states, “…our industrial system was ethically very bad, but as a mere wealth making machine, apart from moral aspects, it seemed to us admirable” (179). The audience would naturally be prone to defend their own society, and thus when Julian takes on these defensive tones, the audience better relates to him. In essence, the readers’ thoughts are materialized through the actions and words of Julian throughout the book, which ultimately allows the audience to better understand this perplexing and novel society. Edith Leete, although in a different manner, accomplishes a similar feat in that she also provides a bridge from the utopian society to that of the audience. Kenneth Roemer, in his essay “Literary Domestication of Utopia,” analyzes the role Edith plays to ingratiate the readers of the nineteenth century. Roemer refers to how Edith is characterized as still retaining those characteristics and interests thought to be held prominently by women, such as shopping and particular concern for the style of clothing. He even points to her episodes of crying as manifestations of typical feministic qualities. Furthermore, Roemer takes note of Edith’s sympathetic and nurturing personality, as she supports Julian, and therefore the audience, as Julian delves 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. Ultimately, the way that Julian and Edith are portrayed, concerning aspects such as socioeconomic background and feministic qualities, is very effective as it allows the audience to construct connections to this distant, esoteric society. These connections between the society that the writer lives in and the one that is portrayed through his or her writing are not incidental or limited to Bellamy, but rather very necessary and pervasive among utopists. The utopists realize that they need some form of linkage between the differing societies so that the readers do not tumble into a pit of confusion when attempting to decipher the ways of a radically incongruent society, and Bellamy considers exactly this tactic when writing his novel (Roemer, “Utopia and Victorian Culture,” 315).

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