Edward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel Looking Backward tells the story of a Boston man who is placed in a mesmeric trance in 1887 and awakens in thEdward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel Looking Backward tells the story of a Boston man who is placed in a mesmeric trance in 1887 and awakens in the year 2000. While he was entranced, the United States and much of the world has undergone major transformations, chiefly in economic and social organization. Most of the book is exposition, as the protagonist, Julian West, learns about the new, improved Boston from his rescuer, Dr. Leete. The Boston of the future is a utopia of organization, equality, and freedom. A very small portion of the novel is dedicated to putting this exposition in the context of an actual plot, in which Julian West falls in love (it's not very compelling).
The ideas Bellamy puts forth in this novel are interesting, both for his contemporaries and for myself. Looking Backward was a bestseller in its time, following only Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur in popularity. People organized societies to discuss and try to put his ideas into practice, utopian communities were founded based on his principles, and several major thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century were influenced by the ideas of Bellamy's novel.
For myself, I am drawn to the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the book and its concern with social equality. He builds his argument on the idea of the brotherhood of man, saying, through the voice of Dr. Leete, "Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support" (105). Furthermore, he continues, "the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity" (106).
Given this, the Boston of the 19th century must be seen in terms of horror and death. During one venture into 1887 Boston, West says,
"Presently, too, as I observed the wretched beings about me more closely, I perceived that they were all quite dead. Their bodies were so many living sepulchres. On each brutal brow was plainly written the hic jacet of a soul dead within. As I looked, horror struck, from one death's head to another, I was affected by a singular hallucination. Like a wavering translucent spirit face superimposed upon each of these brutish masks I saw the ideal, the possible face that would have been the actual if mind and soul had lived. . . . Therefore now I found upon my garments the blood of this great multitude of strangled souls of my brothers. The voice of their blood cried out against me from the ground. Every stone of the reeking pavements, every brick of the pestilential rookeries, found a tongue and called after me as I fled: What has thou done with thy brother Abel?" (266).
Bellamy's description of the inequalities of the 19th century are the most interesting and vivid part of the book; his descriptions of the utopia of 2000 are not only less interesting and vivid (utopias are generally hard to bring to life anyway) but in some crucial ways unappealing. Although the idea of the brotherhood of man and the equality that concretizing this brotherhood brings really appeals to me, the particulars of this society are troubling in their insistent uniformity, apparent authoritarianism, and nationalism. All neighborhoods look the same, the government has absorbed all private interests, and the "national party" aims to "justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die" (207). Apparently, I am more of an anarchist than I thought (speaking of which, Bellamy dismisses anarchism as a mere tool of capitalism, a way to keep real reform from occurring).
Another element of Bellamy's utopian future that is both promising and troubling is the place of women in society. On the one hand, he makes an argument for freer personal relationships and the inclusion of women in the workplace, which is a really positive move for an author of the 1880s; on the other hand, however, he manages to remain firmly entrenched in traditional ideas about gender, including separate spheres for men and women and the concepts of women as simultaneously weaker and better than men. Dr. Leete explains that of course women work, just as men do; in fact, he says, they "have a women general-in-chief and are under exclusively feminine regime" and "the hours of women's work are considerably shorter than those of men's, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor" (210). He continues in this vein, saying, "We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions, and careers, and I assure you they are very happy with it" (211).
Despite the weakness and separateness this reveals, and despite the condescension that appears to still come from men, women in this utopia "have risen to the full height of their responsibility as the wardens of the world to come, to whose keeping the keys of the future are confided. Their feeling of duty in this respect amounts to a sense of religious consecration. It is a cult in which they educate their daughters from childhood" (220). Together with Bellamy's statements that "women who have been both wives and mothers . . . alone fully represent their sex" (213) and that "it is in giving full play to the differences of sex rather than in seeking to obliterate them, as was apparently the effort of some reformers in your day, that the enjoyment of each by itself and the piquancy which each has for the other, are alike enhanced" (211), this statement about women's responsibility and religious consecration looks ahead to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's glorification of motherhood and women's society in Herland, another major American utopian text that links socialism and a form of feminism. ...more
I enjoyed this book. It is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking. Ultimately, though, it is good but not great. Its "oral history" format isI enjoyed this book. It is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking. Ultimately, though, it is good but not great. Its "oral history" format is interesting, especially early on, but sacrifices depth for breadth. Brooks is able to use this technique to provide a view of the war from many, many, many widely varying perspectives, but these short interviews (and most were very short) don't allow the reader to really delve into the experience of any of these characters. I found myself wanting to read a novel-length version of some of their stories but instead had to just move on to the next short vignette. This structural decision isn't a fatal flaw, but it is the primary reason (along with the fact that many of the interviewees sounded a lot alike) that kept me from giving the book a higher score....more
I must begin by saying that I saw the movie before I read the book and so my reading of the book was shaped by that fact. I loved the movie, in fact,I must begin by saying that I saw the movie before I read the book and so my reading of the book was shaped by that fact. I loved the movie, in fact, found it haunting and compelling. The book does not have the same effect. There are always differences between a book and its movie adaptation, but in this case, the differences are substantial.
The pace is very different; where the movie moves forward constantly, the book inches along, spending chapters and chapters on Theo's internal life and childhood.
The characters are different; Theo is older, more conservative here than in the movie, and nearly all of the other characters are presented differently or simply play different roles. I most felt this difference in the character of Jasper, played by Michael Caine in the movie.
The plot is different. The basic premise is the same (near future dystopia in which no more children are being born; until one woman becomes pregnant), but beyond that they go in different directions entirely. Without giving too much away, the movie functions more as a political thriller than does the book and so the Fishes (the group of anti-government radicals) are presented differently and the conflict between them and the government is central. The book is more personal in its focus, more religious in its references, and so many of the crucial scenes differ in the details and the scope.
It's perhaps not fair to compare the two. What James does in the book is what literature can do well (focus on character development and internal conflict) and that film does less well; what Cuaron does in the film is what film can do well (visual presentation of ideas, action and movement). But these seemingly superficial differences add up to different artistic experiences, different atmospheres and moods, even different statements on the situation.
Since it is so hard for me to disentangle the two works (literary and filmic), I will just say that, in this case, I much preferred the film. ...more