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A Better Vision for a Better Future in Bellamy’s Looking Backward

7 Feb

Reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward can give the reader some sense of the old utopian fiction that portrays a perfect human society. Although we read this work as fictional story, Bellamy seems to imply a message that carries his ideas for a better social reform. His readers in his nineteenth century were impact by the economic and political ideas. I believe that his work is more like a proposal to his audience to imagine a better future with ideal society. Therefore, he tries to touch upon some sensitive issues like separation between gender and personal freedom among the individuals without any change to the social order. It is a representation of an ideal image that portrays a better future maintaining the equality between citizens in the utopian twentieth century. Bellamy’s protagonist, Julian, can be seen as the representative of the nineteenth century who is migrated to twentieth century and readers see how he is in a utopian flexible society with a better personal freedom. We can see how Julian is flashbacking to his past in the nineteenth century as a nightmare as a cruel and inhuman world. In fact, industrial system of private capital was a sign of nineteenth century. The production of wealth was associated with the few privileged and the rest of the society was the sufferers from the poverty and hanger. Bellamy seems to criticize the economic system in a fictional utopian mode were he leaves his audience dreaming for that better society in a better future.

Among the selections from Philip Wegner, it was discussed how Bellamy has his own vision through his narrative utopia that produced by the multiple “legacies of memories” that impact the realization of any American nation (63). As Wegner argued that, for Bellamy, the modern American nation can be seen through a collective act of forgetting the past and reorientation toward a single future. Bellamy leaves his readers think of what might feel once they live in the utopian world and dreaming of the past as a nightmare. I believe it is the case that we all are living in a kind of a welfare state in our days and once we think about our grandparents’ life, we may consider it a miserable life. This feeling might be applied to what we read and watch in the science fiction books and movies. It is the representation of the future world with a better life with modern technology and always a better welfare state than the current one. Therefore, we see Julian in this novel is feeling so sad and considering his life back in the nineteenth century is nightmare.

Looking Backward can be read as one of narratives that gives the read sense of what might feel to be transferred form the current world to a utopian better future where the social, cultural, and economic class is much better. It is a world that both men and women are equal. These what Wegner describes as the “symbols of wealth”, “Born to expect guardianship and support, without either being the result of personal forethought or experience, they could not now, suddenly, appreciate the need of individual reliance upon themselves” (86).


The Future is Filled With Fountains

7 Feb

In his utopian novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy attempts to introduce the reader to a marvelous new world in the year 2000, which happens to be one hundred some odd years ahead of his current time, not to mention the time of his current protagonist. While there are a few more scholarly issues that I wish to discuss, and I promise that I will get to them quite shortly, I would likely go insane if I did not begin by analyzing what I see as a very key difficulty within the work. Namely that Bellamy failed almost spectacularly in the actual construction of the work.

I do not want to dismiss the utopia Bellamy discovers, as I’ll get to in a bit here, but I’m instead referring to his means of introducing his audience to said utopia. It seems that Bellamy missed the instructions suggesting that it is far better for an author to show his reader details rather than tell the reader all about it. Bellamy continually displays an absolutely fascinating view of the future, one filled with a surprisingly high number of fountains; however, he does so primarily by having an educator character tell the narrator all the various details. These descriptive passages are delivered to the reader in long, dry monologues that read more like something out of Plato’s Republic than an actual novel. That is not to say that there isn’t a plot and that Bellamy didn’t have some opportunity for movement there; there exist bits between these long dry monologues that detail precisely that. In these much smaller segments, we see the world simultaneously with the narrator, Julian West, instead of being told about it. I refer primarily to almost enchanting sections wherein Julian wanders about in the world, often in the accompaniment of his (surprisingly developed in consideration to the work and age) love interest, Edith. A solid example of this can be seen in the shopping trip, wherein Edith serves as a guide to Julian, showing him the wonders of the interior mall and the workings of the society.

I want to briefly compare the work to another, similar, work: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In that work, we also receive a displaced, intelligent narrator who encounters a strange world that reflects quite strongly upon the society from which the narrator came. However, whereas Bellamy introduces the majority of his world via the narration of the dry doctor, Swift allows his readers to follow along with Gulliver in discovering the various fascinating bits of the various lands Gulliver voyages to. Thus when we wish to learn about, say, the court of the Lilliputians, we read Gulliver’s testimony of his own observations and interactions, instead of having, say a minister of Lilliput outlining all the particular details for it. It’s quite clear to me that Bellamy could certainly have learned by reading this work, and constructed something that was much more readable (and, I’ll confess, more enjoyable too).

However, as I said from the beginning, this does not dismiss the meat of the novel, namely the utopian world which Bellamy constructed so masterfully. It becomes quite clear to most readers (okay, so this is a bit of an assumption on my part; it was abundantly clear to this reader) that Bellamy is using the future and the utopian construct to discuss the social issues of his current day. The work opens with West worrying over the various worker conditions, albeit in more personal terms (hey, who can blame him? People are often more concerned with their own worlds, and none more so than the middle/upper class of modern, err, nineteenth century USA). This trend continues throughout the text, as embedded within the aforementioned lectures upon the current socio-econmic situation are various hints towards the problems of the day. In point of fact, West at several points directly asks how to the paradise he’s found himself in solved all the various problems. Naturally the answers come across as almost too simple (credit cards, malls, and semi-equality among women [there’s so much about women here that you could construct an entire blog post around it]), which again, makes sense given the situation. If we were asked how we managed to deal with that pesky feudalism problem, our answers would likely be close to the same (i.e. so easy: independent thought, restructuring of socio-economic class, and a lot more fountains). What Bellamy attempts, and I would argue that in this he has at least some success, is therefore to offer these reasonable solutions as actual viable ones.

I am hardly the first (semi)intellectual to come to similar conclusions. Writing upon the utopia, Philip Wegner explicitly states that “the narrative utopia first successfully performs another pedagogical operation: teaching its audiences how to think of the spaces they already inhabit in a new critical fashion” (17). He continues along this line a handful of pages later, stating that “the version (of utopia) offered is less of some radically other place than that of a ‘repaired’ present” (20). By building on these ideas, we can conclude that Bellamy was, in fact, attempting to project his present into the utopia, using its perfection to showcase the ideas and demonstrate how the present could, to use Wegner’s term be ‘repaired”. Bellamy clearly had concerns and issues with the current socio-economic clime, which is hardly surprising since that very subject is so prevalent throughout the literature of the period (Dickens serving as a great example [and a personal favorite], not to mention one that is referred in Looking Backward as being a favorite of the age, which is rather prophetic, if you stop to think about it [which sort of sums up the novel as a whole, doesn’t it?]). therefore what he clearly set out to do was outline the solutions to that problem, and he did so via the path of the utopia, likely believing it to be a more digestible method of getting the point across, as opposed to the political tract he almost clearly wanted to write (though there would be a decided dirth of fountains in a political tract, a travesty if there ever was one). Thus does Bellamy construct one of the first science fiction novels, and one that is certainly worthy of consideration and analysis.

Women and Gender Roles in Future Society in Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887

7 Feb

For Bellamy, things aren’t the same in the year 2000 and everything has changed for “better”. Here I’m concerned about women in this new society and their gender roles compared to men. I believe that gender roles in future (Utopia) became fuzzy. The fact that women have the opportunity to be outside home and work as men do is liberal and advanced. However, I doubt that women are completely free and that they are still hidden under the shadows of men.

Women are given different jobs and industrial framework than men, and men determine their work plan and vacations depending on their social and parental status. The reason is that “Women being inferior in strength to men, and further disqualified industrially in special ways, the kinds of occupation reserved for them, and the conditions under which they pursue them…”(359) Where is the equality here? Still men have the power of women in that while Utopia should be perfect for both genders. Finding out that men “permit them to work” because it’s good for their minds and bodies is just unfair because women have the right to work and they deserve to be equal to men in that part. And what made me believe more that women aren’t freed from their traditional and social constraints and obligations is that married women and who have children are most respected and wanted in the Utopian society. “[w]omen who have been both wives and mothers, as they alone fully represent their sex.”(365)

I think what Bellamy is trying to create in the society of future, as Utopia is impossible regarding the gender roles. It is pretty obvious how these two sexes, although giving some freedom, are not the same in the way that women are obliged to take what the other sex offers whether it’s work opportunities or home responsibilities. I’m totally not convinced that women are better and happier because they are still inferior to men in many ways and perhaps future is only made for men. Also, I would really define “happiness” and “misery” in a feminine perspective not from the unreliable viewpoint of a man.

This issue can be related to Gilman’s Herland who argues about the fate of women and their gender roles in Utopian societies. And that women should be given equal opportunities as men to show their potentials.

Link to Brandon’s Post, Pts. 1 & 2

5 Feb

I’m doing my post in two parts.

Here is the link to the first part:

And here’s the link to the follow-up:

Whitewashing the Future

4 Feb

Strictly from a reader’s point of view, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy has as its central drawback that common to utopian fiction, a lack of conflict in the story-line.  In a sense, this only reinforces the presumption of the truth quality of the narrative; if that described is merely a story, then the author would be bound to follow the conventions of stories and make it as interesting as possible.  By sticking to intricate travelogue (or in the case of Bellamy’s future United States, the Econo-logue), the narrator sticks to one solid, if unexceptional, trick, the gradual discovery of an alternate system for how things work in an ideal society, and the serious tone reinforces the quality of didacticism.  As Wegner points out, the process of mapping this previously unknown territory is central to the experience.

Two particular elements of Wegner’s commentary drew my attention to portions of Looking Backward that reflect on my personal interests.   In “Writing the New American (Re)Public,” he discusses how Bellamy espoused a popular sentiment where “assimilation was the only proper response to the present crisis of diversity besetting the American nation” (73).  The indication is that the bourgeoisie is the target goal into which all classes should morph since the entirety of the future society is based upon the pleasures of consumption.  Wegner goes to lengths to point out the generic face put on the labor involved in the productions of the products and services consumed by Future America, noting their invisibility.  Assimilation paired with invisibility suggests not so much issues of class to me as it does issues of race.  Charles Chesnutt, African-American contemporary to Bellamy, wrote “I see an epoch in our nation’s history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, molded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals” (93).   Chesnutt also looked to economics to provide the impetus to opening doors across society.  The question that comes to my mind is this: could a nineteenth century gentleman such as Julian West encounter a racially integrated society in the future and not comment on it, regardless of his own personal feelings, broad-minded or not?  It seems much more likely that this utopia was of the old Hollywood style, by whites for whites, where color has as conveniently disappeared as Wegner demonstrates labor has.

The second element comes from “Space and Modernity.”  In it, Wegner associates the birth and continuation of the genre of utopian fiction with moments of social trauma.  For instance, Thomas More originates the genre at the moment of the final shift from feudal to capitalist socio-economics, the shift from a “catholic” religion to individuated ones.  Recently, I was reading Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in 19th Century British Literature by Andrew Miller, and it provided the most convincing and comprehensive overview  (from a literary point of view – of course, the only one that is real to me) of the stress incurred in the shifting social outlook of the Victorians that I have ever encountered.  In particular, however, Miller provides a justification for the development of the internal life as a narrative tool, admittedly a model that does not resemble reality, because of the need, the craving for guidance that the pressures of the industrial age were invoking in everyone.  The result is that virtually no portion of literature fails to encompass this, either as direct didacticism or as a negative example, both with the same purpose.

To put these two elements together, briefly, I might suggest that the bleaching of the future that seems implicit in Bellamy’s work serves the overall purpose of reassuring his so stressed readership while guiding them.  This reassurance is only enhanced by glossing over an element of reality that does not necessarily fit.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “Race Prejudice: Its Causes and Its Cure.” Selected Writings. Ed. Sallyann H. Ferguson. Boston: Houghton, 2001. Print.

Miller, Andrew. Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in 19th Century British Literature. Cornell UP, 2008. ebrary. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.

Week 2: Political Utopias and Techno-Topias (Bellamy)

3 Feb

Our first reading for the course is Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887.

looking backward

I have also assigned two sections from Phillip Wegner’s 2002 book Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity. The first Wegner reading discusses utopia and modernity in general terms, looking at utopia as a genre of imagined spaces that encourages readers to look critically at the present. The second section discusses Looking Backward –– which Wegner calls “the single most influential narrative utopia of the nineteenth century” –– in detail and elaborates its historical context.

For those of you who have been brave enough  to offer to blog in this first week, I want to offer a little bit of guidance, or at least some ideas you can jump off from.

I suggest that you draw specific passages from the Bellamy (and from Wegner or any other critical or theoretical text that interests you) and explore a particular theme or idea that connects in some way to your research interests. Here are some of the key themes that strike me as interesting places to begin thinking about Bellamy’s novel.

  • Utopia (in its various forms)
  • Modernity (in the context of turn-of-the-century America or perhaps more broadly)
  • Technology and the idea of techno-scientific progress
  • Socialism, liberalism, and the idea of political progress
  • US nationalism and its relationship to the rest of the globe
  • Communication and media
  • Labor and consumption
  • Nature/environment
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Race and ethnicity (is it conspicuous by its absence?)
  • Art and literature

If you’re unfamiliar with WordPress, just make sure you are logged in and then click here to make your blog post. Under “categories” in the right-hand sidebar of the “add new post” page, please check the box for the week in which you are posting (week 2 for now). You should also feel free to add tags that describe the subject matter of your post.

If you’re going to be posting at your own blog, please make a short post at this blog with a link to your entry when you have completed it.