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By Edward Bellamy
Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar, 2008, from 1888 copyright
208 pages

Bob Corbett
March 2016

Julian West is 30 years old in 1857 as he begins to narrate the startling and fascinating story of his life. He was a fairly wealthy fellow by inheritance and is in love with a woman of his class who seems to love him as well. He lives in Boston and is not only rich, but well educated and can live the rest of his life on the wealth created for him by others in his family.

He, like most people of his time, seems to have believed that the social system in which he lived was necessary and unchangeable. This society had four classes: the rich and the poor and the educated and ignorant. More than not the rich were educated and the poor were ignorant.

He is awaiting the building of a new home for him in a rich area of Boston, but the strikes among worker, which were common in those years, were slowing down the building of his home, and his marriage was sort of on hold until the “proper” house for such a couple should be finished. His fiancé was also from the Boston upper classes.

There seemed to be troubling signs in their world. The ancient system of order was undergoing change. After the Civil War the working class was threatening violence. It was trying to change the fundamental manner of society.

While awaiting his home to be finished, he is living in his family’s old mansion, and in this home, where he lives alone with only one old servant, he has a very secret little nook in a hidden basement, and, as was typical for him, he took a fairly large dose of laudanum to help him sleep.

During the night there was a fire which burned the home down and killed his butler. He, however, had fallen into a coma because of the large amount of drugs he took, and miraculously fell into a 113 year long coma!!!! No one promised the reader a believable story!

On Sept. 10, 2000, a new owner of the property was checking out the work on the home site and the construction crew uncovered the hidden concrete bunker. The new owner, Dr. Leete found Julien in this hidden underground bunker. Fortunately, as things work out, the doctor understands this very unusual notion of 113 year coma, and, with the doctor’s aide, Julian is revived with no ill effects, other than he is now living in the world of the year 2000!!!

Boston was extraordinarily changed; so was the whole world’s social system. A non-violent revolution had put all commerce into the hands of the people, not individuals. The government ran it all. It was like a giant and universal socialism. The nation itself was the sole business which existed.

In the old system the task of government was:

“. . . that the proper functions of government, strictly speaking, were limited to keeping the peace and defending the people against the public enemy, that is, to the military and police powers.”

But Dr. Leete, who is explaining the new system to Julian, responds:

“. . . who are the public enemies . . . are they France, England, Germany, or hunger, cold and nakedness?”

Dr. Leete begins to explain the “new” world where all – men and woman -- from age 24 to 45 do the work, with a possible 10 years more required work possible in years where they are needed. While there are strong motivations toward good work, there are punishments as well. All receive the exact same pay and are expected to serve fairly in their work.

There are no wars. There is a sort of United Nations which

“. . . regulates the mutual intercourse of the member nations and their joint policy toward the more backward races, which are gradually being educated up to civilized institutions.”

This utopian system seems to have no criminals or self-centered activity. The argument of why this is so hasn’t been very convincing to me.

On his second or third evening in the home they go out to dinner in the rain

“. . . a continuous waterproof covering had been let down so as to enclose the sidewalk and turn it into a well-lighted and perfectly dry corridor, which was filled with a stream of ladies and gentlemen dressed for dinner.”

This covered sidewalk brought back some fond memories for me of visits to Barcelona, Spain and Turin, Italy. Each had a section of the old town going back a couple centuries, in which the ruler at the time had a large number of covered walk ways in the central city. I really loved those!

Dr. Leete refers to “…. difference between the age of individualism and that of concert.” In this Boston of the year 2000 each family “rents” its private dining area for its main meal of each day and calls in the menu the day before. You can eat what you want and within a cost that you want.”

The “modern” system dignified all work equally since all must do it and the rewards were equal, and all the services needed were provided. The doctor is explaining to Julian the modern world in which he tells Julian there is a great superiority of their modern utopian collective over that of the competitive structure of capitalism of Julian’s “times”.

Certainly many of the criticisms make great sense. However, there is virtually no credit given to the power of motivation of wealth and “place” in the creation of many “novelties” to human production.

The women in this utopia are treated as “different” in ways I think modern women would abhor. Tasks and jobs were separated on the assumption of both the inferiority of women’s strength and abilities, and for a need for “special treatment.”

“The lack of some such recognition of the distinct individuality of the sexes was one of the innumerable defects of your society. The passional attraction between men and women has too often prevented a perception of the profound differences which too often prevented a perception of the profound differences which make the members of each sex in many things strange to the other, and capable of sympathy only with their own. 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 other, are alike enhanced. In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, and with emulations, ambitions, and careers and I assure you they are happy in it. It seems to us that women were more than any other class the victims of your civilization.”

However, there was, nonetheless equal pay for all. The key view was that the nation owns all, and distributes all goods in equality to all. Thus: “There can be no marriages but matches of pure love.” This is because there is no other reason to marry than for love.

After some weeks where it is clear to the reader that Julian and Edith, the doctor’s daughter, have fallen in love and he finally confesses his love to Edith, and she to him, which has been quite evident to any reader long before. However, Julian was motivated by a sermon on the radio, and it was actually about him! The news is out and the radio preacher launches into a long diatribe about the 19th century’s ways and the perfection of the modern day, and, of course, this makes Julian feel very inferior and somehow out of it all. The preacher sums up the differences:

“Poverty with servitude had been the result, (of 19th century capitalism) for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth.”

In the 19th century, particularly in the U.S. numerous “intentional” Utopian Communities sprang up and had moments of success, but few have really survived to any later or larger extend. Perhaps the most successful Western successes of some sort of egalitarian intentional communities have been the typically sexually separated Roman Catholic religious communities of priests and brothers among the men and convents of nuns among women. However, virtually all of them exclude children and are seldom economically self-sufficient.

As the novel comes to a close, Bellamy has made most of the general claims he wants to make and he returns to what has become the love story between Julian and Edith, the doctor’s daughter. That is a fascinating story and quite surprising ending for the novel.

This novel is a fascinating read. Overall Bellamy creates a wildly utopian society that seems to completely ignore the nature of human beings and of human history. He chooses to create a society among perfect angels instead of human beings. Nonetheless, he does present some fascinating fictions and leaves this reader wishing very much that we humans were a bit more perfect, kind, generous, loving and rational than we really are. Despite this seeming criticism, the novel is a great read and a lovely utopia is created for us.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett