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FREE STUDY GUIDE/NOTES FOR LOOKING BACKWARD: 2000 - 1887
Julian West spends Decoration Day, which commemorates the soldiers of the Civil War, with Edith Bartlett and her family. At dinner he reads of another strike in the building trades and begins to complain about workers in general. Everyone at the table agrees that things are getting very bad. Edith points out that strikes are going on all over the world and that the only places safe from them are Greenland, Patagonia, and the Chinese Empire. That night he had tried to get Edith to agree to marry right away and then travel until their house was completed. He kisses her goodnight as he leaves with no thought that this would be an unusual parting. He leaves early because, as an insomniac, he had not slept for two nights, and Edith sends him home to get some rest.
He goes to his ancestral house, which he had put on the market because its neighborhood was being “invaded by tenement houses and manufacturies.” One special feature of this house is its underground room. Because he has so much trouble sleeping, he sleeps in a room that is hermetically sealed and sound proof. Nonetheless, he still suffers from insomnia. However, he never lets himself go more than two days without sleep. On the third night, he would call in Doctor Pillsbury, a quack doctor who calls himself “a Professor of Animal Magnetism.” Doctor Pillsbury never fails to put him to sleep by using a form of hypnosis. Julian West had gotten the doctor to teach his servant, Sawyer, how to wake him from the trance. He had never told Edith about it because he knew she would disapprove of the risk of death that mesmerism (hypnotism) posed.
When he arrives home, he sends Sawyer after Doctor Pillsbury and sits down to read his mail. One of his letters is from his builder and confirms his fears about the recent strike, delaying the building of his house. When Sawyer returns with the doctor, Julian hears that Doctor Pillsbury is leaving the city that evening. He is slower than usual in losing consciousness, but finally falls asleep.
Chapter II sets up the story of how Julian West ended up in the twentieth century. He seems to be a modern day Rip Van Winkle. Mesmerism (invented by a man named Charles Mesmer) was similar to hypnotism and a common practice during the nineteenth century. Bellamy’s readers would not have been too surprised to read of a man using the services of a mesmerist. Because there was some fear of the practice, it provided a plausible basis for the fiction of this novel: this man fell asleep for a century.
Julian West hears people talking above him as he comes to consciousness. A woman is urging a man not to tell him something. The man agrees that he will try to avoid it. That woman and another woman leave the room just as he is opening his eyes. He sees a man in his sixties, who says he is a doctor and claims that Julian has just come out of a trance. The doctor tries to get some information from him, in particular, the date on which he fell asleep. After a great deal of confusion, he learns from his new host that it is September 10, 2000 and that he has slept for over 113 years. Hearing this news, he falls back asleep. When he wakes up, he looks at his host closely. He thinks that this must be a practical joke, but looking at his host, he sees that this man does not look like the sort to play such a trick.
The doctor tells him that the fact that he slept for so long is unlikely, but not improbable, given what they know of the trance state. It allows a person’s bodily functions to be suspended so that no body tissue is wasted. The doctor tells him that he had been found in the hermetically sealed room. The doctor had been planning to build a laboratory beside his house so that he could conduct chemical experiments, and a flood had uncovered the vault where Julian West was sleeping. The doctor had summoned his colleagues when he found Mr. West, thinking he was dead, but he refused to let them conduct experiments on him. (They had wanted to learn how he had been so perfectly preserved.) The doctor had resuscitated Mr. West and waited for him to wake up.
Julian West gets up to look at himself in the mirror. He does not look a day older. He begins to get angry, thinking the doctor is part of a terrible joke being played on him. The doctor tells him to come upstairs so that he can see for himself that he is in the twentieth century. They go to the top of the house and look out over the city. Julian West sees a fine city with wide streets, parks, fountains and buildings. He sees the Charles River and Boston harbor, and then he knows that he has been told the truth.
The story of his resuscitation follows logically on what has already been established. His body has been preserved by the well-sealed room and the suspension of his vital organs by the process of mesmerism. He is now awakening to the fact that he is actually in the twentieth century. His first images of it are purely positive: the doctor’s kindness and intelligence and the city’s vast improvements.Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version