The main reason that Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward is so popular is its powerful metaphors. These metaphors reveal to what depth Bellamy went in imagining a utopia that would involve a massive and justified change in not only the economic and political system but also in how people thought about it.
Reading a story with no metaphors leads to a direct understanding. A person might agree or disagree with it. It might be thought-provoking, but it might not make anybody gather up with friends to discuss it over tea and scones.
But metaphors are amazing. There’s a fascinating interdisciplinary scholarship on metaphors that draw on literary studies, rhetorical analysis, and cognitive science.
Metaphors, mostly, remind people of poetry or at least of figurative language. Hearing of a metaphor, people might even be transported back to middle or high school: a metaphor is a comparison that does not use ‘like’ or ‘as’, as opposed to a simile, which is a comparison that does use ‘like’ or ‘as’.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Metaphors in Looking Backward
Five of Bellamy’s most popular metaphors are the Prodigious Stagecoach, the Private Umbrella, the Rosebush in the Swamp, the Industrial Army, and Credit Cards. The first three are figurative metaphors and the other two are more embedded.
The Prodigious Stagecoach is perhaps the most famous of Bellamy’s provocative metaphors. It appears in the opening pages of the novel, when Julian, newly arrived in the year 2000, compares society in The Gilded Age.
A prodigious coach, which the masses of humanity were harnessed to, dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The folks on top, as he explains, were very comfortable physically and morally. They never thought about getting off to help, since they didn’t want to lose their seat. It’s a pretty hideous view of humanity, And he does have two explanations, and he fully recognizes that these are not excuses.
First, this is the only way people knew that a society could function—things had always been this way, and it was assumed things would always be this way.
And second, more complexly, the people at the top somehow thought they were different from the people at the bottom, that they were made of better stuff. He quickly comes to describe this last as a singular hallucination, a delusion.
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The Private Umbrella Metaphor
The Private Umbrella is another favorite metaphor, partly because it’s funny and whimsical, and partly because it also has so much potential to open up the conversation.
One day, Julian goes out for dinner with his hosts. A terrible rainstorm begins and Julian realizes no one has brought galoshes or umbrellas. That is because an ingenious system of sidewalk coverings is launched and the crowd goes about their business as usual.
Is the Private Umbrella a good example of people’s insularity, of the fact that they tend to focus on their own needs and those of their families to the exclusion of society? Would it make more sense to create a shared public umbrella rather than for each person to have small, flimsy umbrellas that people don’t always carry around?
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The Industrial Army Metaphor
The Industrial Army is a more socially embedded metaphor in being the main economic driver of utopian Boston. A man’s service in the Industrial Army is his work or professional life.
In the year 2000, everyone has access to excellent education and uses this access to acquire basic knowledge of all kinds and to pursue areas of special interest. No one works until age 21, and everyone is discharged from the Army at age 45. And working hours aren’t onerous at all, often only four hours per day.
In comparison with the 1880s, most workers had 60-hour workweeks, meaning 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Child labor laws, which limited their workday to a maximum of 10 hours per day, were on the books, but they were not routinely enforced in most states until the 1930s.
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The Credit Card Metaphor
Bellamy imagines a moneyless economy, just like Thomas More and many earlier utopians did, but he recognizes the need for an economic system that tracks individual spending. In the year 2000, annual credit cards are issued to almost every citizen, and everyone gets the same number of credits for the year to spend as they’d like.
Unused credits are simply discarded at the end of the year when the new credits are given out. And the reason Boston is so impressively beautified in the year 2000 is that unused resources are spent toward the common good, making public spaces as pleasant as possible. The idea of a credit economy in which everyone has an equal share, that’s shocking to Julian.
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The Rosebush Metaphor
Dr. Leete is short on details of exactly how the bloodless revolution was accomplished, but he does provide a good metaphor: the Rosebush in the Swamp.
Dr. Leete says that human nature is like a rosebush that innumerable generations of gardeners have done their best to make bloom. But beyond an occasional half-opened bud with a worm at the heart, their efforts have been unsuccessful.
Many, indeed, claimed that the bush was no rosebush at all, but a noxious shrub, fit only to be uprooted and burned.
The gardeners/moral philosophers struggled with this rosebush for a long time until there came a period of general despondency and with it the idea of transplanting the bush out of the swamp. With that transplantation into nationalism, humans in Boston and all over the world began to achieve their full potential, as a society and as individuals.
Common Questions about the Power of Metaphors in Bellamy’s Looking Backward
Metaphors remind people of poetry or at least of figurative language. A metaphor is a comparison that does not use ‘like’ or ‘as’, as opposed to a simile, which is a comparison that does use ‘like’ or ‘as’.
Bellamy used two kinds of metaphors in Looking Backward—figurative and embedded.
There are five important metaphors in Looking Backward. These five are the Industrial Army, the Private Umbrella, the Rosebush in a Swamp, Prodigious Stagecoach, and Credit Card.