Last Updated - December 12, 2016
Backward is a Christian Socialist "utopian" novel published in
1888. Several years ago I decided to use it as the novel in my ENL 121
-- Introduction to Literature course, simply to see how students would
react. The novels I had used in previous years evoke some, but not very
much interest, primarily because students did not see much of a connection
between literature and life. Although not all students become engaged,
Backward evokes much more response, especially because the novel addresses
current major problems: the lack of jobs, unions, education, health, the
roles of women in society, and the wide gap between the rich and poor.
Students whose papers provide substantive
responses to the novel are invited to submit their papers and give me permission
to publish them. They are given the opportunity to edit them for grammatical
errors after they receive the papers back, but otherwise the papers are
given here exactly as the students submit them. Not all of these papers
earned an "A," but they all attempted to address a current issue in relation
to the novel. (For the assignment and grading rubric, click
--Dr. Ed Vavra
Jan. 8, 2014
This site is actually an extension of
the assignment. Future students will be able to cite and build on (agreeing
to or disagreeing with) the arguments in these essays. The following list
of topics includes some that students have not yet addressed. When papers
are submitted that do not fit this list, the relevant topic will be added.
In other words, this list provides additional suggestions (and sources)
for the assignment.
Adapting Ideas from Bellamy to
Working for Welfare, by Courtland BaierAre people innately good or innately evil?
This question has been debated for at least 2,000 years. It is fundamental to a response to the novel because Bellamy believed that people are innately good. If they are not, his vision for a utopian society will probably fail. Students love to respond to this question, but they don't realize that they have little understanding of the question. The course includes two suggested "reading" assignments:
In addition to those, however, for this assignment I'm expecting the students to find and use at least one additional credible source on the question.Rifkin, Jeremy. The Empathic Civilisation (YouTube.com)
[No papers]The Problem of Crime
There are no jails in Bellamy's Boston of 2000. Dr. Leete, Bellamy's spokesperson in the novel, claims that this is so because almost all crimes result from the unequal distribution of wealth. Although many, perhaps the majority, of crimes can be so viewed, students have rightly noted that many crimes are the result of hatred, jealousy, etc. The papers in this section address this question and suggest how Bellamy's society could, or could not, address the problem.
Crime Cannot Be Dismissed, by Erika Sherlinski
Bellamy’s Looking Backward -- Crime Will Always Exist, by Michaela Diehl
Bellamy, Drugs, and Crime: Is a 2015 Utopia Even a Possibility?, by Sarah BoehnleinWhat does "equality" mean?
We often hear, or say, that "All men are created equal," but what, exactly does this mean? (Bellamy, by the way, wrote a sequel to Looking Backward, and titled it Equality. It is less of a novel than the first book, but in it Bellamy addresses this question.)
A Nation of Inequality, by Nick WilczynskiEveryone Must Work
Among the papers I'm hoping to see here are one on current welfare requirements and two that offer suggestions for requiring "volunteer" work from people currently on welfare. It's a very interesting, but also very complex problem, so I'm hoping that future papers will build on the first ones in this section.
Edward Bellamy’s Contributions, by Jessica MainesEducation
Bellamy claims that in his Boston of 2000, everyone gets a free education until the age of 21. But he is very unclear about what that education consists of. These papers should start with what Bellamy says, and then attempt to fill in, in more detail, what students would have to study in order to be good citizens in that society.
Looking Backward Towards the Future of Education, by Hayley SteigerCompetition and Invention
In Bellamy's vision, there are no private companies. That has raised questions from many students about its implications. Because there will be no companies to compete, will the society make new products and new inventions? If so, how?
One of the reactions of many students worries me. They do not see any possibility for individuality in Bellamy's vision. I'd love to see papers that support this view of the students, and also papers that argue that the view is incorrect.
[No papers]The Role of Women
Bellamy claims that because each woman receives the same credit as every man does, women are liberated and equal to men. Several critics have challenged his view, so this is a very controversial topic.
[No papers]What other flaws are there in Bellamy's vision?
This section is for papers that attempt to explain several practical flaws in the vision.
[No papers; the one I discussed above probably would go here.]
Remember that this list is only a sample. The novel is very controversial, and many topics could be added.