Review: Brave New World

(This contains spoilers; none of them are earth-shattering enough to ruin the book to if you haven’t read it before, but I still thought you ought to know.)

I have just finished rereading Brave New World, my first visit back to Aldous Huxley’s work since I attempted it in high school. I remembered generalities about the novel; I also remembered that I didn’t understand many of the implications of the future society Huxley envisioned. It’s a simple enough plot, but with many philosophical implications that hit uncomfortably close to home — in fact, many critics at the time of its original publishing (1931) gave it very disparaging reviews, partially because they felt it was inappropriate, partially (in my opinion) because it frightened them. Brave New World was widely denounced in the 1930s and was banned in various places around the world throughout the 20th century. Presently, however, it is very highly regarded and even holds the #5 position on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

Huxley begins his novel in the year 632 A.F. — 2540 in our calendar — with a tour through a Hatchery and Conditioning Center in London. The reader is introduced to the notion of a society based not on family units, but rather social castes that are entirely predetermined for each person before birth (I do not use the word individual, because the society in Brave New World firmly discourages the idea of the individual). Babies are born not of women, but of test tubes and chemicals. Scientists determine every feature of each fetus. When “decanted,” babies are raised in enormous nurseries where they have moral codes and societal prejudices taught to them throughout their childhood.

The entire society is happy, mechanically so. There is over-stimulation at every turn, personal helicopters, amusing diversions, but no greatness. People are firmly pigeon-holed as Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, or Epsilons. There is no religion other than a basic appreciation for science and technology, and the worship of Henry Ford: or, as the people call him, “Our Ford.” Promiscuity is strongly encouraged by the state; no whim should go unfulfilled. People are hopelessly self-indulgent, but this is all as it should be, according to the government whose sole concern is the citizens’ all-abiding happiness. The main characters are all the people who are for one reason or another, slightly different from the norm. Lenina Crowne, though she has had many lovers, prefers to date one man at a time, and often develops strong feelings for her partners while in these monogamous relationships. At the beginning of the novel, she is embarking on a trip with Bernard Marx. Bernard Marx is slightly smaller than the average Alpha, holds unorthodox views about the ideals spouted in society, and is unhappy with the World State. Helmholtz Watson is Bernard’s friend, also dissatisfied with the World State, and feels a disconnect from his peers due to his secret desire to channel his talent with writing towards something more meaningful than government propaganda.

The beginning of the novel is fairly slow, with a lot of description of the mechanics and philosophy of the new society under the World State. We meet not only the aforementioned characters, but also the Director of Hatcheries as well as some other higher-ups in the bureaucracy. Not much happens by way of plot until Lenina and Bernard cement their plan to take a trip to New Mexico to see the “savages.” The impending drama is foreshadowed when Bernard hears an interesting story  from the Director about a trip he took to the reservation many years ago: a trip during which his lover at the time went missing. Bernard and Lenina’s trip begins innocently enough, though the interactions between the couple become strained as each confronts the conflicting priorities of the other. It was interesting to read about some various pueblos in New Mexico that I had actually visited, though odd to hear them discussed in such a derogatory manner (to be fair, political correctness was not exactly a forte in the 1930s).

In the Native American pueblo of Malpais — use your Spanish to consider the not-so-subtle name given the impoverished settlement — Bernard and Lenina make a startling discovery. After watching a religious ceremony, the pair come across a “savage” with fair hair, blue eyes, and light skin. The young man’s name is John, and after hearing his personal back story, Bernard quickly deduces that John is the natural child of the Director and his long-lost lover. Bernard sees an opportunity to improve his societal standing, and hatches a plan to take the John and his formerly civilized, but now grotesquely obese and filthy mother Linda back to London. John has very little experience with the world outside of the reservation, save for his much-loved book of Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare’s words have informed John’s world view, as well as his ideals and emotional expressiveness. (Sidenote — it is from Shakespeare, specifically The Tempest, that the title of the novel is derived: “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! / That has such people in’t!” Of course, this sentiment is cruelly sardonic in the society John experiences in London.)

John’s arrival in London is a huge sensation, and both Bernard and Lenina become something of celebrities overnight. Bernard’s fame and importance go to his head, and he seems to forget his former vitriolic feelings toward his peers. He parades John around like a prize exhibit, giving no regard to John’s feelings. He also introduces John to Helmholtz, then immediately regrets and resents it when they strike up a friendship that is stronger than the relationship he has with either man. John shares Shakespeare with Helmholtz, bonding them and giving Helmholtz an ideal against which to judge his own writing, which he had already felt was drivel.

Lenina, meanwhile, finds herself unsatisfied by her string of new lovers, and harbors a secret depth of affection for John, a.k.a. “Mr. Savage.” All of her attempts to woo him and seduce him are rebuffed, however, despite the fact that John cares for Lenina and deeply desires her. The disconnect, however, comes from their societal conditioning. Lenina was raised on the merits of casual sex and impermanent relationships. John was raised in a culture that values marriage, and educated by Shakespeare, in which women are either evil whores or possess a virginal purity, with essentially nothing in between.  This disparity in John and Lenina’s expectations and desires comes to a head in a dark scene in which they both confess their wants, only to be violently rebuffed by the other. Their altercation is cut short by a phone call from the hospital; John’s mother is dying. John rushes to be with her in her last moments, leaving a bruised and battered Lenina trying to sort out how things went so wrong.

John’s mother has overdosed on soma, the pleasure-giving pill that keeps the members of society happily compliant. Linda’s death is the final straw for him, made even worse by the hordes of children gleefully watching as part of their early education “death conditioning.” John begins a riot, snatching away the soma ration as it is being handed out by an official and crying out that it’s poison. Helmholtz and Bernard arrive too late for damage control, but leap into the fray on John’s behalf regardless. The three men’s actions earn them a trip to the offices of Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. Mond speaks to the men about the reasoning behind the societal sacrifices on behalf of institutionalized happiness, and shares his personal copies of banned books with Helmholtz and John. He informs them that Bernard and Helmholtz are to be banished to the islands; a fate, Mond points out, that is really not so bad when you consider that the islands’ other inhabitants are all the other people who were to individual and interesting to be allowed to stay in the society of the World State. John asks to be allowed to leave with his friends, but is told that he must stay in London in order to “continue the experiment” of the so-called savage being introduced to so-called civilization.

John decides to voluntarily exile himself to live as a hermit in a remote lighthouse on the coast of England. He seeks to atone for his perceived sins, and so adopts a routine of self-punishment that draws reporters, draws more reporters, spawns a movie, and, through the movie, makes John’s lighthouse home a tourist destination. The hordes of visiting people infuriate John, as all he wants is solitude. The tourists throw things, goad him to act, and deny him peace. It is not until Lenina comes to visit, however, that John truly snaps. She approaches him and tries to speak with him, but John cannot hear Lenina over the crowd. Even as Lenina reaches out to John, tears rolling down her cheeks, he cannot separate the reality of the woman in front of him from the civilization that has mocked his ideals and way of life, and turned him into a form of entertainment. Enraged, he slashes at her with the whip over and over. When Lenina falls to the ground, John whips himself before returning his attention to her. The crowd, unaccustomed to real emotion — especially not anger or pain — embrace it the only way they know how: with drugs and sex. John participates in the soma-fueled orgy, despite his former revulsion at the peoples’ lifestyle. When John awakes the next morning, he is horrified and disgusted by his actions. There is then a jump in the narration, fast-forwarding to his next wave of visitors; they arrive to find only silence, and John’s corpse swinging slowly on the railing from which he hung himself.

Huxley’s description of the suicide is all the more depressing for its simplicity. There is no anguish, only the people watching John’s feet as they slowly sway back and forth. John’s suicide is indicative of Huxley’s belief that such a society would be essentially inescapable. In 1958, Huxley wrote a follow-up to Brave New World. In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley wrote that the world was becoming like Brave New World much faster than he originally thought. Huxley’s fears — as opposed to those of George Orwell in 1984 — were neatly summed up by Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

These dystopian works are very much on my recommended reading list, but too much of them can make a reader rather depressed. Do not read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World too close together; not only will it be a major downer, but the similarly bleak futures these authors envisioned will overpower the well-written nuances of each. Of course, Orwell and Bradbury would be horrified at the thought of someone dictating what others should read — so… scratch that. Do as you’d like.

Happy reading!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Review: Brave New World

  1. Jennifer

    What important people is the character, Helmholtz Watson, based upon?

    • Helmholtz Watson get his name from two men — Hermann von Helmholtz and John Watson. Helmholtz made discoveries in both medicine and physics, while Watson worked mainly in psychology (specifically behaviorism). I think both men are represented in the character’s philosophy and outlook in the novel, especially the way he views the World State and the role his work plays in it.

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