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Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, Voyager Classics, 2001, 237 pp. (originally published in 1932)
Why do we read? That's as fair a question as any to extract from Huxley's famous 1932 novel, Brave New World. In the society of this book, reading becomes a kind of mythical act of rebellion, a deed charged with subversiveness and anger. And Huxley is right -- that is how totalitarian societies of our century have regarded the choice to read freely. And why do those of us in democratic societies read a book like Brave New World? Surely we have no need to worry about the alarmist issues Huxley raises!
Brave New World begins with a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. In the year of Our Ford 632, society has finally organized itself according to rational schemas: the birth process has been mechanized, and the different castes of society are conditioned from birth to accept their lot in life. There's no need for repression and persecution and all the other apparatus of a security state if the population has been biologically bent into shape since birth and chemically conditioned thereafter. The first two chapters are a fairly straightforward walkthrough of this human factory, making sure the reader understands the technical foundation of this society and setting the stage for the human drama to come. Chapter 3 continues this walkthrough and, startlingly, diverges into a section where the narrative switches ever more rapidly between different viewpoints. The main characters of the book are introduced here, in a stylistic blowout that is not repeated.
The human story of Brave New World centres on Bernard Marx, a man who doesn't fit into his strictly controlled and pacified world. He is an Alpha, the highest caste in society (Epsilons being the lowest), but he is still not content. He takes Lenina, a woman who firmly believes in the status quo, for a vacation at a Reservation (for people living in a non-chemically-controlled state) in New Mexico, where they meet a young man referred to as the Savage. Marx brings back the Savage into polite society for his own reasons, and the last half of the book details the Savage's encounters with civilization. Huxley never lets up on the ruthless satire, and the ending of the book, in its unremitting bleakness, has seldom been matched (perhaps only by 1984 and The Sheep Look Up). A society modelled on Ford's assembly line has no room for the individual.
The Savage is a sympathetic character, and we often identify most with him when he lashes out in despair. For example, his mother, who was stranded in the Reservation and extremely unhappy there, later dies upon her return to civilization, in circumstances which further alienate the Savage. He tries to interrupt the distribution of soma (a powerful drug with no physically harmful side effects) to a group of Deltas (Chapter XV), vainly. His choices near the end shift into the bizarre, and we get a disturbing glimpse into a mind collapsing into itself under unrelenting pressures. We begin by liking Marx, the man who brought the Savage into contact with the corrosive forces of "civilization," but he too shows his true colours when he decides to bow to the World Controller's will. And perhaps he is only to be pitied in that his choices have been so thoroughly shaped by society, in the end, much the same way as Lenina. Lenina is the pawn of the Fordian society, and some of the satire to do with her sexuality didn't quite make sense (see next paragraph) and bothered me. Her behaviour is affected by her relationship with the Savage, but she has no way of seeing outside her perspective (i.e., the perspective society assembled for her). Mustapha Mond is the Resident World Controller for Western Europe, and has read Shakespeare, just like the Savage. Bradbury uses much the same type of character in the Fire Chief in his Fahrenheit 451. I like how Mond argues -- sometimes on the Savage's level, and sometimes in the idiom of the society he oversees. For example, he exhorts the Savage at one point by saying: "'You can't play Electro-Magnetic Golf according to the rules of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy'" (194). Huxley manages to present some interesting, unique characters in a society that has set to eradicate such a thing in the name of happiness.
Huxley's satire only increases in intensity as the book progresses. The metaphors of the book are all taken to the extreme, such as the assembly line: in this society, people make the sign of the "T" and say of their deity, "Our Ford." As with Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the concrete reality of the book, while a compelling story, isn't the point. Bradbury was not predicting that people will burn books, rather that they will forget them. Huxley is worried about a state of mind, one that puts happiness into a materialistic paradigm, and then uses it as a method of control, justified as what the people want. This human tendency is hardly news, but Huxley saw quite clearly how technology would change everything. A look around at our society shows no sign of World Controllers or soma in the literal sense, but the specific technologies of happiness are just as perturbing as Huxley's fictions. This overarching idea is well justified and thought provoking, but I was unsure of Huxley's point to do with sexuality, something that he tries to slot into the bigger theme. In the book, Lenina and her sexuality often stand for everything that is wrong and corrupt and vacuous about this system. Is he condemning Lenina's actions as part of the false happiness created by this brave new world? Perhaps, but the opposite of what is presented in the book, in terms of society's regard for sexuality, would be a return into the deepest, darkest Victorian era. Huxley's main point, that there is no way out of this system, distorts the character of Lenina into a figurative marker for one end of a spectrum, rather than a character in her own right. I understand that this is also part of the project of the book, much as any work of science fiction that discusses dehumanization, but I still found the role of Lenina as the grotesque to be somewhat problematic.
Brave New World still works after all these years because it is so sharp and unrelenting in its satire. Huxley's career, long and varied, often gets boiled down to this one book, a book for which anyone would be proud to be remembered. This process of forgetting an author's body of work, while somewhat understandable, is frightening to contemplate -- Huxley is lucky to have something this good as the touchstone of his career.
This Voyager Classics edition includes a foreword for the book that Huxley wrote in 1946. Two items to note. Huxley begins by saying that he sees many flaws in the book (this being 15 years after he had written it) but that, had he acted on his impulse to fix the problems, he may have also inadvertently altered the parts of the book that had merit. What a relief! The process of altering past works happens more often in the movies, when a filmmaker starts down the path of fixing technical problems or limitations and then mission creep sets in and soon what was charming about the original has been lost. This general tendency is proven in what Huxley says next, when he discusses in detail what he thinks of as the main flaw of Brave New World. By 1946 he regarded the book as a forced choice between insanity or lunacy, the insanity of the Fordian society or the lunacy that drives the Savage to suicide. His wish for a third way sounds like exactly that, wishful thinking, when later in the foreword he discusses how efficient totalitarian systems of the future will be. Brave New World has endured because of its canny understanding of how total the totalitarian can be, once technology has yielded full control of biology. I don't think Huxley misunderstood his own book, but rather that he was searching for some way to escape his own grim conclusions.
Also see the review of the movie based on this book.
First posted: May 24, 1998; Last modified: February 22, 2004
Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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