Aldous Huxley Essay - Huxley, Aldous

Huxley, Aldous

Introduction

Aldous Huxley 1894–-1963

British-American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and playwright. See also Aldous Huxley Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 5, 8, 18.

Huxley's short stories, all written between 1920 and 1930, cover a relatively short period in his prolific forty-seven-year writing career. The author celebrated for “novels of ideas,” in particular the “dystopian” novel Brave New World, is little remembered today for his short fiction, but they do reflect in less complex structure many of the concerns he developed in his mature works. These include the search for order in chaos; the fragmentation, decay, and lack of wholeness and values in postwar society; the hostility of a world that thwarts ambition and expectations; and the artist's quest for identity. Most of the stories are witty and satirize modern values, particularly among the upper class, and display a sometimes bitter skepticism at the meaningless of life. While they were received fairly well during his life, later scholars of Huxley's work have generally ignored the stories, as it is agreed that the author's important ideas and concerns are given a far more eloquent voice in his novels. However, the stories continue to be appreciated for their wry humor, brilliant observation, sophisticated literary style, and skeptical view of humanity in post-World War I England.

Biographical Information

Huxley was born in 1894 in Surrey, England, to an intellectually prominent family. His father, Leonard, was a respected essayist and editor, and his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a leading biologist and proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He was also the great-nephew of the poet Matthew Arnold, the grandson of the Reverend Thomas Arnold, and the nephew of the novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward. Huxley's brother, Julian, would eventually become a noted biologist and his half-brother, Andrew, would win the 1963 Nobel Prize for his work in physiology. The early years in Huxley's life were passed happily in a stimulating, intellectual household. He was known as a sensitive boy and one who showed a mystical bent early on. But a series of tragedies befell Huxley in his teenage years. In 1908 his mother died of cancer, two years later he contracted an eye disease that permanently damaged his sight, and in 1914 his brother Trevenen committed suicide. These events had a profound effect on the concerns and mood of Huxley's writing.

While at Oxford from 1913 to 1916 Huxley started editing literary journals and began writing. In 1916, he published his first volume of poetry. He married a young Belgian refugee, Maria Nys, in 1919, and a year later his son, Matthew, was born. That year he also published his first volume of stories, Limbo to mild critical acclaim; two years later he produced another volume, Mortal Coils. Huxley gained wider recognition with his novel Crome Yellow; by 1923 his reputation was sufficiently secure that Chatto and Windus agreed to publish two of his works of fiction each year for the next three years. In 1923 Huxley and his wife moved to Italy, where they lived for four years. While abroad he wrote and published the novels Antic Hay and Those Barren Leaves and two volumes of short fiction, Little Mexican and Other Stories and Two or Three Graces and Other Stories. Huxley's volume of stories, Brief Candles, appeared in 1930, two years after the release of his highly acclaimed novel of ideas, Point Counter Point, which secured his reputation as one of the important literary figures of his day.

After 1930, Huxley's work began to reflect his increasing concern with humanistic ideas and ideals as well as politics. This is most vividly shown in Brave New World, his ironic satire of a utopia, which warns us against the dangers of political manipulation and technological development. In the late 1930s Huxley moved to California, where he became a screenwriter and developed his interest in mysticism, Eastern thought, and mind-altering drugs; he examines his experiences with one of these, mescaline, in The Doors of Perception. Huxley's later work clearly disavows some of the bleakness of his earlier outlook, and seeks a positive solution to the problem of an insane world. Perhaps as an antidote to his despairing sentiments in Brave New World, in his final novel, Island, he depicts a good utopia.

Huxley remained in California for most of the rest of his life. His wife, Maria, died in 1955, and Huxley married Laura Archera a year later. He died on November 22, 1963, the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Huxley produced eight volumes of short stories in his career. The first, Limbo, is a collection of six satiric tales about English country-house characters. These youthful wartime stories are full of parallels with Huxley's own life: in “Death of Lully” a woman has breast cancer, as did Huxley's own mother; a suicide like that of Huxley's brother occurs in “Eupompus gave Splendour to Art by Numbers.” Also, there are numerous allusions to distorted vision; the stories' narrators are often erudite and urbane as Huxley himself was; many of the characters are cerebral persons who neglect their emotional and social aspects. The tone of the stories, for all their witty satire, is one of decay and fragmentation, of hopes and values lost. The 1922 volume Mortal Coils continues many of these themes in a postwar setting. In this volume appears Huxley's best known story, “The Gioconda Smile,” about a man, Hutton, who fails in his attempt to live a life of reason and restrain his emotional appetites. Also in the volume is “Nuns and Luncheon,” a bitterly sad story of Sister Agatha who falls in love with a wounded soldier she has nursed and who leaves the convent only to be abandoned and humiliated by the man she considered her savior. Huxley's next collection, Little Mexican contains the long tale “Uncle Spenser” that captures the harsh realities of lives disrupted by war. While in prison camp, Uncle Spenser falls in love with a fellow prisoner, a girl half his age named Emmy Wendle, whom he believes he will marry, but after the war he cannot find her. Another notable story in the collection, “Young Archimedes,” about a child musical genius who commits suicide, is another statement of Huxley's common themes of expectations dashed and the difficulty in coming to terms with reality in a disorderly world.

Two or Three Graces contains a novella of that name and several shorter pieces. Kingham, the central character of the novella, has similarities with the novelist D. H. Lawrence, whom Huxley met in 1915 and became friends with in Italy. Kingham is a writer with perverse passions and whose unreason dominates his affair with Grace Peddley, whom he humiliates in order to stimulate his own emotions. The other stories in the volume are about lonely, ostracized persons whose romantic expectations of the world do not square with its harsh reality. Huxley's final collection of short fiction, Brief Candles, is filled with emotionally and spiritually impoverished characters, most notably in “The Claxtons,” about a family of egocentric personalities. The novella “After the Fireworks,” about an aging novelist who has affinities with Lawrence's view, is a satire of Lawrence's philosophy of harmony expressed through sexuality, as the protagonist becomes literally ill after taking a young lover. This was probably the last short piece Huxley wrote and shows his growing concern with the need for spiritually meaningful answers in a disordered and chaotic world.

Critical Reception

Huxley's reputation was built on his novels and nonfiction, and today scholarly interest in his work is generally confined to his writing in those genres. During his lifetime, Huxley's short fiction drew mixed reviews. With the publication of Limbo, Huxley was hailed by many as an important new voice that portrayed with delicacy and sophistication the postwar temperament. However, some critics complained about the self-consciously clever tone and lack of depth to the stories. Virginia Woolf, in an early review of Limbo, though, called the tales more than amusing, insisting that when Huxley “forgets himself” his stories can be interesting. The feeling of most critics, however, was that Huxley was not a natural short story writer. While admiring their artistic sophistication, fresh sense of irony, and insightful observation, most early reviewers felt that the tales suffered from saying too much and not staying true to the short story form. Contemporary critics also tend to dismiss Huxley's stories as being of little importance in his literary corpus. They contend Huxley needed the fuller range of the novel to fully develop his ideas, and most of his important concerns are reflected in his longer works. Huxley too felt his calling was not as a short story writer, and in a letter to his father explained that “the mere business of telling a story interests me less and less. … The only really and permanently absorbing things are attitudes towards life and the relation of man to the world.” Huxley's stories are interesting today primarily for the insight they provide into his development as a writer and for his depiction of the social despair of the postwar period.

Principal Works

Limbo 1920

Mortal Coils 1922

Little Mexican and Other Stories 1924

Two or Three Graces and Other Stories 1926

Brief Candles 1930

The Gioconda Smile 1938

Twice Seven; Fourteen Selected Stories 1944

Collected Short Stories 1969

The Burning Wheel (poetry) 1916

Leda and Other Poems (poetry) 1920

Crome Yellow (novel) 1921

Antic Hay (novel) 1923

On the Margin (essays) 1923

Point Counter Point (novel) 1925

Those Barren Leaves (novel) 1925

Brave New World (novel) 1932

Eyeless in Gaza (novel) 1936

After Many a Summer (novel) 1939

Time Must Have a Stop (novel) 1944

The Perennial Philosophy (essay) 1945

The Gioconda Smile (play) 1948

Ape and Essence (novel) 1948

The Doors of Perception (essay) 1954

The Genius and the Goddess (novel) 1955

Heaven and Hell (nonfiction) 1956

Brave New World Revisited (essay) 1958

Island (novel) 1962

Literature and Science (essay) 1963

Criticism

Herbert S. Gorman (review date 1920)

SOURCE: In a review of Limbo, in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, 1975, pp. 43-5.

[In the following review of Limbo, originally published in The New Republicin 1920, Gorman compares Huxley's work to Max Beerbohm's.]

Mr. Aldous Huxley, a new and extremely prepossessing English writer, has just been introduced to America with two volumes, Limbo, a collection of prose sketches written in a vein that is, to say the least, individual, and Leda and Other Poems, containing verse that smacks mightily of Mr. T. S. Eliot, and yet has an intriguing appeal quite its own. It was, I believe, in 1916 that Mr. Huxley's...

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Virginia Woolf (review date 1920)

SOURCE: In a review of Limbo, in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, 1975, pp. 41-2.

[In the following review of Limbo, originally published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1920, Woolf calls Huxley's stories clever, amusing, interesting, and well written.]

We know for ourselves that Mr. Huxley is very clever; and his publisher informs us that he is young. For both these reasons his reviewers may pay him the compliment, and give themselves the pleasure, of taking him seriously. Instead, that is, of saying that there are seven short stories in Limbo which are all clever, amusing, and well written, and recommending...

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William Jacob Cuppy (review date 1922)

SOURCE: “Huxley as a Serious Writer,” in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, 1975, pp. 74-6.

[In the review of Mortal Coilsbelow, which was originally published in the New York Sunday Tribune in 1922, Cuppy rejects earlier assessments of this collection as superficial, insisting that Huxley is a serious writer.]

In the Dial for June Mr. Raymond Mortimer opines that the principal end and aim of Aldous Huxley is to be ‘amusing,’ and insists to the author of Crome Yellow upon the importance of being earnest.

On May 27 Mr. Burton Rascoe, having lunched, allowed in the Doran offices as to how...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1924)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1924)

SOURCE: “Huxley's Elasticity,” in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, 1975, pp. 104-05.

[In the following review of Little Mexican, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1924, the critic praises the “elasticity” in Huxley's work, admiring what others might criticize as disproportionate description and indulgence of literary power.]

About Mr. Aldous Huxley there is an elasticity that keeps his work interesting and even exciting. His last novel, Antic Hay, was as rigidly constructed and tightly compacted as a novel could well...

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Arnold Bennett (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: “Arnold Bennett on ‘Little Mexican,’” in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 106-07.

[In the following excerpt from his journals, the noted author and critic Bennett generally approves of the characterization in the tales in Little Mexican but says the stories have no proper end and the characters are drawn a little too thoroughly.]

About ‘Uncle Spencer’. This is the first book of Aldous Huxley's that I have really liked. Character drawing in it, for the first time in his books. Uncle Spencer is drawn, emphatically. But technically the story is clumsy. The story nearly ends...

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L. P. Hartley (review date 1926)

SOURCE: “Two or Three Graces,” in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 137-38.

[In the following review of Two or Three Graces, originally published in the Saturday Review in 1926, Hartley calls Huxley a “literary acrobat” whose perfect execution of difficult feats sometimes leaves readers disappointed because there is little to glean behind the lucidity of his words.]

However good Mr. Huxley's work may be one rarely reads it without a small pang of disappointment. To surpass themselves is for many novelists a comparatively easy task; but here is one who has contrived to set his own...

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Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 1926)

SOURCE: “More Barren Leaves,” in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 139-41.

[In the following review originally published in the Nation in 1926, Krutch calls “Two or Three Graces” a “grotesquely tragic story” that for all its ironical detachment is essentially concerned with moral questions and “the world and its ways.”]

Mr. Aldous Huxley, probably the most intelligent of les fauves,1 exhibits alternately the two moods, the disdainful and the explosive, of his mind. In the first he is an aloof satirist regarding human follies with an air of great detachment and...

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Henry Hazlitt (review date 1930)

SOURCE: “This Petty Pace,” in The Nation (New York), Vol. 130, No. 3387, June 4, 1930, p. 654.

[In the following review of Brief Candles, Hazlitt argues that Huxley brings a message to his stories—that if one tries to be superhuman, one becomes subhuman.]

After half a dozen volumes Aldous Huxley has returned to the short story, but he does not bring his old irresponsibility with him. He has acquired a Message, and he insists that we shall hear it. It is the same message that raised its head in nearly every one of the essays in “Do What You Will,” to wit, that if one tries to be superhuman one ends by being subhuman, that the best way of turning a child...

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Kenneth Payson Kempton (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “Persons,” in Short Stories for Study, Harvard University Press, 1953, pp. 272-77.

[In the following study of “Nuns at Luncheon,” Kempton offers two interpretations of the satirical story: as a tale within an anecdote which is a fiction that ends as a polemic, and as a straightforward realistic piece that is no less satirical for being objectified and held in control.]

The story sparkles. Several technical instruments and factors in the management of content contribute to the display. The immediate scene in the restaurant gathers together and unifies for a single effect a number of told immediate scenes and a multitude of details widely separate in...

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P. H. Newby (review date 1957)

SOURCE: In a review of Aldous Huxley's Collected Short Stories, in London Magazine Vol. 4 1957, pp. 65-8.

[In the following review of Collected Short Stories, Newby finds Huxley's short stories strained and anti-intellectual, contending that Huxley is not a true short story writer despite the brilliant analysis and observation revealed in some tales.]

One thinks of Aldous Huxley as an intellectual writer. One associates him with the Twenties, short skirts and chromium plate; and one thinks of him, again, as an historian and pamphleteer, disenchanted with the twentieth century, doubtful whether the past was any better and apprehensive of the future; a...

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V. S. Pritchett (review date 1957)

SOURCE: “Mellifluous Educator,” in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. LIII, No. 1371, June 22, 1957, p. 814.

[In the following review of Collected Short Stories, Pritchett contends that the short story form was indadequate for Huxley's “great scoldings.”]

The attraction of the early Huxley was—as I recall—that of a young fashionable preacher: he was brilliant, worldly, flashing with culture. He was profane and yet soothing, destructive but—inevitable in the Huxleys—a mellifluous educator. The pleasure of his novels came not very much from his people (who were indeed thin transcripts from educated society between London and the...

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Arthur F. Beringause (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Debate Between Body and Soul,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. XXVI, No. 9, June, 1964, pp. 1, 4.

[In the following essay, Beringause contends that an analysis of “The Gioconda Smile” reveals that Huxley is more than a “negative propagandist who satirizes negative nostrums.”]

Study of Aldous Huxley's well-known and consistently misinterpreted short story “The Gioconda Smile” reveals that his application of Freudian theory to art early made him into a much better craftsman than his critics have been willing to admit. This is not to imply that he accepted psychoanalysis and rejected religion.

Using sordid details of a vulgar love affair...

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Charles M. Holmes (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Struggles with Style and Form: From the Early Verse to ‘Crome Yellow,’” in Aldous Huxley and the Way to Reality, Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 1-38.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length study of Huxley's works, Holmes discusses the early story “Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers” and notes its autobiographical elements.]

In Aldous Huxley's “Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers,”1 an intelligent, stable, normal man tells the story of his odd but brilliant friend named Emberlin. Emberlin, we learn, has been studying Eupompus, the fifth century B.C. painter mentioned by Ben Jonson, who actually did base his...

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Donald J. Watt (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “The Absurdity of the Hedonist in Huxley's ‘The Gioconda Smile,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 328-30.

[In the following essay, Watt argues that in his story “The Gioconda Smile,” Huxley crystallizes a significant theme that appears in his work as he seeks value and meaning in life—the absurdity of the hedonist.]

“The Gioconda Smile,” perhaps Aldous Huxley's best-known short story, presents in cameo form one of the leading themes of his major fiction.1 The utter insufficiency of the hedonist's way of life is a recurring idea in Huxley's fiction, an idea that conveys his seminal theme of the...

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Maria Schubert (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Use of Irony in Aldous Huxley's Short Fiction,” in On Poets and Poetry, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1984 pp. 181-214.

[In the following essay, Schubert maintains Huxley's short fiction is mainly concerned with humans' inescapable predestinatio, and that the predominant stylistic device he uses to express this is irony.]

Huxley began his literary career in 1916 with a volume of poems called The Burning Wheel. Four years later Limbo, his first volume of short stories was published, followed by his first novel Crome Yellow in 1921. During the period from 1920 to 1930 Huxley tried all literary...

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