Utopian—and dystopian (anti-utopian)—fiction is not really about the future; it is an indirect view of the present. The authors of such works begin with aspects of their own society that they like, dislike, desire, or fear, and by extrapolating them into a possible future, they demonstrate the likely consequences of such tendencies or pressures developed to extremes. If readers do not see their own society reflected in an exaggerated, distinctive, but recognizable form, it is unlikely that the projected world will offer more than amused distraction. Brave New World has endured as a classic of the genre because Aldous Huxley’s vision not only was frighteningly believable when first presented but also has become more immediate since its initial appearance. Indeed, in Brave New World Revisited (1958), an extended expository gloss on the original, Huxley suggests that his only important prophetic error was the assumption that it would take six centuries to implement fully the brave new world; a scant twenty-six years after the novel’s publication, Huxley revised his estimate of the time needed to less than a century.
The most disturbing aspect of Brave New World is the suspicion that many, perhaps most, people would like to live in such a society. After examining the modern Western world in general and America in the 1920’s in particular, with its assembly-line techniques, its consumerism, its hedonistic tendencies, its emphasis on social conformity, and its worship of childhood and youth, Huxley projected his observations to their logical conclusions and then asked himself how a “sane” man would react to such an environment: the result was Brave New World.
Given modern industrial and scientific “progress,” Huxley saw that the time would soon arrive when humanity would possess the knowledge and equipment to “solve” all of its material and social problems and achieve universal “happiness,” but at a very high price—the sacrifice of freedom, individuality, truth, beauty, a sense of purpose, and the concept of God. The central question is this: How many people would really miss these things? Do they constitute enough of an intellectual, emotional, and moral force to alter the direction of modern society, and do they possess the requisite will, conviction, and energy to do so?
Compared to such earlier efforts as Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and especially Point Counter Point (1928), Brave New World is a model of structural simplicity. The dynamics of a brave new world are presented in a long introductory tour of Huxley’s futuristic society that takes up almost the first half of the book. Then a catalytic character, John the Savage, is introduced, who directly challenges the social system that has been described. This conflict leads to a confrontation between John, the representative of “sanity,” and Mustapha Mond, who speaks for the brave new world. Their extended debate serves as the novel’s ideological climax. The book ends as the Savage experiences the inevitable personal consequences of that debate.
The long opening sequence begins with assembly-line bottle births, in which the individual’s potential is carefully regulated by a combination of genetic selection and chemical treatments and then follows the life cycle to show how all tastes, attitudes, and behavior patterns are adroitly controlled by incessant conditioning. The net result of the conditioning is a society that is totally and deliberately infantile. All activities are transitory, trivial, and mindless—promiscuity replaces passion, immediate sensory stimulation (feelies) replaces art, hallucinatory escape (soma) replaces personal growth.
At this point John the Savage enters the narrative. Reared among primitives by a mother who loves him in spite of her conditioning, John has known the beauty of great art, because of his reading of Shakespeare, and the pain of loneliness, having been ostracized by the natives because of his light skin and his mother’s loose morals. Primed by Linda’s nostalgic memories of her former life, the Savage is ready for contact with the outside world when Bernard Marx discovers him on the reservation and connives to use him in a revenge scheme against the director of the Hatcheries (John’s natural father). At first, John is feted as an interesting freak, but, given his “primitive” moralism, a clash is inevitable. Reacting emotionally to the events surrounding Linda’s death, John provokes a violent social disruption—the most serious crime in the brave new world—which leads to the discussion with Mustapha Mond, a World Controller.
In a bitterly funny way, this extended debate between John and Mond resembles the Grand Inquisitor passage in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazov, 1879-1880 (The Brothers Karamazov, 1912) and is the rhetorical center of the book. Like Dostoevski’s Inquisitor, Mond justifies his social vision as the only one compatible with human happiness, and like his literary predecessor, he indicates that he, along with the other World Controllers, has taken the pain of life’s ambiguities and indecisions upon his own shoulders in order to spare those less capable from having to endure such emotional and psychological pressures. The major difference between the Inquisitor’s society and the brave new world is that Dostoevski’s hero-villain had only a vision, but, with the aid of modern science and industry, the World Controllers have succeeded in making the vision a permanent reality—providing all distractions such as beauty, truth, art, purpose, God, and, ironically, science itself are suppressed. The Savage rejects Mond’s world out of hand, for he demands the right to be unhappy, among other things.
Unfortunately, however, the brave new world cannot allow the Savage that right, nor, if it would, is he fully capable of exercising it. His designation as “savage” is ironical and true. He is civilized compared to the dehumanized infantilism of most brave new worlders, but he is also still the primitive. Shakespeare alone is not enough to equip him for the complexities of life. His upbringing among the precivilized natives, who practice a religion that is a form of fertility cult, has left him without the emotional and religious resources needed to face a brave new world on his own. Denied a chance to escape, the Savage tries to separate himself from its influence, but it follows him and exploits him as a quaint curiosity. Frustrated and guilt-ridden, he scourges himself and is horrified to discover that the brave new worlders can incorporate even his self-abasement into their system. Caught between the insanity of utopia and the lunacy of the primitive village, John reacts violently—first outwardly, by assaulting Lenina, and then inwardly, by killing himself.
It therefore remains for the other “rebellious” characters in the book to establish alternatives to the brave new world. In this aspect, perhaps, the book is artistically inferior to Huxley’s previous works. One of the most impressive qualities in the novels that immediately preceded Brave New World is the way in which the author pursues and develops the qualities that he has given to his major characters. Unfortunately, in Brave New World, he does not fully develop the possibilities latent in his primary figures.
One of the sharpest ironies in Brave New World lies in the way Huxley carefully demonstrates that, in spite of mechanistic reproduction and incessant conditioning, individualistic traits and inclinations persist in the brave new world. As a result of alcohol in his prenatal blood surrogate, Bernard shows elements of nonconformity. As a result of an overdeveloped IQ, Helmholtz Watson is dissatisfied with his situation and longs to write a book, although he cannot imagine what he wants to say. Even Lenina Crowne has dangerous tendencies toward emotional involvement. However, Huxley largely fails to develop the potential of these deviations. After repeatedly showing Bernard’s erratic attempts to conform to a society in which he feels essentially alienated, Huxley abandons him once the Savage enters the narrative. On the other hand, Watson’s character is hardly explored at all; and after her failure to seduce John, Lenina is almost completely forgotten, except for her fleeting reappearance at the book’s conclusion. Unlike the Savage, Bernard and Watson are allowed a chance to travel to an isolated community and experiment with individualism, but the reader never sees the results of their austere freedom.
Although the “positive” side of Brave New World is never developed and all of the artistic possibilities are not fully exploited, the novel remains a powerful, perceptive, and bitterly funny vision of modern society; but let readers fervently hope, along with the author, that the final importance of Brave New World does not come from its prophetic accuracy.