The bold title of Huxley’s Brave New World derives from an often-quoted speech in The Tempest. Raised by her father on an isolated island and unfamiliar with the world at large, Miranda greets the arrival of a shipwrecked party with awe and delight: “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t.” The irony and naïveté of Miranda’s sentiment soon become evident as Shakespeare’s play unfolds. Throughout Huxley’s novel, John the Savage invokes the phrase “brave new world” several times. An outcast from a Savage Reservation who resettles in London, John initially regards the World State he encounters for the first time with the same wonder expressed by Miranda in The Tempest. However, since Huxley establishes society’s oppressiveness, vulgarity, and moral emptiness before John reaches civilization,” John’s praise resonates with terrible irony and underscores Huxley’s intent to critique the values and practices of the future state envisioned in his novel.
One of the most influential and prolific literary minds of the mid-twentieth century, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) strived to explore the meaning and possibilities of life from a variety of genres and perspectives. Biting satire of English upper-class society characterizes his early work but gives way to more thoughtful critiques of man’s disillusionment (and Huxley’s own disillusionment with man) in works such as Point Counter Point and Brave New World. Huxley’s late works take on a deeply religious, philosophical tone and focus on avenues to spiritual transcendence. His belief in mankind’s capacity for transcendence and his own quest to constantly reinvent himself as a writer inform the deeply disturbing imagery and tone of Brave New World. In its emphasis on the eradication of the self for the sake of the social body, the World State contradicts Huxley’s desire to “achieve self-transcendence while yet remaining a committed social being.”
Huxley wrote Brave New World in part as a reaction against the proliferation of utopian novels by writers like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw that lauded socialism as the solution to mankind’s social, political, and economic problems. He took a much darker view of society’s future, a view described today as “dystopian.” In literature, a dystopian society is a society of the future that appears ideal but ultimately proves to be flawed or corrupt. Though not universal to the genre of dystopian literature, themes such as the dehumanization and oppression of individuals, the corruption of totalitarian governments, and the effects of war or environmental cataclysms frequently characterize dystopian works. Writers often employ this genre to raise real-world concerns about society, the environment, politics, religion, and technology. In all of these aspects, Brave New World stands as one of the most powerful novels in dystopian literature.
Brave New World is set in London in AD 2540 following a war that decimated the world’s population. The surviving governments have unified as the World State, and in the name of social and economic stability, ten World Controllers now exercise absolute power over every aspect of citizens’ lives. To ensure plentiful resources and an orderly society, population is limited, and natural reproduction is outlawed. New members of society are created, or “decanted,” in hatcheries, assigned to social castes, and reared in conditioning centers to fulfill predetermined roles. All children, regardless of caste, are subjected to social conditioning via hypnotic messages played during their sleep; these messages ensure their happiness and contentment but at the cost of their free will and individuality. To ensure a thriving economy, the government conditions all citizens to value consumption, travel, and expensive leisure activities. Should citizens ever feel less-than-happy or feel an inexplicable need for solitude, they can achieve solace through consumption of a drug called “soma,” which the World State provides.
Like all dystopian fiction, Huxley’s novel deals with contemporary social issues. Published in 1932, Brave New World addresses the issues of the early twentieth century—industrialization, mass production, political and social shifts, and world war. The World State is built upon the principles of Henry Ford’s assembly line (mass production, popular consumption, homogeneity, and predictability), and the citizens of the World State revere Ford as a deity. Additionally, many of the characters’ names derive from widely recognized political figures of Huxley’s time, among them Leon Trotsky, Benito Mussolini, Herbert Hoover, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx. Besides warning against the proliferation of mass production and consumerism, the novel also raises serious and troubling concerns about rapidly advancing developments in the applications of technology in human reproduction.
In addition to expressing social and political concerns, Huxley particularly addresses the fear of losing our individual identity in the brave new world of the future. Throughout the novel, Huxley’s unnamed, omniscient narrator speaks as a rational voice commenting on the World State and its dictatorial control of human life as the means of creating perfect happiness and social stability. Is there a price too high to pay in exchange for living in an “ideal” world? Huxley raises the question indirectly throughout Brave New World and answers it definitively with the shocking suicide that abruptly concludes the novel. Living without the unique identity that makes us who we are—and without the struggles that make us fully human—makes life in any world at all meaningless and unbearable.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the origins of the World State and its philosophies about social stability.
2. Describe several specific steps taken by the World State to maintain social order.
3. Describe the citizens’ attitudes toward sexuality and love and explain why they are conditioned to hold these views.
4. Identify the different castes of the society and their social roles.
5. Describe how Bernard initially does not conform to the expectations for his caste and explain how his view of social conformity changes over the course of the story.
6. Contrast Bernard’s and Helmholtz’s personalities and their attitudes toward social conformity.
7. Explain why John’s relationship with Lenina fails, despite their mutual attraction.
8. Contrast Mustapha Mond’s attitude toward the World State and its means of social control with those of the Director of Hatcheries and John Savage.
9. Identify and explain the traits of the World State society that make it a dystopia.