After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Huxley’s ideas are stated most directly in several central chapters in which William Propter talks at length to Peter Boone, who tends to accept his ideas, and Jeremy Pordage, who tends to resist them. Although this long conversation defies easy summary, Propter (speaking, apparently, for Huxley) theorizes that man exists on three levels: the animal level, the human level, and the spiritual level. The human level is characterized as the level of “time and craving,” which are the “raw material of evil.” Time, Propter says, “is potential evil, and craving converts the potentiality into actual evil.” Good is virtually impossible at the human level; all man’s efforts to achieve good appear destined to end in greater evil. Although Propter concedes some value to a “system that reduces the amount of fear and greed and hatred and domineering to their minimum,” he maintains that real good can be achieved only at the animal and spiritual levels. At the animal level, good “exists as the proper functioning of the organism in accordance with the laws of its own being.” On the spiritual level, it “exists in the form of knowledge of the world without desire or aversion; it exists as the experience of eternity, as the transcendence of personality, the extension of consciousness beyond the limits imposed by the ego.”

Although one would expect that the abstract doctrine of the novel would be expressed through the concrete actions of the characters, most novelists would have difficulty representing the functioning of their characters on the animal and spiritual levels. What Huxley must concentrate on, therefore, is the human level, the level of “time and craving.” It is this level that he satirizes in his depiction of Southern California, with its tawdry hodgepodge of material goods and the attempt to deny the reality of death that is implicit in the Beverly Pantheon. Jo Stoyte’s greed, jealousy, and desperate desire for prolonged life show the evil of time and craving at closer range. Finally, the grotesque fifth Earl of Gonister, who at the age of two hundred is capable only of gross sensuality, illustrates Propter’s thesis that extending the time allowed to man only extends and intensifies his capacity for evil. Time does not bring increased wisdom or compassion, but only degeneration.