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.
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.
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.