illustrated portrait of English author Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

Start Free Trial

Herbert S. Gorman (review date 1920)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 first book, The Burning Wheel, was published. A slender volume of verse, bound in paper covers and forming a link in Blackwell's Adventurers All Series, it hardly awakened more than a passing curiosity. But there was more in it than dexterous rhyming. The influence of Jules Laforgue was faintly manifesting itself; a precocious sophistication made itself dimly evident. Mr. Huxley has progressed as a poet since those days.

But it is the prose of Mr. Huxley that has suddenly projected him into the English periodicals and induced an American publisher1 to bring him out over here. The seven pieces that make up the book (not all of them may be defined by the term ‘stories’) form a delectable ensemble. Mr. Huxley possesses the insolence of youth and a sprightly sophistication that can hardly be called disillusioned, although it approaches cynicism with frequency. It is a fastidious cynicism, though. If he suggests the pessimist at times we may be very sure that it is not the false pessimism of youth. He does not fly to extremes. He has not suddenly discovered that art is short and time is fleeting or that there are more people in the world intent upon bread and cheese than lyrics and lilies. Mr. Huxley is well-bred, without suggesting it. He is debonair without any flamboyant swashbuckling. He is precise in his prose and irresistible with his epigrams. Above all, he is the City. It is the sophistication of Hyde Park that he emanates.

So I come to the one English writer with whom he appears to have a certain kinship. Behind the pages of Limbo (at least for me) glimmers the nonchalant phantom of Max Beerbohm. The incomparable Max, a trifle weary, yawning a bit obviously, swings a gallant cane behind the ‘Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ and ‘Happily Ever After.’ He even appears, perhaps, a trifle more poetical than his wont, in ‘Cynthia’ and ‘The Bookshop.’ This may be doing a grave injustice to both Max Beerbohm and Mr. Huxley, and perhaps it is wise to insist that I am not attempting to postulate that the younger writer is at all aping his elders. It is merely a kinship of mood, a likeness of general attributes. ‘The Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ might have fitted into Max Beerbohm's Seven Men without disordering that adorable volume in the least, but it is equally native to Limbo. Both writers are of the City. Both of them draw their characters with smartness and with individuality. Both of them display a sophistication that is beyond their years. Alas, we may not say this of Max now, but when we consider Max Beerbohm collecting his half dozen essays into a slender volume, writing a farewell preface to them, and publishing them as his Collected Works, while he was still in his early twenties, we smile and attribute his gesture to the insolence of youth. The same insolence...

(This entire section contains 1150 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

hovers overLimbo. If anything Mr. Huxley is a bit more poetic. He is urbane but not to the extent of Max Beerbohm. Neither is his gift of humor so magical, so consistent. Mr. Huxley likes to be serious at times. His sophistication does not suggest the playfulness that is evident in Mr. Beerbohm's work.

The two pieces in Limbo that appear to stand out most startlingly are ‘The Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ and ‘Happily Ever After.’ Both of them are animated by a worldliness that is more implicit than expressed. Richard Greenow possesses a dual mind. Mentally he is an hermaphrodite. The figure of this man changes rapidly from light comedy to tragic implications. The crashing down of the war upon England eventually destroys him. When we consider Richard, part of whose time is taken up living the life of a radical editor of a paper opposing the war and the rest of it existing as a lady novelist writing the most obvious patriotic war-mush, we must smile, but behind the incongruous theme is a passionate and heart-rending situation. Even in his death-throes Richard's dual nature is fighting against itself.

‘Happily Ever After’ is obviously cynical. It is satire handled with a deftness that is admirable. There is a truthfulness about the figure of Marjorie that ought to hurt. Perhaps this story is the best in point of character drawing, for there is a roundness about all the figures that move through its action. They suggest reality in a vivid and startling fashion. If we are to consider Marjorie being comforted in the arms of George when she hears of Guy's death in battle too seriously, we are apt to grow a bit cynical about the durability of love. …

While ‘Cynthia’ and ‘The Bookshop’ and ‘Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers’ may be merely mentioned as delicious trifles or tours de force, two other sketches in the book must be especially noted. ‘Happy Families,’ written in dialogue form, possesses a symbolical significance that sets it a bit apart from the other efforts. By means of certain figures the hidden traits of the two principal personages are presented. Thus a slobbering Negro who keeps interjecting himself into the action personifies the man's primitive instincts.

‘The Death of Lully,’ which concludes the book, may be suspected of being an old legend or at least having its derivative inspiration in some old story. It is not Raimon Lully, the contemporary of Molière that is meant, but a religiast of the Mediterranean. Here again there is symbolism, and a surprisingly obvious symbolism for Mr. Huxley.

Limbo, taken as a whole, suggests a fine maturity in a writer so young. Mr. Huxley has fulfilled the promise that he intimated in his earlier books to the few who knew him, and demonstrated that he is one of the finest writers of prose in England today. He is finished and fastidious, sophisticated and diverting, an authentic figure of some actual importance and with many potentialities. That he must take a decided place among the younger contemporary writers in England is without doubt.


  1. George Doran in New York. Frank Swinnerton called Limbo to Doran's attention: ‘… I suggested to Doran that if he wanted to cultivate young talent, as he did, he should take the American rights.’ Figures in the Foreground, p. 188.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Virginia Woolf (review date 1920)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the public to read them, as we can conscientiously do, we are tempted to state, what it is so seldom necessary to state, that short stories can be a great deal more than clever, amusing, and well written. There is another adjective—‘interesting’; that is the adjective we should like to bestow upon Mr. Huxley's short stories, for it is the best worth having.

The difficulty is that in order to be interesting, as we define the word, Mr. Huxley would have to forgo, or go beyond, many of the gifts which nature and fortune have put in his way. …

We hold no brief for the simple peasant. Yet we cannot help thinking that it is well to leave a mind under a counterpane of moderate ignorance; it grows more slowly, but being more slowly exposed it avoids that excessive surface sensibility which wastes the strength of the precocious. Again, to be aware too soon of sophisticated society makes it tempting for a young writer to use his first darts in attack and derision. If he is as dexterous and as straightforward as Mr. Huxley the attack is an inspiriting spectacle. Humbug seems to collapse, pretension to be pricked. …

It is amusing; it is perhaps true; and yet as one reads one cannot help exclaiming that English society is making it impossible to produce English literature. Write about boots, one is inclined to say, about coins, sea anemones, crayfish—but, as you value your life, steer clear of the English upper middle classes. They lie, apparently, so open to attack, they are undoubtedly such an obstacle to vision; but their openness is the openness of the tiger's jaw which ends by swallowing you whole and leaving no trace. ‘Happily Ever After’ is but another proof of their rapacity. Mr. Huxley sets out to kill a great many despicable conventions, and to attack a large and disgusting schoolmaster. But having laughed at the conventions and the schoolmaster, they suddenly turn the tables on him. Now, they seem to say, talk about something that you do believe in—and behold, Mr. Huxley can only stammer. Love and death, like damp fireworks, refuse to flare up in such an atmosphere, and as usual the upper middle classes escape unhurt.

But with Mr. Huxley it is only necessary to wait a little longer; and we can wait without anxiety. He is not merely clever, well read, and honest, but when he forgets himself he discovers very charming things. …

Emboldened by our pleasure in such good writing as this, we would admonish Mr. Huxley to leave social satire alone, to delete the word ‘incredibly’ from his pages, and to write about interesting things that he likes. Nobody ever takes advice; even so, we hazard the opinion that Mr. Huxley's next book will be not only clever, amusing, and well written, but interesting into the bargain.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

William Jacob Cuppy (review date 1922)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Aldous Huxley, ‘undoubtedly the most adroit and amusing’ of the clever young Englishmen, ‘deals in superficies, but with a gay, satirical touch.’

On June 13 Mr. Ben Ray Redman, having dined, announced at Mr. Louis Untermeyer's that Aldous Huxley ‘was like Oscar Wilde in the '90's, the clever young froth writer of his day.’

If this sort of thing goes on I don't want to.

And it's almost sure to go on, for Mortal Coils, which has just followed Crome Yellow, is a book of shorter pieces almost as clever and amusing as the novel. I want to point out, with due respect, that Mortal Coils is also just as deeply serious, purposeful, holy, flaming and passionately true and wise as is so certainly Crome Yellow.

Aldous Huxley deals in both books (with a gay, satirical touch, truly) with the inevitable cruces of this, our mortal, life, with the sickening, blasting ironies of this vale of tears, with the beautiful poisonous snares of this utterly marvellous world, with the mere emotions and ideas, such as they are, of us human creatures; with the resistless desires and shattering half-truths by which we live and die. Are these superficies? Is this froth?

I should hate to see Aldous Huxley tagged as superficial. Nobody is superficial anyway. There is no such thing. (Least of all Huxley, or Wilde either, for that matter). The author of Mortal Coils is a direct and lineal descendant, a true son and disciple of the authentic and sacred philosophers of the above-mentioned world. Wisdom has bloomed in him as an orchid, not as a cabbage. That is all.

Does Mr. Huxley deal in half-truths? Is that the charge against him? Do I? Does Nietzsche? Are there any whole-truths? Perhaps not. Surely then, I may insist that Aldous Huxley is a serious and an earnest writer, since I but point to the reverse of the medal. And by way of harmonizing my views with those of one critic I may mention that even superficies may seem to be, if rightly considered, as deep as hell itself, and just as true and important.

‘The Gioconda Smile,’ the first piece in the new book, sets forth in a fantastically ironic framework the expert and authentic anatomy of the libido of a Mr. Hutton, who was either just an old fool or Everyman, and of the fabulous face of Janet Spence, a homicidal virgin of thirty-six who thought she was by Leonardo. (It is Mrs. Hutton who shuffles off.) Poor old Hutton. One shrinks from the picture. ‘And actually, really, he was what?—Who knows.’ Absolutely true and beautifully done, except for one dubious page where the author jumps out of Mr. Hutton's skin omnisciently, but awkwardly, to administer the arsenic.

‘Nuns at Luncheon’ is a tale told by a sob-sister, full of sound without the least fury, signifying everything. Two writers jesting hideously over the seduction of Sister Agatha and discussing how to turn it into salable fiction. Out of heartless comments and brutally callous jokes this Huxley fashions something so piteous and so terrible that few will dare reread it. A masterpiece? Perhaps. The art that produced ‘Nuns at Luncheon’ is something to admire.

‘Green Tunnels’ is a mildly interesting thing about a young girl surrounded by some of those middle-aged grubs that Huxley sometimes digs up. ‘The Tillotson Banquet’ is an anecdote—more irony. ‘Permutations Among the Nightingales’ contains a woman who is steatopygous, whatever that is.

Several things in Mortal Coils look like studies for Crome Yellow. In fact, Mortal Coils is the stuff from which Crome Yellow are made. But froth? Well, why not? And now I placate Mr. Redman. I bethink me of what Lytton Strachey says apropos another work not so dissimilar as some might think, the Lettres Philosophiques of Voltaire.

He offers one an exquisite dish of whipped cream; one swallows down the unsubstantial trifle, and asks impatiently if that is all? At any rate, it is enough. Into that frothy sweetness his subtle hand has insinuated a single drop of some strange liquor—is it a poison or is it an elixir of life?—whose penetrating influence will spread and spread until the remotest fibres of the system have felt its power.

And this mysterious drop, which I cannot bear to have undervalued or misunderstood, is in the case of Crome Yellow and Mortal Coils simply the immortal soul of the artist who wrote those books.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Eschelbach, Claire John and Shober, Joyce Lee. Aldous Huxley: A Bibliography 1916-1959. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961, 150 p.

Lists all of Huxley's published writings as well as secondary studies of his work until 1959; includes a foreword by Huxley.


Bedford, Sybille. Huxley. London: Carrol & Graf, 1985, 769 p.

Comprehensive biography detailing Huxley's literary and private life as well as the intellectual and social era in which he was a central figure.

Huxley, Laura Archera. This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968. 330 p.

Huxley's second wife describes the period in his life from 1948 until his death in 1963.

Additional coverage of Huxley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol.44; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography 1914-1945;Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 18, 35, 79; DISCovering Authors;DISCovering Authors: British;DISCovering Authors: Canadian;DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 36, 100, 162, 195; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 63; World Literature Criticism.

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1924)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 be: technically (we are speaking only of technique), a firm piece of carpentry. The book of fiction before that was Mortal Coils, in which he was so consciously literary that nearly every one of the stories was offered as an exercise in method. Now comes another book of stories, Little Mexican, in which none of the six displays its method, and only two are at all firmly carpentered. One of these two is ‘Hubert and Minnie’, a common-place of fiction so far as its subject goes, but as well told on its own lines as any story that we know. From the touch about the ferrets to the afternoon light in the mill-garden the story is a little masterpiece of suggestion, contrast, shading-off, so finely contrived that in the first reading one only feels how actual the story is. ‘Fard’ is equally well told; but by comparison with ‘Hubert and Minnie’ it seems made-up, not real. The contrast between the opulent mistress and her worn-out old servant-woman is a shallow theme that needed either intensifying in incident or studying at one remove in the manner of some of the stories in Mortal Coils, if it were not to seem bare. To that manner of seeing things at one remove Mr. Huxley returns with great effect in ‘The Portrait’. Told by a fraudulent picture dealer about a sham old master portrait of a woman, this tale of eighteenth-century Venice, master, jewels, elopements, and what not, takes on a double fantasy; but we wish that Mr. Huxley had not underlined the cheat by showing us the ‘devil’ employed to paint Venetian old masters. He might as well have told us what happened to Minnie after Hubert left her at the mill.

In the other three stories we come upon what is truly exciting in Mr. Huxley's new book. They are longer than the usual short story, and it looks as if he had determined to challenge any rules there may be about compactness, suggestion, and so forth. ‘Uncle Spencer’ begins on the first page of the book: we get to the story on page 80, when the war breaks out, and Uncle Spencer, sugar refiner in Longres, is imprisoned in Brussels with Emmy Wendle, a Cockney ‘male impersonator’ of the music-halls. Every page of the first eighty, telling of Uncle Spencer's nephew's boyhood in the Belgian town, is delightful. In the end every page helps us to know that fascinating mixture of Mr. Shandy and Sir Roger de Coverley which was my Uncle Spencer. But the purists will certainly tell Mr. Huxley that not a word of it, from his most Proustian sentence to his sharpest, was necessary. Let the purists have their say: we would not lose a word of it, nor a word of the descriptions of Italian scenery which lead us, ever so leisurely, into the tragedy of an Italian peasant-boy and a vulgar woman who adopted him. In a less degree Mr. Huxley lays himself open to the same charge of disproportion in the deliciously wicked tale which gives its title to the book (‘Little Mexican’, by the way, is a hat, not a film heroine): a tale of an Italian nobleman, who is ‘old and gay’ like the fairies in Mr. Yeats's poem, the prodigal father of a conscientious and very safely married son. In these cases, either Mr. Huxley is not sure of the worth of his story as a story, or he is so sure of it that he is resolved to indulge himself to the top of his bent in the writing. The result is in each case good enough to warrant him in doing what he pleases and us in pleasantly wondering what he is going to do next.

Arnold Bennett (essay date 1924)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 artistically. Aldous doesn't finish; he ceases. But another perfect page and the end would have been good. He shirks the final difficulty and so there is no end. Same with the next best story ‘Little Mexican’. No end to it. But the character drawing of the N. Count is good. ‘Fard’ is a Chekhov story. But the feelings of the maid when the mistress tells her to rouge herself to hide her tiredness are shirked.

More about novel writing and character drawing. You couldn't fill in a whole character except in a book of enormous length. The young ones don't seem to me to ‘select’. They shove in pell-mell whatever happens to strike them. They don't construct even a character. Then they think they are truer to life: but they aren't. Description of faces is futile. Waste of time. Give the reader something to hold on to, and then let him fill in for himself.

L. P. Hartley (review date 1926)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 standard so high that, captivate and divert us as he may, he still seems to fall short of a proposed excellence. The shadow of a commanding talent and a distinguished mind is thrown across each page, but though Mr. Huxley has many altitudes that are visible enough we can never quite descry that single peak which puts so much, even Mr. Huxley's own work, into the shade. Perhaps it is to his disadvantage that he makes his meaning so clear: he is the victim of his own lucidity. He has such a gift for expression that for the imagination to look beyond the written word in search of private overtones seems an impertinence. And the imagination, always eager to contribute its little quota, however futile and irrelevant, resents being warned off in this way, and sulks because it may not co-operate. It complains that Mr. Huxley makes Aunt Sallies of his characters, setting them up simply to bowl them over with a few good shots, and that these figures of unreason are sometimes too near and too flimsy to justify their impressive bombardment by Mr. Huxley's heavy guns. Grace Peddley, for instance, in the first and most important story: is she made substantial enough to carry our interest through her various metamorphoses, her ungraceful, almost disgraceful, antics as one man's wife and two men's mistress? Are we prepared to shed tears, as Mr. Huxley seems to require us to, over such a figure of fun? But the mind delights in the humours of Grace's progress, rejoices in the deft exposure of Peddley, Rodney and Kingham, never withholds its laughter when for the hundredth time Mr. Huxley demonstrates that futility is futile. It is even impatient of the softer note that has lately crept into Mr. Huxley's voice and makes a faint deprecating undertone to the brilliant derisive music with which he plays his characters out of his pages.

‘Half-Holiday’ is the best story of the collection. The poor young man whose romantic day-dreams have led him, on behalf of two beautiful young ladies, to interpose in a dog-fight and get bitten, cannot restore the creature because of his stammer:

After this delicious bit of comedy it was a pity to give the story a bitter and unhappy ending: it does not quite ‘come off’. At his best Mr. Huxley ‘comes off’ as few living novelists do. And our enjoyment of his work depends upon its successfulness. If there is no ‘pop’ we know the wine is flat. Mr. Huxley's work has no intermediate quality; it is flat or it is effervescent. He is a literary acrobat, setting out to do a difficult feat perfectly; he makes no attempt to conceal his virtuosity; he calls upon one to hold one's breath. He may take a tumble, but his successes, of which there are many in Two or Three Graces, are as undeniable and as instantly recognizable as if they were the work of the hand, not of the pen.

Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 1926)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 describing them in a style of limpid simplicity; in the second the mask drops from his face and reveals the pain which lies behind it. Tolerant contempt gives way to ferocious hatred, classic irony to raging disgust, and the author descends from his Olympian height to struggle desperately with the problems which he had mocked others for not solving.

This second mood, definitely foreshadowed in the satiric poems which formed the bulk of the volume called Leda, received its fullest expression in that hideous masterpiece Antic Hay. An obscene farce at the heart of which lay an utter despair, it seemed to reach the uttermost possible limits of hatred for a world in which nothing could be believed and nothing, not even debauchery, could be enjoyed. Beyond it lay nothing except the desperate conversion of a Huysmans, and perhaps for that reason Huxley has never since let himself go completely. In Those Barren Leaves as well as in the present volume there are occasional glimpses of the black abyss from which Antic Hay was born, but the mask is resumed and confession is checked. The author, turning his eye upon this character or that situation, regards it with an aloof ironical gaze and pretends to have found his own fixed point of peace—though he never reveals to us just where it is—in the midst of the flux which he describes.

The world with which he deals is essentially a world where there are no faiths but only an infinitude of poses. Biology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and the rest have made it impossible for anybody to be sure of anything. There are people who pretend to believe in art, in science, or even in morality, but at bottom they know that they have only taken up attitudes and they are so used to pretending at faiths and passions that they do not themselves know when they come closest to sincerity. Painters talk glibly of forms, physiologists of glands, and philosophers of complexes, but none of them know where they are or have continued very much to care. At their best they manage, like the painter Rodney in the present volume, to obtain a success by some simple device; his consists of painting provocative green nudes in a distorted setting. At their worst they merely stand, like one of the minor characters, in the midst of a drunken party and bawl: ‘We're absolutely modern, we are. Anybody can have my wife so far as I'm concerned. I don't care. She's free. and I'm free. That's what I call modern.’ Between them there is not much to choose and they meet on a common ground. One and all they drink and couple, the only real difference being the extent to which they can dramatize their monotonous experiences.

Such is the milieu of the story ‘Two or Three Graces,’ which gives its title to the present volume and which constitutes more than two-thirds of its bulk. Its central character is a pleasant, simple, and rather stupid woman who is drawn into the chaos which she understands rather less than those who make it. Somewhat after the manner of Chekhov's ‘Darling’ she assumes in desperate earnest the tastes and the poses of her lovers. While she lives with the painter she talks of ‘drinking life like champagne’ and of ‘the duty of obeying one's whims’; when she becomes the mistress of the neo-Nietzschean philosopher she tries her best to be the vampire ‘possessed by a devil of concupiscence’ which it pleases him to pretend that she is; but all the time she cannot help taking the poses more seriously than those do from whom they are imitated. While they pretend to suffer she really does, and we leave her desperate at the end of one of her affairs, yet inevitably destined to do an eternal da capo.2

It is a grotesquely tragic story, one which might, indeed, have been woven in as one of the many threads of Antic Hay, but it differs in that it is written with an air of ironical detachment which conceals the desperate disgust the former book set out clearly to reveal. In it Mr. Huxley no longer shrieks. He pretends almost to be writing again in the mood of mere satiric extravaganza which marked Crome Yellow and which caused him to be compared to Peacock. His clear self-possessed sentences are polite and calm, his analyses minute and unexcited. And yet for all the careful impersonality of manner it is the essential seriousness of his mind, his real concern with the world and its ways, which gives to him his strength. He is at heart no aesthete and no mere Olympian satirist. As surely as the most solemn of moral philosophers he is in search of the good life, and it is the bitterness of his disappointment in not having found it that sets his work so far above that of our merely precious sophisticates. Essentially too serious of mind to be content with the cleverness which is so abundantly his, and possessed of a mind too powerfully critical to fall a victim to any sham philosophy, he has wandered unhappily through a life which has so far revealed to him nothing in which he could believe; and if he has described nothing but folly his descriptions have been significant for the very reason that he would so infinitely have preferred any wisdom that he had been able to find.


  1. Literally ‘the wild men’ or ‘beasts’; refers to a group of early twentieth-century artists who splashed brilliant, jarring colors onto their canvasses in rebellion against the sober browns and blacks of Victorian painters.

  2. ‘Going back to the beginning and repeating.’ A familiar musical notation used in Huxley's story.

Henry Hazlitt (review date 1930)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 into a devil is to try to bring it up as an angel. Against the ideal of superhumanness he pleads for the ideal of perfected humanity. Mr. Huxley's, in other words, is just another brand of humanism. But it is at the farthest pole from Babbittean humanism, for instead of moderation Mr. Huxley believes in excess, provided that one excess is counterbalanced by another, and instead of believing in the will to refrain and the middle level he holds (I am here assuming that one of his characters speaks for him) that a human being should “completely and intensely live … on every plane of existence.”

There is no need here to examine this philosophy in detail. It is enough to say that Mr. Huxley, in talking of subhuman, human, and superhuman levels, is making as dubious a division as the Babbittean humanists when they talk of man living on three “planes,” the natural, human, and religious. For every “plane” on which a human being lives is necessarily a human plane, just as every action he takes is at bottom a natural action. It would not occur to our literary philosophers to divide the actions of a dog into subdoggy, doggy, and superdoggy; it is only when we come to our own race that we consider it necessary to have something fancy in the way of metaphysics. The use of the words “human” and “natural” in so many different senses, each sense carrying within itself its peculiar shade of approval or disapproval, is bound to produce murky thinking and silly conclusions. It is much wiser to ask simply whether a given action or ideal is desirable or undesirable, regardless of what “plane” one may think it on.

That three of the present four stories are written at least in part to support a thesis does not in itself make them any the less amusing. Most satire gains its effect through the very fact that it is written to support a thesis, or to ridicule someone else's thesis, e.g., “Candide.” When Mr. Huxley mars his work he does so not by having a thesis, but by illustrating his thesis too often through explicit statement rather than indirectly through the story itself. In the present volume he has been content sometimes to allow the story to remain secondary. In “The Claxtons,” for example, he does little more than deride a certain type of “spirituality” and the products for which it is responsible. How beautifully the Claxtons live, how spiritually! Even the cat is a vegetarian. There is Herbert, “longlegged and knickerbockered, his fair beard like a windy explosion round his face,” who carries a Rücksack even in London as though he were just about to ascend Mont Blanc. When the street boys yell or the flappers whoop with laughter, Herbert ignores them, or else smiles through his beard “forgivingly and with a rather studied humorousness.” His wife, Martha, is also spiritual; and she too can smile a beautifully Christian—yet superior—smile. “The Claxtons” is less a story than a portrait or a travesty of a type, but it is magnificently done, a merciless exposure of the self-consciously uplifted.

In “The Rest Cure,” which comes nearest to the orthodox story, a young English woman rents a villa near Florence and enjoys a mild flirtation with a local Italian; her husband, visiting her for a few days, warns her so brutally against the man that in defiance she gives herself to him; he extorts money from her and quickly tires of her, and the story ends ironically when she shoots herself for the wrong reason. The last and most important story, occupying half of the book, “After the Fireworks,” describes what begins as a charming but ends as a sordid affair between a novelist of fifty and a girl admirer of twenty-one. By once more making his hero a novelist Mr. Huxley finds free scope for that brilliant talk, those little essays and excursions into philosophy, the wit and brilliant description, as well as the cynicism, that have always distinguished his work; and he writes, too, a story of great psychological penetration. The diary of the girl, however, leans too heavily in its syntax on “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” while the comments are a little too intelligent to make that style altogether credible.

Kenneth Payson Kempton (essay date 1953)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 space and time. There are two narrators. The more important because more prominent is, of course, Miss Penny; but the function of “I” should not be underrated or misunderstood. “I” describes Miss Penny, contributes suggestions and a long descriptive scene, spurs on the chief teller or reins her in, and is, actually, the motive force behind the story. It was plainly Mr. Huxley's intention for “I” to represent himself: “I” is a writer of fiction; his laconic and noncommittal speech, well calculated to lead on Miss Penny, was shrewdly managed to draw interest and sympathy while acting as contrast to her voluble telling and overbearing manner; his early statement, “but that had been said before,” and, rather late in the story, his reply to Miss Penny's urging that he write a story on the material she is giving him, “You may be sure I shall,” seal the certainty. We must take Mr. Huxley's word for it; we cannot, in considering this short story, differentiate between the author as a living person and the author as a character. He is there in the story by his own admission and wish, and is to be appraised as a character. Both narrators, we note, are trained writers, observing life as a matter of course and holding decided opinions about living and dying. Both are acutely imaginative. A further advantage is gained, through instinct or design, by the fact that both tellers are ostensibly only playing with story material, pretending, imagining the writing of a story while the story is being told; so that they may stop, start again, stop again when and where they wish, interpolate their feelings and opinions or, as effectively, be silent without losing the thread of narrative or becoming incoherent. Thus the vehicle of expression works as smoothly and as effortlessly as a precision machine. Small wonder, then, if the extremely ingenious and intricate structure of the story—its back-and-forth movement in time holding suspense when needed, preparing every detail for the accelerated pace and swift ending—remains unseen.

The strongest element is unclassifiable under technique or content. Only the most captious reader will find “Nuns at Luncheon” less than highly readable. Once under way, the story induces a snicker or chortle in almost every line. There is release in the laughter produced, possibly a hysterical or near-hysterical sense of pleasure in seeing institutions and customs long held sacred not only torn to shreds but tramped upon. The incongruity is cumulative, the pressure builds up to a long-pent roar of mirth when Sister Agatha, discovered by woodcutters and unable to explain her predicament because her seducer has stolen her false teeth, is quite naturally taken for a fool. The total effect of the story is both authentic and astounding; burst follows burst of incredible fireworks; yet here it all lies quiet, in cold black type.

Obviously, too, the intent of the author was satire. But when one tries to discover the cause and nature of the attack, and particularly its object or objects, no solution appears. Since Juvenal, this form of writing has seemed best justified, promising permanence as art, when one or more of the following attributes is present: a corrective motive indicated by suggested betterment of conditions satirized; impersonality covering the identity of satirist and the satirized by symbolism or allegory; and detachment from local or temporal circumstances that, being soon forgotten, would render the attack meaningless. None of these conditions obtains here. Miss Penny is exhibited, especially at her triumphant exit from the story, as a growing menace to society about whom nobody, least of all the author, need have the slightest misgivings; the satirist not only appears in person but bids for the reader's interest and sympathy, while the individual satirized is drawn with such vigorous acerbity and exactitude of grotesque detail that, though her identity now after thirty years may be forgotten, she must have had a living prototype (she is as certainly factual and as basically unadulterated fact as was Maugham's portrait of Hugh Walpole in Cakes and Ale); and the circumstances of time and place are so particularized that already they are hazed over and in another thirty years may require a gloss. And Miss Penny, although the chief object of attack, is by no means the only one. Any attempt to enumerate other butts will fail unless a list is made of persons and beliefs not attacked. We cannot call this story satire. We must call it satirical, bitterly and generally satirical, for some reason not yet determined. We are far from all that laughter.

So doubt enters. We must get at the meaning of the story, and the only method possible is through a study of its enactors, one of whom is Mr. Huxley himself. (Or so he has asked us to believe.)

Two interpretations of the story are tenable, depending on our interpretation of “I” and Miss Penny. Neither redounds greatly to the author's credit as catcher and creator of personality, and the consequent ambiguity between the two readings (although it may have afforded him a private joke-of-all-jokes at the reader's expense) seems to constitute a further detraction from what at first appeared a brilliant achievement in this factor of management.

The only fully grasped person here is Miss Penny. Her the author seems to have known so well that he could embroider factual details into the purely fanciful—such as the earrings, the woman journalist's outward scorn of but inward yearning to write fiction, the savage curiosity of an old maid about sex—without making the caricature too outlandish, in a swiftly moving story, to be credible. By this first interpretation, the author uses Miss Penny not so much as a storyteller, rather as a mouthpiece through which he can jeer at a good many activities and customs and institutions that he personally finds ridiculous: spinsters, journalists, American magazines, Roman and Protestant Churches, universities, sexual inhibitions and sexual drives, but especially and above all ideal love—in short, at almost everything and everybody conveniently in sight at the moment, with one exception. Himself. But this very wanton and extensive jeering, plus his ostentation of utterance and choice of material (note his proffered familiarity with French, German, Latin used mock-heroically or mock-romantically) actually reveal himself as something of a joke that he missed, while at the same time undermining the illusion of reality within which a story must operate. In this instance, the story told by Miss Penny, of the authenticity of whose facts we have no assurance and some cause for doubt, becomes more and more a sort of fairy tale within a warped but perhaps basically factual anecdote, creating neither convincing fiction nor credible fact. By this interpretation the piece begins as fiction but ends as polemic.

It seems hardly necessary to add that the distortion of some unknown person into a caricature called Miss Penny is suggestive of the failure to create individual personalities in Kuno and Sister Agatha. The former is at best, just as visually represented, a worn photograph; he never speaks a word in the reader's hearing; he comes to us via the Doctor, Miss Penny, and Mr. Huxley, and probably was guessed at. Sister Agatha's false teeth give her away at once (as did Miss Penny's “corpses hanging in chains” earrings). She again is only a broad type with luridly grotesque touches, a character who can be pushed at the author's humorous whim from seduction into near-sainthood into farce.

By a second interpretation this story is an intensive, rather than extensive, attack. There is no general polemic, the author is not accountable for what Miss Penny rails at, and the story proper occurs only in the restaurant, its only characters being Miss Penny and Mr. Huxley. The story told by Miss Penny within the story is to be taken as nonsense, made up by her out of whole cloth, and is used merely as a lever by which Mr. Huxley, through his modest aloofness and reluctant participation, pries open and reveals the tremendous sexual yearning and the equally strong sexual repression within Miss Penny's unconsciousness. This leverage begins where Miss Penny wonders if she will ever be “exploited.” The negative, embarrassing silence that follows compels her to justify herself as person, as professional, and as contented because courted (if not yet won) spinster. The stages of the told story follow the pattern of this attempted justification, as Miss Penny repeatedly tries to lure Mr. Huxley into collaboration, only to snatch the telling from him. At the same time the author allows her, before the reader's eyes, to deny and refute by implication (note the early description of her eyes and ears; note that she, a reporter of facts, is here spinning the wildest species of yarn while at the same time professing disgust at it and extreme boredom; note the ironic application to her of the funeral of Sister Agatha) all three phases of her intended vindication of herself, and in the very words that she believes creates and confirms them.

Yet, if this interpretation is correct, our conclusion must be that Mr. Huxley has drawn a superficially comic but essentially an incredibly stupid person, a monster in chains, far too exaggerated for anyone not momentarily blinded by laughter to believe. Katharine Brush's “Good Wednesday” shows a similar (much simpler) pattern of self-condemnation disguised as justification, the author using stages in the revelation of the protagonist as substitute for movement by motive-obstacle-success or -failure. But there is no ambiguity, the method is straight and clear, the material no less keenly satirical but carefully objectified and held in control; and the result is a story that provides no laughter but knocks the reader all but off his chair by producing a shattering surprise based on thoroughly realized and thoroughly credible characteristics of human nature that might turn up at any time, anywhere.

Here, what meaning, what general truth is present and demonstrated, by either interpretation? All female reporters are like Miss Penny? All aging spinsters have an ungovernable appetite that will out if properly baited? All social, intellectual, or religious institutions are preposterous? Certainly not. Yet something is achieved here that must be taken reluctantly as the meaning of the story. “Nuns at Luncheon” emits a derisive blast at both the possession and the loss of virginity; this, by whatever interpretation of material and details, is proved by the title. It is a curious achievement, a childish revolt from faith once celebrated with hymns and prayers and the building of cathedrals in honor of a virgin. It is an act of defiance of and disbelief in the classical-Christian idea and ideal of humanism; and to it the reader may finally react with a loud laugh or a corresponding disbelief of his own in the author's ability to be, in this instance, anything more durable than a showoff or an incompetent cartoonist.

The story seems to sparkle. The question is whether with the spark of life or the duller, iridescent glow of decomposition.

Characterization must show balance, and within balance characters must usually move—like spinning tops, like persons. Something more or something less than a desire to ridicule humanity is needed behind the writing of a short story. “Nuns at Luncheon,” readable as it is, provides an illustration in reverse, an anything-else-but, for personality-catchers.

P. H. Newby (review date 1957)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 pessimist, in short. The Collected Short Stories do not, however, bear this out. They provide no text for a dissertation on Mr. Huxley's ideas as they might have done had he been the intellectual, the sustained critic or satirist one, rather idly, supposed. Indeed, there is a strain in the stories which might be thought anti-intellectual. The other misconception is of Mr. Huxley in a bright, Twenty-ish world when he is, more obviously, an Edwardian. The period touch is provided not only by the historical details—a character calling at an inn for a glass of port, a comment on the absurdity of trying to find energy in the atom—but by the urbane literariness of the style.

The owner of the shop was standing in the doorway, a little man, grizzle-bearded and with eyes very active round the corners of the spectacles that bridged his long, sharp nose.

‘Trade is good?’ I inquired.

‘Better in my grandfather's day,’ he told me, shaking his head sadly.

‘We progressively grow more Philistine,’ I suggested.

‘It is our cheap Press. The ephemeral overwhelms the permanent, the classical.’

‘This journalism,’ I agreed, ‘or call it this piddling quotidianism, is the curse of our age.’

One would have liked all these stories dated. That one, “The Bookshop,” is obviously very early. But how early? When was “Limbo” published? By looking up the reference books we can discover all this information for ourselves, but a volume of Collected Short Stories needs documenting if the author happens to be Aldous Huxley. He has roots in the pre-Joycean strata and one wants to follow them upwards into the clear light of Italy. The discovery of Italy seems to have been determinant in his career. There is an unmistakable cordiality in his references to all things Italian. The possession of Italian blood is a sufficient explanation for beauty. ‘Ah, that explained it,’ his narrator says of someone he had thought German and now discovers to be Italian. ‘I had been wondering how Bavaria could have produced this thin-faced creature with the dark eyes, the finely modelled nose and chin, and the fleshy lips so royally and sensually curved.’ The best story of them all, “Little Mexican”, is about Italy, and so is the worst. And after Italy? Well, one wants to know. One wants to know about Mr. Huxley himself. The stories and sketches in this volume are illustrations in his biography and reading them is an historical rather than a literary pleasure.

Really intelligent characters are almost as great an embarrassment to a writer as really good ones. If they are presented at all convincingly they are also, like Jane Austen's Emma, not really liked; and in less skilful hands than Jane Austen's these intelligent characters are bores into the bargain. They frustrate the possibility of an interesting story because they are so almighty knowing and self-contained and long-suffering. Mr. Huxley has a great many intelligent people in his stories and he solves the difficulty (rather unfairly, I think) by making them absurd. Think of poor Herbert Claxton, for example, with his beard, knickerbockers and Oriental religiosity! Or John Tarwin, who is an expert on tumours, values people according to their knowledge and ideas and accordingly is turned into a cuckold. In “Happily Ever After” (a very good story) there is, certainly, a highly intelligent man who is not made fun of, Mr. Jacobsen. If he is looked at closely, however, Jacobsen turns out to be a scholar, not an intellectual and, indeed, he is to be found criticizing a nascent intellectual for presuming to think. ‘It was bad for him to think; he wasn't strong enough.’ Presumably Jacobsen is strong enough and his strength is to be gauged from his enjoyment of bad sermons; they afford him ‘the philosophic amusement of counting the undistributed middles and tabulating historically the exploded fallacies in the parson's discourse.’

Ideally, one suspects, Mr Huxley would have liked a sympathetic intellectual near the centre of a good many of these stories; but he is defeated by the conventional demands of fiction. In “Young Archimedes,” where the attempt is seemingly made, the result is an embarrassing dilettante who meditates for whole paragraphs at a time on music, mathematics, and the rise of civilization. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that Mr Huxley is, by temperament, more of an essayist than a short story writer; or that his short stories are most successful when he is being least himself.

When one thinks of their various limitations, these stories ought, after thirty-five years some of them, to seem faded. But time and again they are redeemed by brilliant analysis and observation. “Little Mexican” is a delightful account of an Italian family over a period of years; perhaps it succeeds partly because none of its characters is particularly clever. “The Gioconda Smile” succeeds very well in its slightly theatrical, Somerset Maugham-ish way. “Happily Ever After” is hard and economical and oddly Kiplingesque. Mr Huxley is, too, an irresistible travelling companion and guide. One would have liked him to say even more about the villas on the Brenta, about Tuscany and Florence, even about London on a Saturday afternoon. There is a great wealth of material in this volume to be explored, and if it is not more successful as a collection of stories then it is probably because Mr Huxley is not by nature one of the two types who really can write stories as distinct from novels; the gossip and the teller of folk tales.

V. S. Pritchett (review date 1957)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Mediterranean) but from the non-stop talk by which he drove them into exhaustion and nagged them into nothingness. Talk was the cult of the Twenties and he was its exploiter. With him it was not table talk; he talked the clothes and souls off his people, he talked them out of life into limbo and, since he was astute enough to know what he was doing, Limbo was the title of his first book of short stories. They are the hors d'oeuvre of a prolonged cannibal feast.

It is thirty-four years since the publication of Limbo and now we have the Collected Stories of his lifetime. They belong mainly to a period now remote: the last age of rich old hedonists, businessmen (vulgar), intellectuals (incompetent in love), savage hostesses, grumpy artists. The old educated class is seen breaking with Victorian commitment as it loses its sons or its property, and ascending into that captious island of Laputa which floated in sunny detachment above Western Europe between the wars. As a writer Mr. Huxley has always been proficient in every genre he undertook, but it would not be just to judge him by these shorter pieces. He needed space for the great scoldings, for if you hate life it is best to hate it in a big way. He needed more room for the horrors, the savageries; more room for the kinder and learned comedies. In the very short stories—I exclude his nouvelles—his intellect turns out people like skinned rabbits. They are either not worth his trouble or one resents that his brain has reduced their worth. In general his stories are not about people and situations; they are talk about people in relation to ideas that appear to have been set up in order to snub them. It's when the people seem equal to the ideas that the good stories emerge; in the bizarre and tragic “Sir Hercules,” in the sinister “Gioconda Smile,” in a sharp light thing like “Half Holiday,” the geniality of “Little Mexican,” one of the rare life-loving tales, in “The Rest Cure,” a triumph over the talker, and in the pitying tale of “Young Archimedes.” Here the driving voice abates and the preacher's chastisements are softened. A very good book.

In the other satires one is sooner or later aware of Mr. Huxley's weariness of his own brain. We cannot separate ideas and people; and there is a disagreeable disparity between the cleverness of the commentary and the banality of his realism. No one drops so surprisingly into cliché when describing the ordinary run of feeling. His lovers speak out of the pages of magazines. Mr. Huxley is self-conscious enough to be uncomfortable about the clichés. After all, are not all the valued human feelings clichés and are they the worse for that? The answer surely is that, to the artist, they are not clichés. It looks as though Mr. Huxley was frantic for novelty when he was tired. In the end it has been the accumulation of novel ideas, once so golden, that have now become heavy as lead in these comedies of displeasure.

One excellent story—“Chawdron”—stands out as a remarkable example of a writer's ability to use all his powers. It is at once a story of emotional nausea and a story of talking about it. The influence of Lawrence can be felt here. Lawrence was a master of magnetism in the short story. He forced his characters and their situations to a standstill, while he whipped them by repetitive phrases into greater intensity. Without passion or the poetic imagination, the method becomes merely frenzied and that is Mr. Huxley's case; but the genial, broken-down writer who has talked his talents away redeems him. “Hogwash” is his word for the emotions of the tycoon he is describing. Hogwash, hogwash, hogwash, he repeats throughout, in all varieties of scorn known to a clever man. The effect is funny, cruel, devastating, indignant and dismissive. And the fact that the talker himself, who knows all the beauties and delinquencies of talk, is the prisoner of an old housekeeper who comes in and out contemptuously, without saying a word, adds the final macabre commentary. I have mentioned this Jamesian masterpiece also because it is an example of a story which could hardly now be written. The subject is good enough; the financial chimpanzee who at fifty falls in love with a pious baby-bitch who calls him Nunky and is herself called Fairy by him—that is irresistible. By embedding this in a lot of clever theorising, by working in the usual art notes on St. Catherine of Siena, Carlo Dolci, Rowlandson, Podsnap, Othello and Jesus, the characters are properly snubbed and we are skilfully given an intellectual comedy—but not the comédie humaine. This is the kind of tale which is now dealt with directly. We write the dialogue, describe the moves; and being up against the characters themselves and not a sexual theory, we find the situation richer and more alarming. We would see Chawdron corrupting the educated writer. We would see Fairy hating him. We would laugh more or be more terrified. We would have lost educated explanation and its clever footpaths along the precipices of life; we would have lost talk and gained the explicit. But there it is: for better or worse, Mr. Huxley has always been the artist-educator, the preaching connoisseur who finds his stern text in our spiritual bric à brac, the illusions and novelties of belief.

Arthur F. Beringause (essay date 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 as a means for spiritual revelation, Huxley in “The Gioconda Smile” strategically blends wit, irony and pathos to achieve a deep intensity. Eager like every serious writer to chart his world for the reader, Huxley exercises cunning control of word and allusion until the pattern of life and death he weaves furnishes a revealing counterpoint of insight and knowledge, belief and feeling. Modern man, the reader learns from “The Gioconda Smile,” will endure and prevail only if he sets up religious standards of behavior in the never-ending war between body and soul.

Despite his ultra-modernity (“The Gioconda Smile,” appearing in the volume Mortal Coils in 1922, utilizes devices also being exploited by James Joyce and T. S. Eliot), Huxley is old-fashioned enough to express the meaning of life in religious terms.1 He has continued, as “The Gioconda Smile” demonstrates, notwithstanding the twentieth-century tendency toward defaming literary figures renowned in England's past, to admire Milton, Wordsworth, Arnold. Moreover, he manipulates their work so as to integrate their perceptions with his own belief that absorption in self bars man from redemption and salvation.

“The Gioconda Smile” opens innocently enough with the polite announcement of a maid to a visitor that her mistress will be down in a moment. The mood soon changes. Mr. Hutton, the visitor, cannot bear to look at the homely face of the maid. He wanders around the house and inspects the bric-a-brac, deducing that the mistress is a prig and a snob. His annoyance gives way when, passing a mirror, he observes with admiration his own Shakespearean brow. This observation he associates with a line recalled from Matthew Arnold's sonnet on Shakespeare. “Others abide our question,” Hutton recites. “Thou art free.”

The line reminds Hutton of another part of the poem, “Footsteps in the sea …” Striving to go on with the quotation, Hutton can produce only “Majesty” and “Shakespeare, thou shouldst be living at this hour.” Hutton suddenly recognizes that the line refers to Milton, not to Shakespeare, and he moves on to a new train of associations. Not so the reader, who perceives that Hutton has unconsciously become aware of something beyond the mere surface meaning of the words quoted.

The line from Arnold begins a sonnet:

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foiled searchings of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and
                    sunbeams know,
Self-schooled, self-scanned, self-honored,
Didst tread on earth unguessed at.—
                    Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs
                    which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious

Even though Hutton cannot consciously recall the entire poem, Arnold's sonnet on Shakespeare, with its association of majesty and soul and sea, triggers another memory in Hutton's unconscious. To the surface pops the reference to Wordsworth's sonnet on Milton. In Hutton's unconscious, however, lies all of Wordsworth's sonnet:

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men:
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom,
Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like
                    the sea,
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free;
So didst thou travel on life's common way
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

But Hutton—self-absorbed, callous, conceited—cannot at this point consciously perceive the import of the poems. Shakespeare, Arnold maintains, sympathized with mankind's grief, pain, weakness. England, asserts Wordsworth, is a morass of evil in which church, army, family, tradition are rotten and men unhappy because they have forgotten how to “travel on life's common way / In cheerful godliness.” Both poems apply to Hutton's story. Behind their associations is the theme that Huxley now proceeds to unravel.

Still strutting before the mirror, Hutton remembers that Milton was called the Lady of Christ's College. He, himself, Hutton preens, ought to be called the Christ of Ladies. Suddenly Hutton becomes aware that Janet Spence is in the room and smiling her “Gioconda Smile,” as he playfully terms her quizzical expression. He is unaware of what the reader finds out: true to the legend of La Gioconda, Janet Spence conceals behind her smile the torment of unrequited love.

Hutton, leaving Janet, shows off his physical prowess by running down a driveway as if he were still young. Once hidden from Janet's view, he meets Doris, his youthful mistress, in an automobile parked not far away. They spend the evening together. In a moment of remorse Doris thinks that perhaps Hell does exist, and she asks Hutton if they should give up their illicit love. Hutton attempts to reassure her by asserting that she should have sexual relations with him because according to Freud “repressions are the devil.” Having calmed Doris, Hutton returns home, where—alone again—he suffers from “appalling boredom.”

Seeking out his invalid wife, Hutton finds his irritation exacerbated by her weakness. He remembers that as a young man “he had discovered that not only did he not feel sympathy for the poor, the weak, the diseased, and deformed; he actually hated them.” That is the case now. He loathes his wife. And yet he is willing to spend some time reading to her in French because, proud of his accent, he enjoys showing off.

The following day Janet Spence visits the Huttons, who in the warmth of the noonday sun assure her that despite their troubles “It's good to be alive.” Watching the two women, one an invalid and the other an old maid, Hutton is again annoyed. He sneaks off to visit Doris, but he finds her company unsatisfying. Despite the physical titillation Doris provides, she herself is vapid. Hutton can find no meaning in life, no lasting joy. He peers out the window of his speeding automobile as if the road ahead were a narrow alley of form and color scooped out of an infinite and indifferent universe. Gratification of physical desire has brought him neither Shakespeare's freedom nor Milton's happiness.

Morose, Hutton returns home and learns from the doctor, who “spoke of death as he would speak of a local cricket match,” that Mrs. Hutton had expired. The doctor's attitude is typical of the other members of the subsequent funeral party, particularly of General Grego, who complains that Mrs. Hutton's death has prevented his attending the Harrow-Eton cricket match.

The reader thinks of Wordsworth's sonnet. Hutton, too. That night, without quite knowing why, Hutton sits up late and reads a biography of Milton that impels him to ponder long and seriously whether or not there is a quarrel between body and soul. He vows to lead an upright life. This vow, characteristically, he soon breaks by running off with Doris. Later, again characteristically, he casually marries her as if the relationship were of the slightest importance. Hutton feels gloriously irresponsible, happy and free. Even if life has no meaning, he can be as joyful as Milton, as unconfined as Shakespeare.

The newlyweds return home. Hutton visits Janet Spence, who—ignorant of his marriage—confesses her love for him. Vastly annoyed, Hutton disengages himself and humiliates Janet. He persuades his bride to leave with him at once for Italy. But his equilibrium has been disturbed. Once more the dreadful need to show off is upon him. Despite his recent marriage, he callously seduces the Italian maid-servant.

Janet Spence, angered by Hutton's mistreatment, and driven to fury by news of his marriage, tells everyone that he had murdered his first wife. All believe her—even Doris, whom the rumor soon reaches. Recalled to England, Hutton is placed on trial. Learning of Doris' lack of faith in him, Hutton quarrels with her, screaming that he does not love her. Then he runs away.

Deep-rooted feelings take hold of Hutton, and he consciously recalls his religious upbringing. He finds that he can think of his plight only in spiritual terms. He is overwhelmed by the idea that divine justice is being done him for his cruelty and wantonness. Events, as Milton put it, have justified the ways of God to men. “God exists after all,” thinks Hutton. He prays. “His mind seemed to soften and dissolve; a great calm descended upon his spirit.” This time Shakespeare's freedom and Milton's cheerfulness stay with him. He is drained of emotion.

Returning to ask forgiveness of Doris, Hutton learns that she has attempted suicide. Able at last because of his spiritual regeneration to help a weaker person, he comforts her. Ironically, however, he is a new man too late: the jury brings in a verdict of wilful murder. After the execution, Janet Spence confesses to the doctor that she had poisoned the first Mrs. Hutton. The doctor gives her a sleeping draught, and the story ends.

But the end is not here for the reader, who now understands the full significance of the title of the volume in which “The Gioconda Smile” appears: Mortal Coils. With this phrase from Hamlet Huxley warns that fear of punishment in an after-life ought to make man behave properly on earth: “what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” Huxley would have the reader turn to religion so that, in Wordsworth's words, we “travel on life's common way / In cheerful godliness.” Then, and only then, will England and the modern world no longer be a fen of stagnant waters wherein church, army, family, and tradition have been perverted.

Analysis of “The Gioconda Smile”does more than merely present one reading of a skillfully written but misunderstood story. Explication of this part of Aldous Huxley's work indicates that he is more than what he has so often been taken for, a negative propagandist who satirizes nugatory nostrums. He, too, as Joyce would have it, is a “priest of the eternal imagination.” Huxley knows how to weave a pattern of word and allusion that, making use of the techniques of poetry, permits him to penetrate the unconscious mind. He, too, labors in the workshop of the human heart. Aldous Huxley is a craftsman worthy of his craft.


  1. Reworked into a play, “The Gioconda Smile” uses the same devices as the short story from which it is drawn—only not so subtly, because Huxley must spell out for an audience what he can assume the reader of a short story will have time to figure out for himself. See The Gioconda Smile (New York, 1948), previously published as Mortal Coils—A Play (New York, 1948).

Charles M. Holmes (essay date 1970)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 splendid canvases on numbers. One pictured a three-eyed, three-armed, three-naveled human being accompanied by thirty-three thousand “distinctly limned” black swans; others grouped people so as to imitate exactly the various constellations. Eupompus' final painting was designed to symbolize Pure Number, in the form of a “design of planes radiating out from a single point of light.” Emberlin's interest in these works, however, has passed well beyond mere curiosity. He himself now counts whenever he has the chance—steps, stairs, and the number of tiles in a Holborn public lavatory. Eupompus killed himself before he finished his final masterpiece; Emberlin, we are told triumphantly, will also soon be mad.

There is no better introduction to the work of Aldous Huxley than “Eupompus,” first published in an undergraduate review. It has the bizarre appeal of so much of the early work, the esoteric fecundity whereby Huxley could expand an obscure fragment of knowledge into a distinctive, sophisticated tragi-comedy of the mind. Its medium is the lucid urbanity of the early novels, which in a decade were to bring Huxley international fame. But most important and most surprising, like nearly everything he wrote, this weird tale is autobiographical. Under the zany surface of the story of Eupompus and Emberlin we can discern a portrait—or rather two portraits—of Aldous Huxley.

Huxley himself had the qualities his story attributes to Emberlin. He was “immensely erudite”; Arnold Bennett called his knowledge “inconceivable, incredible, and fantastic.”2 His books and essays were always strikingly, sometimes showily allusive, initially to figures (well known or unknown) in French literature, painting and Western philosophy, and ultimately to mysticism, ecology, and the Buddhist Tantra. Like Emberlin he was often “a mine of irrelevant information.” Osbsert Sitwell, speaking of Huxley's hospital visits, recalls the strange comments on Octopoi reading Ovid and making love,3 doubtless gleaned from the Britannica Huxley rummaged in on his travels. For years, the record shows, Huxley also followed “Emberlin's way” of putting into practice “the ideas that he finds in books.” He was (by his own admission) the Philip Quarles of Point Counter Point, whose “choice of moulds” depended largely on the author he happened to be reading: the “mould” for several years was D. H. Lawrence, later replaced by Meister Eckhart and Gerald Heard, before Huxley developed his own remarkable final synthesis. Finally, Huxley regularly succumbed to what he later called the “Higher Life,” in “Eupompus” the “glassily perfect universe of ideas.” The texture of the novels themselves suggests the degree of this surrender—the shimmering intellectual surface of Crome Yellow along with the tedious discourse in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Though Huxley worried publicly about this leaning in Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza, he half consciously defended it in The Perennial Philosophy and illustrated it in composing his final statement, Island. Even Emberlin's love of Pure Number reappears, or at least Eupompus' attempt to capture it in paint. The radiating planes of Eupompus' final painting prefigure some of Huxley's later symbols: the twin cones that triumphantly end the novel Eyeless in Gaza, the pattern of telegraph poles and wheel tracks Sebastian sees in Time Must Have a Stop.

But Huxley also appears in Emberlin's friend, the narrator of the tale, who is not a caricature of the reality to be, but a kind of idealized, wished-for-self. He is a self-critical opposite, not odd like Emberlin but more conventional. He can recognize the danger of Emberlin's mental gyrations, see things in proportion, live in closer relationship to other human beings. He stands at the end of the tale as a champion of a sane humanity. He is the more spontaneous and balanced intellectual Huxley apparently often wished to be, perhaps the man his brother Julian had in mind as “the greatest humanist of our perplexed era.”4 His analog appears only rarely in Huxley's fiction, where shades of Emberlin are the ones we most frequently see; he sounds more like Huxley's hostile critics than like Huxley himself. Yet he too is both a Huxley creation and a Huxley self-projection. “Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers” is not merely an amusing, exaggerated, and critical self-portrait, but one self-portrait observing and triumphing over another.

Such autobiographical dialectic is the most persistent pattern in Huxley's work, from the poetry of the Oxford youth to the Island of the courageous, distinguished, dying man. His large public, his friends and his opponents, usually envisioned a writer addressing the world in a changing series of tones and modes—in satirical fiction or conventional argument, in bitterness or exhortation, in the frustration or excitement of the quest which completed his life. But simultaneously, more than anyone seems to have suspected, Huxley projected, addressed, and debated with himself. The least public of men, until the last years of his career, he was in a curious but intriguing way among the most public of modern writers. He left no journals so frank as Gide's, few poems so obviously personal as those of Yeats. Instead Huxley's books are a kind of Rosetta stone, a complex but decipherable index to a lonely, anguished, but successful mental journey. Much of his work shows him plagued by inner conflict, struggling to explore his identity. In all the genres at which he tried his hand, a divided Huxley is likely to be present, by implication if not as a kind of Emberlin. In the early years the conflict is internal, and the dialectic involves attitudes and values Huxley seems to be testing for himself.5 But eventually Huxley's dilemma reverberates with meanings and parallels of significance for other men. For a while his conflict provided material for a particular kind of brilliant art, for the fiction which made him the leading ironist of his age. As his struggle became a search for the answer to ultimate questions, he scorned brilliance, ignored the “rules” of form, irritated the critics and lost his popular appeal. But he left behind the record of a spiritual and intellectual odyssey which ended with a total view, a vision of reality both transcendental and pragmatic.

The conflict Huxley, at twenty-two, projected in “Eupompus” was doubtless intensified by certain events of adolescence. …

“Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers,” an exhibit of two contrasting Huxley selves, is also almost a diagram of the first years of Huxley's career: Emberlin is a poet; so, at first, was Huxley—to one critic “among the most promising” of the younger poets of the time.6 Emberlin has composed in various poetic styles; shifts in style are the distinguishing attribute of Huxley's verse. When the narrator prefers Emberlin's earlier “young ecstatic fashion” he has defined a style of Huxley's first collection, The Burning Wheel; when Emberlin wants to destroy the volume he has produced, he suggests the Huxley who rejected (temporarily) his own romantic manner. The narrator regrets forgetting the poems of Emberlin in French, so well suited is the language to Emberlin's “peculiar” muse; four of Huxley's poems appear in French in Jonah. And Emberlin's “curious” sonnet to the figure of a princess is, verbatim, the Jonah “Minoan Porcelain,” by Huxley. …

During these early years the subjective, self-examining force was too strong for Huxley to find a proper outlet in drama. Fiction, he soon learned, was clearly the ideal mode. He could separate and embody a number of “selves” in fiction, combine and distribute them in any number of ways. But he could also, to a degree impossible in a play, invent a narrator to project himself, to shape his reader's attitude, to give himself the freedom to say what he wished to say. Having already explored these advantages in “Eupompus,” he rapidly produced several collections of stories and tested the even more flexible form of the novel.

Of the five new stories in the first collection, Limbo, the most revealing is probably “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow.” Whereas in “Happy Families” Aston J. Tyrrell is quartered, Richard Greenow is severed only in two. In the daytime Greenow attends first Aesop (probably Eton) College, then eventually Oxford; dislikes the masses but thinks highly of Fulke-Greville; and behaves as a serious, rational person of taste, intellect, and “powers of malicious irony.” But when he has gone to bed and thinks he is asleep, he becomes his other personality, “Pearl Bellairs”—an ultra-romantic sentimentalist who spends the night writing highly marketable trash. The split is often amusing, yet also meaningful, since the activities of both can be traced to those of Huxley himself. But Huxley by the way he narrates the tale obscures the split: sometimes he seems to sympathize with Greenow, sometimes he treats Greenow as a convenient critical device. He uses Greenow's experience to take a crack at public schools; he shows Greenow personifying the “Life Theoretic” clash of thought and action; and in a scene where Greenow is “analyzed by a psychotherapist friend,” he communicates his lifelong dislike of Sigmund Freud—unaware while he vents such fixations that the form of his tale is being destroyed. The “freedom” of fiction, we recall, Huxley found “formidable” as well as “lovely.” He still was faced with the dilemma of the poems—the struggle between sincerity of self-expression on the one hand, and aesthetic control, or “style” on the other. His handling of point of view determined the result. In defining the narrator and the narrator's attitude toward others, Huxley could produce (as in “Richard Greenow”) expressive, loosely structured failures or disciplined, less-than-sincere works of art.

The best stories in Limbo employ as narrators learned, urbane observers of life, much like the narrator-friend of Emberlin—idealized men rather than omniscient, mildly ironical projections. In “Cynthia,” for example, one of the most intriguing stories, the narrator tells us a tale of his friend Lykeham. He captures the setting, this time at Oxford's “Swellfoot” College, by noting contrasting sounds, casually describing them with the technical jargon of music. The college bell was “shouting a deep E flat, with a spread of under-and-over-tones,” while Lykeham's guitar “gibbered shrilly and hysterically in D-natural.” The narrator learns that Lykeham has just held hands with a “frozenly virginal” goddess, a huntress Cynthia or Diana who has convinced him that he too is divine. Learnedly but unsuccessfully, the two men puzzle over the Olympian meaning of Lykeham's name. Two weeks later, appropriately during a moonlit walk, Lykeham spots his goddess on a distant hill. The narrator joins in the wild race to arrest her, turns away from the couple's “unequivocal” embraces, and checks his mythology again in Lemprière. By Lykeham's return he has the puzzle solved, and laughingly whispers “Goatfoot” (or satyr) in his ear.

Huxley projects himself in “Cynthia” as interested but uninvolved, as a narrator who shows no sign of inner conflict or discontent. But though he is therefore an abstracted, false version of Huxley the man, he is nevertheless an appealing person, a man of both morality and taste. He is faced, of course, with a version of the problem of sex and lust: Lykeham is a lecher, Cynthia a pick-up. But he does not treat Lykeham as Huxley later treated Gerry Watchett, the vicious, heartless womanhunter of Eyeless in Gaza. Sparing us the details of Lykeham's fornication, he regards the act instead with comic irony: “it is not for a mere mortal,” he tells us, “to look on at the embracements of the gods,” And though he borrows here Lykeham's mythological disguise, he will not allow Lykeham's trite lyricism to stand. He interrupts Lykeham's talk of “swooning away” and the meeting of eyes, of “rapturous” happiness while holding hands in the dark, with a comment on the “awful novelist's expression,” and the image from the ironic poem “Frascati's” of the lovers sweating “quietly … palm to palm.” From the beginning he wins our sympathy by some disarming remarks on himself, and a knowing reference to “our monstrous century.” His early comments on music and, later, on letters, mark him as acute, sensitive, and civilized. The problem of sex and the love of erudition are brilliantly modulated through his sensibility into fully successful comic art. …

The vacillations, the struggles with point of view in Antic Hay are a clear, though tacit sign of the sincerity-talent dilemma. Huxley's concern for sincerity is put somewhat more directly by Lypiatt, the spokesman-theorist of tragedy and farce. The raving painter, so frequently given to ridiculous dramatic posing, has one important moment of apparently complete candidness. He admits that he may have lied to himself, that he may be a charlatan, merely playing a role, insincere in boasting to others and deceiving himself. Though Lypiatt's life, his verses, his paintings are not Huxley's, his concern for the honesty of his attitude is. Lypiatt can accurately and sincerely understand Myra, though his painting of her is simply bluster and not art. Huxley, on the other hand, has the talent for what is called art, but may feel insincere or fraudulent in producing it. The short stories of Mortal Coils (1922), a year earlier than Antic Hay, highlight the dilemma in another way already familiar from the early poems. The more ironic (and self-suppressive) the story, the more brilliant; the more effectively Huxley wrote, the more popular he became—and the more his concern for sincerity appears to have increased.

Huxley's best-known story, “The Gioconda Smile,” depends upon clever, sometimes dazzling ironies. The idea for the story, Huxley tells us, came from a poisoning case of the early 1920's, when a solicitor's wife was “carried off, very suddenly, after eating stewed gooseberries and drinking a glass of wine.” The neighbors gossiped, an autopsy revealed the presence of arsenic, but the suspected husband was finally acquitted. Besides inventing new circumstances so that the mystery could be solved, Huxley has transformed the ironic style of the most polished early poems into a fully disciplined, total ironic view. Janet Spence, the murderess, as ironically grotesque as the elephants and amphisbaenae, has a snoutish mouth like a penholder through which she talks like a cannon: “Bang! the charge in her soul was ignited, the words whizzed forth at the narrow barrel of her mouth.” Mrs. Hutton thinks of herself as really “fond of French,” yet she speaks “of the language of Racine as though it were a dish of green peas.” Mr. Hutton, the major character, is sometimes another target, sometimes an ironist himself. He strokes his moustache in frank self-admiration but an instant later sees himself as a fool; he resolves one evening to work harder on his book, then succumbs in the morning to his recurrent sensual itch; he makes a graceful “Cinquecento” gesture to Janet, later runs with the “magnificent canter” of a horse. Hutton is almost as much of an enigma as Gumbril, but contributes to the irony by recognizing this fact himself. Almost all the characters have one justifiable identity to themselves, another ironically ridiculous one to us. Dr. Libbard, the only exception, understands the ironic way things work out. Though he knows of Janet's guilt, he is too fatigued by life's ironies to care. In the poems Huxley had shown a romantic tendency, mocked mildly in Crome Yellow, grown more complex in Antic Hay. In “The Gioconda Smile” the romantic is parodied, through Janet and through the cuddly, imperceptive Doris—whose name, Hutton recalls while kissing her, is “the scientific appellation of the sea-mouse.” With the help of this protagonist so unlike yet like himself, Huxley maintained a focus, as he could not in Antic Hay, and established an unwaveringly consistent ironic view.

It is in “Nuns at Luncheon” that the struggle with irony, the cost of it, begin to be evident. The narrative line of this story is painful as well as bizarre: a young, virginal, recently converted nun, who has proved a wonder at converting others, is put in charge of a convalescent criminal. Unaware that he is an expert seducer and convinced she is acting on behalf of his salvation, she is led to steal clothes from her superior's wardrobe, is whisked by him away from the hospital, crudely seduced in a farmer's hut, then abandoned to return to a living death among the sisters—but not before he has robbed her of all of her teeth! So cruel are these ironies that Huxley, instead of narrating the story himself, turns it over to another writer, the less sensitive Miss Penny, an example of grotesque irony herself. Always wearing “massive and improbable jewellery,” she has a pair of lengthy earrings which swing and rattle like “corpses hanging in chains,” and she has the habit of laughing like a horse. Too obtuse to see her masculinity and too coarse to see any pathos in her tale, she provides an ironic framework for the irony of the virgin's life—the irony of an insensitive person describing pain.

The inhumanity of the story apparently left Huxley with misgivings. In “The Tillotson Banquet” he exposes the dangers of esoteric learning, one of the main supports for his ironic art. In “Green Tunnels” irony and its esoteric source are challenged again by the sentiments and fancies of a young, romantic girl sympathetically contrasted with her lifeless elders. Nevertheless, the greatest challenge to the irony of “Nuns at Luncheon” is, ironically, in “Nuns at Luncheon” itself. As Miss Penny gleefully reports the shocking facts, she raises questions about the very story in which she appears—and thereby very briefly exposes Aldous Huxley. She approves his vision of the nun before her conversion, “apocalyptically” perceiving that everything is “sex, sex, sex” and thus “disgusting.” When she suggests that he “write pages about Destiny and its ironic quacking” because it is “impressive” and “there's money in every line,” his reply is a terse “You may be sure I shall.” And when she finally asks him if he seriously believes in literature, he finds the question “luckily … quite meaningless.” When she reaches the point of the nun's actual seduction, with “the strangled crying, the movements … the emotions pulsing about,” she sees it as “ready-made literature,” good for many pages. With the absence of comment, the question of sincerity is closed, hidden under the mask almost as soon as it is posed. Nevertheless, while displaying his most sophisticated technique, Huxley has questioned the very value of literary art. Such misgivings, displayed while he plays the role of artist, help determine the very quality of most of his later novels and largely account for his fallen stature in the world of letters today.7

After the brutal irony of “Nuns at Luncheon,” it is a startling experience to read “Young Archimedes.” Unlike the other stories in Little Mexican (London: Chatto & Windus, 1924), all of which are detached if not downright inhumane, this narrative of a peasant boy of potential genius is written with a deep, frank sensitivity. Not only are ironies less piercing, less rigorously imposed—again and again potential ironies are ignored. Instead, the occasional moments of genuine feeling shown by Gumbril have become the vital, integrating force. When Huxley dwells lovingly on the black cypresses and darkly rising Apennines, on the Italian landscape with its “humanness and domestication,” he sets the tone for his attitude toward Guido. The obvious, spontaneous sincerity turns the story into the most moving piece that Huxley ever wrote.

The young Guido delights the narrator by sharing his—and Huxley's—musical taste. He is enraptured by the slow movement of Bach's D-Minor Concerto and soon prefers Mozart to Wagner, Debussy and Strauss; he likes “music,” as he puts it, better than the human voice. But he shows where his prodigious talent really lies by suddenly proving the Pythagorean theorem, in an impromptu sketch drawn with the burnt end of a stick. By helping the boy to devour mathematics the narrator can watch Guido becoming an ideal human being. The watcher's emotions are stirred as the wonder of genius is revealed, his imagination filled with humility. The run of us, he realizes, could never have developed even our most familiar ideas alone, yet Archimedes had no successor for a thousand years or more, and there has been but one Michelangelo, one Buddha, one Jesus, and one Bach. Moved by the notion that men of genius are perhaps “the only true men,” the narrator at one point sees himself as a teachable dog, a metaphor applied scornfully only to others in Antic Hay. As Guido shows him his crude but homemade dodecahedron, he feels he should have “gone down on all fours, wagged the spiritual outgrowth of his os coccyx, and barked his astonished admiration.”

This appealing combination of the urbane and learned with the humble, absent in all the other early Huxley fiction, is developed effectively as the story moves to its close. When he walks to the grave of the young genius with the father, the narrator is wrapt in learned but irrelevant speculations; poised and impressive in his knowledge of art, he barely hints at his interest in “recognizably human things.” When they reach the grave, after the explanation of Guido's suicidal fall, feeling colors the narrator's deep reflective mood. Tears come to his eyes as he thinks of the delighted expression which “illumined … [Guido's] face when he learned of some new idea that pleased him.” His poise, though he retains it, does not serve to check his emotion; unlike the onlooker who narrates “Nuns at Luncheon,” this Huxley projection clearly has a heart that can be moved. Though the father is furious at the Signora responsible for Guido's death, the narrator persuades him to “the harder path of grief.” The final catharsis, however, is in his own humble mind and heart. The tragic beauty of Guido's life recalls the lyric beginning of the story, and it merges for the narrator into the wonders of Florence itself. In him we still find the sophisticated, cultured Huxley, but the split seems healed, the mask removed, and we seem to have another brief glimpse of Huxley's soul.

During an interview conducted later in the actual villa of the story, Huxley impressed his interrogator with his “great humanity.” Told that his books did not really seem to express this quality, Huxley replied that they “express that part of my mind which is the product of a, perhaps, excessively intellectual upbringing. One generally finds that people who have tried to analyze the world in exclusively intellectual terms, end by discovering what everybody knows, almost by instinct, from the beginning.”8 Feeling, in other words, is inhibited by intellect; the active mind can very easily stifle the heart. In “Young Archimedes” the two are harmonized only because Guido is unique in his appeal. As a mathematical genius, Guido's potential is in the purest, least personal human endeavor. As a child he has had no chance to disillusion others—to become, for example, a brilliant but infantile adult like Maartens, the physicist, of The Genius and the Goddess. Guido is spared Huxley's irony, his satirizing intellect, his theory of tragedy and farce, not because he is a genius but because he has not lived to show his genius fulfilled He evokes feeling as no other Huxley character can because he personifies an uncontaminated vision, a worthy, unsullied cultural ideal. He is thus in a sense another—flawless—self-projection. We never look upon his like again.


  1. The Palatine Review, IV (October, 1916), 5-13. Reprinted in Limbo (London: Chatto & Windus, 1920) and Collected Short Stories (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957).

  2. The Journal of Arnold Bennett (New York: The Viking Press, 1933), p. 932. The three adjectives were Huxley's own favorites, Bennett writes on February 14, 1927, in one of several entries referring to Huxley and his wife.

  3. Laughter in the Next Room (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), p. 45. Sir Osbert sketches a similar portrait in the Memorial Volume, p. 33.

  4. Memorial Volume, p. 25.

  5. Some years later Huxley said to an interviewer: “My chief motive in writing has been the desire to express a point of view. Or, rather, the desire to clarify a point of view to myself. I do not write for my readers; in fact I don't like thinking about my readers. … I am chiefly interested in making clear a certain outlook on life.” Quoted in The Huxleys, pp. 215-216.

  6. Harold Monro, Some Contemporary Poets (London: Leonard Parsons, 1920), p. 124.

  7. See Charles M. Holmes, “Aldous Huxley's Struggle with Art,” Western Humanities Review, XV (Spring, 1961), 149-156.

  8. Y. Maraini, “A Talk with Aldous Huxley,” The Bermondsey Book, III (June, 1926), 76-77.

Donald J. Watt (essay date 1970)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 essential absurdity of a life without genuine purpose. Henry Hutton's inner conflict in the story reflects the need of the Huxley hero somehow to temper his irresponsible frivolity and to acquire some substantive emotional, moral, or religious values. Like so many of Huxley's vitiated hedonists-in-spite-of-themselves—Gumbril Jr. in Antic Hay, Cardan in Those Barren Leaves, Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza, Farnaby in Island—Hutton refuses to take “yes” for an answer, refuses to discover some antidote for his teleological malaise. Hutton is aware of the fundamental preposterousness of his mode of existence, struggles unsuccessfully to adopt a more responsible way of living, and becomes, in the end, a victim of his own commitment to absurdity.

Hutton is, from the outset, vain, priggish, slightly effete. He fondly imagines himself as “the Christ of Ladies,” a gift to the other sex and yet supremely superior to it. He invites Janet Spence to lunch with him and his wife, Emily, quipping cynically: “‘You'll do us both good. In married life three is often better company than two.’”2 On another occasion, as he is chauffeured home, he enjoys the youthful unsophistication of his mistress, Doris, in the back seat of his car. But while he is kissing her he allows his mind to wander to sea-cucumbers and aquariums. A typically jaded Huxley male, he responds to an emotional situation with irrelevance and aloofness, calculatedly shunning real passion. For Hutton recognizes clearly the ingrained imbecility of his frolicking hedonism. He reviews the history of his stale love affairs prior to Doris and concludes that it is all “imbecile wantonness” (p. 33). He wonders if he can even consider himself properly a hedonist because there is no reasoned choice in his pursuit of pleasure. In fact, the irrationality of his capitulation to eroticism, its frustrating nullity, is what bothers him most. His life, he sees, is void of any fruitful, sustaining values. And yet he persists in his folly, perhaps illustrating in action Huxley's favorite passage in Ovid: video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor—“I see the better and I approve; but I pursue the worse.” (Metamorphoses, VII, 19.)

The death of his wife arrests Hutton momentarily and prompts him to reconsider his situation. For a short time he actually succeeds in living more reasonably, more industriously. He spends his mornings supervising agricultural concerns on his land, while he devotes his afternoons and evenings to serious study for a book, The Effect of Diseases on Civilization. But, however laudable his intentions, he returns to Doris within a fortnight: “Unreason had triumphed; at the first itch of desire he had given way.” (p. 35)

Hutton senses that life is nothing more than a vast joke. Unable to check his irrational behavior, he commits himself entirely to an absurd existence. He decides to marry Doris, convinced that the match would be “the best joke he had ever made in his life” (p. 37). But the joke backfires when Hutton visits Janet Spence. He is confident and gallant with her, jovially excited at the prospect of playing with her emotions: “He had discovered in irresponsibility the secret of gaiety” (p. 40). His bubbling humor, however, dissipates rapidly when Janet makes an ardent confession of her love for him. Thoroughly discomfited, Hutton slips from her worshipful embrace and retreats from the house. He is dismayed to learn that his frivolity has evaporated in a crisis. Rather than respond in dupery to Janet's passion and take advantage of her, Hutton is immobilized by her gravity. He now discovers that the role of the irresponsible hedonist is not simply dissatisfactory; it is embarrassingly unreliable. Yet his only recourse at this point is to continue to indulge, if half-heartedly, in his hedonistic pursuits.

Absurdity, nonetheless, has a final, more devastating joke to play on Hutton. While he and Doris lounge at a villa in Florence, word arrives that Janet has charged Hutton with murdering Emily in order to marry Doris. At first Hutton is merely amused, knowing that he has married Doris on a whim, as a jest. But damning evidence accumulates until he begins to suspect that he is himself the victim of some indefinable, irresponsible joke. He sees, dimly, that absurdity is exacting its only logical retribution on him: “Confusedly he felt that some extraordinary kind of justice was being done. In the past he had been wanton and imbecile and irresponsible. Now Fate was playing as wantonly, as irresponsibly, with him” (p. 58). Shaken and bewildered, Hutton tries to pray as he used to forty years ago. As he recalls from childhood the nightly prayer blessing his parents and relatives, he is struck by the knowledge that all but one are now dead. The recollection seems to have a grim effect on Hutton, for death, he perceives, is his unalterable destiny. That afternoon the coroner's jury indicts him and, some time after his execution, we discover that it was Janet who poisoned Emily.

Hutton appears, at the last, to be only apparently a man. As death approaches, he grows aware of the total emptiness of his life. Like Edward Darley in Huxley's first chapter of a new, unfinished novel, Hutton comprehends that he is “someone who was going to die.”3 Exposed to the uncompromising truth, with all pretence removed, he sees the inevitable fact of death as the purest form of absurdity. He has toyed with other people's lives for his own amusement. He has driven Janet to murder and Doris to attempted suicide by his thoughtlessness. Now he is caught up by his own folly. Evading responsibility and self-control through a lifetime, Hutton has no viable rationale with which he can counter irresponsibility. Shunning emotional, moral, and religious values habitually, he has nothing with which to fill in the void created by the sudden disappearance of his pursuit of sensuous pleasures. That gay absurdity that in its license had seemed so attractive to him now turns inscrutably upon him. At the end, his diminution is complete; he dies a victim of his own abandonment of responsibility.

Huxley was from the start convinced that existence is strange, multifarious, paradoxical. He admired William Blake's lines, “Do what you will, this world's a fiction / And is made up of contradiction.” The force of his writing, though, is emphatically toward some definition of meaning in the context of modernity. As C. J. Rolo proposes, “All his work is a quest for values in the face of scepticism battening at the vitals of belief. …”4 Novels such as Crome Yellow,Antic Hayand Point Counter Point depict at length the unavoidable failure of hedonism as a way of life, and the man who subscribes to it as his way of life is doomed to a teleological limbo. In this sense, then, in “The Gioconda Smile” Huxley crystallizes a significant theme in his work—the absurdity of the hedonist.


  1. The story first appeared in the English Review, XXXIII (August, 1921), and was the lead item in Mortal Coils (1922), Huxley's second volume of short stories. It is reprinted in several collections, e.g., R. B. Heilman's Modern Short Stories and the Cerf-Moriarty Anthology of Famous British Stories. Huxley created a much enlarged stage version of the story in 1948, and in the same year he collaborated with Universal-International's Zoltan Korda for a motion picture version called A Woman's Vengeance, with Charles Boyer in the leading role.

  2. Mortal Coils, Collected Works (London, 1958), p. 6. Subsequent references in text to “The Gioconda Smile” are from this edition.

  3. See Laura Huxley, This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley (New York, 1968), p. 238.

  4. The World of Aldous Huxley (New York, 1947), p. xii.

Maria Schubert (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 genres: he wrote poems, short stories, novels, essays, dramas and travel books. The predominant genre in the 1920s, however, was short fiction, and Limbo was followed by four more volumes of short stories, Mortal Coils (1922), Little Mexican (1924), Two or Three Graces (1926) and Brief Candles (1930). In these stories Huxley is mainly concerned with the ‘human condition’, with fate and predestination which man cannot escape, however hard he tries. Recurrent is also his use of irony, a stylistic device Huxley employs most successfully and most brilliantly in his short stories and early novels.

The single unifying feature in Huxley's work is irony. The moral dilemma is sustained in novel after novel by the irony inherent in the dilemma itself: man as a product of his genes and glands; man as a creature of sensitivity and suffering.1

Whether Huxley exploits the ironical relationship between the artist and his work in “The Tillotson Banquet” (Mortal Coils) or whether he uses lyrical irony as in “Green Tunnels” or grim and cruel irony as in “Nuns at Luncheon” in the same volume, the device may be traced in the five volumes of short stories and all “major novels, with the exception of Island”.2 “Huxley's art depends above all on a dialectic of ideas”, Peter Bowering maintains, “a dialectic engendered by the major ironies inherent in the human condition”.3

The discrepancy between Huxley the human being and Huxley the author of so many satirical pieces seems to be of great interest in this respect. Laura Huxley's book This Timeless Moment and the contributions of Huxley's relatives, friends and acquaintances to the Memorial Volume (Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963. A Memorial Volume) edited by his brother Julian two years after Aldous' death convey a very personal view of Huxley. Their intention is not so much to praise his achievements as a writer, but to praise Huxley the human being, his admirable personality and his noble character. John Atkins writes in his study of Aldous Huxley that nearly all of the 27 contributors “seemed at pains to stress that the popular image of Huxley as an immensely intellectual but essentially cold man was entirely false; that the quality that impressed itself most deeply on his friends was his human warmth, his capacity for pity and his abiding charity”.4

Humphry Osmond was most impressed by the “kindness and tolerance of this man, whose writings led me to suppose that he would be disillusioned, cynical and even savage”.5 This is exactly what is understood by the discrepancy between the attitude of the writer and the character of the person Aldous Huxley.

His cousin Gervas Huxley, who attended the same preparatory school with him for five years cannot remember him ever “losing his self-control or giving way to violent emotion” as most of the other pupils did. “It was impossible to quarrel with him. Any waves of ill-natured spite or temper broke up at once when they met the shore of his integrity and complete unselfishness”.6

Laura Huxley's view of her husband—she was his second wife—is not only characterized by deep love and admiration for the man Aldous Huxley, but also by a certain awe that is only too easily transferred to the reader. The warmth with which she describes her husband's first marriage, which had been a very happy one, renders her account of Huxley's life honest, sincere and objective (as far as she can be objective in her position), without the slightest feeling of jealousy or rivalry. His second marriage to the much younger Laura, who was Italian, proved to be very happy as well and was ended, like the first, by death, by Aldous's death on the 22nd of November 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. And like his first wife Maria he had faced death with “dignity and courage”,7 like her he died of cancer, and just as he had been sitting day and night at Maria's deathbed, Laura had been sitting at his, assuring him of her love till the very last moment.

Here the question arises: how can a man like Aldous Huxley, who has experienced real happiness in life, who was so gentle, tolerant and noble, who faced life and death with the same dignity, be capable of such bitter cynicism? According to George Woodcock the source of Huxley's cynicism is the “realization that suffering and death exist”,8 thus supporting Peter Bowering's idea of the irony inherent in the human condition. Aldous Huxley had to make this bitter experience very early in his life. His mother Julia, to whom he was very devoted, died in 1908, when he was only fourteen, too young to be able to cope with this terrible shock, this most incisive event in his life. Ironically he should lose his first wife Maria through the same fatal disease that killed his mother and that should also kill himself. Whereas he was prepared for Maria's death and also for his own—he had developed a deep interest in the idea of “ars moriendi”9—he was not prepared for his mother's death. This change in his attitude towards death is best revealed in his short novel The Genius and the Goddess, published in 1955, the year of Maria Huxley's death, where the protagonist John Rivers says to his friend, the narrator,

“Dying's an art, and at our age we ought to be learning it. It helps to have seen someone who really knew how. Helen [River's wife] knew how to die because she knew how to live—to live now and here and for the greater glory of God.

In the process of living as one ought to live, Helen had been dying by daily installments. When the final reckoning came, there was practically nothing to pay.”10

But there was much ‘to pay’ at Julia's death, for his mother was too young to die and Huxley was too young to understand fate's ironic ways, so that his reaction was quite naturally a rebellion against the inevitability of death. An interesting parallel to Huxley's attitude may be found in Dylan Thomas's poem about his father's death “Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night”,11 in which the poet “exhorted his dying father ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’”.12 Premature death struck the Huxley family a second time when Aldous's favourite brother Trevenen committed suicide as a result of an extremely sensitive disposition, depression, failures and an unhappy relationship to a girl.

Huxley's youth and years of adolescence were overshadowed by personal bereavement, but Charles Holmes claims that Huxley's “period of blindness, even more than the family deaths, had left deep marks”.13 Huxley suffered from an inflammation of the cornea which afflicted him at the age of sixteen. This disease of the eyes called keratitis punctata not only destroyed all his hopes of a career as a writer in Aldous Huxley, but made him also isolated and vulnerable, more isolated and more vulnerable than he already was at that age as a result of his extremely sensitive disposition and his mother's death. “And of course I am also to a considerable extent a function of defective eyesight. Keratitis punctata shaped and shapes me …”,14 he wrote to his friend Naomi Mitchison. Huxley's eyesight was considerably improved when he practiced seeing according to the method of Bates, who “was never tired of insisting on a fact which is now a commonplace of psychology, namely that vision is at least fifty per cent a mental process”.15

A further source of Huxley's irony may be found in his attitude towards war, which soon changed from patriotism to fierce hatred of the horrors of war. In a letter to his brother Julian he writes on March 31st, 1916:

The longer this war goes on, the more one loathes and detests it. At the beginning I shd. have liked very much to fight: but now, if I could (having seen all the results), I think I'd be a conscientious objector, or nearly so.16

His poor eyesight prevented him, of course, from taking an active part in the war and in “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow” (Limbo) he made the protagonist the conscientious objector he would have preferred to be.

Juliette Huxley, his brother's wife, is also well aware of the obvious discrepancy between the writer and the human being Aldous Huxley when she reflects that “curiously the ferocity which was often manifest in his early work was never apparent in his personal relationships, for he was the gentlest companion”.17 Doubtless she sees the reasons for his ironical tone in his short stories and early novels in these shattering experiences. “One cannot help wondering whether his achievement would have taken a different shape had Aldous not been exposed, in his early formative years, to these traumatic experiences”.18

Huxley's cynicism is directed against society in general and the human condition and its innate contradictions in particular. His eccentric characters, mainly artists and scientists, are the constant targets of his satire. “The great vice of the intellect is its total indifference to everything outside its own area of reference and this has produced the professional one-sidedness which is the prime object of Huxley's satire”.19 Northrop Frye classifies this form as “Menippean satire”:20

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior.21

“The short form of the Menippean satire”, Frye explains, “is usually a dialogue or a colloquy, in which the dramatic interest is in a conflict of ideas rather than of character”,22 of which Huxley's short stories are brilliant examples because the dialogues serve almost exclusively the purpose of dealing with intellectual themes and the different opinions on them.

Huxley's geniuses are all characterized by a professional one-sidedness that makes them rather helpless outside their fields of specialisation. The eminent physician Sir Watney Croker in “The Rest Cure” (Brief Candles) and the famous biologist Lord Tantamount in Point Counter Pointhave remained children at the bottom of their hearts.

In the depths of his unspecialized, unprofessional being Sir Watney was a bit of a baby himself. Too much preoccupation with the duodenum had prevented this neglected instinctive part of him from fully growing up.23

Nevertheless, he seems quite able to organize his life, he has a professional housekeeper, gives dinner parties for a few privileged (specialists and other important people) and spoils his granddaughter Moira, who is living with him as her parents both died young. But through his lack of instinct, of feeling, through his complete ignorance of the most basic principles of educating children, he becomes indirectly also responsible for Moira's tragic death. This discrepancy between the highly developed intellect and the neglected instinctive part becomes even more obvious in Lord Edward Tantamount:

At forty Lord Edward was in all but intellect a kind of child. In the laboratory, at his desk, he was as old as science itself. But his feelings, his intuitions, his instincts were those of a little boy. Unexercised, the greater part of his spiritual being had never developed.24

But like the great physicist Henry Maartens in The Genius and the Goddess, Lord Tantamount has a wife without whom he would be completely helpless, who organizes his life outside his laboratory for him. Although the ambitious physician John Tarwin in “The Rest Cure” (Brief Candles) claims to be a man of universal genius, as proud of his knowledge of cancer tumours as of his knowledge of history and art, his “appreciation of Nature and his poetical love-longings”,25 he also shows the weaknesses of the Huxleyan specialist, lacking intuition in his marriage to Moira to such a degree that he is also to blame, just as her grandfather, for her suicide.

In Stürzl's opinion the reason for Huxley's one-sided portraits of scientists whose intellect is overdeveloped at the expense of the emotional part is to be found in his own family:

Wenn auch ältere Wissenschaftler Huxleys, wie etwa der Krebsforscher Tarwin in der psychologisch fein durchdachten Novelle “The Rest Cure” keineswegs vorbildhaft erscheinen und selbst in der Zeichnung der ehrwürdig ergrauten Gelehrtengestalten eine gewisse Ironie durchschimmert, so mag das daher rühren, daβ Huxley in seiner Familie in so enger Beziehung mit der Wissenschaft stand und daher die Schwächen ihrer Vertreter gründlich kennenlernen konnte.26

Other eccentrics whose egoism contributes considerably to the ironical tone in Huxley's short stories are the writers Kingham in “Two or Three Graces” in the volume of the same name, Tilney in “Chawdron” and Miles Fanning in “After the Fireworks” (Brief Candles). But unsurpassed in their eccentricity and egoism, and thus depicted with greater ironic skill than any other characters of his shorter pieces, are Martha and Herbert Claxton, two hypocritical cranks, in “The Claxtons” (Brief Candles). Huxley's eccentrics suffer not only from one-sidedness as a result of over-specialisation, but also from a split personality. The division of the self, the duality of nature, is the main theme of the opening short story of Limbo because Huxley

doubtless recognized in himself, in the combination of fascination and repulsion with which he regarded his world, in the demands of flesh and spirit that warred within him, the divisions that he portrayed with higher lights in his characters.27

Dick Greenow, the protagonist of “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow” (Limbo) is a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde personality with an alter ego, a woman novelist who writes popular fiction during the night. The male part is an intellectual interested in philosophy and science, who is completely unaware of the female part in him. As long as the woman does not disturb him in his studies, he does not care at all; on the contrary, he lives happily on the profits made by her writing. The title itself is full of bitter irony, as Dick's life ends in a very tragic way. Caused by his split personality his sanity breaks down, “the two personalities have worn out the body, comedy has turned sour”.28 When the woman novelist gradually becomes the dominating part and wants the vote, he is taken to a lunatic asylum, where he dies in delirium after a hunger strike. Not even the very last moments lack the irony of his tragic fate: while shouting and moving wildly with his left hand, his right hand writes, as usual, what the female part dictates him, namely that “World will always be hell”.29

Some of this consciousness of duality as a tragic condition appears even in his earliest work, and in his novelle it exists as evidence of the absurdity of human destiny. In Huxley's shorter stories, there is naturally less development of character than in the novelle, and the structure tends to be episodic rather than narrative. While the stress is less on the duality of personality than on those other dualities between action and intent, between expectation and reality which are the more usual province of the ironist.30

Absurdity of human destiny is the chief target of Huxley's irony in the two longer short stories “Uncle Spencer” (Little Mexican) and “Two or Three Graces” in the volume of the same name. In “Uncle Spencer”, the opening story of Little Mexican, which occupies almost half the volume, the policy of internment at the beginning of the First World War brings people of different nationalities and different social classes together in a temporary internment camp, which the German authorities have established on the top floor of the Ministry of the Interior in Brussels. Among them are Uncle Spencer, a middle-aged Englishman living in Belgium, and Monsieur Alphonse, an Indian and husband of Uncle Spencer's housekeeper's sister. Monsieur Alphonse becomes the victim of a bad joke of a journalist, a fellow-prisoner, who improvised a trial in which Monsieur Alphonse is cross-examined, found innocent and given a sheet of paper with the words ‘laissez passer’ on it, the journalist's signature and a seal. Convinced in his naiveté that the document will release him, Monsieur Alphonse is so deeply disappointed and shattered in his beliefs when it is made clear to him that everything was just a joke, that he finally dies of despair. Ironically, “on the thick red wax [of the seal] appeared the figure of a shorthorn cow with, round it, the words: ‘Pour l'amélioriation de la race bovine’”.31 It used to be an official seal “with which, in happier times, certain agricultural diplomas were stamped”.32 John Atkins's idea of punishment in Huxley's fiction, which “possesses a peculiar irony of its own”,33 proves true in this novella: Monsieur Alphonse must pay with his life for his foolishness to have taken the joke seriously.

The irony of fate does not spare Uncle Spencer either: he falls in love with a fellow-prisoner, the young music-hall star Emmy Wendle. She also likes Uncle Spencer; above all she feels so safe with him “because he was, obviously, such a gentleman, because of the signs of unworldliness and mild idealism stamped all over his face”.34

Before Monsieur Alphonse dies, he prophesies how long the war will last and what will become of the other prisoners and surprisingly, all prophecies are fulfilled with remarkable exactness except one. Monsieur Alphonse has foretold that Uncle Spencer's relationship with Emmy Wendle, “that would probably be impossible in peacetime”,35 will end in marriage. Uncle Spencer desperately clings to this prophecy and after the war he searches for her together with his nephew, the narrator of the story, all over London without finding a trace of her. ‘ “And yet the Indian”, he murmured, “he was always right. …” And perhaps he may still be right in this. Who knows?’36

Irony of fate plays also an important role in “Two or Three Graces” in the volume of the same name. Dick Wilkes, a music critic and narrator of this novella, finds it necessary to state that he “was never Grace's lover. … An ironic fate had reserved me for a less glorious part—the part, not of the lover, but of the introducer of lovers”.37 “Less glorious”, because at some time of his relationship with Grace, mother of three children and wife of a most boring solicitor, he probably wanted to be her lover, and secondly, because the two love affairs which he had unconsciously and unwillingly initiated by introducing her to the painter Rodney Clegg, her first lover, and his friend Kingham, her second lover, left her extremely unhappy when these affairs ended. His own marriage, however, turns out to be extremely happy, the only happy marriage—it bears many autobiographical traits—in all of Huxley's short stories. After Grace's affair with Kingham she is so desperate that Wilkes and his wife are worried about her future.


[Wilkes] was wondering what would become of Grace now. Without Rodney, without Kingham, what would she be? The question propounded itself insistently. And then, all at once, the page of printed music before my eyes gave me the oracular reply. Da capo … After all, it was obvious. Da capo. John Peddley, the children, the house and almost certainly another love affair.38

Everything would start again from the beginning. Grace Peddley, like Henry Hutton in “The Gioconda Smile” (Mortal Coils) belongs to those characters whom experience does not teach, who make the same mistakes again and again without gaining any insight through them. She is bored with her life, bored with her husband and wants to escape from the dullness of her home by having love affairs. But she does not realize that these affairs will end sooner or later and leave her more frustrated than she has ever been before. John Peddley, her husband, whose “genius for dulness caused him unfailingly to take an interest in the things which interested nobody else” and who “had the power of rendering the most intrinsically fascinating of subjects profoundly dull”39 must endure his wife's unfaithfulness, which he does not even realize for a long time, as punishment for his insensitiveness.

Other characters who are punished for being “vicious or foolish”, “imbeciles or bores”,40 are Henry Hutton in “The Gioconda Smile”, the painter Tillotson in “The Tillotson Banquet”, Sister Agatha in “Nuns at Luncheon” (all three in Mortal Coils) and Moira in “The Rest Cure” (Brief Candles). In these shorter pieces the source of irony lies, as already mentioned, in the dualities between action and intent, but the paradox of fate plays again an important role.

According to John Atkins Huxley's best known story “The Gioconda Smile” “depends upon clever, sometimes dazzling ironies … Huxley has transformed the ironic style of the most polished early poems into a fully disciplined, total ironic view”.41 George Woodcock understands “The Gioconda Smile” as “a story of crime and its reasons within the human heart, of the irony of motives misunderstood, of the ways in which our own actions doom us”.42

Janet Spence misunderstands the intentions of the hedonist Henry Hutton, his first wife Emily does not understand the motives of his actions, and Doris, his lover and later his second wife, misunderstands him right from the beginning of their relationship, and Dr. Libbard, their doctor, understands all their motives and actions but does not interfere. The reason for his indifference and fatigue is not a lack of interest in his patients' private lives, but the fact that he “understands the ironic way things work out”43 in life. George Woodcock regards Dr. Libbard as a “tired cynic”,44 which does not seem quite justified. He is tired, too tired to care, but he is not a cynic. The reader does not know much about this minor character, nothing about any experiences in his life that might have caused this attitude of total indifference, so that he may assume that Dr. Libbard has witnessed a great deal of life's bitter ironies in his patients' lives. In the short episodes in which he makes his appearance, he is revealed as a competent physician who also shows deep psychological insight into the problems of his patients. Erwin Stürzl describes him as “angeblich einfachen Landarzt, der jedoch als allwissender Beobachter den wahren Grund ihres [Janet's] Siechtums längst geahnt hatte”.45 He has a deep understanding for his patients, for all their weaknesses and faults, but he does not show the slightest intention of attempting to reform them. He does not even blame them because he has realized that life will take its course and man cannot do anything about it or at least very little, because everything is predestined. The experience of crime and cruelty, of guilt and despair in his profession has made him indifferent, not willing to fight against this evil. And yet his presence is a great comfort for those who need it, for Emily, Hutton's sick wife, for Janet Spence who has pangs of conscience, and for the young Doris whom he prevents from committing suicide. Huxley's great ironic skill is also revealed at the end of the short story when Dr. Libbard, the detached spectator, says during one of his frequent visits to Janet Spence:

“By the way”, he said in his soft, melancholy voice, “I suppose it was really you who poisoned Mrs. Hutton.”

Miss Spence stared at him for two or three seconds with enormous eyes, and then quietly said, “Yes”.

After that she started to cry.

“In the coffee, I suppose.”

She seemed to nod assent. Dr. Libbard took out his fountain pen, and in his neat, meticulous calligraphy wrote out a prescription for a sleeping-draught.46

Every word is carefully chosen in these lines, the epithets, the adverbs, and the casual tone, as if they were discussing the weather and not a murder, as if this revelation did not matter at all, as if Janet Spence's confirmation of Libbard's suspicion was of no importance, did not make any difference at all. The truth has been revealed, but nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to change, perhaps because Dr. Libbard believes in the punishment by fate just as Henry Hutton feels that

some extraordinary kind of justice was being done. In the past he had been wanton and imbecile and irresponsible. Now fate was playing as wantonly, as irresponsibly, with him. It was tit for tat, and God existed after all.47

Or perhaps the reason is to be found in the nature of the short story itself, in the ‘slice of life story’ aspect:

Die Kurzgeschichte im allgemeinen, sicherlich aber “The Gioconda Smile”, zeigt nur ein Stück herausgerissenes Leben das hinterläβt das Bewuβtsein vom Fragmentarischen alles Menschlichen, von der Fragwürdigkeit aller menschlichen Einrichtungen, deren Vertretern—wie hier den Jüngern der Justitia—die Wahrheitsfindung letzten Endes versagt bleibt.48

It is interesting to note that Huxley also wrote a play (The Gioconda Smile, published 1948) with the basic situation unchanged. But Dr. Libbard's role is significantly changed as he saves Hutton, in whose innocence he believes. In Woodcock's opinion “the changed role of Libbard and the contrived happy ending rot the piece of its original sombre impressiveness”.49

The painter Tillotson in “The Tillotson Banquet” (Mortal Coils) also belongs to those Huxleyan characters who get what they deserve. The short story is mainly concerned with the ironical relationship between the artist and his work. The artist Tillotson belongs to the world of transitoriness, time does not spare him, does not make him immortal, he is subject to decay and death, whereas his work will live on generation after generation, century after century. The idea of the immortality of art as constrasted with the mortality of man is not new in literature, Shakespeare praises the immortality of poetry in his famous sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day”.50 By chance the art critic Spode sees a marvellous painting by Tillotson in Lord Badgery's art collection and finds out that the artist must still be alive. When the Lord decides to have a whole room full of Tillotson frescoes, Spode sets out to search for the artist. He succeeds in finding him at last, but realizes immediately that the Lord's wish will remain unfulfilled: Tillotson is 93, almost blind, and lives in a basement full of beetles in a Holloway slum—a most depressing sight for the young art critic. Spode is really moved by the conditions in which the once great man lives and feels morally obliged to do something for him. A banquet is organized with “patrons and patronesses, art critics and dealers and even a few painters”51—all people who hate each other so that they will also get some ‘fun’ as reward for the money they are supposed to donate on behalf of the old painter. Pathos is added to the comic-ironical scene when Tillotson tries to make a speech and tells the sad story of his master Haydon, constantly repeating himself. Spode is well aware of the fact that ironically Tillotson's paintings were much better than his master's. After this “brief embarrassing interlude”52 the return to his basement in a borrowed evening suit with the “broad green ribbon of some unknown order”53—he is taken home in Lord Badgery's second Rolls Royce—is even more grotesque. The 58 pounds he is presented with after the banquet will help him to survive for a short time only, nobody will look after him, and he will be doomed to oblivion again after this short interlude of his re-discovery so that the reader asks unhesitatingly, ‘What was it all for?’ The answer lies again in the irony of fate which man cannot escape from. The senile painter, “betrayed by time”,54 is deceived by the illusion that his fame will be restored by his re-discovery, that his life will change completely, which turns out to be a mistake the moment he enters his filthy basement again after the banquet. “The story is amusing, but its humour stems from cruelty”.55

In “The Portrait” (Little Mexican) the target of Huxley's satire is also the characters' attitude towards art. When Mr. Bigger, an art-dealer, assures an obviously rich but simple-minded customer that an Old Master is a symbol of social prestige, the customer is flattered because the other has expressed exactly what he himself has always believed—at least since he bought a Manor House which now has to be filled with pictures. Mr. Bigger, being a clever business man, pretends to appreciate the opportunity of being able to discuss painting with an expert, feeling delighted that his ironic remarks are taken seriously by the customer. The story ends with the owner of the Manor House buying a portrait of an Italian Lady of the eighteenth century whose life had been told to him by the art dealer to rouse his interest. The trick has worked, the customer pays almost £ 700 for an imitation Mr. Bigger got for £ 25, not without asking the dealer for a typewritten copy of the story to tell his guests at dinner.

In the final dialogue between Mr. Bigger and the young painter who does the imitations for him Huxley's comic and mocking irony gives way to a more serious irony revealing the hard life of young painters and the unscrupulousness of businessmen. Mr. Bigger gives the young man, who is short of money, generously £ five more than they had agreed for this portrait, for which he himself got nearly £ 700, and the painter does not know how to thank the art-dealer for his benevolence.

Cruel and painful irony is also used in “Nuns at Luncheon” (Mortal Coils), in which the punishment of Sister Agatha at the end of the story has a macabre note. The title itself is full of irony, as the story of poor Sister Agatha is told to the narrator by Miss Penny, a woman journalist, over lunch in a London restaurant. The fact that Miss Penny, “an example of grotesque irony herself”,56 who is always wearing “massive and improbable jewellery”57 (e.g. rattling corpses hanging in chains as earrings) provides an ironic frame for the ironies in the nun's life: “the irony of an insensitive person describing pain”.58 It is the pain of a disgraced nun who is observed by Miss Penny, then a patient in the German hospital where the nun is working, performing no longer the duties of a nurse, but those of a hospital charwoman, dressed in an overall, with a handkerchief instead of a winged coif on her shaven head and without teeth. Eager to get the whole story, Miss Penny sets out to interview the girl's family as soon as she is well again.

Sister Agatha, the efficient nurse who has proved extremely successful at converting patients, also looks after criminals who need medical treatment in hospital. So the young Italian thief Kuno is put into her special charge, in the hope that he will be reformed. But Kuno soon sees his chance and escapes together with the naive Sister Agatha in nuns' clothes, which she has stolen for him. Having still only his salvation in mind she follows him to a shepherd's hut, where Kuno seduces her and robs her of her set of golden teeth. Ironically she has not realized that her talent of conversion does not work with him, that it is he who has done the converting. In her zeal to achieve his salvation she even persuades herself that theft is justified, when it helps to save a person's soul, according to the proverb that the end justifies the means. But there are of course moments when she is overcome by doubt and pangs of conscience, conveyed with brilliant irony by Aldous Huxley. George Woodcock regards her as not being “proof against temptation”, she had been “sexually assaulted”59 by her father's old friend, Professor Engelmann, when she was a young girl. And her set of “imperishable teeth, all gold and ivory”,60 of which she is forcibly deprived by the unscrupulous Kuno, provides the story also with a peculiar irony, as she had got the new set of teeth after losing her own through neglect after her Aunt Bertha's death. She believed she had to do penance for her feeling of relief at the death of poor Aunt Bertha, whom she had hated ever since she kept house for her father after her mother had died.

After her seduction she is forced to attend her own burial and walk as a dead person among the living as punishment for her most shameful behaviour. “The picture is ordinary”, Laurence Brander says of this short story, “but the frame is glittering”.61 Charles Holmes claims that the inhumanity in “Nuns at Luncheon” goes so far that it “apparently left Huxley with misgivings”.62

Moira in “The Rest Cure” (Brief Candles) is, like Monsieur Alphonse in “Uncle Spencer” (Little Mexican), a victim of her own foolishness and of fate's irony: she has to pay with her life for a series of mistakes she makes and others make, Sir Watney Croker, her grandfather, John Tarwin, her husband, and her Italian lover Tonino. Although Sir Watney loves and spoils her, she is not more than a hobby for him, like fly-fishing and metaphysics. Even when she grew up he wanted her to preserve her childishness, for he himself, because of his specialisation, had remained a child and could only love the child in her. Moira marries John Tarwin, the promising research scientist and youngest member of her grandfather's circle of specialists to escape the life with Sir Watney and his veteran geniuses. Travelling round the world with John Tarwin seemed so much preferable to her than the life she was leading. Naive as she was, she thought that all these smaller reasons added together would be the equivalent of the one big reason, the one cògent reason: love. Moira realizes very soon that she ought not to have married him. After a nervous breakdown—the result of her unbearable marriage—she goes to Florence for a rest cure upon her doctor's advice and falls in love with Tonino, a young Italian, who exploits her financially. After a quarrel, caused by Moira's jealousy, her purse, containing a considerable amount of money, has disappeared. Suddenly her husband's verdict of Tonino, whom he called “a black-haired pimp from the slums of Naples”,63 is brought home to her. She suspects Tonino of having stolen her purse and it becomes clear to her that her husband has always been right about Tonino's character. She cannot bear life any longer with this conviction and kills herself in despair. Huxley ends the story with a “last sardonic twist”,64 an effect of surprise:

The sound of a shot brought them running upstairs. They found her lying face downward across the bed, still faintly breathing. But she was dead before the doctor could come up from the town, On a bed standing, as hers stood, in an alcove, it was difficult to lay out the body. When they moved it out of its recess, there was the sound of a hard, rather metallic fall. Assunta [the maid] bent down to see what had dropped. “It's her purse”, she said. “It must have gut stuck between the bed and the wall.”65

Moira has again been mistaken, but this time the mistake is fatal. She has been trapped by her naiveté, by her folly, and by her desires. “The Rest Cure” is one of Huxley's most interesting short stories, as the author's deep psychological insight is brilliantly mingled with his great ironic skill.

In “Chawdron” (Brief Candles) chance again plays havoc with the characters' lives. “Huxley has always been impressed by the importance of accident in human affairs”,66 John Atkins maintains. Chawdron, a rich business man, has a weakness for young girls whose only concern is to exploit him. The first to profit from this weakness is Charlotte, a cellist, who knows exactly how to treat Chawdron in order to get what she wants. But unfortunately she makes the mistake of going to America for a concert tour for two months and immediately another young girl, Maggie Spindell, takes her place. She is the governess type and “the unlikeliest femme fatale you ever saw”, whose “only visible merit was that she was young”,67 says Chawdron's friend Tilney maliciously. Providence had played an important role in their relationship right from the beginning. If both his secretaries had not fallen ill on the same day—“what a fateful thing to happen!”68—Chawdron would never have met his little Fairy, as he calls Maggie Spindell. The secretaries had strict orders to deal with all kinds of begging letters summarily, but as Providence had given both private secretaries the flu Chawdron read the letters himself—the third being by the Fairy. What she wrote impressed him so much that he gave her an appointment and she “came, saw, and conquered”.69 From the moment the Fairy lives in Chawdron's house as his librarian—she is always anxious to be regarded as such—she develops an air of hypocritical spirituality that is only surpassed by Martha Claxton's in the next story of the volume. As the Fairy believes that the spirit of love is incompatible with the eating of meat, she tries to eat as little as possible by means of auto-suggestion. The consequence of her asceticism is naturally a constant bad state of health and “touched by her imagination, the headaches became mystic” so that she died “regularly every Tuesday and Friday”.70 Her predecessor's mistake had been the concert tour to the United States already mentioned, the Fairy's mistake is that she “retired to the mystic death bed once too often”,71 as Tilney again maliciously but brilliantly explains to the narrator. Her pretensions have become true at last and she really dies, another victim betrayed by her own nature and fate.

As in “The Tillotson Banquet” (Mortal Coils), irony is also used to describe the relationship of an artist to his work, in this case of the writer Tilney. Tilney is a friend of Chawdron, but their relationship is a parasitical one, the rich business man Chawdron wants fame, wants his “little niche in the literary histories”,72 and the young writer needs money—so he writes Chawdron's autobiography and the demands of both men are met. But Tilney soon regrets having sold his talent, having betrayed himself:

“And the absurd, ironical thing”, he continued, “is that the one really good piece of work I ever did is another man's autobiography. I could never prove my authorship even if I wanted to. Old Chawdron was very careful to destroy all the evidences of the crime. The business arrangements were all verbal. No documents of any kind. And the manuscript, my manuscript—he bought it off me. It's burnt”.73

He knows that it is his fault, that nobody else is to blame, because it was a mutual agreement; but the realisation that he has most probably also sold his ‘own little niche’ with his manuscript is very bitter for him.

Hypocritical spirituality depicted with great ironic skill is also the main theme of the short story “The Claxtons” in the same volume. Already the opening statement reveals the main characters' eccentricity with a brilliantly mocking tone:

In their little house on the common, how beautifully the Claxtons lived, how spiritually. Even the cat was a vegetarian—at any rate officially—even the cat.74

But the reader is soon confronted with the problems caused by false spirituality and Huxley is always ready to uncover and attack hypocrisy wherever he finds it. In John Kooistra's opinion

“The Claxtons” is a model of good writing: the key in which it has been conceived is unvariedly sustained throughout its forty pages, the satire never changes its tone. The principles are dealt with devastating continuity, not once relieved by a walloping sledge-hammer blow.75

Another interesting source of irony in this short story is the familiar conflict between body and mind. Joseph Bentley maintains that Huxley's “novels are filled with passages in which the anatomical, scientific, or subtly scatological image intrudes into a context of romance, spirituality, or aesthetic high seriousness”,76 a fact that can also be applied to some of his short stories. Like Maggie Spindell in “Chawdron”, Herbert Claxton suffers from constipation, and the context in which Huxley mentions this fact is most striking: while Herbert's daughter Sylvia is playing Chopin's Valse in D flat, he is sitting on the stump of a tree doing breathing exercises for his constipation. Bentley calls this method ‘semantic gravitation’, which he explains as follows:

The presence of the elements with low connotation creates a gravitational pressure pulling the high elements downward and thereby functions satirically.77

This device is also used in the description of Miss Spindell in “Chawdron”, whose “spiritual look in her eyes”78 undoubtedly comes from uncorrected myopia, from headaches and chronic constipation, thus contributing to the ironic mood of the short story.

Irony of a lyrical quality is used in the short story “Green Tunnels” in the volume Mortal Coils. The lyrical element lies in the romantic dreams of a young girl surrounded by old, lifeless and boring people, her parents and Mr. and Mrs. Topes, who are living in Italy as so many Huxleyan characters. The beauty of the landscape is ironically contrasted with the dull and boring atmosphere in the house so that Barbara's only wish is to escape from this life which is only an endless succession of meals and discussions of art which do not interest her at all. She tries to avoid reality by fleeing into a world of fantasy and imagination which her elders have no access to.

In “Green Tunnels” Huxley also criticizes the characters' endeavour to preserve their status in a foreign country. “In India we always made a point of being properly and adequately dressed. An Englishwoman must keep up her position with natives, and to all intents and purposes the Italians are natives”,79 says Mrs. Topes. And she decides to take Italian lessons to be able to talk to the servants—apparently for no other reasons—, because “One must never be ridiculous before servants”,80 and give them orders from the writing table without turning round. So it is not surprising that even young Barbara, brought up never to forget her position, doubts the correctness of her manners on the beach:

Barbara waved her hand, then thought that the gesture had been a little too familiar … and added the corrective of a stiff bow.81

In George Woodcock's opinion “Green Tunnels” is a “masterpiece in its mingling of multiple ironies with a lyrical tenderness rare in Huxley's work”.82

There is always the hope in Huxley's work that a more desirable way of life can be found, that the search for this better life will not be in vain. “At no stage was Huxley's satire intended to be merely destructive. It was meant as a corrective, or perhaps even more as a way of seeking and showing truth”.83


  1. Peter Bowering, Aldous Huxley. A Study of the Major Novels, London: Athlone Press, 1968, p. 213.

  2. Ibid., p. 214.

  3. Ibid., p. 230.

  4. John Atkins, Aldous Huxley. A Literary Study, London: Calder and Boyars, 1956, p. vii.

  5. Julian Huxley, ed., Aldous Huxley 1894-1963. A Memorial Volume, London: Chatto & Windus, 1965, p. 116.

  6. Ibid., p. 57.

  7. Ibid., p. 123.

  8. George Woodcock, Dawn and the Darkest Hour. A Study of Aldous Huxley, London: Faber & Faber, 1972, p. 37.

  9. Ibid., p. 40.

  10. Aldous Huxley, The Genius and the Goddess, London: Chatto & Windus, 1955, pp. 10f.

  11. Dylan Thomas, “Do not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, in: Dylan Thomas: The Poems, ed. by Daniel Jones, London: Dent & Sons, 1974 (first publ. 1971), pp. 207f.

  12. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 40.

  13. Charles Holmes, Aldous Huxley and the Way to Reality, Bloomington/London: Indiana University Press, 1970, p. 5.

  14. Grover Smith, ed., Letters of Aldous Huxley, London: Chatto & Windus, 1969, p. 373.

  15. Laura Archera Huxley, This Timeless Moment, London: Chatto & Windus, 1969, p. 59.

  16. Grover Smith, ed., op. cit., p. 97.

  17. Julian Huxley, ed., op. cit., p. 42.

  18. Julian Huxley, ed., op. cit., p. 42.

  19. Peter Bowering, op. cit., p. 10.

  20. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 309.

  21. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 309.

  22. Ibid., p. 310.

  23. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles. Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1930, p. 62.

  24. Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, London: Chatto & Windus, 1963 (first published 1928), p. 25.

  25. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles, p. 65.

  26. Erwin Stürzl, “Aldous Huxley. Zeitgebundenheit und Zeitlosigkeit seines Werkes”, in: Stimmen der Zeit, Monatsschrift für das Geistesleben der Gegenwart, April 1955, Heft 7, Band 156, p. 53.

  27. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 66.

  28. Laurence Brander, Aldous Huxley. A Critical Study, London: Hart Davis, 1969, p. 45.

  29. Aldous Huxley, Limbo, London: Chatto & Windus, 1920, p. 110.

  30. George Woodcock, op. cit., pp. 67f.

  31. Aldous Huxley, Little Mexican and Other Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1968 (first published 1924), p. 92.

  32. Aldous Huxley, Little Mexican and Other Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1968 (first published 1924), p. 92.

  33. John Atkins, op. cit., p. 91.

  34. Aldous Huxley, Little Mexican, p. 112.

  35. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 112.

  36. Aldous Huxley, Little Mexican, p. 154.

  37. Aldous Huxley, Two or Three Graces and Other Stories, New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926, p. 72.

  38. Ibid., p. 217.

  39. Ibid., p. 32.

  40. John Atkins, op. cit., p. 91.

  41. Ibid., p. 32.

  42. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 89.

  43. Charles Holmes, op. cit., p. 34.

  44. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 89.

  45. Erwin Stürzl, “Huxley. The Gioconda Smile”, in: Die englische Kurzgeschichte, hrsg. v. Karlheinz Göller und Gerhard Hoffmann, Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1973, p. 233.

  46. Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils and Other Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1971 (first published. 1922), p. 62.

  47. Ibid., p. 58.

  48. Erwin Stürzl, “Huxley. ‘The Gioconda Smile’”, p. 234.

  49. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 91.

  50. William Shakespeare, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day”, in: Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. by W. G. Ingram, London: Univ. of London Press, 1964, p. 45.

  51. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 92.

  52. Ibid., p. 93.

  53. Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils, p. 145.

  54. Laurence Brander, op. cit., p. 49.

  55. John Atkins, op. cit., p. 91.

  56. Charles Holmes, op. cit., p. 35.

  57. Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils, p. 201.

  58. Charles Holmes, op. cit., p. 35.

  59. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 95.

  60. Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils, p. 216.

  61. Laurence Brander, op. cit., p. 49.

  62. Charles Holmes, op. cit., p. 35.

  63. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles, p. 96.

  64. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 165.

  65. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles, p. 77.

  66. John Atkins, op. cit., p. 92.

  67. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles, p. 25.

  68. Ibid., p. 26.

  69. Ibid., p. 27.

  70. Ibid., p. 42.

  71. Ibid., p. 57.

  72. Ibid., p. 11.

  73. Ibid., p. 9.

  74. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles, p. 116.

  75. J. Kooistra, “Aldous Huxley”, in: English Studies, Vol. XIII, Oct. 1931, p. 167.

  76. Joseph Bentley, “Semantic Gravitation. An Essay on Satiric Reduction”, in: Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXX, 1, March 1969, p. 5.

  77. Ibid., p. 7.

  78. Aldous Huxley, Brief Candles, p. 42.

  79. Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils, p. 174.

  80. Ibid., p. 187.

  81. Ibid., p. 180.

  82. George Woodcock, op. cit., p. 95.

  83. Ibid., p. 63.

Works Cited

Atkins, John, Aldous Huxley. A Literary Study, Calder and Boyars, 1956.

Bentley, Joseph, “Semantic Gravitation. An Essay on Satiric Reduction”, in: Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXX, 1, 1969, p. 3-19.

Bowering, Peter, Aldous Huxley.A Study of the Major Novels, London: Athlone Press, 1968.

Brander, Laurence, Aldous Huxley. A Critical Study, London: Hart Davis, 1969.

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism. Four Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Holmes, Charles, Aldous Huxley and the Way to Reality, Bloomington/London: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Huxley, Aldous, Limbo, London: Chatto & Windus, 1920.

———. Mortal Coils and Other Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1971 (first published 1922).

———. Little Mexican and Other Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1968 (first published 1924).

———. Two or Three Graces and Other Stories, New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926.

———. Point Counter Point, London: Chatto & Windus, 1963 (first publlished 1928).

———. Brief Candles. Stories, London: Chatto & Windus, 1930.

———. The Genius and the Goddess, London: Chatto & Windus, 1955.

Huxley, Julian, ed., Aldous Huxley 1894-1963. A Memorial Volume, London: Chatto & Windus, 1965.

Huxley, Laura Archera, This Timeless Moment, London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Kooistra, J., “Aldous Huxley”, in: English Studies, Vol. XIII, Oct. 1931, p. 161-175.

Shakespeare, William, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day”, in: Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. by W. G. Ingram, London: Univ. of London Press, 1964.

Smith, Grover, ed., Letters of Aldous Huxley, London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Stürzl, Erwin, “Aldous Huxley. Zeitgebundenhe it und Zeitlosigke it seines Werkes”, in: Stimmen der Zeit, Monatsschrift für das Geistesleben der Gegenwart, April 1955, Heft 7, Band 156, p. 49-59.

———. “Huxley. The Gioconda Smile”, in: Die englische Kurzgeschichte, hrsg. v. Karlheinz Göller und Gerhard Hoffmann, Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1973, p. 225-234.

Thomas, Dylan, “Do not Gentle into That Good Night”, in: Dylan Thomas: The Poems, ed. by Daniel Jones, London: Dent & Sons, 1974 (first publ. 1971).

Woodcock, George, Dawn and the Darkest Hour. A Study of Aldous Huxley, London: Faber & Faber, 1972.


Aldous Huxley World Literature Analysis


Huxley, Aldous (Vol. 1)