Background

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British life in 1932 was very different from American life. Almost an entire generation of men had been lost in World War I. Oxford University enrollment was only 491 in 1917, down from 3,181 in 1914. Among many of the upper-class poets and writers of the time—sometimes called the Auden Generation, after the poet W. H. Auden—there was a sense of disillusionment and futility. Britain’s foreign investments had been depleted by war debts and loans. Higher living standards, prices, wages, and taxes became the order of the day in post-war Britain. By 1922 overpopulation had caused passage of the Empire Settlement Act to encourage and finance settlement in the dominions.

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The 1920s were also years of mass unemployment, and the Communist Soviet Union was making inroads into the labor movement. After many wars, those on the homefront who had sacrificed for the war effort felt they deserved their just rewards.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model-T, in “any color you choose so long as it’s black.” In 1914, he opened his Highland Park, Michigan factory, equipped with the first electric conveyor belt assembly line. A Model-T could now be assembled in 93 minutes. Consequently, Ford had 45 percent of the new automobile market. He paid his workers the highest wages in the industry—a whopping five dollars a day. In return, he demanded that his workers live by his standards: wives were not to work or take in boarders, employees were not to drink in local bars, and families were to attend church each Sunday. He sent men out into the workers’ neighborhoods to make sure his rules were being followed. Ford was considered a bigot and was also paranoid; he feared for his family’s lives. By creating Greenfield Village near Detroit, he tried to recapture and reproduce what he viewed as a simple, happy past—the good old days.

Thus, science not only gave man a better knowledge of his world, and the technology to make living “easier,” but it also gave him new means of destroying himself. The same gasoline engine used to propel automobiles and trains was reinvented for use in airplanes that could drop bombs—as early as World War I. Science and technology together began recreating industry, which for more people than Henry Ford meant bigger profits and anxieties.

Additionally, the advent of electrical lighting in both home and factory created shift work, which of course, interferes with established biological rhythms. Electricity also created a brighter night-life with more possibilities, and it gave the middle and upper classes new appliances to make living easier and more comfortable.

The assembly lines, with their shift work, forced workers to meet the demands of both man and machine. Workers could spend an entire shift in one place along the assembly line, repeating the same action again and again. Thus, a worker answered to two bosses—one human, one mechanical. Only one understood pain and fatigue, however, and only one could stop the other. Consequently, most workers were more likely to be driven by machines than to actually drive them.

This was the newly mechanized, scientific, controlled world which became the model for Huxley’s Brave New World, which one critic regarded as “an exercise in pessimistic prognostication, a terrifying Utopia.”

In 1958, Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, in which he discussed what he perceived as the threats to humanity that had developed since the publication of his novel in 1932. These threats were overpopulation, propaganda, scientific advancement, and his belief that man must not give up his freedom for the unthinking ease of a life organized by the power of a few over the masses. This was something that had happened in Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China since 1932.

Huxley saw scientific progress as a vain deceit which would produce a world with no joy—one in which endeavors are frustrated and sexual satisfaction becomes ashes. Brave New World is the utopian nightmare of scientific deceit, unlike the futuristic novels of H. G. Wells whose optimism held that man falls to rise again.

Historical Context

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When Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 it was at the beginning of a worldwide depression. The American stock market crash of 1929 had closed banks, wiped out many people’s savings, and caused unemployment rates to soar. To make matters worse, American farmers were suffering from some of the worst droughts in history, leading to widespread poverty and migration out of the farming belt. People longed for the kind of economic security that Huxley gives to the citizens of his fictional world.

The effects of the crash were beginning to be felt worldwide, including in England, where Huxley lived. However much economic issues were on his mind, Huxley was also very much aware of the social and scientific changes that had begun to sweep the world in the beginning of the century, and particularly through the 1920s. Technology was rapidly replacing many workers, but politicians promised that progress would solve the unemployment and economic problems. Instead, workers were forced to take whatever jobs were available. More often than not, unskilled or semi-skilled laborers worked long hours without overtime pay, under unsafe conditions, and without benefits such as health insurance or pensions. Unlike the inhabitants of the brave new world, they had no job guarantees and no security. Furthermore, they often had little time for leisure and little money to spend on entertainment or on material luxuries.

In order to increase consumer demand for the products being produced, manufacturers turned to advertising in order to convince people they ought to spend their money buying products and services. Also, Henry Ford, who invented the modern factory assembly line, was now able to efficiently mass produce cars. For the first time, car parts were interchangeable and easily obtained, and Ford deliberately kept the price of his Model T low enough so that his workers could afford them. In order to pay for the new automobiles, many people who did not have enough cash needed to stretch out payments over time, and thus buying on credit became acceptable. Soon, people were buying other items on credit, fueling the economy by engaging in overspending and taking on debt.

All of these economic upheavals affected Huxley’s vision of the future. First, he saw Ford’s production and management techniques as revolutionary, and chose to make Ford not just a hero to the characters in his novels but an actual god. Huxley also saw that technology could eventually give workers enormous amounts of leisure time. The result could be more time spent creating art and solving social problems, but Huxley’s Controllers, perceiving those activities as threatening to the order they’ve created, decide to provide foolish distractions to preoccupy their workers. These future workers do their duty and buy more and more material goods to keep the economy rolling, even to the point of throwing away clothes rather than mending them.

In Huxley’s day, people’s values and ideas were changing rapidly. The 1920s generation of youth rejected the more puritanical Victorian values of their parents’ generation. Men and women flirted with modern ideas, such as communism, and questioned the rigid attitudes about social class. Some embraced the idea of free love (sex outside of marriage or commitment), as advocated by people like author Gertrude Stein (1874–1946). Others were talking publicly about sex, or using contraceptives, which were being popularized by Margaret Sanger (1883–1966), the American leader of the birth-control movement. Women began to smoke in public, cut their hair into short, boyish bobs, and wear much shorter, looser skirts. These new sexual attitudes are taken to an extreme in Brave New World.

Scientists were also beginning to explore the possibilities of human engineering. Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) showed that one can create a conditioned response in animals. For example, he rang a bell whenever he fed a group of dogs, and over time Pavlov’s dogs began to salivate at the sound of a bell, even when no food was presented to them. Pavlov’s fellow scientist, John B. Watson (1878–1958), founded the Behaviorist School of psychology: he believed that human beings could be reduced to a network of stimuli and responses, which could then be controlled by whoever experimented on them. In the 1930s, German Nobel Prize winner Hans Spemann (1869–1941) developed the controversial science of experimental embryology, manipulating the experience of a human fetus in the womb in order to influence it. The eugenics movement—which was an attempt to limit the childbearing of lower-class, ethnic citizens—was popular in the 1920s as well.

Meanwhile, the fad of hypnopaedia, or sleep teaching, was popular in the 1920s and 1930s. People hoped to teach themselves passively by listening to instructional tapes while they were sleeping. Although the electroencephalograph, a device invented in 1929 that measures brain waves, would prove that people have a limited ability to learn information while asleep, it also proved that hypnopaedia can influence emotions and beliefs. Meanwhile, the ideas of Viennese physician Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the father of modern psychoanalysis, were also becoming popular. He believed, among other things, that most psychological problems stem from early childhood experiences. Huxley incorporated all of these technological and psychological discoveries into his novel, having the Controllers misuse this information about controlling human behavior to oppress their citizens.

Brave New World was written just before dictators such as Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy Joseph Stalin in Russia, and Mao Tse-tung in China created totalitarian states in countries that were troubled by economic and political problems. These leaders often used extreme tactics to control their citizens, from propaganda and censorship to mass murder. Huxley could not have predicted what was on the horizon. The grim totalitarian state that would come about would be incorporated into author George Orwell’s futuristic anti-utopian novel 1984 (1948) and strongly influenced by Huxley’s Brave New World.

Social Concerns

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Aldous Huxley has been compared to H. G. Wells as a popularizer of science but unlike Wells who perceived science as providing the possibilities for a Utopian future, Huxley saw science as potentially a destroyer of humanity and individual freedom. Unlike Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Huxley's Brave New World is a novel in which human beings have been reduced to subservient automatons by an autocratic government using a wide variety of scientific controls from eugenics and postnatal conditioning to mind-torture and soporific drugs. It is a nightmare world of unreflective obedience to authority in which acts of rebellion are punished with a cloying coercion that seduces as it reforms. Huxley was more interested in the uses of technology for control than for liberation.

The appearance of Brave New World at a time when totalitarianism was gaining control of many governments around the world was not just happenstance. Reflected in the pages of the novel are many of the fears which were being experienced by many in Western Europe. Although much less warlike in atmosphere than the later novel 1984 (1949) by George Orwell, Huxley's book nevertheless contained a serious critique of authoritarian regimes, and raised questions not only about oligarchical power but also dealt with the questionable place of science in the achieving and maintaining of that power. Scientists, instead of being mankind's saviors, were portrayed as their enslavers. The critique was a devastating one and helped to promote the climate of scientific uncertainty which followed the war, particularly that debate fostered by the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Huxley was also disturbed by a growing tendency, among civilized western countries, for social and political uniformity, a leavening of the populace which resulted in a homogenized mass culture — one reduced to the lowest common denominator. The upshot of such sameness was a popular experience of unrelieved slackness and mindlessness that turned democratic as well as socialist societies into collections of lumpish proles, easily manipulated and controlled by an endless flow of bread and circuses.

Like Orwell's 1984, Brave New World has come to signify in the popular mind one of the main dystopian visions of the future, and the very title of Huxley's book has come to serve as a shorthand term for what can happen to society in the future if science is not kept in check. References to the two books often mistakenly assume them to represent similar visionary futures by overlooking differences between the coercive restrictions of Orwell's world and in many ways the much more frightening and seductive reward system of Huxley's. From the vantage point of the end of the twentieth century, it would appear that Huxley's fictional world provides a more likely blueprint, among the industrialized countries, for future, restrictive societies.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1920s: Scientist Ivan Pavlov conducts behavioral experiments and shows that one can create a conditioned response in animals. John B. Watson, establishes the Behaviorist School of thought: he believes that human beings can be reduced to a network of stimuli and responses, which can be controlled by the experimenter.

    1930s: German Nobel Prize winner Hans Spemann develops the controversial science of experimental embryology, manipulating the experience of a human fetus in the womb in order to influence it.

    Huxley’s London 731 A.D.: All humans are cloned from a small number of fertilized eggs, incubated in artificial wombs (bottles), and conditioned as embryos and fetuses for their future lives.

    Today: In 1978, the first human baby conceived in vitro (in a test tube) is born. In 1997, a sheep is cloned for the first time, raising the possibility of cloning humans.

  • 1920s: Totalitarian rulers Joseph Stalin in Russia and Benito Mussolini in Italy come to power.

    1931: Totalitarian rulers Francisco Franco (Spain) and Adolf Hitler (Germany) are a few years away from power. In China communist dictator Mao Tse-tung is fighting for dominance but will not win power until the late 1940s.

    Huxley’s London 731 A.D.: The world is a totalitarian state ruled by the Controllers, who use technology, brainwashing, and pre-birth conditioning rather than violence and intimidation to control their citizens.

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