Brave New World Themes
The main themes in Brave New World are science, social freedom, history, and innovation.
- Science: The World Controllers have ended conflict by means of cloning, which homogenizes the population. The artificial drug soma subdues emotions, leading to a complacent public.
- Social freedom: Complete social freedom, and the widespread usage of soma, destroys family structures and inhibits the formation of meaningful relationships. Consequently, the citizens of the World State are largely incapable of forming emotional attachments.
- History and innovation: Intellectual curiosity, a sense of history, and scientific innovation are frowned upon because they threaten the ruling class' power over the masses.
Last Updated on May 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1820
Brave New World presents readers with a question: Is it better to live in a constant state of happiness at the expense of your individuality and personal freedom, or are those principles worth the suffering and unhappiness that come with them? Ultimately, the novel suggests that balance is best, because too much happiness leads to superficiality and too much unhappiness leads to a hopeless existence.
Through the exploration of a totalitarian society that forces its citizens to be happy and complacent, Brave New World remarks on trends in society, like consumerism and the avoidance of negative emotions and experiences, that are arguably more relevant now than they were when the book was published.
Dystopias and Totalitarianism
Brave New World flips traditional ideas of dystopianism and totalitarianism on their heads. In typical totalitarian regimes, total control is used to create a society that benefits the privileged few while hurting most of the population, who are usually left miserable, poor, and often endangered. This is perhaps best expressed in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Dystopian worlds like Orwell’s Oceania highlight inequitable and immoral practices by showing how people suffer from being controlled.
Brave New World’s World State is different. Though it’s still totalitarian in that people’s lives are orchestrated from their beginning and controlled until their death, the goals of the regime are not to profit a select few, but to create a stable society wherein everyone is happy and there are no problems. This makes the World State’s dystopia scarier in some ways than typical dystopias, because it’s easy to understand why the World Controllers wanted to rebuild society in this way: even now, who doesn’t wish for a world at peace?
The World State, though happy and orderly, still proves itself a dystopia in that people lose something core to humanity in their continual bliss. They lose the right to be unhappy, and thus lose the right to be individuals. People in the World State don’t suffer from poverty, disease, or brutality like people in traditional dystopias, but they do still suffer. The people do not know what it’s like to live in a world where they can choose who they want to be or how they want to live. They have no freedom.
The Price of Happiness
Aldous Huxley presents a society in Brave New World wherein total happiness comes at a steep price: the loss of free will and individuality. For example, World State citizens like Lenina, Fanny, and Henry are seemingly happy in that they don’t experience emotional or physical pain. However, their happiness is shallow and has the same sources as everyone else: sexual flings, frequent vacations, high-tech and low-effort games, and constant sensory stimulation from shallow entertainment.
Since everyone is encouraged to enjoy the same things, dislike the same things, and adopt the same pastimes, there is little to distinguish people from each other. In some sense they may be happy, but that happiness is meaningless on an individual level; the primary function of the people’s happiness is to serve the government by keeping people under control.
Whenever characters do start to question their world, as Bernard and Helmholtz do, they’re faced with discontented and restless feelings. This suggests that in the World State, one cannot be both truly happy and an individual. On the opposite end of the spectrum is John the savage, who takes it upon himself at the end of the novel to become a paramount of self-denial. Though he takes pride in his living as a hermit and renouncing all worldly pleasures, it ultimately doesn’t lead him toward happiness because he is ridiculed by others for his choices. In an effort to escape, John decides to take his own life.
Out of all the main characters, the only one who seems to achieve a relatively happy (at least, not miserable) ending is Helmholtz. Throughout the novel, Helmholtz questions his role in society and society itself, but never goes to extremes like other characters do; he lives comfortably and passively in the World State. Though he does get sent away to an island by Mustapha, he gets to choose his new home. He picks the Falkland islands, because he feels their moody climate will inspire him to be a better writer. While not achieving blissful joy, Helmholtz gains some free will back and chooses the path he wants for his life. This gives his life a purpose beyond shallow entertainment and pleasures. Though he is still shaped by the culture he was born into, his choice to pursue more meaningful writing suggests that he has the potential to live an autonomous life. Through Helmholtz’s character arc, the novel insinuates that the freest way to live isn’t in complete self-indulgence nor complete self-denial, but somewhere in between.
Industrialization was a large factor of society when Huxley wrote Brave New World, which is reflected in the way he wrote it into the novel. Though the World State’s people have renounced all religion, they do still revere one figure with a religious-like fervor: Henry Ford. This is showcased in everyday expressions (“Ford!” and “Fordy!”), their use of A.F. (Anno Ford) to denote years, and their reference to Mustapha Mond, who upholds Henry Ford’s ideals as “his Fordship.”
Indeed, the tenants of industrialization are core to the functioning of the World State and the structure of its society. Humans are created in an assembly line like cars, conditioned with biological and psychological attributes that predict their fates, similar to the different auto parts that distinguish luxury cars from jalopies. Efficient mass production gives people the time to be active consumers. It also allows for new things to be made at such a high rate that people can discard “old” items like clothing after just a few uses.
There are several forms of consumption in Brave New World’s World State: media consumption, economic consumption, and drug consumption. All showcase different ways in which the Controllers encourage stability and complacency among the population.
In today’s world of reality TV, blockbuster films, sensationalist news headlines, and neverending social media updates, Huxley’s warning about the perils of constant, superficial consumption of media ring even truer. The characters of the World State are inundated with shallow entertainments, from feelies to scent organs to sporting games. Though a few characters such as Helmholtz question the purpose and meaning of these forms of entertainment, most characters don’t consider them beyond face value.
The purpose of all these distractions is to keep people contented so they don’t question the world around them. Society is designed to reject the consumption of old things—like John’s beloved Shakespeare, which is banned. This is another way to promote continuous consumption, because if people value old, outdated things (like old books and higher-quality, longer-lasting items) they won’t have any reason to buy new things. Furthermore, things from past eras when society functioned differently often contain deeper meaning and would inspire people to think critically, whereas new forms of entertainment encourage people to focus on the present only.
World State citizens consume in other important ways, such as traveling and purchasing new clothes—necessitated because their clothing is made out of cheap material designed not to last. This perpetual stimulus, like entertainment consumption, serves to keep people amused so they don’t have reason to think more deeply about how their lives are controlled by the totalitarian regime.
The consumption of the state-distributed drug, called “soma,” is also critical to maintaining complacency. If people get upset or simply feel like they need a break, they can take a “soma holiday.” This entails taking so much of the drug that a person would enter a hallucinogenic state in which they lose awareness of reality and the passage of time. Though soma is administered by the government—so that it doesn’t spur economic consumption—it’s another method by which the government can intervene in the lives of its citizens and dictate their behavior and emotions. The novel’s focus on consumption sheds light on the role it plays in keeping people placated and focused on immediate gratification rather than long-term benefits.
Individuality is a rarity in the universe of Brave New World. It is highly discouraged by the government and even by the citizens themselves. Anyone who is seen as “different” from the norm—like Bernard—is viewed with suspicion. Many of the citizens are spawned from the lower-class Bokanovsky Groups, which are sets of identical twins all from the same egg and lacking individuality due to their clonage. What little remains of individuality is reserved for the upper-class Betas and Alphas, who are not cloned.
According to Mustapha Mond, this genetic homogeneity is essential for society to function peacefully. Mustapha claims in chapter 16 there would be chaos if there were too many independent people like Alphas in the world. This is because individuality breeds unique thoughts and behaviors, which can lead to the questioning of authority and of one’s place in the social and economic hierarchy.
In the novel, freedom and individuality go hand in hand. John, the only character who has truly experienced freedom and recognized it as such, is the most individual of all the characters. He is still shaped by his environment and upbringing but not as strongly as Bernard, Lenina, Linda, and other World State citizens. After being taken to the World State, John repeatedly fights against society to maintain his individuality. While doing so ensures his freedom and stops him from becoming complacent like the other characters, it is instrumental to his own undoing. His suicide is the result of his inability to reconcile his independence with the deeply controlled life of the World State citizens: he cannot fully be himself and refuses to become like everyone else, so he instead chooses to be neither and takes his own life.
Technology and Control
The World State uses various types of technology to control people’s lives long before they are “decanted,” or born. From an advanced understanding of eugenics to hypnopædia to Pavlovian-style conditioning, infants’ lives are determined by technology before they have any awareness of what is around them. Furthermore, technologically advanced means of entertainment, travel, and transportation surround people in their day-to-day lives, and robust anti-aging technology in the medical realm allows people to look and feel young (and thus focus on living in the present) even as they grow older.
Controllers like Mustapha consider technology critical to society because it enables control of the people, which in turn enables a peaceful, happy, orderly way of life. Without advanced technology and scientific understanding, the World State would not be able to exist. Because of how ubiquitous technology is in Brave New World, this manifests into a theme cautioning against unrestrained technology for the sake of progress and control.
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