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Last Updated on July 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

In Aldous Huxley’s satire of the English upper classes between the world wars, the members of a social set make numerous personal, career, and political choices that have lasting and sometimes tragic repercussions. Rather than a single protagonist, Huxley offers a medley of characters, only a few of whom are...

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In Aldous Huxley’s satire of the English upper classes between the world wars, the members of a social set make numerous personal, career, and political choices that have lasting and sometimes tragic repercussions. Rather than a single protagonist, Huxley offers a medley of characters, only a few of whom are especially sympathetic. Many of the characters are drawn from three generations of the Bidlake and Quarles families, as well as their lovers, colleagues, and rivals. The serious side of these personal intrigues includes the rise of fascist movements and the death of a child.

Through the device of a large party at the Tantamounts’ home, Huxley introduces these characters with glimpses into their personal problems. Walter Bidlake and Elinor Quarles, née Bidlake, are siblings; Elinor is married to Philip Quarles, and they have a young son, also named Philip. Walter is a literary critic much preoccupied with extricating himself from an affair with Marjorie Carling, who is pregnant. He attends the party without her, as he has become fascinated with the wealthy Lord Tantamount’s daughter, Lucy, whose mother, Hilda, had once had an affair with his father, John. A strong contrast is drawn between the arch-conservative Everard Webley and Lord Tantamount’s assistant, Illidge, a socialist. The character who later proves the villain, Spandrell, is also introduced; his antagonism toward Webley seems less political than personal, however.

Elinor and Philip, while traveling abroad, have left their son with her parents. Both are vaguely dissatisfied with their marriage, and it seems, for a while, that Elinor will rekindle a relationship with the charismatic Webley. Meanwhile, Walter’s infatuation with Lucy begins to bore her, and she leaves for Paris. Philip’s mother, Rachel, extends her religious devotion to Marjorie to aid her in coping with Walter’s abandonment. As he copes with his rejection by Lucy, it seems that he and Marjorie, with the coming baby, will get back together.

Elinor is called to her parents’ home with news that Philip is ill. Spandrell is visiting her home, where she has been waiting for Webley. She rushes to be with her son, who has meningitis. Spandrell waits behind and, when Webley arrives, kills him but covers up the crime.

Philip also rushes to his parents’ home, where, after several days of vigil at their son’s bedside, the boy dies. One question that is asked is whether Elinor and Philip will grow closer or be driven further apart in their grief. Meanwhile, when Webley’s body is discovered, a manhunt ensues for the killer. Spandrell, rather than face justice, informs Webley’s Freemen followers of his location, correctly predicting it will mean certain death at their hands.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

Walter Bidlake has been living with a married woman named Marjorie Carling for a year and a half, and he is growing tired of her. He feels tied to her by a moral obligation but oppressed by her attempts to possess him; she has rejected his proposal that they live together as close friends but leading independent lives. In any case, it is too late for that now, because Marjorie is pregnant. Her jealousy toward his latest infatuation, Lucy Tantamount, pricks Walter’s conscience, and he is angry with himself for making Marjorie unhappy by going to a party at Tantamount House without her.

Elinor and Philip Quarles travel abroad, leaving little Philip behind under the care of a governess and his grandmother, Mrs. Bidlake. Philip is a novelist, and his life consists of jotting down in his notebook incidents and thoughts that might make material for his next novel. His mind is turned inward, introspective, and his self-centered interests give him little time for emotional experience. Elinor wishes that he would love her as much as she loves him, but she resigns herself to the unhappy dilemma of being loved as much as Philip could possibly love any woman.

Denis Burlap, editor of The Literary World, flatters himself with the just conceit that although his magazine is not a financial success, it at least contributes to the intellectual life of his time. Walter, one of his chief contributors, asks for more pay; Burlap hedges until Walter feels ashamed of his demands. Burlap is attracted to Beatrice Gilray, a pathetic figure who has feared the very touch of a man ever since she had been attacked by her uncle while riding in a taxicab. Burlap hopes eventually to seduce Beatrice. Meanwhile, they are living together. Also part of this social set is Spandrell, an indolent son of a doting mother who supports him, and Everard Webley, a friend of Elinor and the leader of a conservative militaristic group called the British Freemen.

Philip’s father, Sidney Quarles, pretends that he is writing a long history, but he has not progressed much beyond the purchase of office equipment. His wife, Rachel, assumes the burden of managing their affairs and patiently endures Sidney’s whims and mild flirtations. Now it is apparently someone in London, for Sidney makes frequent trips to the British Museum to gather material for his history. The young woman appears one day at the Quarleses’ country house and in loud and furious tones informs Sidney that she is pregnant. When Rachel appears, Sidney quietly leaves the room. Rachel settles the affair quietly.

Marjorie continues to arouse Walter’s pity and cause him to regret his association with Lucy Tantamount, particularly because Lucy is not much interested in Walter. She becomes tired of London and leaves for Paris. When Elinor and Philip return from abroad, they find their son faring well under the care of his governess and his grandmother. John Bidlake learns that he is dying of cancer and returns to his wife’s home. He has become a cantankerous patient and treats little Philip alternately with kindness and harshness.

Since Lucy is in Paris, Philip is able to persuade Walter to take Marjorie to the Quarles home in the country in the hope that this will lead to some sort of reconciliation. Rachel Quarles begins to like Marjorie, and the pregnant woman becomes more cheerful in the new environment. Shortly after she and Walter arrive at the Quarles estate, Walter receives a letter from Lucy in Paris, telling him that she has found a new lover who seduced her in a shabby Parisian studio. With her newly acquired contentment, Marjorie feels sympathy for Walter, who is crestfallen at Lucy’s rejection.

Everard Webley has long been in love with Elinor. Sometimes she wonders whether Philip will care if she leaves for another man, and she decides that it will be Philip’s own fault if she turns to Everard. She feels that a breach is forming between herself and Philip, but she cannot arouse his attention to make him realize what is happening. She arranges a rendezvous with Everard.

Behind the scenes of lovemaking and unfaithfulness lurks the political enmity between Spandrell and Everard. Elinor Quarles is home alone awaiting Everard’s call when Spandrell and a telegram arrive simultaneously. The telegram informs Elinor that little Philip is ill and urges her to come to her father’s home. Elinor asks Spandrell to wait and tell Everard that she cannot keep her appointment with him. Spandrell agrees. When Everard arrives at Elinor’s home, Spandrell attacks him and kills him. Spandrell lugs the dead body into a car and drives away. Later that evening, he meets Philip and tells him his son is ill.

Philip arrives at the Bidlake estate the next day in time to hear the doctor say that young Philip has meningitis. Elinor stays by the child’s side for days, waiting for the crisis to pass. One night, the sick boy opens his eyes and tells his parents that he is hungry. They are overjoyed at his apparent recovery; later that night, he dies suddenly. As they had done in the past, Elinor and Philip escape by going abroad.

For a long while, the Webley murder baffles the police. Despairing of ever escaping from his meaningless existence, Spandrell sends the British Freemen a note stating that Everard’s murderer, armed, will be found at a certain address at a certain hour. On their arrival, the Freemen find Spandrell pointing a gun at them. They shoot him.

Burlap is the only happy man among these sensualists and intellectuals. One night, he and Beatrice pretend they are children and splash merrily while taking their bath together.

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