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 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.