20 classics in 2011 #6: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I love Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and dystopian fiction in general. Plus, the sections of my work-in-progress that people have read have been compared to Brave New World. I thought it was about time I read it (also to make sure I’m not accidentally riffing on it too much).

When was it published?

In 1932. Several years before Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and in many ways containing more progressive ideas. Huxley wrote to Orwell in 1949, congratulating him on his book, and predicting:

‘Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.’ (via)

My edition was published by Longman, and of course there are many editions (see Aus, US, UK).

What’s it about?

Set in London in the year 2540, children are grown, rather than born, and are conditioned via Pavlovian methods and sleep-learning to be citizens of different castes. The idea is that society will be stable, and that people will be happy. They are essentially free to pursue pleasure through multiple sexual partners, soma (a form of medication/recreation) and ‘feelies’, which are movies with added sensation. The Model T Ford and Sigmund Freud are the fathers of this society. Ford is their God.

Bernard is a bit of an outsider both physically and mentally. He thinks his fellow Alphas are ‘morons’, and he fights internally against his own conditioning. He is able to see that happiness is a construct, and is therefore, of course, not happy. He sees the value in delaying gratification, and in being alone (both blasphemous in this society).

Bernard takes a woman he likes, Lenina, to a Savage Reservation, where they meet a woman from their World who had been lost there, and her son, who has learnt English through Shakespeare and who is curious about this place he’s heard so much about. The second half of the novel then deals with ‘the Savage’ and his encounter with civilisation.

Tell us more about the author.

Aldous Huxley was born into an educated family in Surrey, UK in 1894. He was educated at Eton college and was disqualified from service in the WWI due to an illness that left him mostly blind for two to three years. He would struggle with eyesight problems all his life. He studied English literature at Oxford and graduated with first class honours.

Huxley began writing seriously in his 20s. His first published novel was Chrome Yellow in 1921. Brave New World is probably his most famous novel. He moved to Hollywood in 1937 and became interested in Vedanta (and introduced Christopher Isherwood into the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda). He earned a bit of money as a screenwriter, but his synopsis of Alice in Wonderland was rejected by Walt Disney ‘on the grounds that “he could only understand every third word”. (via) Huxley was at the time beginning to experiment with psychedelic drugs as an experiment in the search for enlightenment. I’d like to read that synopsis…

Huxley famously requested and took LSD on his deathbed in 1963. He was 69.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

‘What fun it would be if one didn’t have to think about happiness!’ – World Controller Mustapha Mond

For a book that was apparently completed in just four months, Brave New World is almost shockingly prescient, dealing with issues of consumption, conformity and complacency. The idea that citizens will be conditioned to be able to fulfil themselves through the means available in order to create stability (as opposed to through threat or punishment) is even more relevant today. Other aspects are dated, of course, such as the psychoanalytic overtones, and the hypnopaedic ways of learning. But then again, some people do still buy into ‘subliminal learning’!

The retro-future aspects are still enjoyable, aesthetically, such as the fact there are lift operators, and helicopters are the advanced mode of transport. It’s like seeing the DOS computer systems in Blade Runner. You can’t read a futuristic novel written in the past and not think about what has and hasn’t come to pass, and what might by the date in which it’s set. There is still an environment in 2540, for example, where as any futuristic novel written today would surely grapple with the issue of climate change.

Bernard is a great character, both inside and outside his society – conditioned by it, like everyone else, but also fighting against it. He has a weak personality, and a large ego, and is easily buoyed by popularity and praise in the rare instances it is bestowed upon him. I think readers of the novel over time would have related to his character, particularly in the earlier chapters, when everyone else is loosening up and having a good time and he feels something is a little off. He is painfully aware of himself and the way he’s feeling. He is interested in ideas of the benefits of feeling pain and of delaying gratification – ideas I’m fascinated by in this era of rampant consumerism. Natural human desires have always been ever-renewing, but what happens to us when they can be fulfilled easier and easier? Huxley deals with the way dissatisfaction or boredom might set in with soma, where citizens can take a little drug-holiday. Soma reminds me of both valium and ecstasy. It calms, and it also creates heightened sensation. Bernard is too aware of its effects (but he still uses it). The Savage refuses to use it.

I enjoyed the ideas, too, about the way we are constructed through language – about how powerful language is. In the brave new world, all ‘old’ texts have disappeared, because they are unnecessary and will interfere with the conditioned ideas. A language of worship to a commercial god has replaced them. But the Savage, too, is constructed by words. His ideas about the world come from Shakespeare. He cannot reconcile himself with the (normatised) promiscuity of the world, and repeats phrases like ‘impudent strumpet!’ from Othello. He thinks and speaks in Shakespearian, and so becomes subversive to both his Savage society who do not read in English, and to his mother and civilisation, who are conditioned to think in specific oppositional ways. There is an Oedipal undertone, too, where he tries to kill the man in bed with his mother. His love and disgust for her is then transferred into his love and disgust for Lenina. He does not wish to ‘defile’ her, thought she literally throws herself at him. Conditioned to be sexually open, she doesn’t understand his response at all. The Savage is a tragic character. The greater message, here, I think, is that none of us escape some kind of ‘conditioning’ through language, during our socialisation process.

I was quite disturbed by the Savage’s repulsion of Lenina, though it is justified in the story. I was worried about a parallel message of nostalgia for female chastity and virginity. I suppose Huxley could have wanted to explore these thoughts (as he’s exploring the dangers of excess in general), and that’s also why Linda, the Savage’s mother, is rendered so repulsively (not just to the civilised, but to the reader). Lenina is a character who, if the novel were written now, I believe could have been developed further. Her tiny awakenings were due to the male characters she encountered and her desire for them. She could be more active, now.

I underlined and dog-eared much in Brave New World and I think it’s a novel that will continue to make people think, and definitely to entertain. I forgot to mention that it’s funny – particularly in relation to Bernard. The style is a little all-over-the-place, but it works. It’s a brilliant piece of art.

‘What you need,’ the Savage went on, ‘is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.’

What’s next?

I’m currently reading The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. It’s a big’un so be patient with me.

Have you read Brave New World? What are your thoughts? I have to say that the mood of Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite different. I remember it well: a certain weightiness. Is there a dystopian vision you prefer?

24 thoughts on “20 classics in 2011 #6: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

  1. I was forced to read both this and Nineteen Eighty-Four in Year 11 English. I never paid attention. Years after leaving school I picked up both books and read them again, and was disappointed that I hadn’t paid attention the first time. Both are great in their own ways, and both are relevant today.

    • Thanks Adam! Yes – some of the Year 12s at my school read Brave New World while my class was reading Emma by Jane Austen. I’m kinda glad I didn’t read it then – now was a good time to come to it (in my mid-20s). I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four a couple of times, but not for a while now. I’m keen to read it again, actually.

  2. Aldous Huxley is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I’m proud to own a first edition of Brave New World, which I’ve re-read many times.

  3. Such an interesting book. Having read that, it’s really worth giving his last book “Island” a go, it has been described as a utopian counterpart to Brave New World. There’s some fascinating ideas and it’s psychologically more sophisticated – influenced by his “Perennial Philosophy” mysticism (and entheogenic drugs 🙂 . It’s under appreciated in my opinion, but then dystopias always get more attention. People prefer to sit around complaining than actually doing something I suppose.

  4. While both are often mentioned in the same breath, Orwell was very much concerned with the politics of his own time. Huxley was extrapolating on a very particular line.
    I love the way the savage communicates using shakespere and can’t hide his revulsion of the underclasses!

  5. While I wouldn’t say it’s a “classic” exactly when compared to some of his other writing (eg A Clockwork Orange: make sure you get the one with the final chapter!), Anthony Burgess’ parody/homage “1985” strikes a halfway house between Orwell and Huxley’s vision, from a rather more right-wing political position similar to Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451”. Well worth reading it while BNW and 1984 are fresh in your memory.

  6. I love your points about consumerism. At the time the novel was published I suppose consumerism was just ramping up – cars people could afford, ever cheaper mass produced goods. In the novel Huxley envisions humans becoming manufactured products, produced to specifications in an explicit class system. I found this made me think on class and the ways in which we are ‘manufactured’ in a less explicit sense by our society.

    I was also struck by the philosophy of his dystopia. It’s as if they were confronted by nihilism and decided to create their own purpose in a strange perpetual stability and bland happiness?

  7. I was introduced to Huxley’s work through my High School teacher in a very rural town. It was controversial for her to teach such works as A Brave New World but these are very powerful and insightful works. Such literature is very important to society along with books like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange which are frequently banned. See my commentary on the subject on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2010/07/aldous-huxley-rolls-in-his-grave.html

  8. I read this 10 years ago, when I was 18, and the one thing I remember writing in my notebook was “prudish”. I was older when I came to know and understand Adorno, spectacle-society etc, and in fiction, Houellebecq’s scarily realistic dystopias, so I wonder if I would feel differently now. What do you think? I remember comparing it to Orwell’s 1984, in which the “savage” proles live more hedonistically than Winston (although the Two Minutes Hate and use of branding, repetition etc still bear out control by mind rather than force).

  9. Thanks for all your comments!

    grahame – re the philosophy of his dystopia (and the relevance of it in comparison to political/social systems today) see the link Jeff Waugh left in the comments above. Very apt.

    dregstudios – wow, your art is awesome. Thanks for linking. I agree that these books are important to society – spreading awareness through entertainment and moving people instead of perpetuating their complacency… or something like that.

    ben – I still haven’t read Houellebecq, though I really should. And yes, I think it’s worth giving it another shot. Your ‘prudish’ observation could have been in relation to the Savage and his rejection of Lenina?

  10. I’m a big fan of 1984 and Brave New World, but I would have to say Fahrenheit 451 beats them all for prescience (so far anyway…)

  11. Hi Angela, thank you for this article. I stumbled upon your website when reading reviews for Breath (Tim Winton). I’m a fan of Huxley and read Brave New World several years ago but I struggle to recall specifics of the story. Your review reminds me how great it was and has encouraged me to read it again.

    I would recommend following it up with Brave New World Revisited. It’s a short book Huxley wrote decades after BNW was published where he elaborates on many of the themes in a much more direct and critical way.

    Thanks again and I’m sure I will be visiting your site regularly.

  12. Comparisons to BNW – that makes me even more intrigued by your own novel Angela. I’m also a big fan of dystopian fiction. I prefer 1984 to BNW though – it’s so much more sinister and suspenseful.

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