The Mess of Brave New World

One of my students this summer suggested that I read Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.  I obliged him.  And then I realized that it is book #58 on the BBC book list, so I killed two birds with one stone: pleasing people and checking a book off of my list.

I can’t decide if I liked Brave New World.  I don’t think it’s a book one is supposed to like.  It isn’t heartwarming or particularly beautiful.  The prose is simple, even bad at times, and the plot is horrifying and comedic at the same time.   Here’s the premise: it is the future and all babies are born in laboratories.  Society creates a few types of people, conditioning them from the time they are embryos to either work in particularly hot weather (the tropics), to be amused by death in order to handle working around it, to be less-than-average intelligence in order to perform menial tasks, or to be very casual about sex.  They are all essentially slaves, or “major instruments of social stability” (7).

The conditioning of young children and babies to be certain parts of society sounds frightening, but I contend that it isn’t different from what we have now.  This conditioning happens, just on a less shocking scale and in a more hidden way.  It happens in our educational system.  According to Jean Anyon in her article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” (read it here), children are already being conditioned to stay in their social classes.  Her research found that kids from lower social classes are taught to follow directions in school, kids from middle class schools learn to get the right answer, and the children of executives and people from a higher socioeconomic class are taught leadership and creativity.

This inequality in our school system is the result of many things, one of which is just plain old human nature.  Teachers aren’t perfect.  However, much could be done to equalize the system and to give children of all economic backgrounds the same chances to succeed.  Yet, part of me must acknowledge that parents play an even bigger role in making sure that children have advantages.  If parents aren’t “conditioning” their children to love reading or to explore their world curiously from infancy, they have already created a lack in their child’s education.  I have seen and do believe that children from educationally impoverished backgrounds can make up ground and can certainly lift themselves out of that disadvantaged beginning, but it’s tougher.  Parents are equally as responsible for their child’s education and abilities, yet that is also directly affected by the inequalities passed on through generations.  If a parent never had the advantages of a complete education or economic security, how can they give it to their children?  They do not know better or how.

Well, that’s enough of my musings on why not everybody is equal in the United States.  I’m passionate about that.  But Huxley addresses other concerns in his novel as well. One of those is promiscuity.  He presents society as one in which children are encouraged to engage in sex games, where women wear Malthusian belts (the opposite of a chastity belt, replete with birth control), and in which the words “mother” and “father” are dirty.  It is unheard of for children to be “born,” and when Bernard brings back a lost woman from the uncivilized world and her son John, nicknamed Savage, people are shocked by the fact that she gave actual birth to him.

This representation of society is an extreme one (obviously), but the ideas are not that far off.  Motherhood and fatherhood do seem to lack the respect and importance they should have.  Family life is often dismissed as boring or ignoble.  Media glamorizes being single, partying, and hooking up with as many people as possible.  The idea is that youth should be enjoyed and wild oats should be sowed.  I disagree, because of my religious background and beliefs, but Huxley disagrees as well.  He makes a pretty good case for why such behavior is immoral and will lead to a breakdown in society.  And if we want to connect a stable family life in which parents are responsible for their children to education, we definitely can.

Now, the writing in this book is admittedly terrible by its author.  In the foreword, he agrees that it could use some revising.  The ending is also rushed and strange, but it might just further the overall point of the book.  Savage ends up being extreme in his rejection of society, and that doesn’t do him any good either.  It seems that moderation would be better for all of the major characters.

As a side note, Savage learns to read (unlike anybody else) from a long-forgotten text: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  He is constantly quoting lines from the bard, especially from The Tempest.  As he enters “civilization” it becomes more and more clear that the novel itself is loosely based on The Tempest, with him as the Caliban figure and Lenina as Miranda.  (The title Brave New World comes from that play as well.)  His encounters with Lenina are awkward at best, and the most comical scene is when she takes off her clothes and is willing to sleep with him causally.  Savage nearly has a heart attack, violently rejects her, is offended by her immorality (which is completely normal to her), and forces her to hide in the bathroom until he’s gone.

And to this point, Huxley’s first line of the foreword is this: “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment.  If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time.  On no account brood over your wrong-doing.  Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”  I have to agree, and I think if the society he describes in Brave New World had followed this wise council, it wouldn’t be as dire, as unequal, as stupid, or as vapid as he describes.  Although the science in the novel seems to be advanced, I think the question Huxley is posing through the narrative is this: “Is this really progress?”

He also explores the following questions:

Is capitalism evil when applied to biology?

Is this sort of society a feminist’s worst nightmare?

What about the individual?

What would society be like without privacy rights?

My question is this: Is Huxley xenophobic?  Most of the names are foreign.

Huxley also explores the need for opposition in all things.  The people take a drug called soma (it causes them to sleep, as the word is reminiscent of somniac) every time something unpleasant happens.  (Interestingly enough, Huxley himself experimented with drugs, particularly LSD.)  The characters suppress all bad emotions and only seek pleasure.  Savage, when confronted by the leader Mustapha Mond, pleads with him to let the people know about Shakespeare, and The Bible, and God.  He says, “But I don’t want comfort.  I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness.  I want sin” (240).  He expresses the ideas that there can’t be happiness without sadness, there can’t be right without wrong, and there can’t be life without pain.   This novel explores such a world, one without sin or self-control, one in which good is called evil and evil is called good.  The conclusion is that such a society won’t work.

If you’d like more about this interesting novel, please check out my friend Hugh Curtler’s blog posts about it here and here.  Hugh is a retired philosophy professor and knows much about literature, politics, and life in general.  Check out his blog.  You won’t regret it!




38 thoughts on “The Mess of Brave New World

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  1. Fabulous! I have to read this! I have it on my kindle, but have never gotten around to it. It sounds so familiar because I think we are living it, or at least heading that way. I agree with you on how society and the education system mold our children, often without us realizing it. Reading this post energized my brain! Thank you so much! and I will be checking out your friend’s blog.

    1. Thanks for reading! I’m glad it “energized” you. And although we can be aware of the influences, good and bad, on our children, I just don’t know that there’s much we can do, besides do something differently at home.

  2. Well done, Emily. I do think the heart of the novel comes in the confrontation between the savage and Mustapha Mond. That exchange has generated countless discussions in the classes in which I used this book. Are we free? Truly?

  3. I read this book a few years ago now. I think you’ve captured the essence quite well. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the writing style but more the ideas behind it – Huxley wrote this in 1932, at a time when society was still changing, when we were experiencing expansive growth and, to put it in perspective, seven years before the Second World War began. I think Huxley deserves praise in his predictions, for that is essentially what they are. The society described within Brave New World provides more similarities to our world now than did our society back eighty years ago.

    One of the prevailing ideas I received from the novel is this: truth or happiness. As mentioned I read this years ago, but I recall the distinct notion that Huxley was separating the two forms. Knowledge with truth, happiness with ignorance. Jon and Mustapha would be examples of knowledge whereas Lenina and the other members of their society portrayed the ignorant bliss, in some respects now mirrored by our cultures of instant gratification and hedonism.

    In respect to your musing on conditioning and our educational systems I think you’re spot on, though I also think that expectation plays a massive part in moulding us into the people we become.

    Nice post.

  4. I just finished reading this book recently. To be honest, I hated it. I think it could not only have been written better, but also portrayed better. I do agree that it has some interesting ideas as well as some good cautionary tales for society, but I think he took things too far in the book.

    I also agree that we already do many of the things portrayed in the book, only to a much lesser degree. While I believe that we do condition children through our less than perfect education system, I also believe that there are those who can rise well above their class and achieve great things regardless of what they were taught to be in school.

    Brave New World is not a book I reccomend to people, I much prefer E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, for a similar, but better story.

    God Bless,

    1. Yes, I completely agree. People can and should rise above their class, I just think it’s harder when they start out with less of an opportunity. It’s not a great book, but it has some great ideas, like you say. I’ll have to look at Forster’s book.

  5. Thanks for reviewing this – it’s a book I mean to read but haven’t got round to yet. Your comments on education were interesting. I am currently involved in a literacy campaign here in the UK, to help get children’s levels higher (where I live they are the lowest in the country). Research done by the charity I work for shows that parents are the biggest influencers on their children’s behaviour – moreso than celebrities and teachers. Modelling has to be done at home – if a child sees you reading they are more likely to pick up a book. It’s been shown too that socio-economic background is less likely an indicator of success or otherwise than parental encouragement and positive role-modelling. So us parents do play a huge part in the future success of our children. Encouraging, frightening and thought-provoking all at the same time!

  6. Yeah, I didn’t like this book either. There was nothing endearing about it for me. I didn’t like the characters and the plot was not interesting. I needed soma to continue on.

  7. This book is sitting on my ‘on deck’ bookshelf for awhile and I’m glad I read your post and the comments about it. I can’t wait to read it for myself and see what I make of it. I also agree with all you said on education and parent responsibility. This was a particularly good post – thanks.

      1. 1. Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
        2. Mark of the Lion Series (really only the first and second books are on the top 10, the other is alright but heavy handed) By Francine Rivers
        3. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
        4. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
        5. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
        6. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
        7. The Princess Bride – William Goldman
        8. On the Beach – Nevil Schute
        9. A Long Way Gone – Ishmael Beah
        10. The Brother’s Karamozov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
        11. The Bachman Books especially The Running Man – Stephan King writing as Richard Bachman


        1. I’m not familiar with some of them, but I love To Kill a Mockingbird. The Brothers Karamazov is on my list! And I also want to read another of Nevil Shute’s books, A Town Like Alice. It is sitting on my shelf.

          1. I will check out A Town Like Alice. and don’t read On the Beach without a tissue box handy. My husband still hasn’t read that one b/c of my tear-fest!

  8. Huxley has an essay on perception, centred around his experience taking mescaline, called “The Doors of Perception”. It’s very interesting! I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years back. I’d be tempted to call it prophetic (in a similar way to 1984) but I think you’re right, it’s just an extreme reflection of what’s already happening.

  9. You are right in saying that Brave New Word is messy but its messiness is what makes the book so enjoyable. Huxley never took sides in the book. Unlike Orwell he doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of human society either. I think he believed that an understanding between humans and science would be best for the future.

    From the names of characters i am sure Huxley was disturbed by the events of his time. Ford had revolutionalised the industry and the progression of science was at its peak. But reading it now even makes more sense. Most of the things in the book are true for our time or going to be true in future. In his book Brave New Word Revisited Huxley commented that we are rapidly moving towards a society described in BNW. And I believe he was right.

    However I would disagree with you on the issue of human conditioning now and that in future as described in Brave New World. Sure the society is divided into classes now but every once in a while someone breaks the chain of bondage and sets himself/herself free. But imagine getting birth in labs with limited set of vocabulary with a certain inferiority and never getting out of it. Even if you get out of such a system the final punishment will be death.

    Undoubtably one of the finest I have ever read.

    1. Thanks for a great comment! I agree with you that people can and do break out of their social classes, but I do not think it is as easy as everybody would like to believe, especially when we bring up the American dream. It’s wonderful and amazing when people pull themselves up and out, but I also realize that so many start without the advantages that I enjoyed and without the advantages that many others have in the upper classes. Class issues are a sticky and complicated thing. I like that Huxley attempted to explain them in an exaggerated form. That extreme helps us to see how our society could be if we continue to buy into such stratifying ideas and practices.

      1. Oh! I am not saying its easy but its feasible and you have beautiful articulated the issue of educational conditioning in US.

        Not on the topic but i think you truly have a great blog here.will take me some time to go through it but will do it 🙂

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