The most shocking thing about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is how pleasantly it presents its dystopian setting. The World State as it exists in AF 632 (or the year 2540 as we know it) is a paragon of monolithic stability where nearly every aspect of life is manipulated by the government. Human beings are lab-grown, given chemicals that will assure their development into one of five separate castes. Once their development is complete, they’re immediately indoctrinated into the beliefs the World State wants them to have: that they are glad of the caste they’re in, they like the activities appropriate to their castes, that consumerist pleasure (sexual and otherwise) is the ultimate goal in life, and that all troublesome feelings are to be deadened through the liberal use of soma, an opiate drug. Everything that could inflame the human spirit — like art, literature, religion, even monogamy — is seen as ridiculous and savage by the enlightened citizens of the World State.
One man, at least, is not satisfied by this blissful status quo — Bernard Marx, an Alpha human who nonetheless doesn’t conform to the physical or emotional standards of his class. He’s shorter than most Alphas, and his depressive nature exacerbates an inferiority complex stemming from that. Instead of seeking out company and casual sex, he prefers his own company and melancholy thoughts. Lenina, a fetal technician at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center, seems to like him anyway — even though his insistence on being sad is something she can’t understand.
Bernard and Lenina travel to a “Savage” reservation on holiday and find a World State expat who disappeared decades ago, now quite advanced in age and with a strapping young son. Lenina is horrified by the simple living, different cultural morality, sickness, infirmity, old age, and poverty; Bernard is fascinated by it. When he learns that John, the expat’s son, is the illegal offspring of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Bernard is all too happy to charitably bring both of them to London for a family reunion.
It really doesn’t work out well for anyone. Linda, the expat, was so devastated by culture shock and the subsequent rejection of her native society, that she disappears into a soma hole. John, her son, is much like Bernard. They’re both disaffected outcasts failed by society, with no emotional outlet to even begin to understand their longing. What’s interesting, though, is that while John rejects the World State that wants to embrace him, Bernard abandons his dissatisfaction as soon as he gets that taste of fame and acclaim. John is determined to remain true to his personal experience, even in the face of alienation and suffering. Bernard starts blowing his social capital like he’s won the lottery, confusing his luck as a mandate to tell the world the way he really thinks.
The World State rejects Bernard, ultimately exiling him to an island where he can’t participate in society any more. John, however, remains stuck in its suffocating grip to the very end. Both men are ultimately broken by the monolith they rail against, and what’s worse — nothing is changed by it. The vulgar orgies and soma abuse continue. No one treats them as anything more than a curiosity.
And that’s because neither Bernard or John are good advocates for their anti-society stance. Both of them have been emotionally stunted by their background in different ways, and their inability to express the difficult emotions roiling them end up isolating them from anyone who might be able to help. Bernard, to me, confuses his depression for depth in the manner of high school and college kids everywhere but lacks the courage of his convictions to really explore the root of it. Instead of examining his emotions, he turns his unhappiness outward on anyone he feels deserves it. His dissatisfaction isn’t borne out of idealism or empathy; ultimately, it’s selfish and self-serving.
John, on the other hand, is self-focused because he was never given the opportunity to actually join a society. He was an outcast on the reservation and wasn’t allowed to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that marked his maturation into manhood or the connection to the land that all of his fellows shared. His own mother was too entrenched in her own pain to guide him through his, or to teach him how to work with his ideals. What results is a rigid and miserable man who clings to the devil he knows, unable to find any kind of balance that he might be able to work with.
Contrasted against the relatively happy (if vapid) citizens of the World State, Bernard and John feel more like warnings about the dangers of individuality than anything else. Citizens are conditioned from “birth” to be satisfied with their lot in life, given jobs appropriate to their predetermined abilities, and allowed their choice of leisure activities. All they have to do to keep society humming along is what, if the conditioning holds, would make them happy to begin with. No one even misses high art or literature. As far as dystopias go, the one in Brave New World is almost seductive in its completeness and effectiveness. It’s actually disturbing to me that it feels that way.
Because, looking around in this day and age, doesn’t it feel like all people want is some way to feel marginally meaningful, occupied and content, with no reason to think any further than their own pleasure? What have free thought and expression provided for us? If the only way to stabilize the human race and ensure its survival is through biological and psychological manipulation, wouldn’t that be better than the suffering and war we have now?
Brave New World was written in response to the popular utopian novels of the time, a kind of parody to the shiny optimism that had taken hold in post-World War I Europe. Huxley was concerned by the overreach of government, the radical shift in industry brought about by Ford’s assembly line, social manipulation through media, and how the short-term pleasure of people could be weaponized as an element of control. Scientific and cultural advancement is purposefully stunted by the World State in favor of stability and unity; technology as a disruptive influence is simply unheard of.
The World State is a strange hybrid of the worst excesses of capitalism and communism, with its strictly-defined castes and coercion to consume material goods above all else. People are straight-up brainwashed into being agreeable, discarding their own thoughts and feelings to keep the peace and happiness of the group intact. But the craziest thing is that, for the most part, the society works. Even the people who aren’t on board, for whatever reason, are given a place where they can be who they want to be without the pressures of groupthink.
The effectiveness of the World State is what sets Huxley’s work apart in the canon of dystopian fiction. Most authorities rule through oppressive fear, secrecy, or a more incompetent social manipulation that cannot hold. Seeing an authoritarian society that has somehow managed a (more or less) contented populace forces us to really think about why the World State is a dystopia and not a utopia. Is it simply that our cultural values are so far removed from theirs, or is there some fundamental aspect of the human experience being violated? The citizens of the World State are free to do as they please — only the State has conditioned them to be pleased by State-sanctioned activities. Is it really freedom if society has programmed us to make specific choices? If not, can we truly be free in any form of social structure?
This is the thing that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the ‘Savage’ in Brave New World. The World State really forces you to think about the value of the individual over society, and what one would be willing to give up for stability. It’s disconcerting to face those questions in a way that makes you reconsider the answers, but that’s precisely what the book invites you to do.