“Community, Identity, Stability” is the motto of Aldous Huxley’s utopian World State. Here everyone consumes daily grams of soma, to fight depression, babies are born in laboratories, and the most popular form of entertainment is a “Feelie,” a movie that stimulates the senses of sight, hearing, and touch. Though there is no violence and everyone is provided for, Bernard Marx feels something is missing and senses his relationship with a young women has the potential to be much more than the confines of their existence allow. Huxley foreshadowed many of the practices and gadgets we take for granted today–let’s hope the sterility and absence of individuality he predicted aren’t yet to come.
Considered one of the classics of the dystopian genre, Brave New World gave us plenty to discuss! For a lot of the group this was a re-read, so it was interesting to contrast our impressions of it now to our impressions on first reading it. We decided that, compared with the utterly bleak likes of 1984, Brave New World probably wasn’t a “pure” dystopia – rather, it is a satire of the utopia. This may be a question of perspective: as Margaret Atwood discusses in her excellent collection of essays on sci-fi and dystopias, In Other Worlds, every utopia has a dystopia lurking at its heart, and vice versa. Every dystopia is a utopia for someone (usually those in charge!), so is Brave New World actually a utopia with the dystopian perspective added by John the Savage and others?
As well as being a satire of the utopian novel, this is also a satire of American culture and consumerism, as Huxley saw it at the time. We talked about how prescient a lot of it was: the idea of “ending is better than mending”, and of imaginative play being replaced with complex games that require investment in equipment, in particular rang bells for most of us. We also wondered whether we are actually seeing a reaction against that now though, with the resurgence of interest in craft activities, sewing groups, handmade clothes and home-grown food.
Some in the group actually found some aspects of the society appealing – the lack of family obligations was mentioned! On a more serious note, we also liked the society’s attitude to death: that it was treated matter-of-factly, and children were socialised to accept it as part of life rather than something upsetting and scary. The science of the book was also really interesting, particularly the idea of sleep-conditioning, as this is something with some basis in fact: for example, playing music to or reading to unborn babies may have a beneficial effect on their cognitive abilities as they get older.
Discussing the characters, we wondered if there might be some confusion over who the protagonist actually was. The general consensus was that Bernard was the protagonist, as he was the instigator of all of the action of the book, but that there may also be an argument for John the Savage being the protagonist. Ultimately, we agreed that although John was the catalyst for much of the action, he was not himself active enough to be considered the protagonist. The second half of the book is largely driven by other characters’ reactions to John, rather than his own actions. We noted how the references to him by other characters changed: he starts out being called “John Savage” or even “Mr Savage”, but is later just referred to as “the savage”, as he loses his appeal.
Although Bernard is the protagonist, and we did have some sympathy for him, none of us really liked him very much! He is not an appealing character: he is disdainful of society to begin with, but all of that disappears once he becomes more popular thanks to his association with John. He seems to forget all of his criticisms of the way society works as soon as he starts benefiting from it! Compared to Helmholtz Watson, the propaganda writer and would-be poet, who was secure in his position in society but still dissatisfied with it, and ultimately ends up exiled for writing a subversive poem about the joys of solitude, Bernard seems very hypocritical. Where Helmholtz understood society but rejected it, and accepted his exile gladly, Bernard only wants to reject society as long as he feels himself unfairly excluded from it.
Most of the group really liked Lenina as a character, and felt she was the most interesting. She was totally a product of this society, was happy in her own way (despite the use of Soma to suppress unwanted emotions!) and understood how the world worked and what her place was in it.
One of the things that struck us about this future society is that despite all the sexual liberation and “free love”, in some ways it is still quite conservative. For a society where regular orgies are apparently encouraged, it seemed odd that everyone was exclusively heterosexual: the only mention of homosexuality comes near the start, when discussing the “perversions” that arose in the old days when people were not encouraged to explore their sexuality freely from a young age. This is totally understandable when bearing in mind the time the book was written – homosexuality was still illegal then – but it does read oddly to modern eyes. We wondered if it simply hadn’t occurred to Huxley to put anything in about homosexuality, or if he had thought of it but decided that it was a step too far. This book would have been shocking enough at the time it was written, so adding in any gay scenes might have run the risk of distracting from the message of the book, or even preventing it from being published at all.
We loved Huxley’s writing style: the book scored very highly across the board on the strength of the writing. One person mentioned the perfection of the books opening line: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories” – the “only” in that line is a great introduction to the tone of the book. Structurally, the book is odd – the first six chapters are just exposition, nothing really happens until almost halfway through the book – but we agreed that the structure works for the subject matter. The opening section read almost like seeing the inner workings of the machine, as we learn all about this society and the people in it and how they work, which is actually very effective as the society described does run like a machine. It makes sense that the first chunk of the book is all very technical, with no real human emotion, as that is what the society of Brave New World is like.
The main negative point that a lot of the group picked up on was the ending. We mainly felt that it was too stark: John cannot fit into this new society, so has to take his own life instead. We thought that was too black-and-white, and jarred with the rest of the book somewhat. It was slightly gratifying to see from Huxley’s introduction to the book, written some years later, that he also felt this way, saying that if he were to write it again he would have a more optimistic ending.
To fulfill our less intellectual needs, we continued on from #WSwanLBC and discussed the worst soap operas in the world.
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