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Brave New Reading List – Brave New World

by Brita Thielen
Brave New World Cover

This week’s post should make it fairly obvious where I drew my inspiration from for the title of this blog series. Brave New World (1932; Harper & Brothers) is the oldest novel I will address in this series. I chose it in part because while it was not the first, it is probably the most well-known of the early dystopian novels. It also contains themes and social concerns that are still relevant today. 

In Brave New World, we have entered a future that is designed with happiness as the advertised primary goal of the human race. The novel opens with a description of the “Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre,” where humans are created as mass-produced test-tube babies. A strong caste system is in place to create a limited number of intelligent, individualized “Alphas” and “Betas” and increasingly larger and more homogenous groups of “Gammas,” “Deltas,” and “Epsilons.” As one character describes it, “The optimum population . . . is modelled on the iceberg – eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.” To ensure this balance, the lower-caste embryos are subjected to different processes that inhibit their physical and mental development, the argument being that this better suits them for menial labor and docility. All castes are raised in the Conditioning Centre to ensure universal value systems, with the goal of “making people like their unescapable social destiny.” It becomes clear early in the novel that this goal of “happiness” for all really masks a greater goal of complete social stability.

The novel’s protagonist, Bernard Marx, is an “Alpha Plus” who doesn’t quite fit in with his caste. Bernard struggles to follow basic societal precepts, such as promiscuity and valuing the community over the individual, and he is incredibly self-conscious and somewhat socially awkward. However, Bernard’s life changes dramatically when he and the beautiful Lenina visit a “Savage Reservation” – isolated communities of people who lack the technological advancements of the “modern” society – a privilege granted only to an elite few. Huxley uses the “savages” as a foil to the rest of society. It should be noted that Huxley’s stereotyped portrayal of certain ethnicities here is problematic and may offend some readers.

Because I read Brave New World immediately after Eggers’ The Circle, I was instantly struck with the concerns about privacy that both novels share. People in Brave New World are conditioned from birth to desire communal activity and shirk being alone. They even have easy access to a drug called Soma, a hallucinogen with no negative side effects that allows citizens to escape any unpleasant thoughts or emotions, including a sense of isolation. Members of society are engaged in work or leisure activities nearly every waking hour and are discouraged from forming emotional attachments to others beyond the necessary civility. While The Circle focuses on the complete transparency created by internet technology, Huxley imagined a society that has been psychologically manipulated from birth to avoid privacy or individuality and the social friction they can cause.

Brave New World also addresses issues such as religion vs. atheism, consumerism, psychology, and artistic and scientific freedom. However, Huxley does not always take the view one might expect from our modern lens. For example, he seems to take quite a conservative view of extra-marital sex, or at least sex without emotional connection between the partners. In some ways, I think the tone he takes with such issues makes the book more intriguing, as it complicates our feelings about the dystopian society in a way that I’m not sure was present in the 1930s, and which we might not feel when reading more recent dystopian fiction. So be warned – you might find your loyalties torn with this one!

Recommended if: You are interested in biopolitics, psychology, or a historical conception of a dystopian world. The novel contains similar themes to The Circle by Dave Eggers and also makes an interesting counterpoint to The Handmaid’s Tale on the subject of religion – Christianity in particular.