[(essay date 1984) An American educator and critic, Firchow is the author of Aldous Huxley: Satirist and Novelist (1972) and The End of Utopia: A Study of Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World.” In the following excerpt from the latter work, he examines narrative technique, literary allusions, and characterization in Brave New World, which he considers a modernist novel.]
If there are plenty of good scientific and technological reasons—ectogenesis, cloning, serial mass production, TV—why Brave New World could not have been written before it was, there are also some very good literary reasons. For Brave New World is, literarily speaking, a very modern book; modern not only because it deals frankly with a typically “modern” subject like sex, but modern in the very ways it conceives of and presents its subject and characters.
There are in Brave New World no long introductory descriptions of landscape or environment in the Victorian or Edwardian manner; there is, initially, no attempt to give more than a very rudimentary outline of the physical and psychological traits of the characters. There is no elaborate explanation of how we came to be where we are, nor even at first an explanation at all why we are where we are: six-hundred-odd years in the future. The starting assumption is simply that it is quite normal to be in a big factory in the middle of London. Only gradually and indirectly does that assumption also become startling, as it becomes clear to us what the products of this factory are and what kind of a world we have entered.
This technique of indirection is one that Virginia Woolf ascribes, in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924), to the moderns. For her—and by extension for the modern novelist—the way to get at the heart of a character and a situation is not to add up every item of information we can gather about them; the whole is not to be found in the summing up of all of the parts. That way lies dullness—and Arnold Bennett. The better way is to try to get at the whole by being, as it were, paradoxically content with the part. To get at the essence of Mrs. Brown—Woolf's hypothetical example—we need to be told nothing directly of her history and background; we merely need to overhear her conversation in a railway compartment for an hour or so. Out of the apparently random odds and ends of this conversation, we can, by an act of the imagination, reconstruct her life and penetrate her soul.
What happens when a modern novelist resolves to transfer a Mrs. Brown or any other person into a work of fiction is that, inevitably, the author himself more or less disappears; the reader is left alone, seemingly at least, with the character(s). The modern novel therefore involves a shift of responsibility for character and situation away from the author and toward the reader, who must reach his conclusions about both “unaided.” This is clearly what happens in Virginia Woolf's own novels, or in the novels of other modern writers like Waugh , Bowen, Isherwood —and Huxley.
This is not to say that Huxley or Isherwood or anyone else read Woolf and then decided to write a new kind of novel. Woolf is merely, as she knew full well herself, making explicit theoretically a conclusion that she had noted in practice for some years, in Joyce and others. Huxley himself had employed this new and modern manner from the very outset of his career in stories like “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow” (1918) and novels like Crome Yellow (1921).
The first three chapters of Brave New World, especially, are masterfully composed in the indirect manner. Very little is heard; almost everything is overheard. To this manner Huxley also adds a refinement of his own devising, a technique perhaps best called “counterpoint,” since Huxley had used it most fully before in Point Counter Point (1929), though there are intimations of it as early as Those Barren Leaves (1925). This technique involves a simultaneous juxtaposition of different elements of the narrative, much as musical counterpoint means sounding different notes simultaneously with a cantus firmus. The result in music is—or should be—a complex harmony; in Huxley's fiction the result is, usually, a complex dissonance, a subtle and often brilliant cacophony of ironies. The third chapter of Brave New World is set up entirely in this kind of counterpoint, gathering together the various narrative strains of the first two chapters and juxtaposing them without any editorial comment, slowly at first and then with gathering momentum, climaxing in a crescendo that fuses snatches of Mond's lecture, Lenina's conversation with Fanny, Henry Foster's with Benito Hoover, Bernard Marx's resentful thoughts, and bits of hypnopaedic wisdom.
The result is astonishing and far more effective in drawing us into the noisy and frantically joyless atmosphere of the new world state than pages of descriptive writing would have been. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing in the modern British novel.
Brave New World is modern, too, in another literary respect. It is shot through with literary allusions. Most of these allusions—such as the title and much of the conversation of the Savage—are to Shakespeare, but there are also more or less direct or indirect allusions to Shaw, Wells, T. S. Eliot , D. H. Lawrence, Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Gray, and Dante. The point of these allusions is not, I think, to show how clever and sophisticated and knowledgeable a writer Aldous Huxley is; the point is, rather, as in the poetry of T. S. Eliot—or Huxley's own poetry, for that matter—to reveal ironically the inadequacies of the present (or the present as contained in the future) by comparing it with the past. This is primarily how the literary allusions function in The Waste Land or in “Whispers of Immortality“—from which Huxley derives Lenina's peculiarly pneumatic sexuality—and that is also how they function primarily in Brave New World. The juxtaposition of Cleopatra with a bored modern woman who has nothing to do or of Spenser's and Goldsmith's lovers with the dreary amorous adventures of a modern secretary serves the same purpose as the juxtaposition of the love of Othello and Desdemona with that of the hero and heroine of the “feely” “Three Weeks in a Helicopter,” or even the love of Romeo and Juliet with that of Lenina and the Savage. The effect in both cases is that of a literary double exposure, which provides a simultaneous view of two quite distinct and yet horribly similar realities. The tension between the two—that which pulls them violently apart and at the same time pushes them violently together—produces a powerful irony, which is just what Eliot and Huxley want to produce. By means of this irony it then becomes possible for Huxley, or the “narrator” of his novel, to guide the reader's response without seeming to do so, without requiring any overt interference on his part. By merely hinting, for example, at the analogy between the Fordian state and Prospero's island, Huxley manages to convey ironically a disapproval of that state without ever having to voice it himself. And he can safely leave it to the reader to make the rest of the ironic identification; Mond is Prospero; Lenina is Miranda; the Savage is Ferdinand; Bernard Marx is Caliban. Or, if one prefers, Mond is a kind of Prospero and Alonso combined; the Savage, as befits his name, is Caliban, and his mother, Linda, is Sycorax; Lenina is a perverse Miranda and Bernard a strange Ferdinand. Or, to give another twist to it, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning is a kind of Alonso who abandoned Linda and John to the desert; they in turn are, respectively, Prospero and Miranda, with their sexes reversed; the Indians and especially Pope are a kind of collective Caliban; Lenina, the aggressive lover, is a female Ferdinand, and Bernard a sort of rescuing Ariel. The same kind of ironic game can be played with Romeo and Juliet and Othello. In this way the ironies multiply until they become mind-boggling.
This is not to say that there is no direct narrative guidance in Huxley's novel. The reader is explicitly told, for example, that mental excess has produced in Helmholtz Watson's character the same results as a physical defect has in Bernard Marx. Or Bernard's psyche is analyzed for us in terms of an inferiority complex that finds its chief victims in his friends rather than his enemies. These are all acts of narrative interference and by no means isolated ones, but even so they are kept in the background and are, generally speaking, confined to attempts to make the psychological functioning of the characters more comprehensible.
Brave New World is a novel that is very carefully planned and put together. As Donald Watt has recently shown in his study [in Journal of English and Germanic Philology 77 (July 1978)] of Huxley's revisions in the typescript of Brave New World, a number of the best stylistic effects and one of the best scenes—the soma distribution riot—were afterthoughts, inserted by Huxley after he had finished the rest of the novel. This is not unusual for Huxley, who always revised his work thoroughly and in the process often came up with some of his best ideas. Just when Huxley started work on the novel is, however, not clear, though it is certain that the novel was finished, except for a few final touches, by the end of August 1931. Brave New World is first mentioned, though not by name, in Huxley's correspondence on May 18, 1931, and about a week later he wrote to his brother, Julian, that “all I've been writing during the last month won't do and I must re-write in quite another way.” This clearly means that Huxley must have started the novel no later than the end of April or the beginning of May 1931. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that he may have been planning and perhaps even writing Brave New World as early as the latter part of 1930. For in an essay published in January 1931, entitled “Boundaries of Utopia,” Huxley describes a future world that in general—and in some striking details—anticipates the new world state. “Served by mechanical domestics,” Huxley writes in this essay,
exploiting the incessant labour of mechanical slaves, the three-hundred-a-year men of the future state will enjoy an almost indefinite leisure. A system of transport, rapid, frequent and cheap [taxicopters and passenger rockets], will enable him to move about the globe more freely than the emigrant rentier of the present age.... The theatres in which the egalitarians will enjoy the talkies, tasties, smellies, and feelies, the Corner Houses where they will eat their synthetic poached eggs on toast-substitute and drink their substitutes of coffee, will be prodigiously much vaster and more splendid than anything we know today.
Huxley concludes the essay by asserting that continuous progress is possible only on condition that the size of the population be limited and genetically improved.
The focus on leisure, rapid transport, amusements, synthetic substitutes, and genetic improvements in humans all suggest close links with Brave New World, so close indeed that it is difficult to believe that the novel was not already germinating in Huxley's mind and perhaps even on his typewriter. If this is true, then Huxley spent the better part of a year—nine or ten months—writing and rewriting Brave New World. If it is not true, then Huxley must have planned and written the novel in the astonishingly short time of a little less than four months. In either case, it is a remarkable achievement in a remarkably short time, though it should be remembered that utopian and anti-utopian ideas had been floating through Huxley's mind and popping up occasionally in his fiction since as early as 1921. However short a time the actual writing may have taken, there were clearly years of general preparation and preliminary thought that went into the novel.
One of the chief problems Huxley had with Brave New World, according to Donald Watt, was with the characters. On the evidence of the revisions, Watt concludes that Huxley seems first to have thought of making Bernard Marx the rebellious hero of the novel but then changed his mind and deliberately played him down into a kind of anti-hero. After rejecting the possibility of a heroic Bernard, Huxley next seems to have turned to the Savage as an alternative. According to Watt, there are in the typescript several indications, later revised or omitted, of the Savage's putting up or at least planning to put up violent resistance to the new world state, perhaps even of leading a kind of revolution against it. But in the process of rewriting the novel, Huxley also abandoned this idea in favor of having no hero at all, or of having only the vague adumbration of a hero in Helmholtz Watson.
Watt's analysis of the revisions in Brave New World is very helpful and interesting; he shows convincingly, I think, that Huxley was unable to make up his mind until very late in the composition of the novel just what direction he wanted the story and the leading male characters to take. From this uncertainty, however, I do not think it necessary to leap to the further conclusion that Huxley had difficulty in creating these characters themselves. Huxley's supposedly inadequate ability to create living characters, the result of his not being a “congenital novelist,” is a question that often arises in discussions of his fiction, and in connection with longer and more traditionally novelistic novels like Point Counter Point or Eyeless in Gaza (1936) appropriately so. But Brave New World is anything but a traditional novel in this sense. It is not a novel of character but a relatively short satirical tale, a “fable,” much like Voltaire's Candide. One hardly demands fully developed and “round” characters of Candide, nor should one of Brave New World.
This is all the more the case because the very nature of the new world state precludes the existence of fully developed characters. Juliets and Anna Kareninas, or Hamlets and Prince Vronskys, are by definition impossibilities in the new world state. To ask for them is to ask for a different world, the very world whose absence Huxley's novel so savagely laments. Character, after all, is shaped by suffering, and the new world state has abolished suffering in favor of a continuous, soma-stupefied, infantile “happiness.” In such an environment it is difficult to have characters who grow and develop and are “alive.”
Despite all this, it is surprising and noteworthy how vivid and even varied Huxley's characters are. With all their uniformly standardized conditioning, Alphas and Betas turn out to be by no means alike: the ambitious “go-getter” Henry Foster is different from his easy-going friend Benito Hoover; the unconventional and more “pneumatic” Lenina Crowne from the moralistic and rather less pneumatic Fanny Crowne; the resentful and ugly Bernard Marx from the handsome and intelligent Helmholtz Watson. Huxley, in fact, seems to work consistently and consciously in terms of contrastive/complementary pairs to suggest various possibilities of response to similar situations. So, too, Helmholtz and the Savage are another pair, as are the Savage and Mond, Mond and the DHC, Bernard and Henry Foster. The most fully developed instance of this pairing or doubling technique is the trip that Bernard and Lenina make to the Indian reservation, a trip that duplicates the one made some years earlier by the DHC and a “particularly pneumatic” Beta-Minus named Linda. Like the DHC, Bernard also leaves Lenina, another pneumatic Beta, (briefly) behind while returning to civilization, and during this interval she, too, is lusted after by a savage, much as Pope and the other Indians lust after Linda. Even the novel as a whole reveals a similar sort of doubling structure, with the new world state on the one hand and the Indian reservation on the other.
Within limits, the characters, even some of the minor and superficial characters like Henry Foster, are capable of revealing other and deeper facets of their personality. Returning with Lenina from the Stoke Poges Obstacle Golf Course, Henry Foster's helicopter suddenly shoots upward on a column of hot air rising from the Slough Crematorium. Lenina is delighted at this brief switchback, but “Henry's tone was almost, for a moment, melancholy. `Do you know what that switchback was?' he said. `It was some human being finally and definitely disappearing. Going up in a squirt of hot gas. It would be curious to know who it was—a man or a woman, an Alpha or an Epsilon .... ” Henry quickly jolts himself out of this atypical mood and reverts to his normally obnoxious cheerfulness, but for an instant at least there was a glimpse of a real human being.
Much more than Henry, Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson are capable of complexity of response. The latter especially and partly through his contact with the Savage grows increasingly aware of himself as a separate human entity and of his dissatisfaction with the kind of life he had led hitherto. As an Emotional Engineer and contriver of slogans, Helmholtz has been very successful, as he also has been in the capacities of lover and sportsman; but he despises this success and seeks for a satisfaction for which he has no name and which he can only dimly conceive. He comes closest to expressing it in the poem that eventually leads to his exile, the poem in which an ideal and absent woman becomes more real to him—in the manner of Mallarme's flower that is absent from all bouquets—than any woman he has ever actually met.
In the end Helmholtz agrees to being sent into frigid exile in the Falkland Islands. The reason he chooses such a place rather than possible alternatives like Samoa or the Marquesas is because there he will not only have solitude but also a harsh climate in which to suffer and to gain new and very different experiences. His aim, however, is not, as some critics have suggested, to seek mystic experience; he simply wants to learn how to write better poetry. “I should like a thoroughly bad climate,” he tells Mustapha Mond. “I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms for example.... ” This hardly represents a search for mysticism and God; in this novel only the Savage, and he in only a very qualified way, can be described as seeking after such ends. Helmholtz merely wants more and better words. In the context of Huxley's work, he harks back to a character like Denis Stone in Crome Yellow, not forward to the pacifist Anthony Beavis in Eyeless in Gaza or in the inner-directed Propter in After Many a Summer (1939).
The same is true of Bernard Marx. Despite the apparent fact that Huxley once had more exalted intentions for him, Bernard belongs very much to the familiar Huxleyan category of the anti-hero, best exemplified perhaps by Theodore Gumbril, Jr., the so-called Complete Man of Antic Hay (1923). Like Gumbril, Bernard is able to envision and even seek after a love that is not merely sexual, but, like Gumbril again, his search is half-hearted. He is willing to settle for less because it is so much easier than trying to strive for more. Bernard is weak and cowardly and vain, much more so than Gumbril, and this makes him an unsympathetic character in a way that Gumbril is not. Nevertheless Bernard is undoubtedly capable of seeing the better, even if in the end he follows the worse.
Bernard is certainly a more fully developed character than Helmholtz; he is, in fact, with the exception of the Savage, the character about whom we know most in the entire novel. Just why this should be so is a question worth asking, just as it is worth asking why Bernard is the first of the novel's three malcontents to be brought to our attention.
Bernard's importance resides, I think, in his incapacity. The stability of the new world state can be threatened, it is clear, from above and from below. In the case of Helmholtz the threat is from above, from a surfeit of capacity; in Bernard's case it is from below, from a lack of sufficient capacity. This is not simply to say that Bernard is more stupid than Helmholtz, which he probably is, but rather that because of his physical inferiority he has developed a compulsive need to assert his superiority. It is this incapacity which, paradoxically, seems to make Bernard the more dangerous threat, for it compels him to rise to a position of power in his society; he wants to be accepted by his society, but only on his own terms, terms that are not acceptable in the long run if stability is to be maintained. Helmholtz, on the other hand, is a loner who really wants to have nothing to do with the society at all, and in this sense he represents much less of a threat. The Savage, on the other hand, though most violent and uncompromising in his hatred of and desire to destroy the new world state, is really no threat at all, for he originates from outside the society and is a kind of lusus naturae. There is never likely to be another Savage, but it is very probable that there will be or that there are more Bernards and Helmholtzes.
Both Bernard and Helmholtz are fairly complex characters. What is surprising, however, is that the same is true of Lenina Crowne. She seems at first to be nothing more than a pretty and addle-brained young woman without any emotional depth whatever. And at first it is true that this is all she is; but she changes in the course of the novel into something quite different. She changes because she falls in love.
The great irony of Lenina's falling in love is that she does not realize what it is that has happened to her; like Helmholtz she has no name for the new feeling and hence no way of conceiving or understanding what it is. She can only think of love in the physiological ways in which she has been conditioned to think of it; but her feeling is different.
So subtle is Huxley's portrayal of the change in Lenina that, as far as I know, no critic has ever commented on it. Yet Lenina is clearly predisposed from the very beginning to a love relationship that is not sanctioned by her society. As we learn from her conversation with Fanny, Lenina has been going with Henry Foster for four months without having had another man, and this in defiance of what she knows to be the properly promiscuous code of sexual behavior. When Fanny takes her up on this point of unconventionality, Lenina reacts almost truculently and replies that she “jolly well [does not] see why there should have been” anyone other than Henry. Her inability to see this error in her sexual ways is what predisposes her for the much greater and more intense feeling that she develops for the Savage.
The stages of her growing love for the Savage and her increasing mystification at what is happening within herself are handled with a brilliantly comic touch. There is the scene following Lenina's and the Savage's return from the feelies when the Savage sends her off in the taxicopter just as she is getting ready to seduce him. There is the touching moment when Lenina, who had once been terrified of pausing with Bernard to look at the sea and the moon over the Channel, now lingers “for a moment to look at the moon,” before being summoned by an irritated and uncomprehending Arch-Songster. There is Lenina's increasing impatience with the obtuseness of Henry Foster and his blundering solicitousness. There are the fond murmurings to herself of the Savage's name. There is the conference with Fanny as to what she should do about the Savage's strange coldness toward her. There is her blunt rejection of Fanny's advice to seek consolation with one of the millions of other men. There is the wonderful scene in which she seeks out the Savage alone in his apartment, discovers to her amazement that he loves her, sheds her clothing, and receives, to her even greater amazement, insults, blows, and a threat to kill. There is the final terrible scene at the lighthouse when Lenina steps out of the helicopter, looks at the Savage with “an uncertain, imploring, almost abject smile,” and then “pressed both hands to her left side [i.e., to her heart], and on that peach-bright, doll-beautiful face of hers appeared a strangely incongruous expression of yearning distress. Her blue eyes seemed to grow larger, brighter; and suddenly two tears rolled down her cheeks.” Again the Savage attacks her, this time with his whip, maddened by desire, by remorse, and by the horde of obscenely curious sightseers. In the end, however, desire triumphs and the Savage and Lenina consummate their love in an orgy-porgian climax. When the Savage awakens to the memory of what has happened, he knows he cannot live with such defilement. For him the end is swift and tragic. For Lenina, however, there is no end; her tragedy—and for all the comedy and irony in which her love for the Savage is immersed, the word tragedy is not entirely inappropriate—her tragedy is that she has felt an emotion that she can never express or communicate or realize again.
The characters of Brave New World, it is safe to conclude, are not merely made of cardboard and papier-mache. That they are nonetheless not full and complete human beings is quite true; but for all the technology and conditioning and impulses toward uniformity, there is still something profoundly human about them. As Lenina's development in the novel indicates, it is possible, as it were, to scratch the plasticized “doll-like” surface of a citizen—at least of an Alpha or Beta citizen—of the new world state and draw actual blood. In this sense and to this degree, Huxley's vision of the perfectly planned future is not without hope; for all the genetic engineering and conditioning, basic humanity remains much the same as it always was. Its imperfections and its needs, even under such greatly altered conditions, inevitably reappear. And it is for this reason, I think, that Huxley's vision is so extraordinarily powerful and compelling; because in the people he portrays we can still somehow recognize ourselves. (pp. 13-24)