Aldous Huxley was born in 1894 into one of England's most distinguished intellectual families. His grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a brilliant biologist nicknamed “Darwin's bulldog” for his staunch support of the theory of evolution during the Origin of Species debates in the mid-Victorian period. His father, Leonard Huxley, was a respected editor and essayist, and his mother, Julia Frances Arnold, was the niece of the poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold as well as granddaughter of Dr. Thomas Arnold, a pioneer of English public education. Huxley's brother, Julian, was a noted geneticist. A product of the combined Huxley and Arnold strains, Aldous Huxley possessed a heritage that was literary as well as scientific. Although this marriage of ideas is found in many of Huxley's writings, it is especially evident in Brave New World, the novel for which he is most famous.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
Despair in England
Huxley wrote much of Brave New World in 1931, during a difficult period in England: “The Labour Government fell, the pound fell, productivity fell, unemployment rose, riots broke out in London and Glasgow, the Navy mutinied at Invergordon, long lines formed everywhere, and the depression settled down over Britain like an ominous cloud” (Firchow, p. 77). Filled with despair, people “were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of society might break down and cease to work” (Toynbee in Bradshaw, p. xvii).
In October of 1930, Huxley visited a mining village in Willington; what he saw there contributed greatly to his sense of gloom and decay. In Willington, the miners continued to face unemployment and diminished living conditions as a result of a general strike in 1926. In the years immediately following World War I, England's coal industry had fared unexpectedly well because its European competitors were still recovering from the effects of the war. However, when production in neighboring countries resumed at the middle of the decade, British mine owners decided that the only way to remain viable was to implement longer hours and lower pay for their workers. In protest, nearly 3 million union members from the railroad industry and the iron, steel, and building trades officially went on strike on May 3, 1926. Their action was short-lived. Not only did the government devise an emergency system of transportation, which weakened the impact that the work stoppage had on the general population, but, unlike previous protests, the general strike of 1926 was not violent. As a result of these conditions, the strikers were unable to secure the widespread support necessary to elicit change, and the strike came to a close after only nine days, with the two sides failing to come to an agreement. When Huxley happened upon the miners some five years later, his contact with them convinced him that England was at its nadir in the 1930s. In a letter dated January of 1931, he described the despair permeating the lives of the unemployed miners that he met in Willington:
The human race fills me with a steadily growing dismay. I was staying in the Durham coal-field this Autumn, in the heart of English unemployment, and it was awful. The sad and humiliating conclusion is forced on one that the only thing to do is to flee and hide. Nothing one can do is any good and the doing is liable to infect one with the disease one is trying to treat. So there's nothing for it but to make one's escape while one can, as long as one can.(Huxley in Bradshaw, p. xv)
Huxley's sense that it was futile to attempt to rectify what has gone wrong with English society is expressed in Brave New World, in which the effort to build a perfect society leads only to a different strain of the original sickness, and in which the final option exercised by John, the “Savage” who has been introduced to the “modern” society, is to “flee and hide.”
In the decade preceding publication of Brave New World, Huxley found himself in an enviable position. After spending his post-Oxford years working first as a schoolmaster at Eton and then as a journalist for the Athenaeum in London, he signed what would be the first of a series of three-year contracts with the Chatto & Windus publishing house in January of 1923. For the first time, Huxley now had the opportunity to write what he wanted and, more importantly, where he wanted. Taking advantage of this new freedom, Huxley and his wife, Maria, traded the familiar comforts of London for the poetic allure of Italy. The couple would remain there for the next two years, traveling extensively and observing firsthand the rise of Benito Mussolini's Fascist Party.
In the fall of 1925, the Huxleys embarked upon a world tour, which took them from India to Indonesia, Japan, and finally to the United States. America left its indelible mark upon the author; Brave New World, in fact, takes its inspiration in large part from a uniquely American style of industrial manufacturing. The factory in which children are produced, for example, is modeled upon Henry Ford's manufacturing plant, where Model T automobiles were built with speed and efficiency using assembly-line techniques. Ford himself becomes a sort of religious figure within the future society that Huxley envisions.
Brave New World recalls the culture of 1920s and early 1930s America, a culture of which Huxley—like many other European philosophers and social critics of the day—was highly critical (although Huxley himself would live for many years in California). In 1927, he wrote an essay entitled “The Outlook for American Culture: Some Reflections in a Machine Age,” in which he theorized that American culture represented the future of civilization. In his view, this was a dim prospect indeed. In America's capitalist system, Huxley saw the privileging of quantity over quality—the system would cater to the masses, and not to the wishes and needs of the best and brightest citizens. The average citizen thus becomes the focal point of the civilization:
This tendency to raise the ordinary, worldly man to the level of the extraordinary and disinterested one seems to me entirely deplorable. The next step will be to exalt him above the extraordinary man, who will be condemned and persecuted on principle because he is not ordinary—for not to be ordinary will be regarded as a crime. In this reversal of the old values I see a real danger, a menace to all desirable progress.(Huxley in Firchow, p. 35)
The “real danger” of which Huxley speaks in this essay appears as standardization in Brave New World; although he by no means condemns it outright, Huxley clearly perceives American popular culture as a threat to individuality and intellectual development.
Brave New World opens in the Central London Hatchery, where test-tube babies are incubated and “decanted,” and where their genetic development is carefully manipulated in order to produce predictable results. Huxley's fantastical setting was but a foreshadowing of future developments in reproductive technology; practices such as amniocentesis, cloning, and test-tube babies would eventually come to pass. This scene at the Central London Hatchery is based on theories of eugenics, a school of thought that was both popular and respected in Huxley's day. Sir Francis Galton, an English statistician and amateur biologist (and cousin of Charles Darwin), coined the term eugenics in 1883 from Greek words that mean “well born” (Degler, p. 41). People later applied the term to a movement to regulate the inheritance of traits in order to “improve” society. Proponents of the movement argued that “scientific proof” linked undesirable social traits such as mental deficiency, criminality, and other forms of deviant behavior to inherited characteristics. Such arguments led to an increase in the popularity of eugenics around the turn of the twentieth century, although it had been discussed in scientific circles for some two decades before that. The original intent of eugenics was to produce “socially desirable” people and to prevent the spread of the “undesirable” by such means as sterilization and legal restrictions on marriage. Conceived of as a responsible social reform movement, eugenics proved immensely popular in both England and America in the early 1900s. The first world congress of the Eugenics Society was held in 1912, with Winston Churchill as vice president of the English delegation and prominent university directors and philanthropists at the head of the American faction. Less prominent citizens also showed keen interest in the idea of regulating human breeding to bring the masses up to the intellectual and moral level of the elite. So high was the demand for 10,000 pamphlets printed by the English Eugenics Society to explain the benefits of sterilizing certain people that an extra 10,000 were produced. Huxley himself favored compulsory sterilization for the “feeble-minded,” for adults who had a mental age of six to eight (Huxley in Bradshaw, p. 151).
Although it began as a liberal reform movement, eugenics quickly became markedly racist. In America, some eugenicists used scientific theory and I.Q. tests to assert that blacks and some minority whites were inferior to other Caucasians and should be dealt with accordingly. Criminals and juvenile delinquents were sometimes sterilized without legal authorization. This violation of rights reached extreme measures in Nazi Germany, where the desire to “purify” German lineage eventually resulted a program of genocide. Beginning in the 1930s the Nazis began implementing a range of tactics based on eugenic theories, such as forced sterilization of the disabled; eventually their campaign against “non-Aryans” would decree the outright slaughter of Europe's Jewish population.
From the early to the mid-twentieth century, a revolutionary movement preoccupied the world of literature and the arts. Termed “modernism” because of its stark break from traditional forms and subjects, the literary strain of this movement is represented by well-known writers like Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. These authors ushered in a new era of writing that reflected contemporary breakthroughs in the social sciences—predominantly in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and political theory. The psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung assume great importance in the works of these writers, as does comparative anthropology's collection and comparison of mythic systems from around the world. Abandoning traditional chronology and narrative technique, modernist literature often played with individual forms of expression: sharing a character's thoughts, for example, just as he or she would have thought them, unmodified by grammar and punctuation. At its onset, modernist writing exhibited a lively energy and utopian spirit, which World War I seriously dampened. Postwar literature conveyed an overwhelming sense of disillusionment and despair, a bitter realization of humanity's most savage instincts.
By the early 1930s, when Brave New World was published, Aldous Huxley had come to epitomize the skepticism and sophistication of the late modernist movement. To an entire generation of younger people, he was a brilliant literary figure. According to one source: “[Huxley] seemed to represent the kind of freedom which might be termed freedom from: freedom from all sorts of things such as conventional orthodoxies, officious humbug, sexual taboos, respect for establishments” (Spender in Julian Huxley, p. 19). Although the modernist movement would come to a close by the start of World War II, the influence of Huxley and his predecessors would linger for decades to come.
The Novel in Focus
As the novel opens in the year 632 A.F. (after Ford), or 2540 A.D., the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning is taking a group of students on a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. “Viviparous,” or natural, childbirth is a thing of the past. Nowadays, test-tube fetuses are delivered by decanting, a process that is carefully regulated by the state. People destined to be leaders—Alphas—are produced from a single ovum and are therefore capable of individual thought; those meant to be followers and workers are mass-produced by causing a single ovum to “bud” into multiple embryos. Each person is engineered to remain content with his or her position in society: no one wishes to be other than who he or she is. From the fetal stage people are conditioned to become one of five basic varieties: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, or Epsilon (after the first five letters of the Greek alphabet). A variety of scientific techniques is used to produce each of the five types. For example, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, Epsilon fetuses are deprived of oxygen at various stages of their development to render them “fit” (i.e., mentally and physically deformed) for the type of position they will fulfill during their lifetime.
Later, the tour group goes to a dormitory where several young children are undergoing hypnopaedia, or sleep-teaching. The tour ends with a quick trip to the outdoor playing facility where naked children engage in erotic games designed to adequately prepare them to enter their sexually promiscuous society.
Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller for Western Europe (one of ten world controllers), then appears, and delivers a lecture on the history of Utopia. As Mond is speaking, the novel races back and forth between several other conversations occurring simultaneously. One of these takes place between Lenina Crowne, a nurse from the Hatchery, and her friend, Fanny. Apparently, Lenina has been spending too much time with only one man, an act of behavior discouraged in modern society. As Fanny begins to scold her friend for not being promiscuous enough, the reader is whisked away to another scene in which two men, Henry Foster and the Assistant Predestinator for the Centre, are casually discussing “having” Lenina. “Yes, I really do advise you to try her,” the former suggests to the latter. “Every one belongs to every one else, after all” (Brave New World, pp. 46–7). Eavesdropping on their conversation is yet another figure, a member of the Psychology Bureau named Bernard Marx, who silently objects to their discussing Lenina “as though she were a bit of meat” (Brave New World, p. 45). Rumor has it that Bernard's embryo was tainted with alcohol prior to his birth, thereby offering an explanation for his strange glumness.
A few days after the scenes at the Hatchery, the story focuses on Bernard and Lenina. As a member of the scientific community, Bernard has secured passage to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico, one of the last bastions of primitive society left on earth. He invites Lenina to join him; in an attempt to cure herself of her previous bout with monogamy, she readily accepts. Neither can predict what awaits them.
The pair are guided to a mesa where a penitent ritual involving snakes and flagellation is taking place. Lenina is disgusted, and the sight of dirt, disease, and old age on the faces around her—none of which occur in the modern world—does little to assuage her contempt. After the ceremony, a young savage named John approaches the couple with an interesting tale. His mother, like Bernard and Lenina, is a product of the outside world, abandoned in the reservation by her male partner many years earlier. John introduces Bernard and Lenina to his mother, Linda, who not only corroborates his story but also adds insight into the difficulties she experienced adapting to primitive ways. Upon hearing all this, Bernard decides to bring both John and his mother back into the folds of modern society and, after a few phone calls, the quartet are on their way to London.
The two people from the reservation find life in the civilized world far from accommodating. Linda, whose return to the society she once adored is marred by her visible aging and the disparaging rumor that she bore a child naturally through “viviparous” birth rather than by decanting, eventually seeks solace in the wonderdrug known as “soma.” She spends the rest of her days in soma-induced bliss until her death near the novel's end.
John is also unable to adjust to his new surroundings, despite the support given him by his new friends Bernard and an “emotional engineer” named Helmholtz Watson. Even the affections of Lenina are not enough to make him feel welcome; he is repulsed by her lust for him and spurns her attentions. Eventually John's dissatisfaction leads to the inevitable: a meeting with Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller.
John and Mustapha Mond engage in a compelling debate regarding the status of Utopian society. Armed with his knowledge of Shakespeare (who is quoted sixty-five times in the novel), whose works are banned in the modern world but accessible on the reservation, John challenges the restrictive policies of his new culture. Arguing against the insulating effects of soma, he quotes Othello as proof that emotions, however harsh, are beneficial to human life: “If after every tempest came such calms, may the winds blow till they have weakened death,” he says (Brave New World, p. 244). John asks to be sent to one of the islands to which Bernard and Helmholtz are being exiled, but it is decided that he will remain in modern society in the vain hope that he may one day realize the error of his ways. Balking at this decision, John flees to an abandoned lighthouse outside London, where he attempts to lead a life of solitude until the press locates him. Soon after being discovered, and after a savage ritual in which he whips Lenina, John decides to end his life as the only means of escape.
The name of Henry Ford (“Our Ford”) is used religiously by the characters in Brave New World, as though a person today might say “oh God”; the whole society, in fact, takes its dating system from the year in which Ford first starting producing the Model T automobile in the same way people have commonly used the date of the birth of Christ. Ford's writings are treated within the novel as though they were holy scripture, and characters cross their stomach with a “T” (after the Model T) when invoking Ford's name. The novel clearly means to indicate that the “brave new world” in fact had its birth in Ford's industrial philosophy.
Although he seems something of a sinister influence in Huxley's novel, the real-life Ford has been described as someone motivated by the best of intentions. He was a believer in making business benefit the consumer and the employee, and in the ability of machinery to improve the quality of life. His assembly-line technique for building cars lowered the price and sped up the rate at which cars could be produced; by mass-producing a single identical item over and over again, with workers repeating the same simple task over and over, Ford made it possible for almost every family in America to be able to own a car. He also paid high wages to his employees, although this practice has been described by some historians as mere business sense and not compassion. Furthermore, Ford's system relied on a “hierarchical authoritarian organization of industry,” beginning a trend that seems to have greatly troubled Brave New World's author (Bradshaw, p. 242).
In Brave New World, one of the steps in producing children perfectly suited to their destined roles in society takes place in the “Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Rooms.” For example, children who are to work indoors in a nonintellectual capacity are conditioned as infants to respond negatively to books and flowers by associating these things with frightening sounds (shrieking sirens and alarm bells) and a mild electric shock. This scene was modeled closely on the theories of John Broadus Watson (1878–1958), an American psychologist who, influenced by Ivan Pavlov's theory of conditioning, believed that instinct had little to do with human behavior, and that conditioned responses, such as those that the children in Huxley's books-and-flowers incident undergo, explained everything that people did. In a book entitled Behaviorism (1921), Watson wrote what one historian has called “the most famous single passage in the history of American psychology”:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.(Watson in Degler, p. 155)
Such theories were in direct contrast to principles of eugenics. Huxley opposed Watson and the “behaviorists” who followed him, and agreed with his geneticist brother Julian's theory that human life could not be so easily and mechanically explained. In Brave New World, the “emotional engineer,” Helmholtz Watson, is named, in part, as a disparaging allusion to John Watson.
Brave New World was published on February 2, 1932, and received mixed reactions; some public libraries chose to ban it from their shelves. But a review in Punch magazine praised the book: “Never has Mr. HUXLEY'S intelligence been more lucid, his wit more mordant or his style more competent than in this remarkable book” (“Grim Future,” p. 166). The novel sold 13,000 copies in England in the first year and 10,000 the next.
The American reviewers were far less polite, perhaps because the work was so obviously a satirical disparagement of their own culture. Its poor sales (only 3,000 immediately after publication) may also have reflected the wave of pessimism that was flooding American society in the years following the Great Depression: people simply did not care to experience such a dismal attitude in the literature they read. Instead, they wished to escape reality. One representative American review in the New York Herald Tribune notes: “Brave New World is intended to be the Utopia to end Utopias, the burlesque of grandiose modern schemes for futurity. It is described by the publishers as `witty and wickedly satirical,' but unless the substitution of Ford for God ... and the introduction of ... scintillating nursery rhymes can be relied on to stop the show, it must stand on its merits as a lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda” (Dawson in Draper, p. 284). Huxley recounts the fate of his book in a 1932 letter to an American friend thus: “I'm glad you liked Brave New World. I gather that it's been rather badly received by the critics on your side [of the Atlantic]. Which is a pity from the business point of view. In England, surprisingly, they have chirped up most laudatorily and the book is selling hard” (Huxley in Smith, p. 358).