Brave New World, a novel by British writer Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), was written in 1931 and published in 1932. The work is one of literature’s most enduring examples of dystopian science fiction, so much so that its title has become eponymous with any large-scale attempt to forward a benevolence-promoting agenda of human unification. Brave New World is Huxley’s best-known work, and it stands alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell (1903–1950) and published in 1949, as seminal examples of the dystopian genre.
Huxley was born in southeast England. A member of a family of prominent scientists, Huxley opted instead to pursue an interest in literature. Although he struggled with vision impairment for most of his life, owing to a childhood disease, Huxley committed to becoming a writer when he was a student at Oxford University, and he went on to establish himself as one of the leading British authors of his era. In addition to his novels, Huxley also achieved major successes with his nonfiction work, of which 1954’s The Doors of Perception is his best known.
During his career, Huxley also published poems, short stories, travelogues, and essays, along with works of journalism and art criticism. He also had a stint as a Hollywood screenwriter during the 1930s. Toward the latter stages of his life, Huxley emerged as a key countercultural figure due to his famous psychedelic explorations, his interest in humanism and mysticism, and his sharp criticism of social conventions. He died of cancer in Los Angeles, California, in 1963.
Brave New World is set in the distant future, at a time when the human race has become subservient to a strictly controlled, hierarchical social structure led by a handful of elites known as the World State. The entire planet has been conglomerated into a single, highly industrialized unit, and everybody seems to be happy except for the novel’s protagonist, Bernard Marx. Bernard is a psychologist and member of a privileged class, but he derives no pleasure from the two primary pursuits of the rest of the human race: sexual promiscuity and the immoderate ingestion of a drug known as soma.
The novel is broken into two sections. In the first section, Bernard visits the Savage Reservation, a wild exclave in New Mexico, with a woman named Lenina. There, they meet a young man named John, an outcast who grew up outside the carefully ordered world that dominates most of the rest of Earth. In the second section, Bernard, Lenina, and John return to London, culminating in the arrest of Bernard, John, and an accomplice, Helmholtz Watson, for their role in a riot caused by a soma shortage. The three are sentenced by Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for western Europe, with Bernard and Helmholtz being sent into exile in the Falkland Islands, while John, the “savage,” is put on display in a zoo-like setting, escaping only through his suicide.
John: John is a man who grew up outside of the World State. He has a very different view of the world and society than the other characters. John is an outsider, unable to fit in with the villagers he was raised around or the World State society he enters into. He is attracted to Lenina but will not act on his desires because his manners are based on those he has read about in real-life playwright William Shakespearersquo;s (1564–1616) works. His entire worldview is based on the writings of Shakespeare, which he can quote readily.
Bernard Marx: Bernard is the novel’s protagonist. He is a psychologist with privileged status, but does not enjoy the sex, drugs, and leisure activities that the World State society revolves around. This primarily derives from his inferiority complex due to his small stature, and he is described as petty and cruel when he feels slighted. After visiting a Savage Reservation outside of World State, he returns with John.
Helmholtz Watson: Helmholtz is a member of the privileged caste and a friend of Bernard’s. Although they are both discontented by the World State, Helmholtz is genuinely disillusioned by society. He desires a more meaningful existence, and is much more philosophical about things than Bernard.
Lenina Crowne: Lenina works at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where babies are grown in artificial wombs. She is very attractive and desired by several men throughout the novel. She develops a passionate love for John after meeting him, but John refuses her advances out of principal. Lenina both conforms to and defies societal norms by relating to others through her sexual appeal while also embracing monogamy, which is unconventional in the World State. Her system of values directly conflicts with John’s, dooming their relationship.
Dark Side of Progress
One of the most prevalent themes of Brave New World is its critique of the notion of scientific, technological, and societal progress. Through the oppressive presence of technology and government, Huxley explores the possible dark sides of human advancement. Basic, fundamental aspects of human life—birth, reproduction, aging, death—are strictly controlled through an agenda of conditioning and involuntary medical intervention. Censorship is rampant, and the general populous is kept docile by the ubiquity of soma.
Consumerism and Totalitarianism
Consumerism is another thematic touchstone, explored largely through the stratified global society that exists only to serve its own needs. The book also creates a dichotomy between happiness and truth, with characters constantly taking actions and making choices that allow them to maintain their happiness by looking past the truth about themselves. Totalitarianism is enabled by technology, with pronounced effects on basic human drives such as sexuality and the need to connect with other people.
Brave New World was a groundbreaking novel, and it is considered one of the foundational works in the genre of dystopian fiction. Its subjects and themes continue to resonate with modern readers, who live at a time when the kind of widely endorsed consumerism and invasive technologies seen in the book have clear and distinct real-world counterparts. Brave New World had a direct influence on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and its legacy can also be seen in the works of authors including Ray Bradbury (1920–2012), Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), and Margaret Atwood (1939—).
Although critical reaction largely fell on the negative side of the spectrum upon the book’s initial publication, Brave New World has come to be regarded as a classic work of twentieth-century English literature. While some early critics lauded the book, the majority found the work disgusting and unnecessarily alarmist. Writer H.G. Wells (1866–1946) described the book as a betrayal to the future of society.
In the decades to follow, reviews of the book became almost unanimously positive. The novel did not win any major awards when it was first released, but Huxley earned the prestigious Award of Merit for the novel in 1950, which was bestowed on him by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The book was routinely listed among the best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and it is considered by many to be one of the best dystopian novels ever written.