This book has made quite the splash over the past several years, and has even heavily influenced the ideology of some Christians when discussing societal issues. But is it the kind of influence we want?
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of those books that’s easy to talk about in terms of worldview, but it’s somewhat challenging to actually describe its plot. The story itself sometimes becomes lost in the discussion of its implications, which are expansive and numerous. To put it simply, Brave New World takes place in a new world order in which the family has been eradicated, people are conditioned to exist peacefully within a strict caste system, and receive happiness in the form of a drug called soma. Within this world we have Lenina, a common, pleasure-seeking woman, and Bernard, a counter-cultural and ambitious man. Through the course of the novel’s events, Bernard finds a woman who was born within this new world order in London, but became pregnant and was forced to bear a child in the outside world. His name is John, but for most of the book, he is known as the Savage.
Yeah. It is pretty weird when you just throw it out there like that.
Many pages have been filled in discussing Huxley’s Brave New World, many of them in comparison with George Orwell’s 1984, and many of them highly political in nature. That’s natural, and the book lends itself to that, as even Huxley himself focuses largely on the political aspects of the book in Brave New World Revisited. But beyond the political aspect of the novel are the societal and moral aspects of the book. These are where the most relevant and frightening aspects of the book are found, and it is also where the Christian can glean the most from. Because of this, it is also where I will focus most of my review.
The society of Brave New World is paradoxically one that centers on efficiency and yet a libertine lifestyle. Everything and everyone in the world is very meticulously controlled–from the world population to the growth of a fetus in a tube to psychological conditioning. Meanwhile, sexually promiscuous lifestyles are the norm. Lenina is criticized early on in the story for having sex with just one man for too long. It’s not natural, she’s told, to have one man for that long. She needs to move on to someone else. In a world where the family is a barbaric concept, and the word parent is literally a vulgarity, there is no real sexual ethic because “everyone belongs to everyone else.” It is this way, it has been designed this way, because it is efficient. As you learn later in the book, the intent of the Controllers is to remove human passion. And so they have removed emotion from sex. They have removed love from sex.
But while this twisted sexual ethic is certainly an important part of the story, genetic engineering is really more so. Each human being is grown in a test-tube with very carefully placed ingredients, so that the strict caste system can continue to exist. Once the person is born, they use psychological conditioning (read: brainwashing) to ensure that each individual is happy with their own intelligence level/societal caste and would not want to be anything other than what they are. The answers to would-be problems such as overpopulation, war, and crimes of passion are solved through over-organization.
A highly rigid and tightly controlled societal structure ensures that things are just as the Controllers intend them to be, all operating under an umbrella which designates the people’s happiness as the end goal. Everything, from sexual ethics to length of work days to scientific exploration, is about happiness – even if it means removing free will from the equation.
Then John is introduced, who really is the only good guy in the entire novel. Lenina is just one of the “drones,” as we might say – someone who is perfectly happy to go along with what everyone else is doing. She is part of the problem. Bernard is counter-cultural, but not because of morality. At the end of the day, he’s a combination of selfishness and ambition, the combination of which cause him to be counter-cultural, only because it serves his own ends. That leaves John – John, who grew up apart from the London society, who has some semblance of a religion (even if it is a bizarre hybrid of Christianity and Native American Paganism), who alone cares about chastity. And while John is certainly a highly flawed character, with over-emotional responses and at times quite violent behavior, he’s the only in the story that actually cares about morality. And what does that make him? A savage.
With that said, he’s not exactly shunned by society. Certainly he’s not accepted as one of them, but he makes a rather interesting specimen, scientifically for some, but as a means of entertainment for others. He’s treated by them much as a circus lion would be, the source of fun and entertainment and intrigue, not a unique person whose life has unique value. Because in Brave New World, everyone is expendable.
Even with all of that said, and text enough to match my other book reviews in and of itself, I find it difficult to wrap this book up in a nice little summary. That’s partially because Huxley’s writing is not always as high caliber as literary professors insist it to be. The story is powerful, but sometimes goes in too many directions at once. I’m left wondering whether I should be appalled at the selfish pursuit of shallow, drug-induced, sex-crazed “happiness” or struggling with the human rights aspect of the book’s caste system. Neither, it seems to me, is given quite enough attention on its own merit, and the story seems, at times, stretched too thin. In other places Huxley’s writing expertly navigates these dense themes, and one chapter alone (the conversation between the Controller and John) contains more insightful and prophetic wisdom than most books pack in the entire story.
But it’s not just the writing. It’s also because the story itself is in shades of gray. It’s not as black-and-white or cut-and-clear as we like for moral issues to be. So if I may, I’d like to really over-simplify and really dumb down the core elements of the story, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, which is not easy to obtain in this book.
Selfishness is the cause of all problems in this book.
I don’t know that Huxley would say it in exactly the same way, but that’s what this obsession with “happiness” comes down to. It’s also about efficiency, and extreme structuring in that vein (which is what Huxley spends a greater deal of Brave New World Revisited discussing), but whether they realize it or not, it’s the slavery of happiness, not efficiency, that causes so many of the problems in this society. As the Controller himself says at one point “It’s not been very good for truth. But it’s been very good for happiness.” This has been so damaging to their society that one character even attempts a rape at one point in the book, because pleasure is so worshipped, to the point of absurdity, that moral guidelines have disappeared. Not because they are unnecessary, as the Controller argues, but because they are serving a master which tells them to pretend they are not there.
But the message is not always worth the content.
Allow me to explain what I mean. Sexuality is a very significant theme in this book. Chastity is disgusting to these people, and the idea of marriage downright barbaric, even vulgar. That can be taken as a warning to people who try to leave the Biblical ideal of the family, of marriage as the sacred place for sex, and show what conclusion such an ideology reaches. The problem is that the medium it often uses – describing social orgies, for example – are at choice times so explicit that they threaten to run against the very notion that Huxley is supposedly fighting.
I also think it’s worthy of note here that I do not believe Huxley is trying to place sex back in the marriage bed. He certainly would have had issues with an extreme libertine lifestyle in sexuality, but Aldous Huxley was not a Christian. At best, he was an agnostic. And so, while John’s wish to marry is set up by the author to be an honorable thing in comparison to the callousness of the people of London, he is not primarily emphasizing a Christian sexual ethic. If anything, he is trying to place love back into sexuality, which while commendable often carries with it a cavalier attitude toward casual sex, when carried without the Christian sexual ethic.
It does not end well.
I won’t discuss the ending in detail here, for those who have not read it. But it will suffice to say that things do not turn out well for John. So while the warnings that Huxley gives against pursuing a life obsessed with pleasure are right and arguably godly, it could also serve to say to the moral man reading it that he is not welcome in the future. Ultimately, Aldous Huxley had some very worthwhile things to say, but the story almost becomes a condemnation of the end rather than a warning to change.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things here that are useful. There are powerful things here, and that our culture is so much more bend towards a pleasure-obsessed society even then in the early 1900s when he was writing is extremely significant. But just as it is imperative that we hear this message (even if apart from this novel itself), it is also imperative that we approach it with caution, lest we be swept up in resignation to its dystopian and highly pessimistic view.