I’d like to start out this book review by apologizing- I hadn’t realized how long it’d been since I last posted a book review. 2016 has been a year of transition; I recently moved across the country and began my career. I’ve been busy and, to be honest, a little out of touch with myself. I’ve been reading but not writing. But tonight I’m doing both.
Novels like Brave New World make me understand why the dystopian genre remains so popular in modern literature; why millions of writers attempt, every day, to create a world so horrific and so familiar; so far away from us and the world we know and yet so close. Brave New World illustrates a world that at first seems so distant and unbelievable that readers feel safe reading about it. Human beings doctored to fit a certain social caste system? Huxley describes this world via a group of people learning about the genetic processes; we, as readers, participate in watching just as this group of people. We look below us and laugh, readers disbelieving that such a world could exist, characters disbelieving that any other world ever did.
After finishing the novel, I kept asking myself who the main character was; who’s story is this? Should readers leave the novel pining after Lenina, wondering after Bernard, or lamenting about John the Savage? At different times, these three characters seem like the pinnacle plot line; at the end, however, I’m not sure that the novel cares too much about any of them. Moreover, I believe that Huxley has delivered a novel that is as unkind and apathetic to its characters as this dystopia is to everyone within it. There are points of realness and depth with each character; we become aware, for example, that this world is harmful to those that are aware of harm, through Bernard. Unlike everyone around him, Bernard cannot participate in wanton sex and unlimited pleasure without doubting it. Likewise, he cannot accept the social caste system without wondering what the world would look like without it. Lenina, on the other hand, blindly accepts what the Ford (the God-like director of this world) tells her; she has sex with men and looks down upon those in a different caste than she. Bernard sees something in Lenina, however, and she sees something in him. The two take a vacation together to a ‘savage’ village- the remnants of the world readers still call home. Here, mothers and fathers exist, and human beings attempt to be monogamous. Lenina watches in fascination; Bernard pushes her to get closer to the reality. At night the two go walking, and Lenina panics. Bernard explains: “I thought we’d be more together here- with nothing but the sea and the moon.” And Lenina responds: “But it’s lovely, and I don’t want to look.” For Bernard, heightened emotions, like the ones that star gazing arouse in human beings, are reality; wonder is better than routine- for Lenina, stability is reality; comfort is better than awe. “I want to feel something strongly. I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”
On this trip. Lenina and Bernard meet a woman: Linda. This woman came from Lenina and Bernard’s society and was abandoned in the savage village when she became pregnant with the Director’s child. Since this abandonment, Linda has lived unhappily in the village, always wishing to get back to the stability that was her old life. Her son, John, loved her instantly, a feeling which she did not understand how to reciprocate. Motherhood terrifies Linda still, and it throws Lenina into a panic that only her SOMA (drugs) can fix. What is aging and why is this woman letting it happen to her? What good is there in it? Why do people choose to live this way? “Back into reality, into the appalling present, the awful reality- but sublime, but significant, but desperately important precisely because of the imminence of that which made them so fearful.”
Lenina and Bernard take John and Linda back with them. Everyone becomes mystified with John who, upon arrival, seemed incredibly excited: “O brave new world! She was proclaiming the possibility of loveliness, the possibility of transforming even the nightmare into something fine and noble. O brave new world! It was a challenge, a command.” John sees hope in this new world, even if it is void of passion. He sees a possibility for him to teach this world love (especially Lenina). What he cannot understand, however, is the rage, the frustration, the hostility, that he will feel when people cannot and will not understand him. When people will laugh at him. When Lenina will throw herself at him without love or tenderness. When his mother dies but no one can grieve with him or understand his grief. John does not understand what it means to have passion in a passionless world. The Director tells him: “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.” Who can argue with this? How often have I fought for something only to get it and the contentment to not feel as grand as I had pictured? There have been countless men that I have thought of romantically only because of the tragedy, because of our inability to be together. It is a passion within the negatives (a rage or a heartbreak) that breathes life into the passion of love and adventure.
Perhaps we have already lived the tragic life; perhaps Mustafa Mond is correct in saying that man has evolved and no longer needs the negatives, no longer needs to think or examine or question his own life.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God. I want poetry. I want real danger. I want freedom. I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact, you are claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then, I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to constantly live in apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
“I claim them all.”
It’s brave of John to claim them all, but doesn’t Mustafa have a point here? Doesn’t this world eerily make sense? How often have we ourselves wished away human emotions? The raw, ugly ones that surround us during heartbreak or loss? Or even the embarrassing ones that reveal us to be flawed- jealousy, bitterness? Huxley illustrates what can happen in a world without emotion: nothing but routine. No thinking unless it’s been programmed into you to do so. But interestingly enough, the world with emotion needs warning as well. John, arguably the most human and familiar character to readers throughout the story, falls victim to his own rage and sadness. Too much passion is just as detrimental as too little of it. What is man to do? How are we, as a society, supposed to figure out exactly how to live? Is it better to calculate every living experience in an effort to gain the most happiness for the greatest number, or is it better to let each individual live their own mess and figure it out? Which is kinder to the human race?
We cannot find the answer. Huxley shows us that. Perhaps he himself became so inexorably frustrated at the question that he threw his hands up in the air, the inspiration for the cover art on the book. Is this depicting man forfeiting his own free will and passions to the machine that is controlled genetics, a caste social order, and programmed death? Or is it something deeper- humankind throwing all of its hands in the air in absolute uncertainty, a message to the void that we indeed do not know, will never know, and yet will never stop trying?