The Russian Revolution and challenges to the British Empire abroad raised the possibility of change on a world scale. At home, the expansion of transportation and communication — the cars, telephones, and radios made affordable through mass production — also brought revolutionary changes to daily life. With the new technology, distances grew suddenly shorter and true privacy rarer. While people in industrialized societies welcomed these advances, they also worried about losing a familiar way of life, and perhaps even themselves, in the process. The nightmare vision of the fast-paced but meaningless routine of Brave New World reflects this widespread concern about the world of the 1920s and 1930s.
The period also brought a new questioning of traditional morality, especially regarding sex. Dress, language, and especially fiction expressed a greater openness for both women and men in their sexual lives. Some hailed this change as the beginning of true individual freedom, while others condemned it as the end of civilization itself. Huxley, with typical wit, uses the issue for irony, creating an image of the young Lenina being scolded for her lack of promiscuity. Sexual rules may change, Huxley tells his readers, but the power of convention remains the same.
Although set in the future, then, Huxley’s Brave New World is truly a novel of its time. At a period of great change, Huxley creates a world in which all the present worrying trends have produced terrible consequences. Movement toward socialism in the 1920s, for example, becomes, in Huxley’s future, the totalitarian World State. Questioning of religious beliefs and the growth of materialism, likewise, transforms into a religion of consumerism with Henry Ford as its god. And if Model T’s roll off the assembly line in the present, in a stream of identical cars, then in the future, human beings will be mass-produced, too. Huxley’s future vision, by turns witty and disturbing, imagines the end of a familiar, traditional life and the triumph of all that is new and strange in the modern world.
In constructing an imaginary world, Huxley contributes to a long tradition — the utopian fiction. “Utopia,” from the Greek words for “no place” and “good place,” first came into English in Sir Thomas More’s work Utopia (1516), a fictional account of a far away nation whose characteristics invite comparison with More’s England. More used his fictional Utopia to point out the problems present in his own society. Since then, writers have created utopias to challenge readers to think about the underlying assumptions of their own culture. Gulliver’s Travels (1726), by Jonathan Swift, seems at first to be a book of outlandish travel stories. Yet throughout the narratives, Swift employs his fictional worlds ironically to make serious arguments about the injustices of his own Britain. In utopian fiction, imagination becomes a way to explore alternatives in political, social, and religious life.
In Huxley’s time, the most popular writer of utopian fiction was H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), A Modern Utopia (1905), and many other novels. Wells held an optimistic view of the future, with an internationalist perspective, and so his utopias reflected the end of national divisions and the growth of a truly humane civilization, as he saw it. When Huxley read Wells’ Men Like Gods, he was inspired to make fun of its optimism with his characteristically ironic wit. What began as a parody turned into a novel of its own — Brave New World.
The brave new world of Huxley’s novel is not a “good place,” and so it is not, in the strictest terms, a utopia. Huxley himself called his world a “negative utopia,” the opposite of the traditional utopia. Readers have also used the word “dystopia,” meaning “bad place,” to describe Huxley’s fictional world and others like it.
Huxley’s dark view of the future opened a new door in fiction and seemed to revive interest in the old traditional utopian form by giving it a modern edge. George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1946) and 1984 (1949) build on the energy and meaning of their predecessor, Brave New World. In Fahrenheit 451 (1950), science fiction writer Ray Bradbury proposes a future society without history or literature, a dystopia of which Huxley’s World Controller Mustapha Mond himself would probably approve.
In the 1960s, Anthony Burgess imagined his own futuristic London in A Clockwork Orange, rehearsing the themes of control and the loss of self introduced by Huxley. And Huxley’s disturbing views of science and technology have even echoed in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where the anti-hero, wandering the streets of London during the V-2 raids of World War II, discovers his own dark history of social (and sexual) conditioning.
The Structure of Brave New World
As a writer, Huxley refused to be kept to simple, chronological structure in his fiction. He characteristically experiments with structure, surprising his reader by juxtaposing two different conversations or point of view. In Point Counter Point (1928), Huxley even attempted to break out of traditional narrative structure altogether — to make fiction imitate the flow of musical counterpoint.
In Brave New World, Huxley’s plan to create a futuristic world and then to introduce John the Savage as an outsider demanded another kind of unconventional structure. To achieve his effect, Huxley divides the novel roughly into thirds. The first part of the novel establishes the dystopia — the London of the future — with enough detail and background to encourage the reader to accept the world as a given. The second part plunges the reader into a thoroughly different world — the Savage Reservation — to experience the shock of the London characters who are traveling there as tourists. The central part also introduces the real main character, John, in the only world he has known since birth. The third part unfolds the events of John’s life in London and his challenge of the dystopia.
Huxley’s structuring of Brave New World defies the conventions of both mainstream and utopian fiction. In most traditional utopian novels, the utopia itself stands more or less alone as a setting, with no distracting side-trips to other places. The only contrast to the utopia, then, is the reader’s own culture and society. But in introducing the Savage Reservation, Huxley introduces another fictional world — a rival and contrast to his dystopia within the novel itself.
According to convention, the inclusion of the Savage Reservation should blur the clarity of the world of London. But Huxley manages to bring his dystopia into even sharper focus with the trip to the Savage Reservation. Both worlds emerge as believable and horrifying, each in its own way.
By holding the introduction of his main character until the middle of the novel, Huxley also flouts narrative convention. In this, Huxley uses the reader’s expectations about structure to produce a particular effect. Since convention dictates that the main character appear very early in the novel, readers frequently become convinced that Bernard Marx will be at the center of the plot and theme. Just when Bernard proves himself cowardly and weak, despite his rebelliousness, Huxley offers John, the real main character.
Compared to Bernard, John appears truly heroic, at least initially, and, as a “savage,” introduces a new perspective that Huxley uses upon the return to London. In bringing John into a dystopia already familiar to the reader, Huxley can play the reader’s knowledge against the character’s innocence. And the effect of this irony — Huxley’s strong point — intensifies the climax and conclusion of Brave New World.