© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
One of the key phenomena in Western literature of the late nineteenth century was the rise of utopian fictions that envisioned the coming of a better world, presumably fueled in one way or another by the fallout from the Enlightenment. Thus, a text such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), from the U.S., responded directly to the recent Industrial Revolution with a confident sense that technological progress could ultimately solve both the material and the social problems of the era. Even an opposed text such as William Morris’s British novel News from Nowhere (1890), which responded directed to Bellamy with skepticism toward technology, still imagined a utopia, this time one built on living in harmony with nature, but still relying on individuals to behave rationally and in the best interests of themselves and others. By the beginning of the 1930s, kicked off by a collapse of Western capitalist economies that triggered widespread economic depression, the confidence of such utopian thinkers had been shattered by a series of events, most notably World War I, that seriously called into question the notion that the rise of scientific rationalism and the concomitant spread of technological progress would necessarily lead to a better world.
Such events are reflected in the widespread sense of crisis that pervades early twentieth-century literature and that can be found, for example, in virtually every work of literary modernism. Meanwhile, by the 1930s, literary works had begun to appear that were built on visions of future societies based more on dystopian nightmares than on utopian dreams. As Tom Moylan puts it, noting that dystopian fiction is a very direct response to real-world events, “Dystopian narrative is largely the product of the terrors of the twentieth century … exploitation, repression, state violence, war, genocide, disease … and the steady depletion of humanity through the buying and selling of everyday life” (xi). This new dystopian literature not only suggested that the future might indeed be worse than the present, but also suggested that these baleful dystopian conditions might be triggered precisely by utopian attempts to solve the social and economic problems that were becoming more and more pressing through the first decades of the twentieth century. Early examples such as E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops” (1919) began to set the tone for such dystopian visions, which were first fully realized in Evgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), widely recognized as the first full-length dystopian novel, presenting a cautionary tale of the dangers involved should the utopian project of building socialism in the new Soviet Union go awry. Aldous Huxley then quickly followed, in 1932, with brave New World, which expressed many of the same reservations about consumer capitalism.
We was actually originally published in English, and some (most notably George Orwell) would eventually remark its possible influence on Brave New World,but Huxley had apparently not read it by the time he published his own dystopian masterpiece. By this time, of course, with the memory of the horrors of world war still vivid, the excesses of emergent consumer capitalism in 1920s had led to depression at the beginning of the 1930s, so Huxley certainly had plenty to react to without recourse to Zamyatin’s model. Eventually, the novels of Zamyatin and Huxley would be joined by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) as the three major foundational texts of the modern genre of dystopian fiction, a mode that has become more and more characteristic of Western fiction in the ensuing years. Of the three, Zamyatin’s dystopian vision is deeply rooted in a society that is now receding into the past, while Orwell’s book is still the best known, largely because it was widely promoted during the Cold War as a warning against the evils of Stalinist communism (even though Orwell himself insisted that it was also a warning against anticommunist excess). But Huxley’s novel, with its chilling vision of a hedonistic consumerist “paradise” run amuck, leading to intellectual stagnation and emotional sterility, and is probably now the most relevant of these three crucial texts, at least to readers in the relatively affluent Western capitalist countries.
That Huxley’s vision should remain so relevant is not surprising given that he was reacting directly to events of the first decades of the twentieth century, which saw an unprecedented, dramatic change in the texture of everyday life that swept away the primarily rural, agricultural lifestyle that had been dominant in the West for hundreds of years, replacing it with an urban modernity in which the majority lived in cities and began to enjoy the fruits of a consumerist explosion that saw the introduction of a wide array of new commercial products that caused a revolution in the idea that life could be made better and easier by the mere consumption of products. Part of this new lifestyle was an increase in the time available for recreation, and one of the great innovations of the consumerist revolution of the first three decades of the twentieth century was the rise of an entirely new popular culture industry, designed to meet the needs of an increasingly urban population with growing amounts of leisure time. Of course, technological innovation was at work in this revolution as well, as entirely new entertainment media (first radio, then film) became popular during this period, while other media (such as phonograph records and even printed books) underwent technological improvements that made them much more commercially viable. Meanwhile, all of these material changes were accompanied by, or in some cases led to, substantial social changes as well. For one thing, all of the new innovations that accompanied the rise of consumer capitalism had more benefits for some than for others, deepening the class-based rift between the rich and the poor that had long been the most troubling aspect of capitalism in general. For another, First Wave feminism, combined with new scientific insights into sexuality on the part of such professional experts as Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, had ushered in the new century with demands for the radical reconsideration of gender roles and of the role of sexuality in modern life.
Brave New World responds quite directly to all of these historical phenomena. For example, the specter of World War I clearly hovers over the book, which specifies that the World State came into being in response to a catalysmic “Nine Years’s War” in which horrific biological weapons (anthrax bombs) were used to produce massive casualties, clearly echoing the use of such technological innovations as poisonous gases and aerial bombing in World War I. This war, we are told, began in the year “A. F. 141” (35), with the “A. F.” clearly standing for “Anno Ford,” echoing the “Anno Domini” designation that Western societies had long used to date their calendars since the birth of Christ. With American industrialist Henry Ford worshipped like a god in this society, dates are measured from his birth (in 1863), which would place the beginning of the Nine Years’ War in 2004. We also learn that this war, traumatic enough in itself, was followed by “the great Economic Collapse” (36), an event that clearly echoes the recent onset of economic depression in Western capitalist economies in Huxley’s own world, which was marked especially in the U.S. by the stock market collapse of October 29, 1929 and which had spread throughout the Western capitalist world by 1932. The war and the Great Economic Collapse left the future world of Huxley’s book with “a choice between World Control and destruction” (36), so the World State was initiated in order to save civilization, its policies of enforced tranquility designed to ensure that the kind of soaring passions that had led to the war could never again occur.
Brave New World, of course, focuses on the dehumanizing consequences of this overall policy, suggesting that, by limiting human passions, and by particularly seeking to mute the human desire to explore new ground in areas such as science and literature, the World State has achieved its objective of ongoing peace at the price of numbing the hearts and minds of its population. Numerous practices are in effect to ensure that no one is ever unhappy, but no one ever experiences joy, either, and much of the text is designed to explore the consequences of this situation. Of course, the text focuses primarily on characters —such as Bernard Marx and Humboldt Watson and, ultimately, John the Savage—who do not quite fit in with the conformist tendencies of this society, which tends to cast a critical light on the society. At every step of the way, however, Huxley deftly creates tensions and leaves open the possibility of alternative interpretations. The World State may be clearly dystopian, but it contains strong utopian energies as well, and it has, in fact, solved many of the problems of Huxley’s contemporary world. Every aspect of the text, then, must be looked at from both sides, as a dystopian critique of certain negative directions in which Huxley saw his own society moving and as a utopian vision of possible alternatives.
The recent historical phenomenon to which Huxley most directly responds is the recent rise of consumer capitalism, which, as William Leach has so convincingly outlined in Land of Desire, transformed the nature of day-to-day life in the Western world between the 1890s and 1930s. The economy of the World State depends heavily on consumerism, and individuals in this world are encouraged to spend freely. For example, one of the slogans that passes for education in this society is the mantra, “ending is better than mending” (37), which urges consumers to throw away any item that breaks and simply buy a new one. On the other hand, the Controllers who govern this highly administered society know all too well that consumerism is best based not on fear, but on desire. So they have learned, following the strategies of the new discourse of advertising that had grown up in Huxley’s world as a crucial part of consumer capitalism, not to demand that consumers buy things, but simply to manipulate them so that they want to buy things.
Huxley does not seem to have been entirely aware (as few people were in 1932) that this kind of irresponsible consumption can lead to serious consequences for the natural environment, and concerns such as pollution and global warming are not a part of his dark vision of the future. Indeed, consumerism in the World State has a clear upside in that consumption does seem to provide a modicum of satisfaction; on the other hand, consumerist satisfaction must always be fleeting and incomplete, and the desire of consumers to acquire more and more must never be quenched, lest the economy stagnate. Meanwhile, what we see of the lives of individuals in the World State suggests that the economy is thriving and that individuals live in a relative state of affluence. Goods exist for them to consume, and they have the money to buy them. At the same time, we see very little of the lives of the lower classes in this intensely class-differentiated society, and it is safe to assume that the lowly epsilons and gammas have far less in the way of material wealth than the upper-class alphas and betas who are the main characters of the book. Then again, those classes have been conditioned (and genetically engineered) to have lower expectations and to remain happy with their lot, whatever it might be.
For many readers, the most striking aspect of Brave New World is the way in which individuals are literally manufactured in factories, using principles of Fordist assembly-line production. This aspect of the text directly addresses specific contemporary issues, such as the Eugenics Movement, which sought to use scientific principles to improve the genetic quality of the human race in a move that many found problematic, if not downright chilling. However, this aspect of Brave New World is also highly allegorical, suggesting among other things the general dehumanizing effects of modern industrial capitalism. It also comments upon class inequality under modern capitalism. This artificial production of infants also allows fetuses to be modified during the process, so that they can be genetically tuned to occupy specific positions in society—after proper conditioning and education, of course. Thus, alphas are given the best genetics and groomed to assume positions requiring high levels of intellect, while lowly gammas have their intellects intentionally crippled, so that they can be satisfied with the lowly positions they are expected to assume. In the meantime, this method of producing children is also a crucial component of the policy of preventing strong emotional attachments, such as the ones that might occur between a parent and child or between the two parents of a child. Meanwhile, this system of producing children is itself reinforced by a thoroughgoing campaign of ideological indoctrination designed to make the whole process of live birth (and of motherhood itself) seem revolting and obscene.
Karl Marx had suggested nearly a century before Brave New World that one of the central consequences of capitalism was to turn people into things, and the synchronized factory production systems pioneered by Ford had only exacerbated this effect by forcing human workers to become little more than cogs in the factory machinery, a development that would be captured brilliantly on film only a few years after Huxley published Brave New World with the tribulations suffered by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times (1936), in which the Tramp must not only synchronize his actions with the factory machinery, but literally gets caught in the gears of that machinery, passing through them very much like film passing through a projector.
Of course, that famous scene is indicative of the way in which Modern Times serves not only as a commentary on the dehumanizing consequences of modern industrial capitalism in general, but in particular on what Chaplin saw as the growing industrialization and commercialization of the filmmaking process. Modern Times was Chaplin’s farewell to silent film and his acknowledgement that market forces were demanding that he move into sound, catching him up in the new technology much as the Tramp is caught up in the gears of that factory machinery. Film, Chaplin seems to be saying, was becoming more of a business than an art, with box office receipts more important than artistic success. Film, for Chaplin, had been swept up, like everything else, in the wave of consumerism that swept Western societies in the first decades of the twentieth century.
This notion of the complicity of film—and, by extension, popular culture as a whole—in consumerist conformism, is one of the central themes of Brave New World. Citizens of the World State are kept in a permanently pacified condition by a combination of what would come, in the 1960s, to be widely referred to as “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” seen by those who practiced them as countercultural activities that were inherently subversive because of the way they offended conventional bourgeois sensibilities. It might be noted, incidentally, that Huxley’s later novel Island (1962), which seems to counsel the use consciousness-altering drugs as a mode of mind expansion, was extremely popular with the counterculture of the 1960s. However, Brave New World is much more skeptical of the possibilities offered by soma, the drug of choice in its dystopian future. Soma has the advantage of having few unpleasant side effects, but rather than expanding consciousness, it would seem to narrow it, having an essentially numbing effect that helps the citizens of the World State enjoy their material comforts without asking too many questions. If, for Marx, religion was the opiate of the masses, encouraging them to blindly follow an authority that did not work to their advantage, the opiate of Huxley’s essentially religion-free society is, well, an opiate that keeps the mind of individuals too befogged to be capable of critical thinking, though it must be said that it does keep them happy.
One might compare the original Star Trek episode “This Side of Paradise” (March 2, 1967), in which the Enterprise travels to the planet Omicron Ceti III, expecting that deadly radiation will have wiped out the human colony there. Instead, they find the colonists living in unnaturally perfect health amid what seems to be a utopian paradise of peace, plenty, and tranquility, a situation that turns out to be due to the effects of strange plants whose spores give those exposed to them both perfect physical health and complete mental contentment. Even the normally stoic half-Vulcan Spock is affected, causing him to relax his usual logical exterior and even to fall in love. Eventually, the entire crew of the Enterprise (with the exception of Captain Kirk) is affected, until Kirk manages to intervene and end the effect. The crew returns to the ship, and the colonists agree to move to a new planet free of both deadly radiation and healing spores, so that they can resume their struggle to build a better new world rather than simply live in passive tranquility. For Kirk, after all, struggle and strife are central to the very definition of what it means to be human. Spock, on the other hand, is not quite so sure, pointing out that the situation on Omicron Ceti III was not entirely bad. “For the first time in my life,” he notes, “I was happy.”
The drug soma, so crucial to the functioning of the society of the World State in Brave New World, plays very much the same role as the spores of this Star Trek episode. While soma apparently has no physical healing effects, Huxley stipulates that the drug has no harmful physical side-effects, and it does seem to bring mental and emotional peace and happiness to those who take it. Granted, the drug removes a certain amount of ambition and creativity, but with all basic needs provided for, it is not unequivocally clear that ambition and creativity are really needed in this society. And, of course, that drug use would have a certain utopian dimension in Brave New World is perhaps not surprising given the positive figuration given to drugs in Island thirty years later. One thing that is clear in the earlier novel, however, is that popular culture also functions as a sort of drug, and this time as one that substitutes for something that might potentially be much more fulfilling. Indeed, in many ways the most one-sided critique embedded in Brave New World involves its treatment of popular culture, which is almost entirely negative. The popular culture of the World State is intentionally impoverished and debased; further, it is the only culture, with the kinds of artworks that were once considered “high” art (such as the plays of Shakespeare, to which this popular culture is frequently contrasted in Brave New World) now having been completely banned to the general public.
Huxley’s book, of course, was written at a time when many were becoming concerned that the emergent film industry (often associated with immigrants and the working class) might have negative moral and intellectual consequences. For example, Huxley’s book was written in the midst of a four-year study sponsored by the Payne Fund of New York City beginning in the spring of 1929, based on the assumption that movies have a powerful and probably negative impact on young audiences. Conducted by a large network of psychologists, sociologists, and educational specialists, the Payne studies produced a number of research reports as well as summaries intended for popular audiences. One of the latter was Henry James Forman’s 1934 Our Movie-Made Children, which concluded that movies have tremendous educational potential, but that this potential was not being effectively utilized for the public good. Indeed, Forman argues that the film industry as currently run (mostly by, he hints with what may be thinly disguised anti-Semitism, “questionable characters”) was “extremely likely to create a haphazard, promiscuous and undesirable national consciousness” (140). Forman argues that the minds of young children are “unmarked slates” that can be written upon by movies for good or ill.
What is interesting about Forman’s analysis is that he happily supports the notion of using films to indoctrinate children: he just doesn’t feel that the film industry as currently constituted (i.e., dominated by Jews) is necessarily indoctrinating children with the right values. Huxley, in Brave New World, goes further, questioning the notion of using popular culture for indoctrination at all, while at the same time acknowledging the growing potential of popular culture for just that purpose, especially with ongoing improvements in technology. Forman and others were concerned precisely because such improvements were making film more and more attractive to young audiences and presumably more and more able to influence them. Brave New World was written in this same context, in the wake of the rapid rise of film as a new entertainment medium, including the then still-recent extension of film to include integrated sound, the technological development that so troubled Chaplin. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail, for example, is widely regarded as the first British sound film, and Huxley merely projects this technological innovation to other senses with his vision of the “feelies,” which extend the experience of film-viewing to all the senses. In so doing, of course, the new medium enfolds audiences completely, cutting them off from any external experience that might interfere with the intentionally numbing effect of the feelies themselves. Like the films of the time, these feelies are mostly experienced in theaters designed for the purpose, which enhances the immersive experience. However, other technologies (echoing radio, which had really only become a common everyday experience in the 1920s) are available to deliver a constant stream of mindless, but pleasing entertainment to all citizens, no matter where they might go. And, of course, this popular culture is supplemented by the “hypnopaedic conditioning” through which the official messages of this culture are drilled into the brains of individual citizens even as they sleep, assuring that there is no escape, even in sleep from the nonstop flow of official ideology. Education and entertainment are, in fact, merged, both designed to further the desire of the state to keep individuals content with the status quo.
Even personal relationships in this future dystopia are part of this same project, becoming just as thoroughly commodified as everything else in this ultimate consumerist society. On the plus side, the World State of the book has removed strict Victorian taboos against sexual activity, thus eliminating what Freud and others had identified at the beginning of the twentieth century as a key source of personal unhappiness in the modern world. Indeed, the policies of the Worlds State can in many ways be read virtually as a direct response to Freud’s most important late work, Civilization and Its Discontents, first published in German in 1930, just two years before Brave New World. Here, Freud outlines a rather gloomy theory that civilization, in order to function, must force individuals to cooperate and thus must place restraints on the fulfillment of individual desire (sexual and otherwise), leading to a situation in which civilization by its very nature will tend to make people unhappy. By removing most restraints on the fulfillment of sexual desire, the World State would seem to be designed to overcome this difficulty, meanwhile using its extensive programs of genetic design and psychological conditioning to trick individuals into believing that there are no restraints on the fulfillment of their other desires as well. The World State seems almost custom designed to overcome the difficulties noted by Freud, producing a genuinely happy population, not by repressing desire, but by managing it.
This aspect of Huxley’s future world thus has a strong utopian dimension, producing an environment that is conducive to human happiness in ways that real-world societies have never been. On the other hand, the lifting of sexual repression in this society has a dark side as well, and one of its central motivations is the production of an unrestrained and officially endorsed heterosexual promiscuity that turns sexual relations into a recreational sport, though homosexual conduct seems to be absent altogether (a fact that can be explained either by the society’s demands for conformity or by the simple fact that, in 1932, homosexuality was still quite often left out of discussions of new sexual morés). With sexual relations now entirely superficial, a matter of entertainment rather than emotion, marriage and the nuclear family have been swept away, for better or worse. But this conventional social unit has not really been replaced by anything better. The basic social unit is now the individual, and individuals are prevented in a variety of ways from developing loyalties or attachments to any group larger than their own selves, with the exception of the entire World State itself, to which all are expected to show the ultimate loyalty. Meanwhile, that these superficial relationships are part and parcel of the consumerist mentality of this society can be seen by the fact that its central motto governing interpersonal relationships is “Every one belongs to every one else, after all,” suggesting the way in which individuals are encouraged to view other individuals strictly as commodities (35).
Such advertising-style slogans permeate this society, promulgating its official ideology while at the same time (in a motif that is quite frequently found in dystopian fiction) leading to an impoverishment of language that makes it difficult to even formulate ideas outside of that ideology. Within the text, of course, a seeming alternative to the official policies of the World State is presented in the form of the plays of Shakespeare, which presumably involve a richness of language that stands in stark contrast to the advertising-speak of the World State, allowing, among other things, the expression of precisely the kind of strong emotions that the State seeks to prevent, while also revolving around deeply emotional attachments among the characters. Given this situation, it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare (and most other classic literature) has been banned from popular consumption in this future world, though the official authorities seem to recognize the value of Shakespeare’s works in the way they have been privately preserved for the consumption of elite individuals such as World Controller Mustapha Mond.
Importantly, though, Huxley refuses to present Shakespeare (or the other great works of Western art and literature) as an automatic cure for the dehumanization of life in the World State. Thus, John the Savage, who has grown up on a “Savage Reservation” with the works of Shakespeare, but reads them naively and uncritically, spouts the lines of the Bard in a way that makes them little different from the advertising-style slogans that dominate the culture of the World State. Indeed, John’s use of Shakespeare, if anything, would seem to provide support for the ban on such works in the World State: far from providing solace, the words of Shakespeare seem to make John more unhappy and less able to cope with reality, because he lacks the resources to interpret or apply them properly. Thus, while art and literature often stand as antidotes to dystopian repression (see, for example, the role of books in general in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 or the role of poetry in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 dystopian film Alphaville), Huxley shows a sophisticated awareness that this opposition is not simple and that the works of a writer such as Shakespeare do not automatically shatter consumerist mentalities—and would not automatically produce a preferable alternative even if they did shatter such mentalities.
The dumbing down of culture in the World State thus consists not merely in the elimination of great literature but in the creation of a world in which that literature is no longer really relevant in the first place. In this sense, the text addresses very much the same concerns as T. S. Eliot’s classic modernist poem The Waste Land ten years earlier. Many observers at the time were, in fact, concerned that the onward march of capitalist modernization was creating a cultural climate that was inimical to genuine literature, or even to genuine humanity. It should come as no surprise, then, that Brave New World has had such staying power and that a text so rooted in the issues of its contemporary world still seems so relevant more than eighty years after its initial publication. After all, these same basic concerns have only become more urgent in those intervening eighty years, and a whole body of dystopian literature—much of it directly influenced by Brave New World,has arisen during that period, making the vision of Huxley’s text seem more and more familiar to us. Indeed, while the tribulations of the 1930s may have slowed the reception of Huxley’s text—British dystopian fiction of the decade was dominated by anti-fascist dystopias such as Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937), for example—the direction of global history after World War II has been very much in the direction warned against by Huxley at the beginning of the 1930s.
Indeed, while it was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four that did the most to make dystopian fiction a popular genre after World War II, Brave New World remained a major influence on other writers in the genre, and all of the major critical discussions of the dystopian genre that have arisen in the past few decades have identified Brave New World as a central text, further solidifying its position at the heart of the genre. Booker, in particular, has identified Brave New World as the founding text of the “bourgeois” dystopia that is aimed at a critique of capitalism, as opposed to Zamyatin’s We as the founding “communist” dystopia.
Huxley himself helped to revive interest in Brave New World immediately after the war with the commentary contained in his foreword to a 1946 reprinting of the book. He then added an even more important commentary with his look back at many of the ideas of the original book in Brave New World Revisited, first published in 1958, then republished together with the original novel in a 1965 edition that has become the most often cited edition of the novel over the years.In particular, Huxley in the latter, with the benefit of more than a quarter century of hindsight, examines the accuracy of his vision of the future and concludes, with considerable regreat, that the world is approaching his dystopian vision far more rapidly than he could have imagined it would. Now that more than an additional half century has passed, we can only say that the world continues to careen ever more rapidly toward Huxley’s vision.
Ayres, Jackson. “Portraits, not Prophecies: Huxley and Orwell’s Dystopian Visions.” Critical Insights: Brave New World. Ed. M. Keith Booker. Salem Press, 2014. 72–88.
Booker, M. Keith. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Greenwood Press, 1994.
Forman, Henry James. Our Movie Made Children. Macmillan, 1934.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. Norton, 1961.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932. Brave New World & Brave New World Revisited.New York: Harper Perennial, 1965.
Leach, William R. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
Miller, Katherine Toy. “Penitentes at the Snake Dance: Native Americans in Brave New World.” Critical Insights: Brave New World. Ed. M. Keith Booker. Salem Press, 2014. 152–165.
Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky” Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000.
 For a more detailed discussion of this text, see my chapter on Brave New World in my book The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature.
 For a succinct comparison of the dystopian visions of Huxley and Orwell, see Ayres.
 These “savage reservations” are areas deemed too difficult (i.e., expensive) to be worth bringing up to the standards of the World State, so that they have simply been closed off to prevent contamination, though they are also still used for certain research purposes. In the text, they serve the narrative function of providing a contrast to the World State. Satirically, they suggest a limit to the globalizing impulses of the World State, which presumably encompass the whole world, but only, as it turns out, when it is cost effective. They carry resonances of the reservations in which Native Americans were enclosed, of course, and the one featured in the text is, in fact, located in New Mexico. Though the text does not explore the implications, these savage reservations thus at least raise the question of what exactly has been done with non-Western cultures in general in order to achieve the harmonious homogeneity of the World State. On Native Americans in Brave New World, see Miller.