Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 while he was living in Italy. Unlike the most popular optimist utopian novels of the time, Huxley sought to provide a frightening vision of the future. Huxley referred to Brave New World as a "negative utopia" (see dystopia), somewhat influenced by Wells' own The Sleeper Awakes (dealing with subjects like corporate tyranny and behavioral conditioning) and the works of D. H. Lawrence.
George Orwell believed that Brave New World must be partly derived from the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
Huxley visited the newly opened and technologically advanced Brunner and Mond plant, part of Imperial Chemical Industries, or ICI, Billingham, United Kingdom, and gives a fine and detailed account of the processes he saw. The introduction to the most recent print[vague] of Brave New World states that Huxley was inspired to write the classic novel by this Billingham visit.
Although the novel is set in the future it deals with contemporary issues of the early 20th century. The Industrial Revolution had transformed the world. Mass production had made cars, telephones, and radios relatively cheap and widely available throughout the developed world. The political, cultural, economic and sociological upheavals of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the First World War (1914–1918) were resonating throughout the world as a whole and the individual lives of most people. Accordingly, many of the novel's characters are named after widely recognized, influential and in many cases contemporary people, for example, Polly Trotsky (Leon Trotsky), Benito Hoover (Benito Mussolini; Herbert Hoover), Lenina Crowne (Vladimir Lenin; John Crowne), Fanny Crowne (Fanny Brawne; John Crowne), Mustapha Mond (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; Alfred Mond and Ludwig Mond, at whose factory Huxley worked for a time, which helped to inspire the novel), Helmholtz Watson (Hermann von Helmholtz; John B. Watson), Henry Foster (Henry Ford), Bernard Marx (George Bernard Shaw; Karl Marx), Morgana Rothschild (The Rothschild banking family), Joanna Diesel (Rudolf Diesel), Fifi Bradlaugh (Charles Bradlaugh), Sarojini Engels (Sarojini Naidu; Friedrich Engels), Clara Deterding (Henri Deterding), Tom Kawaguchi (Ekai Kawaguchi) and Herbert Bakunin (Herbert George Wells; Mikhail Bakunin).
Huxley used the setting and characters from his science fiction novel to express widely held opinions, particularly the fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. An early trip to the United States gave Brave New World much of its character. Not only was Huxley outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, sexual promiscuity and the inward-looking nature of many Americans, he had also found a book by Henry Ford on the boat to America. There was a fear of Americanization in Europe. Thus seeing America firsthand, and from reading the ideas and plans of one of its foremost citizens, Huxley was spurred to write Brave New World with America in mind. The "feelies" are his response to the "talkie" motion pictures, and the sex-hormone chewing gum is a parody of the ubiquitous chewing gum, which was something of a symbol of America at that time.
The Introduction (Chapters 1–6)
The novel opens in London in 632 (AD 2540 in the Gregorian Calendar). The vast majority of the population is unified under the World State, an eternally peaceful, stable global society in which goods and resources are plentiful (because the population is permanently limited to no more than two billion people) and everyone is happy. Natural reproduction has been done away with and children are created, 'decanted' and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres, where they are divided into five castes (which are further split into 'Plus' and 'Minus' members) and designed to fulfill predetermined positions within the social and economic strata of the World State. Fetuses chosen to become members of the highest caste, 'Alpha', are allowed to develop naturally while maturing to term in "decanting bottles", while fetuses chosen to become members of the lower castes ('Beta', 'Gamma', 'Delta', 'Epsilon') are subjected to in situ chemical interference to cause arrested development in intelligence or physical growth. Each 'Alpha' or 'Beta' is the product of one unique fertilized egg developing into one unique fetus. Members of lower castes are not unique but are instead created using the Bokanovsky process which enables a single egg to spawn (at the point of the story being told) up to 96 children and one ovary to produce thousands of children. To further increase the birthrate of Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, Podsnap's Technique causes all the eggs in the ovary to mature simultaneously, allowing the hatchery to get full use of the ovary in two years' time. People of these castes make up the majority of human society, and the production of such specialized children bolsters the efficiency and harmony of society, since these people are deliberately limited in their cognitive and physical abilities, as well as the scope of their ambitions and the complexity of their desires, thus rendering them easier to control. All children are educated via the hypnopaedic process, which provides each child with caste-appropriate subconscious messages to mold the child's lifelong self-image and social outlook to that chosen by the leaders and their predetermined plans for producing future adult generations.
To maintain the World State's Command Economy for the indefinite future, all citizens are conditioned from birth to value consumption with such platitudes as "ending is better than mending," "more stiches less riches" i.e., buy a new item instead of fixing the old one, because constant consumption, and near-universal employment to meet society's material demands, is the bedrock of economic and social stability for the World State. Beyond providing social engagement and distraction in the material realm of work or play, the need for transcendence, solitude and spiritual communion is addressed with the ubiquitous availability and universally endorsed consumption of the drug soma. Soma is an allusion to a ritualistic drink of the same name consumed by ancient Indo-Aryans. In the book, soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free "holidays". It was developed by the World State to provide these inner-directed personal experiences within a socially managed context of State-run 'religious' organizations; social clubs. The hypnopaedically inculcated affinity for the State-produced drug, as a self-medicating comfort mechanism in the face of stress or discomfort, thereby eliminates the need for religion or other personal allegiances outside or beyond the World State.
Recreational sex is an integral part of society. According to the World State, sex is a social activity, rather than a means of reproduction (sex is encouraged from early childhood). The few women who can reproduce are conditioned to use birth control, even wearing a "Malthusian belt" (which resembles a cartridge belt and holds "the regulation supply of contraceptives") as a popular fashion accessory. The maxim "everyone belongs to everyone else" is repeated often, and the idea of a "family" is considered pornographic; sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are rendered obsolete because they are no longer needed. Marriage, natural birth, parenthood, and pregnancy are considered too obscene to be mentioned in casual conversation. Thus, society has developed a new idea of reproductive comprehension.
Spending time alone is considered an outrageous waste of time and money, and wanting to be an individual is horrifying. Conditioning trains people to consume and never to enjoy being alone, so by spending an afternoon not playing "Obstacle Golf," or not in bed with a friend, one is forfeiting acceptance.
In the World State, people typically die at age 60 having maintained good health and youthfulness their whole life. Death isn't feared; anyone reflecting upon it is reassured by the knowledge that everyone is happy, and that society goes on. Since no one has family, they have no ties to mourn.
The conditioning system eliminates the need for professional competitiveness; people are literally bred to do their jobs and cannot desire another. There is no competition within castes; each caste member receives the same food, housing, and soma rationing as every other member of that caste. There is no desire to change one's caste, largely because a person's sleep-conditioning reinforces each individual's place in the caste system. To grow closer with members of the same class, citizens participate in mock religious services called Solidarity Services, in which twelve people consume large quantities of soma and sing hymns. The ritual progresses through group hypnosis and climaxes in an orgy.
In geographic areas nonconducive to easy living and consumption, securely contained groups of "savages" are left to their own devices. These appear to be similar to the reservations of land established for the Native American population during the colonisation of North America. These 'savages' are beholden of strange customs, including self-mutilation and religion, a mere curio in the outside world.
In its first chapters, the novel describes life in the World State as wonderful and introduces Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx. Lenina, a hatchery worker, is socially accepted and comfortable with her place in society, while Bernard, a psychologist, is an outcast. Although an Alpha Plus, Bernard is shorter in stature than the average of his caste—a quality shared by the lower castes, which gives him an inferiority complex. His work with sleep-teaching has led him to realize that what others believe to be their own deeply held beliefs are merely phrases repeated to children while they are asleep. Still, he recognizes the necessity of such programming as the reason why his society meets the emotional needs of its citizens. Courting disaster, he is vocal about being different, once stating he dislikes soma because he'd "rather be himself." Bernard's differences fuel rumors that he was accidentally administered alcohol while incubated, a method used to keep Epsilons short.
Bernard's only friend is Helmholtz Watson, an Alpha Plus lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering (Department of Writing). The friendship is based on their similar experiences as misfits, but unlike Bernard, Watson's sense of loneliness stems from being too gifted, too intelligent, too handsome, and too physically strong. Helmholtz is drawn to Bernard as a confidant: he can talk to Bernard about his desire to write poetry.
The Reservation and the Savage (Chapters 7–9)
Bernard is on holiday at a Savage Reservation with Lenina. The reservation, located in New Mexico, consists of a community named Malpais. From afar, Lenina thinks it will be exciting. In person, she finds the aged, toothless natives who mend their clothes rather than throw them away repugnant, and the situation is made worse when she discovers that she has left her soma tablets at the resort hotel.
In typical tourist fashion, Bernard and Lenina watch what at first appears to be a quaint native ceremony. The village folk, whose culture resembles the contemporary Indian groups of the region, descendants of the Anasazi, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo, begin by singing, but the ritual quickly becomes a passion play where a village boy is whipped to unconsciousness.
Soon after, the couple encounters Linda, a woman who has been living in Malpais since she came on a trip and became separated from her group, among whom was a man to whom she refers as "Tomakin" but who is revealed to be Bernard's boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, Thomas. She became pregnant despite adhering to her "Malthusian Drill" and there were no facilities for an abortion. Her shame at pregnancy was so great that she decided not to return to her old life, but to stay with the "savages". Linda gave birth to a son, John (later referred to as John the Savage) who is now 18.
Conversations with Linda and John reveal that their life has been hard. For 18 years, they have been treated as outsiders: the native men treated Linda like a sex object while the native women regularly beat and ostracized her because of her promiscuity, and John was mistreated and excluded for his mother's actions and the color of his skin. John was angered by Linda's lovers, and even attacked one in a jealous rage while a child. John's one joy was that his mother had taught him to read, although he only had two books: a scientific manual from his mother's job, which he called a "beastly, beastly book," and a collection of Shakespeare's works (which have been banned in the World State for being subversive). Shakespeare gives John articulation to his feelings, though, and he especially is interested in Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. At the same time, John has been denied the religious rituals of the village, although he has watched them and even has had some religious experiences on his own in the desert.
Old, weathered and tired, Linda wants to return to her familiar world in London, as she misses living in the city and taking soma. John wants to see the "brave new world" his mother has told him so much about. Bernard wants to take them back to block Thomas from his plan to reassign Bernard to Iceland as punishment for his asocial beliefs. Bernard arranges permission for Linda and John to leave the reservation.
John also seems to have an attraction to Lenina, as while Bernard is away, getting the permission to move the savages, he finds her suitcase and ruffles through all of her clothes, taking in the smells. He then sees her "sleeping" and stares at her, thinking all he has to do to see her properly is undo one zip. He later tells himself off for being like this towards Lenina, and seems to be extremely shy around her.
The Savage visits the World State (Chapters 10–18)
Upon his return to London, Bernard is confronted by Thomas, the Director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre who, in front of an audience of higher-caste Centre workers, denounces Bernard for his asocial behavior. Bernard, thinking that for the first time in his life he has the upper hand, defends himself by presenting the Director with his long-lost lover and unknown son, Linda and John. John falls to his knees and calls Thomas his father, which causes an uproar of laughter. The humiliated Director resigns in shame.
Spared from reassignment, Bernard makes John the toast of London. Pursued by the highest members of society, able to bed any woman he fancies, Bernard revels in attention he once scorned. The victory, however, is short-lived. Linda, decrepit, toothless, and friendless, goes on a permanent soma holiday while John, appalled by what he perceives to be an empty society, refuses to attend Bernard's parties. Society drops Bernard as swiftly as it had taken him. Bernard turns to the person he'd believed to be his one true friend, only to see Helmholtz fall into a quick, easy camaraderie with John. Bernard is left an outcast yet again as he watches the only two men with whom he ever connected find more of interest in each other than they ever did in him.
John and Helmholtz's island of peace is brief. Lenina tries to seduce John, but John pushes her away, calling her out on her sexually wanton ways. Whilst Lenina is in the bathroom, humiliated and putting her clothes on, John receives a telephone call from the hospital telling him that his mother is extremely unwell. He rushes over to see her and sits at her bedside, trying to get her out of her soma holiday so that he can talk to her. He is heartbroken when his mother succumbs to soma and dies. He is extremely annoyed by the young boys that enter the ward to be conditioned about death and annoy John to the point where he starts to use violence to send them away. John's grief bewilders and revolts the hospital workers, and their lack of reaction to Linda's death prompts John to try to force humanity from the workers by throwing their soma rations out a window. The ensuing riot brings the police, who quell the riot by filling the room with soma. Bernard and Helmholtz arrive to help John, but only Helmholtz helps him, while Bernard stands to the side, torn between risking involvement by helping or escaping the scene.
Following the riot, Bernard, Helmholtz and John are brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. Bernard (who breaks down during the middle of the conversation) and Helmholtz are told they will be exiled to islands of their choice. Mond explains that this exile is not so much a threat to force freethinkers to reform and rejoin society as it is a chance for them to act as they please because they will not be able to influence the population. He also divulges that he too once risked banishment to an island because of some scientific experiments that were deemed controversial by the state, giving insight into his sympathetic tone. Helmholtz chooses the Falkland Islands, believing that their terrible weather will inspire his writing, but Bernard simply does not want to leave London; he struggles with Mond and is thrown out of the office. After Bernard and Helmholtz have left, Mustapha and John engage in a philosophical argument on the morals behind the existing society and then John is told the "experiment" will continue and he will not be sent to an island. John meets with Bernard and Helmholtz once again before their departures from London and Bernard apologizes to John for his opportunistic behavior, having come to terms with his imminent exile and having restored his friendship with Helmholtz.
In the final chapter, John isolates himself from society in a lighthouse outside London where he finds his hermit life interrupted from mourning his mother by the more bitter memories of civilization. To atone, John brutally whips himself in the open, a ritual the Indians in his own village had denied him. His self-flagellation, caught on film and shown publicly, destroys his hermit life. Hundreds of gawking sightseers, intrigued by John's violent behavior, fly out to watch the savage in person. Even Lenina comes to watch, crying a tear John does not see. The sight of the woman whom he both adores and blames is too much for him; John attacks and whips her. This sight of genuine, unbridled emotion drives the crowd wild with excitement, and — handling it as they are conditioned to — they turn on each other, in a frenzy of beating and chanting that devolves into a mass orgy of soma and sex. In the morning, John, hopeless, alone, horrified by his drug use in which he participated that countered his beliefs, makes one last attempt to escape civilization and atone. When thousands of gawking sightseers arrive that morning, frenzied at the prospect of seeing the savage perform again, they find John dead from a suicidal hanging.
Comparisons with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
Social critic Neil Postman contrasts the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who himself published several articles on Huxley and a book on Orwell, noted the difference between the two texts in the introduction to his 1999 article "Why Americans Are Not Taught History":
We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression "You're history" as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself. By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Ur and Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus. Orwell's was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley ... rightly foresaw that any such regime could break but could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works. This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.