I tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but I had to roll the synopsis and discussion all into one post for this particular book and subsequent book club meeting. Please feel free to leave comments!
In a world where people are “hatched” not born, created in a lab and conditioned to belong to one of 5 castes: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, or Epsilon, individuality is a thing of an ancient past.
The process of creating the World State came about following a 9 year war which is mentioned only in reference, but it is understood to have been a time of great transformation and the story opens in London sometime in the advanced future, according to guesstimates from what I’ve seen around the year 2540.
In the hatchery, Alphas are designed to be the most intelligent and capable of those in the World State, with each succeeding caste destined to be lesser and lesser so. The Epsilons are actually injected with chemicals and deprived of oxygen to stunt their growth and development so they will be capable of nothing but the most basic of work.
Children continue to be conditioned throughout their growth, treated with electric shocks to make them dislike things like books and flowers, things of beauty. Sleep conditioning happens throughout the developmental years through a type of hypnosis until the children’s very way of thinking is utterly controlled by the World State.
The overall goal of the World State through the conditioning process is to strip away all types of strong emotions, the concept of family, monogamy, or human connectivity that is anything more than surface-level interaction.
The book follows the story of two main characters, Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowe: both Alphas.
Bernard and Lenina both have square-peg-in-a-round-hole tendencies. Bernard is physically subpar compared to his other Alpha male peers, and Lenina is often chastised by her peers for being too monogamous.
To break her cycle of monogamy, Lenina agrees to take a holiday from their native London to the deserts of New Mexico to accompany Bernard on an expedition into a “Savage” reservation.
It is here that they encounter John the Savage and his mother, Linda. Linda was born in the World State, conditioned to it, and lost from her companion on a journey (20 years prior) similar to Lenina’s. Linda had become pregnant (a grotesque and condemnable act in the World State) and ended up giving birth on the reservation and making her home there with her son.
Because of her conditioning, Linda has no real maternal instincts and poor John is left to his own devices. Still, she does teach him to read and even procures a very old copy of some Shakespeare writings for him.
John has been told all his life about the “other world” and is eager to go when Bernard decides to take him and Linda back with him and Lenina to London.
Linda cannot wait to return to the life she once knew, but for only one reason: soma. Soma is a drug that is given freely in the World State to keep people happy, satisfied, and de-stressed.
Bernard’s intentions are to exploit the novelty of this “Savage” for his own benefit, using him as a kind of side-show attraction to gain the things that he is unable to attain on his own in the World State such as recognition, admiration, and respect.
Lenina is very much attracted to John and John to Lenina, but John has high ideals of love, based upon his Shakespearian obsessions. Lenina, on the other hand, knows only what she has been conditioned to know, and that is that she exists for the pleasure of men, encouraged to give herself to as many as possible.
This book follows these characters throughout their individual journeys of unhappiness, which is attacked at all costs by the World State, because “a gram is better than a damn”, meaning that because they have soma at their every disposal, there is no need to ever be unhappy or unsatisfied.
The first few chapters of this book were very disturbing to me, mainly because of the imagery. Children who are encouraged to engage in “erotic play”, babies that are subjected to electrical shock when interest is shown in books, women who are told to give themselves to as many men as possible, the sleep-hypnosis……… all of it was downright freaky.
I honestly related to very few of the characters, but genuinely felt sorry for all of them in some way.
Bernard, who could never quite live up to what he was “designed” to be.
Lenina, who had the opportunity possibly to know real love, but was so deeply conditioned to be only a sexual being and therefore not capable of real human connection.
John, who had such high hopes of a “brave new world” where he might finally find others like himself, only to realize that he was as much of an outcast in it as he had been on the reservation.
Linda, who had the opportunity to be free and make a life of liberty for herself and her son, but only longed to be back in a drug-induced state where she didn’t have to feel anything.
Each of these characters, to me, had a heartbreaking story.
But most heartbreaking of all was the World State itself. A world where free thought and individualism were stomped out, where the concept of family and procreation were disgusting, and where being alone was considered a very bad idea and supremely discouraged by any and all means necessary.
Brave New World was a bit of a publishing disappointment when it first arrived on the scene in 1932, but has recently seen a resurgence of sales along with other novels of its kind, such as 1984 by George Orwell.
People seem to be relating more and more to the concepts described in these novels, and, truly, there were some eerie comparisons that could be made between the World State and the society that most of us call home.
Children CAN be created in a lab, the sexualization of our culture from a very young age, the discouragement to not think for ourselves and to reach for whatever suppresses our need to express feeling………..I see all of these things in our world today.
From my Psychology background, I know that conditioning is powerful. Really, I know that from my own childhood, raising my own daughter, and just observance of others. We can be taught a great number of things and belief systems, I think, if they are repeated to us and demonstrated to us, and reinforced one way or another.
We’d all like to think that we would not “fall” for that type of lifestyle, but in many ways, we all have. Every time we assume that something we read is true without digging deeper for facts, every time we reach for something that calms our nerves, and every time we choose apathy because it’s easy instead of caring because it’s difficult.
Overall, I would recommend this novel to certain people. I don’t think it’s a choice that everyone and anyone could and would appreciate. But there is certainly plenty of thought-provoking subject matter within it for those who dare to undertake reading it.
I’d like to re-read it at some point and take a little more time with my thoughts, as I was rushed to finish it this month. One of the last questions we discussed at our meeting was:
“Do you think there is an overall point Huxley was trying to make in this novel? If so, what is it?”
There were varying opinions by those in our book club. Mine is that knowledge and expression of thought and feeling is the ultimate power and the ultimate freedom.
Even those who were uneducated, like John, or educated and conditioned like another character I didn’t mention, seemed aware of the freedom that there is in being able to think for oneself and use language as a means of expression and art.
These beings were destined for a life of expectations, performance, and had soma to deal with anything resembling an emotion. It made them high when they were happy, gave them a boost when they were melancholy, and simply knocked them out if they just couldn’t deal with stressors. But they were not free.
Others in our club felt that Huxley wrote this book as a kind of warning of what the world could become, and to give people some food for thought about the price of safety, security, and peace.
OTHER DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
I have to stop here and give kudos to LaRue Cook, my friend and discussion facilitator for this selection. Brave New World was her pick and I expected nothing less than something really smart, interesting, and full of fantastic imagery. She came up with some really terrific discussion questions, such as:
Bernard and then John both resist soma in favor of their own “real” feelings. What do you think about the “right” to be unhappy?
I think everyone in the group pretty much agreed that we have the right to our own emotions. We all agreed that we did not like being chastised for or told not to either feel or express them. I thought a lot about the term “pursuit of happiness” as I read this novel, having a whole new appreciation for having that right in the world that I live in.
Lenina and Linda are two of the few women characters in the book. What do you think about how women are portrayed?
It was pretty much agreed that these women were pretty terrible people, but the discussion shifted to whether or not that was a personal bias of the author or whether there was some Freudian influence in his writing. I think how they were portrayed was pretty shallow, but they were conditioned to be that way, so I don’t necessarily think it was a flaw to portray them that way.
What is the most frightening thing about this society?
The pushing of “erotic play” on very young children was considered universally disturbing. The conditioning of the children to hate books personally broke my heart as I read it, dredging up images of my little girl, toddling across the floor as soon as she could walk, to bring me one book after another to read. Her love of reading has so shaped her and made her who she is – I honestly can’t imagine a world where that wouldn’t be possible. In this world, I couldn’t even BE a mother at all. I wouldn’t HAVE a mother, or a father or a sister…….the lack of family was something that really frightened me because I love mine so terribly much.
Aside from these things, the most frightening thing about the novel was the sheer weakening effect that the conditioning had on the citizens of the World State and how easily we can be manipulated when the freedom of individual thought and emotion is supressed.
What are your thoughts on how God and religion were used in the novel?
There were religious themes in the book, but it was a very bizarre mix and all the references were somewhat extreme and eccentric, such as the practices of the savages and of John. Again, perhaps these were reflections of the opinions of Huxley, but the discussion of religion that resulted from this question was interesting and very though provoking as there were people of all faiths in the room to participate.
This is not a book for the weak reader, and I have to admit I was a little intimidated by it especially when I found out that it was a favorite of some extremely intelligent individuals that I know.
But as I finished it, I saw the appeal, and how it has themes that can resonate with so many different people in many different ways.
I find it a little amusing that there are two men that both love this book. One extremely conservative, one who isn’t. And THAT, THAT my friends is why reading, why book clubs, why LITERATURE is so important. It connects us, it brings us together and helps us understand each other.
I’m sure the World State wouldn’t like that at all.
I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book.
Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.
…whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered.
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…….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 to little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right thing live in constant 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.