Alexander M Gross
Literature | Language | Culture

Brave New World

This article on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is based on a presentation given at a symposium on the literary uncanny at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2014. The piece considers the novel in the context of the utopian / dystopian literary tradition, while also highlighting its close connection to the works of Shakespeare.

Satire and estrangement in Huxley's Brave New World:
Debts to More's Utopia and the constancy of Shakespeare

This article demonstrates the intricacies of Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World in the context of the tradition of literary utopia in which it was inserted, and endeavours to highlight the relationship of the text with the works of Shakespeare. Set in the imagined future of 632 A.F., 632 years after the introduction of the symbol of mass production that was the Ford Model T motor car, Huxley's vision is widely regarded–together with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949–as one of the principal dystopian novels of the twentieth century. Society in Brave New World is governed by a World State that reveres Ford as a deity and whose core values are community, identity, and stability. Sexual reproduction has been replaced by biological engineering, and citizens are conditioned to engage in various decadent and hedonistic pursuits that were “first conceived as a satire on the global diffusion of the American way of life” (Bradshaw xx). In opposition to this future society stands John, a human “savage” born of natural procreation who is taken from one of the few remaining Savage Reservations into the World State. He has read the complete works of Shakespeare, which along with all other forms of high art have long been denied to the citizens of the World State. The disturbing qualities of Huxley's future vision are ultimately consolidated from the perspective of John the Savage.

With respect to genre, it is instructive to note that literary works which theorise and represent idealised societies have been recurrent in Western culture since the time of the Greek philosopher Plato in the fourth century BC. His Socratic dialogue entitled The Republic is among the earliest known texts to contemplate the political theory of a just society. The biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the Exodus of the Israelites to the Promised Land are further prominent examples of the extensive literary tradition of visionary worlds for human interaction. In Christianity, such thought developed into the widespread popularity in the Middle Ages of millenarianism, the belief in a blessed future millennium following the Second Coming of Christ. By the dawn of the early modern period at the start of the sixteenth century, a varied literary tradition related to the representation of idealised societies had been established, from earnest political tracts to whimsical fantasies. Such texts and ideas differed in levels of abstraction and temporal setting. The biblical focus on the lapsed state of Eden contrasts with the millenarianist doctrine of future salvation, while Plato'sRepublic is more firmly theoretical. With many of these works forming the cultural backdrop of Tudor England, it was the scholar and statesman Sir Thomas More who consolidated the genre and also provided its modern nomenclature with the political treatise Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516.

Frontispiece of More's 'Utopia' by Ambrosius Holbein (1518)

Utopia is divided into two books, the first featuring a fictional conversation between More himself and a traveller named Raphael Hythloday. The discussion turns to the social ills of contemporary European society, while in the second book Hythloday relates his experiences of the fictional island of Utopia, which he supposedly discovered when travelling back from a voyage to Brazil. The society he outlines appears to offer solutions to the problems and iniquities addressed in Book 1. The discovery of the so-called New World by European explorers and the increased dissemination of knowledge following the invention of the printing press were historical concurrences at the turn of the sixteenth century that contributed to the shift in literary form which distinguishes More's Utopia from previous works. Nascent public knowledge of vast overseas territories that had just begun to be mapped allowed for narrative invention grounded in the present. More and his peers were thus able to convey ideal communities without recourse to the motifs of either a past, fallen state or an imagined future because “underlying the construction of the early modern utopia was the sense of discovery and possibility afforded by the Renaissance voyages of exploration” (Bruce x).

Columbus's letters from his Atlantic voyages are just the most famous examples of a contemporary proliferation in travel narratives that spread word throughout Europe of newly discovered territories. In her introduction to Utopia, Susan Bruce points to the significant tendency of such travel accounts to emphasise “new” content, a strategy also adopted by utopian texts: "For previous ages 'novelty' had been an indicator of the fictional, the truth of a narrative gauged by the degree of its conformity to ancient authorities; now the 'new' was coming to signify fact instead of fiction, truth instead of falsehood" (xi). Without claims to literal truth in the manner of their biblical predecessors, early modern utopian texts such as More's are nonetheless resolutely grounded in the spatial and temporal context of a present-day reality. They are fictional texts that imitate the style and rhetoric of the travel narrative and the eyewitness account, and which continuously seek to convince readers of the veracity of purported events. Ultimately it is this tendency of the utopian text to represent the imagined society as something closely akin to the reality that conceived it, and not as an abstract invention, that distinguishes it from earlier forms of so-called ideal world narratives. As a more recognisably attainable ideal, the literary utopia initiated by More is grounded in targeted political and social criticism of the author's immediate environment. This allows Bruce to offer the succinct definition of utopia in literature as “a reconstruction of its author's reality, which displaces aspects of its own world into the fictional world it represents, and in so doing foregrounds the social and economic contradictions lived by its writer and his contemporaries” (xv).

Literary utopia and anti-utopia were afforded varying degrees of attention in just over four hundred years that intervened between More's instigating Utopia and the publication of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the outstanding works that towered over the genre in the twentieth century. Krishan Kumar indicates the epistemological challenge that drove the genre to the margins in the wake of the French Revolution, as aestheticized conjecture was overshadowed by the formalisation of social science and political theory: “Utopian social theory, and the experimental utopian community, not the literary utopia, became all the rage” (1). During the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, the spread of socialist political theory throughout Europe served to revive the utopian mode of expression, as it proved to be an appealing platform for the promotion of Marxist ideology. Socialism found an outlet in a literary tradition that in its various guises had long been critical of capitalist economic systems. From Plato's Republic through More's Utopia to the socialist tracts of the late Victorian era, utopian texts consistently identified in their idealised communities the need for the abolition of private property, as exemplified by More's invocation of Plato in Utopia:

Thus I do fully persuade myself that no equal and just distribution of things can be made, nor that perfect wealth shall ever be among men, unless this propriety be exiled and banished. But so long as it shall continue, so long shall remain among the most and best part of men the heavy and inevitable burden of poverty and wretchedness. (45)

The literary utopia endured a further period of decline in the aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of many of the socialist movements that had sustained the genre. Published in 1932, Brave New World was Huxley's response to a twentieth-century utopianism that was represented principally by the later works of H. G. Wells. Emerging from the context of the catastrophic fallout of the Great War and, more immediately, the Great Depression of 1929, Huxley's is a dystopia unmistakably coloured by anxieties related to the inexorable drive of scientific and industrial progress at the expense of personal freedom. Illustrating the cyclical codependency of utopia and dystopia, Huxley and his successor Orwell were both overtly reactionary towards the Wellsian ideal defined in texts such as A Modern Utopia (1905). Kumar points out this dual significance of context, within the literary genre and in a wider sense: “Utopian writing has always turned as much on the utopian tradition as on the events of the always non-utopian world” (6). As a result, Huxley's utopia is steeped in irony and has been labelled a “full-fledged satire,” more commonly identified today as a dystopia (Meckier, “Huxley's Ironic Utopia” 73). In Huxley's writing there is a noticeable effort to undermine the prevailing twentieth-century utopian representation that preceded it; yet this shares the pages with a palpable concern that some of the author's propositions are not beyond the reach of real-world progress, as Jerome Meckier explains: “[t]he urge to write a literary satire on existing works went hand in hand with the desire to challenge [. . .] the picture of the future that science was enthusiastically offering” (ibid. 73). Indeed, Harold Bloom asserts that the enduring, and even growing popularity of Brave New World is in part attributable to the way in which actual scientific and technological innovation throughout the rest of the twentieth century and beyond ensured that “Huxley's tale of caution somehow morphed into one of prophecy” (14).

The ironic and satirical qualities of Brave New World are signalled from the outset by its title, a quotation from Shakespeare's late play The Tempest, which was first enacted around a century after More's Utopia. In the play, Prospero's young daughter Miranda exclaims the words “O brave new world / That has such people in't!” (5.1.186-7) upon encountering the King of Naples and his men, who are villainous interlopers from a civilised world of which she had hitherto been kept ignorant. The island of Prospero's exile is nominally located in the Mediterranean, but the very reference to a “brave new world” as well as an allusion to the Bermudas in Act 1 (1.2.230), and the monstrous, cannibalistic image often embodied by Caliban in traditional productions are evocative of the New World, which Shakespeare's countrymen had begun to settle from Jamestown shortly before he composed the play. Certainly the discovery, exploration, and settlement of far-flung territories was a source of great fascination for the cultural elite of Jacobean England. Among the many contemporary documents that discussed such developments is an essay entitled “Of the Cannibals,” published in 1580 by the French humanist Michel de Montaigne, for whom, as Stephen Greenblatt instructs, “the European adventurers and colonists, confident in their cultural superiority, are the real barbarians, while the American natives, with their cannibalism and free love, live in accordance with nature” (3051). It is precisely such a subversion of prevalent, prejudicial perceptions of the imperialist process that Shakespeare captures in the innocent Miranda, who is beguiled by the outward appearance of the malevolent Alonso and his entourage.

The scenario faced by Huxley's character John the Savage is analogous to that of Shakespeare's Miranda, as he too utters the words “brave new world” upon learning that he will be taken from his reservation to the apparently civilised world. In his essay entitled “Brave New World and The Tempest,” Ira Grushow advances several other credible parallels between the two texts, and suggests that “Huxley's book may be said to begin where Shakespeare's play leaves off” (83). However, the works of Shakespeare, and particularly The Tempest, find a more pervasive resonance in Huxley's work than a mere borrowed title or the ironic mirroring of characters and motifs. Huxley's high regard for Shakespeare finds its expression in the function of the allusions and references that recur in Brave New World. Meckier asserts that the novel “is constructed around an extended contrast of Shakespeare and H. G. Wells,” as the Savage who is empowered by his readings of Shakespeare stands to represent freedom of the imagination, human sensibility, and other tenets of “the forgotten world of Shakespeare” (“Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley” 131). He thus contrasts sharply with the functional and progressive world in which he is inserted, “a brave new world that Huxley intends as a satire on what he feels is H. G. Wells's misguided notion of utopia” (ibid. 131).

Amidst a disquieting representation of the consequences of unchecked scientific progress, there is much to be drawn from Huxley's recurrent allusions to the Shakespeare canon.

More pertinently, the novel's pointed references to The Tempest are significant in terms of the play's focus on the power of Prospero's art as he manipulates events and the characters around him. Greenblatt explains that since the play is thought to be the last written by Shakespeare without collaboration, it “has seemed to many to be his valedictory to the theater” (3047). With this in mind, the overriding potency of Prospero's craftsmanship may be taken as a symbol which foregrounds Shakespeare's skill as a dramatist, but by implication also the importance of art in a wider sense. Furthermore, Shakespeare himself displayed in The Tempest an interest in theories of governance and an awareness of the type of social issues contemplated by early modern utopian texts. Much in the mould of More's Utopia, and in a speech derived from Montaigne's “Of the Cannibals,” Shakespeare's Gonzalo famously considers how he would govern the island on which he has found himself shipwrecked:

I'th' commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things. For no kind of traffic

Would I admit, no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;

No occupation, all men idle, all;

And women too–but innocent and pure;

No sovereignty– 


These various perspectives show The Tempest to be a particularly apposite play for Huxley to exploit in opposition to what he saw as a misconceived Wellsian utopia.

Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four follows Huxley by citing Shakespeare's works as the byword for neglected human creativity and aspiration, notably when the protagonist Winston Smith awakes from his indulgent dream with the word “Shakespeare” on his lips. Indeed, this would prove a recurrent strategy across much of the genre in the twentieth century, yet few works are as profoundly shaped by their author's regard for the playwright as is Brave New World, with Meckier proposing that “Shakespeare becomes and remains for Huxley the incarnation of the ideal, complete artist who sees the multiplicity of life” (“Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley” 132). Amidst a disquieting representation of the consequences of unchecked scientific progress, there is much to be drawn from Huxley's recurrent allusions to the Shakespeare canon. With access to those works, John the Savage becomes symbolic of the importance to humanity of artistic sensibility. As a signifier for what opposes the imagined dystopia, Shakespeare and all that accompanies that name represents Huxley's implicit vision of utopian possibility.

Significantly, another prominent figure in Huxley's satire, alongside Shakespeare and Ford, is Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychotherapist. In the consciousness of the citizens of the World State, the identities of Freud and Ford often overlap in what may be seen as a pointedly Freudian slip, but his presence also signals the estrangement, or defamiliarization, of Huxley's writing. Brave New World exemplifies this “distinctive effect achieved by literary works in disrupting our habitual perception of the world, enabling us to 'see' things afresh” (Baldick 62). Freud in his 1919 essay entitled “Das Unheimliche,” or “The Uncanny,” demonstrates that the literary effect of the uncanny is attributable to more than what is simply unfamiliar to the reader. Drawing on Friedrich Schelling's earlier definition to explain that “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light,” Freud convincingly argues that the uncanny “is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old–established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (420, 429). In this sense, the works discussed here may be said to effectuate the literary uncanny not merely in terms of presenting an unfamiliar setting or imagined future–be it Prospero's island, More's Utopia, or Huxley's World State–but more significantly through their common layers of ambivalence which invite the reader to question just how (un)familiar that fictitious world really is.

Although ostensibly a radical departure from the foundations of literary utopia as laid by Thomas More, Brave New World is in fact appreciably indebted to the early modern Utopia, especially in terms of the theme of ambivalence. The possible derivation of the name utopia from the Greek words meaning “good place” or “no-place,” depending on the spelling, is suggestive of contradictions in More's text, as is the translation of the name Hythloday as “peddlar of nonsense” (Bruce xxii). Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile what is known of the author's beliefs as a devout Catholic with Hythloday's description of a society which, to quote Bruce, “banishes lawyers, allows women priests, tolerates the expression of pagan beliefs, encourages euthanasia, and permits not only divorce but subsequent remarriage” (xxv). On closer inspection, More's vision is characterised by contradiction, and the text ultimately evades any definite classification as mere utopia or dystopia. Instances of wordplay and satirical references are suggestive of textual ambivalence on the question of what constitutes a just and viable social model. The blueprint for a satirical dystopia as fashioned by Huxley is thus discernible in the original Utopia.

In Brave New World, Huxley points us to a realisation that what we most have to fear may be closer than it seems.

Brave New World also defies classification as strictly a utopia or a dystopia when its contextual background is more closely examined, particularly Huxley's scientific education and his pre-war comments on issues as speculative and controversial as eugenics. David Bradshaw, in his introduction to the novel, has proposed that Huxley “was unsure in his own mind whether he was writing a satire, a prophecy, or a blueprint” at a time of great political and economic instability in England, and informs us of the author's previously professed interest in a hierarchical social model based on intellectual castes, as well as a radio broadcast in early 1932 during which he discussed the idea of eugenics as a means towards political ends (xxiv). Given subsequent developments in Nazi Germany and throughout the Second World War, it is unsurprising that Huxley had relinquished such theories by 1958, when he published Brave New World Revisited, a retrospect on the real-world developments of the intervening years as compared to the visions he had laid out in the original novel. In summarising the textual ambivalence that such an examination of contextual factors may throw into relief, Bradshaw notes that “for all its hideousness, the hierarchical, aseptic, colour-coded world of A.F. 632 is not aeons away from the scientific utopia Huxley was promoting elsewhere before, during and after he wrote Brave New World in 1931” (xxii). Even within the author's biography, a struggle between art and science may be identified.

The muted contemporary critical reaction to Brave New World and its subsequent rise to prominence can in part be attributed to the belated realisation of many of Huxley's propositions, which has arguably earnt it the unusual distinction of assuming greater cultural relevance with the passing of time. Beyond this aspect, however, the novel's use of irony and brazen satire can belie not only its indebtedness to the early modern literary utopia, but also its considered and sophisticated invocation of Shakespeare to implicitly present model human values in opposition to an apparently dystopian vision. Perhaps one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements was to consistently present a picture of humanity that encompassed its various contradictions, introducing the notion of a truly 'round' character to literature. The Tempest, set both everywhere and nowhere, may be seen as a symbol of this entire art, and is memorably labelled by Greenblatt as “a kind of echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs” (3047). Huxley's recourse to Shakespeare in reconciling his own fears of progress with scientific curiosity has led Margaret Atwood to assert that it is his “genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity” (xvi), as in Brave New World he points us to a realisation that what we most have to fear may be closer than it seems.

Gross, A. M.


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