Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Brave New World was first published in 1932 by a man who was nominated for a Nobel Prize on nine separate occasions, so you can imagine that much of what can be said about Brave New World has already been said. It is used as set texts in school curricula and has had innumerable books, articles and research papers written about it. In context, this review is but a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to express my thoughts on this, one of the top three dystopian classics.
I am always wary around titles that have been deemed ‘classics’ as history has taught me that I usually find them quite disappointing. There is an element of that here as my immediate thoughts upon finishing the book were to wonder if it were really a dystopian novel or just a philosophical thought-experiment from the 1930s. I found the treatment and portrayal of women in the book to be quite frustrating and very misogynistic. Huxley seems scared stiff of women and their potential for sexual liberation and so paints them in an damning light and punishes them terribly.
Huxley’s misogyny has been criticised and acknowledged on a much wider scale, for example, Higdon wrote that it plagued much of Huxley’s work pre-1931 and continues on to summarise exactly what I was feeling:
A careful consideration of Lenina’s attitudes, decisions, and actions shows that the overlay of misogyny careened Huxley into contradicting his ideas, into failing to see that Lenina is more heroic in her resistance to the Fordian world than are the men his narrative praises, and into taking an unearned and mean-spirited revenge on Lenina. In brief, Lenina’s resistance goes unnoticed in the novel because of the novel’s misogyny. (Higdon, 2002)
Higdon also brings in criticism from other scholars, including Deanna Madden:
…in an enlightening general discussion of misogyny in dystopias, Deanna Madden concludes that the men in Brave New World “have a spiritual dimension that the women lack … mired in the physical, the women interfere with or prevent the men from achieving spiritually” and that “Huxley’s misogyny has its obvious roots in a more general inability to accept the body.” (ibid.)
All this leads to bitter aftertaste from reading Brave New World but isn’t the only reason I didn’t get on with it.
Huxley attempts to paint a dystopian society as one that is anti-technology, anti-war, pro-happiness, pro-eugenics, pro-sexual freedom and pro-heteronormativity. It’s a complicated set of contradictory values, particularly when he introduces John the “Savage” from a reservation with no technology, plenty of violence, racism, zealotry and good-old misogyny. Both worlds in Huxley’s novel are unpleasant. Both are dystopias, but in Huxley’s rationalising we should want to live in the world with shame and violence because that’s were God lives. John’s moralising and evangelising are both ham-fisted and tedious. He has grown up in a world where his mother was an outcast who was beaten and slandered for her ‘promiscuity’; where John was an outcast because he was fair-haired and the son of the “she-dog”. Yet he believes his world is better because it contains God and Shakespeare. It’s not a convincing argument.
That is the main problem I have with Brave New World: none of it presents a convincing argument. In any direction. His “civilised society” is at odds with itself as he’s thrown all his own fears into the mix and with them his biases and illogical reasoning. The same thing is true of the “savage” society, which leaves the reader with no real side to settle on. The most sympathetic characters are the ones most maligned by the author (the women), so you find yourself constantly reading against the flow of the narrative.
Overall, yes, it was well-written for the time. It has tried to bring voice to the concerns of a rich, intellectual man in a time where a eugenics movement was taking hold in Britain, technology was advancing owing to the events of a World War, while the whole region was brewing towards another one. I can understand those fears in that context but Brave New World is not nearly as relevant today owing to it’s major flaws in both narrative and the values it espouses. For these reasons, I can’t give it a higher rating than I already have.
Higdon, David Leon. “The Provocations of Lenina in Huxley’s Brave New World.” International Fiction Review 29.1/2 (2002): 78-83.