Brave New World is a novel of ideas which takes place in a densely imagined dystopian state.
The World State
The World State is a benevolent dictatorship headed by ten World Controllers. In this respect it is similar to the societies imagined by Huxley's near-contemporaries H G Wells and Olaf Stapledon. The World State has established a stable global society where the population is permanently limited. The basis of that stability is the conditioning of citizens to accept their station in life. This is achieved by:
- abolition of natural reproduction. Human embryos are raised artificially in 'hatcheries and conditioning centres'. The breeding and development of children destines them to fit into one of five castes named Alpha (the highest) through Epsilon (as in the Greek alphabet) which fulfill different economic roles. While Alpha and Beta fetuses are allowed to develop relatively naturally, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon fetuses are subjected to chemical interference to stunt their intelligence and physical growth. Members of lower castes (but not Alphas and Betas) are created using 'Bokanovsky's Process' which allows up to 96 clones to be produced from one fertilized ovum.
- children are educated via the hypnopaedic process, which provides each with appropriate subconscious messages to mold the child's self-image appropriate to their caste.
- discouragement of critical thinking. The lower castes are bred for low intelligence and conditioned not to think; in the upper castes, this is achieved by conditioning and social taboos. "High" culture has ceased to exist, serious literature is banned as subversive, as is scientific thinking and experimentation. The only cultural element mentioned, movies with added tactile sensations, deal in pure emotion.
- discouragement of individual action and initiative. Spending time alone is considered abnormal and even reprehensible, and well-adjusted citizens spend their leisure in communal activities requiring no thought. This leads to a lifestyle which readers may see as shallow and hedonistic. It is promoted by the ready availability and universally-endorsed consumption of the hallucinogenic drug soma (an allusion to a ritualistic drink of the same name consumed by ancient Indo-Aryans), and by the promotion of recreational sex, often as a group activity. Emotional, romantic relationships are obsolete; chastity and fidelity are cause for disapproval or mockery; and marriage, natural birth, parenthood, and pregnancy are considered too vulgar to be mentioned in polite conversation. Spiritual needs are met by mock religious services in which twelve people consume soma and sing hymns. The ritual progresses through group hypnosis and climaxes in a sex orgy. The symbol worshiped is the "T", in homage to Henry Ford who had recently introduced mass-production of automobiles with the Model T.
- an abundance of material goods, though (presumably because of advanced technology) conditions of work are not onerous, in contrast to the contemporary Metropolis in which the workers are forced to arduous exertions. To maintain the World State's command economy, citizens are conditioned to promote consumption (and hence production) with platitudes such as "ending is better than mending".
The programme has been successful. The lower castes' restricted abilities, ambitions and desires make them contented with their lot. There is no dissatisfaction because each caste member receives the same workload, food, housing, and soma ration. Nor is there any desire to change caste; conditioning reinforces the individual's place in the caste system. The upper castes (with a few exceptions) revel in the hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle provided for them.
People enjoy perfect health and youthfulness until death at age 60Death is not feared; the population is confident that everyone is happy, and since there are no families, there are no strong ties to mourn.
The vast majority of the population lives under the World State. In geographic areas not conducive to its system, 'savages' are left to their own devices. These "savage reservations" are similar to reservations established for the Native American population during the colonization of North America.
The novel opens in London in A.F. 632 (AD 2540 in the Gregorian calendar). The society described above is illuminated by the activities of two of the novel's central characters Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx, and the other characters with whom they come into contact. Lenina, a hatchery worker, is socially accepted and contented, but Bernard, a psychologist in the Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning, is not. He is shorter in stature than the average of his Alpha caste — a quality shared by the lower castes, which gives him an inferiority complex. His intelligence and his work with hypnopaedia allow him to understand, and disapprove of, the methods by which society is sustained. Courting disaster, he is vocal and arrogant about his differences. Bernard is mocked by other Alphas because of his stature, as well as for his individualistic tendencies, and is threatened with exile to Iceland because of his nonconformity. His only friend is Helmholtz Watson, a lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. The friendship is based on their feelings of being misfits (in the context of the World State), but unlike Bernard, Watson's sense of alienation stems from being exceptionally gifted, intelligent, handsome, and physically strong. Helmholtz is drawn to Bernard as a confidant.
Bernard takes a holiday with Lenina at a Savage Reservation in New Mexico. (The culture of the village folk resembles the contemporary Native American groups of the region, descendants of the Anasazi, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni.) There they observe ceremonies including a ritual in which a village boy is whipped into unconsciousness. They encounter Linda, a woman originally from the World State who is living on the reservation with her son John, now a young man. She too visited the reservation on a holiday, and became separated from her group and was left behind. She had meanwhile become pregnant by a fellow-holidaymaker (who is revealed to be Bernard's boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning). She did not try to return to "civilization" because of her shame at her pregnancy. Neither Linda nor John is accepted by the villagers, and their life has been hard and unpleasant. Linda has taught John to read, although from only two books: a scientific manual from his mother's job in the hatchery, and a Collected Shakespeare. Ostracised by the villagers, John is able to articulate his feelings only in terms of Shakespearean drama, especially the Tragedies of Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Linda now wants to return to London, while John wants to see the 'brave new world' his mother has told him about. Bernard sees an opportunity to thwart plans to exile him, and gets permission to take Linda and John back. On his return to London, Bernard is confronted by the Director, but turns the tables by presenting him with his long-lost lover and unknown son. John calls Thomas his "father", a vulgarity which causes a roar of laughter. The humiliated Director resigns in shame.
Bernard, as "custodian" of the "savage" John who is now treated as a celebrity, is fawned on by the highest members of society and revels in attention he once scorned. However, his triumph is short-lived. Decrepit and friendless, Linda goes on a permanent soma holiday while John refuses to attend social events organised by Bernard's parties, appalled by what he perceives to be an empty society. Society drops Bernard as swiftly as it had taken him.
Lenina and John are physically attracted to each other, but John's view of courtship and romance, based on Shakespeare, is utterly incompatible with Lenina's freewheeling attitude to sex. Lenina tries to seduce John, but he attacks her for being an 'impudent strumpet'. John is then informed that his mother is extremely ill. He rushes to her bedside, causing a scandal as this is not the "correct" attitude to death. Some Delta children who enter the ward for "death-conditioning" irritate John to the point where he attacks one physically. He then tries to break up a distribution of soma to a lower-caste group and is set upon by the outraged recipients. Helmholtz, who has been called by Bernard, also becomes involved in the fracas. Bernard, Helmholtz and John are brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident "World Controller for Western Europe". Bernard and Helmholtz are told they are to be exiled to islands, seen as a punishment for antisocial activity. Bernard pleads grovelling for a second chance, but Helmholtz welcomes the opportunity to be an individual, and chooses the Falkland Islands as his destination, believing that their bad weather will inspire his writing. Mond outlines for John the events that led to the present society and his arguments for a caste system and social control. John rejects Mond's arguments, and Mond sums up by saying that John demands "the right to be unhappy". John concurs.
John moves to an abandoned hilltop 'air-lighthouse' (meant to warn and guide helicopters) near the village of Puttenham, where he intends to adopt an ascetic lifestyle in order to purify himself of civilization and amend for his mistreatment of his mother. He practises self-mortification, and his self-flagellation is witnessed by bystanders, turning him into a sensational spectacle. Hundreds of sightseers, hoping to witness his behaviour arrive at John's lighthouse; one of them is Lenina. At the sight of the woman whom he both adores and loathes, John attacks her with his whip. John is stricken with remorse and onlookers and journalists who arrive that evening find that he has hanged himself.