A lot of dystopian fiction was written in 1932, for obvious reasons. I decided to read Brave New World now because, honestly, right now feel a little like 1932 sometimes. Usually dystopias feel very obvious—the most well known example is of course Orwell’s 1984, in which the looming Big Brother thrives by stripping individuals’ rights, installing broadcasters and cameras they can’t turn off in their homes, and setting up the general understanding of dystopian society as we understand it. Brave New World and 1984, were both inspired by proximity these English blokes had to the rise of both Stalinism and Nazism, but BNW is a little different. This dystopia doesn’t really seem to be at anyone’s expense. Like with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, usually we expect dystopian societies to following some variation of “what is better is not better for all.” We expect that a government works towards some depraved idea of “greater good” by squashing people in lower rungs.
But BNW’s version of this is very subtle. The novel centers around a world that does not subscribe to religion, but rather has been reborn upon the making of the Model-T. Fordian culture follows the most important tenet of consumerism: happiness. Fordian culture is one where people do not understand suffering because they’ve never truly experienced it. People buy things, grow up in caste systems, and never examine their predetermined beliefs, but they also never wish for a better day. They are cogs in a corporate machine, but this is not a source of agony. They have a purpose. People in Fordian culture feel something many of us never get to: fulfilled.
And in a way this makes BNW a more realistic dystopia than any of the others. People live happy and fulfilled lives, but they live lives without truth or knowledge. The don’t know anything about science or literature or history or even sadness. They cannot relate to the suffering that Romeo and Juliet feel, an ignorance that drives our non-Fordian protagonist, John, insane. And this, instead, is their suffering. Their deprivation of humanity.
And in a way isn’t this the model for whatever dystopia is coming our way? Because Fordian culture, honestly, doesn’t seem that different from Western civilization. The government indoctrinates people from young ages by controlling their education, and specifically, not allowing everyone the same education no matter their class standing. The government holds ties with corporations, which aim to sell things to people at all times. Sex is sold to people as an expectation, not because they need to reproduce, but as a means to control them. With Trump as the POTUS isn’t our worst case scenario that we all become complacent, uneducated cogs in a machine designed to pump out consumerism and put money in the pockets of elites? I’m much more afraid of a Brave New World future than a 1984 future because it doesn’t seem that impossible.
Maybe that’s because our hero, John, seems just as full of shit as any modern man. The biggest example of this to me is his obsession with Shakespeare while he knows nothing else about literature. Even his sadness that his friend can’t understand what is so beautiful and sad about Romeo and Juliet’s pining for each other is misguided. Because John doesn’t understand that Shakespeare wasn’t always high literature. That Romeo and Juliet, actually, often pokes fun at the young lovers’ infatuation in much the same way that his friends did.
My frustration with John as a protagonist led me to spend the novel thinking about Lenina, the novel’s ephemeral heroine. John’s delusions about intimate relationships are just as misguided as anything else he believes. He and Bernard both begin their infatuations with Lenina by seeming to yearn for her respect. They to some extent agonize over the idea that she could just fling her sexuality around and be okay with being treated like an object. When other men are talking about “having” Lenina in the beginning of the novel as if she’s “mutton,” Bernard even thinks about how “he would have liked to go up to them and hit them in the face.” Yet, they too, covet her as an object, covet her for her sexuality until she wants to have sex and then she ceases to be the object the imagined, and is instead replaced by the object they must assume all other men see her as. And they both promptly dispose of her. John is both so brainwashed by his male superiority and whatever stringent Puritanical ideals he learned in the reserve that “the presence of Lenina […] haunted him.” In a way, this doesn’t sound a whole lot like a dystopia at all, it sounds a little like the reality being sold to femmes everywhere everyday. The same system selling us to become cogs in the consumerism machine is run by men who deny rape, who deny male privilege, who deny women respect, men who are sexual assaulters, men who brag about it.
And even John himself is no better than all of these men. Even when he fails in all the same ways as everyone before him by treating emotional intimacy as a disposable commodity like the clothes they wear, the book dwells on Lenina no longer. Huxley leaves her behind so that we may watch the Savage succumb to the same suffering as all the people before him. He can seek enlightenment all he wants, but he’ll never find it. He instead succumbs to rage, murder, and eventually suicide. And this is where John is the most like us. Because we still suffer. We still yearn for better times and we still seek knowledge. It is John’s own inadequacy and his awareness of it that is his suffering. It is the search for truth and knowledge that become his downfall. And it is the only freedom he possesses that the others lack.