Thoughts on Brave New World

In college we had to give a writing sample on a book that changed the way we view the world.  I wrote about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  I failed that writing test in college and had to re-take the test with a different question (so as not to have to take remedial writing!) because I’m fairly sure the person who graded me didn’t like what I got out of it.  I knew what I was supposed to get out of it, but the tired civilized man dystopia/ wild man utopia always seemed false to me and I felt it must have been tacked on because Aldous Huxley had created a world that, though frightening and different than our own, was too perfect.  Huxley had to come up with a way to destroy its merits, and that destruction fell flat in my mind.  1984 is a far more obvious dystopia; Huxley had to work at destroying his utopia.  Instead, I wrote about how I learned to think like an anthropologist from the book , though I didn’t phrase it as being thinking like an anthropologist.  I just talked about how it showed me that culture shapes the way we view our world (using um, culture’s views of sex being a primary cause of rape as my primary example, which I still know to be correct– if there is no shame to sex, it can no longer be used as a weapon).*

I’ve been thinking about Brave New World and how what I got out of it is different than most literary theory about it.  Anyhow, I think I got something different out of Brave New World for two main reasons:  1.  Although none of the true main characters are women (the one main character woman is kind of a cog who exists to reflect the male main characters), women in that utopia world sure have a hell of a lot better life than women in the real world, even if men don’t necessarily and 2.  I’m an alpha and when I read Brave New World life sucked so much as an alpha and if I rebelled against the social order in Brave New World my punishment would have been to go to a true island utopia populated only by other alphas and oh man oh man that was a dream world for middle-school me (one that came true in high school!).

So I looked up feminist criticisms of brave new world on google, and after adding the name “huxley” so as not to get so much stuff about modern sex that just uses the phrase, I came up with a few interesting articles.  Margaret Atwood (who literally wrote the book on feminist dystopia) has an interesting article on how it has stood up after 75 years.   This google book has some neat discussion questions from a feminist perspective.

And I wonder about how our perceptions in our current society shape what we view as utopia and dystopia, and how clear it is that we need more authors willing and able to write from different perspectives.  How much literary theory only makes sense from a middle-class white male viewpoint?  How many messages seem shallow when you’re not the intended audience?  Feminist theory shouldn’t be relegated in its own niche and ignored by everybody who isn’t a feminist theorist.  We could all benefit from a little anthropology in our world-views.

How often do you feel like you’re not the target audience?  Do you feel like that has shaped your world-view for when you are the target?  And what did you get out of reading Brave New World?**

*Despite not finishing the make-up test and freaking out about that, the writing instructor who graded the make-up told me that based on that writing, it didn’t make sense that I had to take the make-up in the first place, which made me feel better.  I got asked to be a writing tutor a year later.  So I’m pretty sure whoever graded me just didn’t like my arguments.  Another reason for me to never go into the humanities.  And yes, my formal writing is much less stream-of-consciousness than my blogging.  I’m a big believer in outlines and topic sentences.

**It’s short!  And not as traumatic as say, The Handmaid’s Tale (to me, anyway).

35 Responses to “Thoughts on Brave New World”

  1. bogart Says:

    Not at all specific to literature, but I do often despair when people bemoan how much better/easier things “used to be.” For whom, and relative to what? That is all.

  2. Flavia Says:

    A bit of a tangent, but: if you’re looking for actual literary scholarship, go to the MLA database — don’t use Google. What you find on the internet will mostly not be literary scholarship; will definitely not be indicative of the overall state of the field; and will almost never be “literary theory” (which is a subfield of literary criticism and not, I think, what you’re talking about).

    This isn’t to dispute your main point(s) that a lot of literary scholarship has, in the past, been written from a white male perspective — absolutely true, though I think you’d find something closer to parity now, especially for YA literature which is a significantly feminized subfield — and there may well be a dominant but reductive reading of Brave New World advanced by laypeople (and perhaps, unfortunately, by high school teachers and whatever schmo graded your first writing placement exam).

    Anyway, sorry for the rant! I’m sorry you had a crappy experience with your writing exam — a writing placement exam shouldn’t judge the quality of your literary analysis anyway, just your basic writing skills — but please please don’t look for literary scholarship on the interwebz or assume that your experience reflects what goes on in actual literature classroom.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, doing a library article search for Huxley Brave New World is pretty chilling in this case, just by title. “The provocations of Lenina in Huxley’s Brave New World.” Lots and lots of articles on genetic modification (and one on Proverb modification). A bunch of stuff about religion. Savages vs. Civilization. “Still a chilling vision after all these years” “Brave new world seen through czech eyes” A few articles about Lawrence’s influence on the novel, addressing how women working and marriage disintegrating is shown as the end of times. The cinema of senation. Freudian interpretation (how is that still publishable in 2002?). Comparisons to 1984. Desire as rebellion.

      And on and on and on. Adding “feminist” to the search query doesn’t add anything useful, only articles in which BNW is mentioned in passing.

    • Leah Says:

      Would google scholar be better? I’ve used that from time to time to find literature.

  3. Thisbe Says:

    Apparently somehow I never read BNW before. I thought I had, but I must have been thinking of some other questionable utopia/dystopia.

    1/4 to 1/3 through now, and what I have gotten out of it so far is some reflection on how dated the biological-science fiction part looks. Like it was probably really plausible in 1930 that external gestation would be developed with the technology they had then. Overall so far the whole thing seems really innocent – imagining that solutions to difficult problems would be so elegant and effective!

    Tangent on external gestation: why is that not more of a theme in science fiction? I can think of a couple of variably mainstream instances – Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, Lois McMaster Bujold in her Vorkosigan stuff. Is it that it’s really taboo still? When I was in middle school I had a collection of Anne McCaffery stories that included one on IVF written in the fifties, and if I’m remembering right with some commentary from the author about the taboo nature of stories about altering women’s reproductive function.

    Anyways I have some other day-off stuff to do so I don’t know if I’ll finish BNF today or not, but if/when I do I will update if I have anything else to say.

    Re: target audience – I used to feel like I was never the target audience. Now in the last few years I have noticed that I am definitely part of the target demographic for a lot of advertising. Which is an interesting experience – it’s a lot easier to get what I want than it was ten years ago.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s probably why when I did a scholarly search just now a quarter to a third of the papers are on the technology aspect!

      I think I’m going to go with the patriarchy as the answer to your tangent– male authors only include it in dystopia, but one man’s dystopia is another…

  4. middle_class Says:

    I don’t remember much about Brave New World. After reading Atwood’s analysis, bits and pieces are coming back. I don’t think either world was particularly enticing. If I remember correctly, the wild man utopia was supposed to be the “better” choice?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t know that it was the better choice but there was something symbolic about how it was crushed by the modern world in the end. Dude was a dangerous loose screw.

  5. Tara Smith Says:

    Amused — youngest kid got off on the wrong foot w/ 10th grade English teacher by insisting that BNW was more Utopia than Dystopia. English teacher wouldn’t have it. Grade in that class never did quite recover. Mama remains convinced that low grade on paper (and subsequently in class) was due to challenging the teacher…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s only a dystopia if it’s worse than what you’re currently going through… In BNW, if he challenged enough he’d be sent to an island paradise with other smart people where all the innovations happen because that society realized that some freedom was needed to create new things.

  6. Ana Says:

    I actually haven’t read it! I’ll put it on the reading list.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s short! So even if you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted much time. And you know, culture. (If you have to read one dystopic future this year, this is a short one.)

  7. Cloud Says:

    I clearly need to reread Brave New World, because I cannot remember it well enough to have an opinion on your points!

    As for not being the target audience… that is sort of how I feel anytime I attempt to read something by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve tried several times, and even finished a couple of his books, and I give up. He is just not for me.

    • Thisbe Says:

      +1. This is also me with Dickens. I feel like I should be able to enjoy him, but I really don’t.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Dickens also cannot write 3 dimensional female characters. They are ALWAYS one dimensional characters who been done wrong or caricatures. The caricature works when it’s something like the Pickwick Papers where all the characters are caricatures, but it doesn’t work when there are fully fleshed out male characters and the women only exist as pathos or to sacrifice themselves for the main character etc.

      • Thisbe Says:

        Good point! I think last time I tried I was 20 years old and hadn’t really grown into my feminism yet, but I think you’re right. I tried to read Foundation once or twice in college and just couldn’t do it… so a decade later, when I was in The Far Wilds doing research, I loaded it onto the kindlepod. I got about halfway in, realized there were no actual female characters, and gave up forever. As it turns out, I would rather read A Song of Ice and Fire. Which I didn’t really enjoy much, but read when the Patrick O’Brian and Ursula LeGuin ran out.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, Hemmingway is pretty obviously not for women. He’s kind of the definition of a sexist blowhard.

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        When I read Hemingway and Faulkner voraciously, professors in Women’s Studies and fellow students were appalled. I always thought that the only way to understand the times in which the authors lived and their construction, rightly or wrongly, of society was best understood by reading their works of fiction. Both are great storytellers even if I am yelling at the pages or muttering over what I am reading. Believe me, I read many books written by women, their stories.

        Hemingway was a sexist blowhard, but my amusement with his stupid attitudes kept me interested.

  8. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    When I was in high school, I read everything Huxley wrote. I like BNW much less than any of his other books.

    • notofgeneralinterest2 Says:

      Ditto. I read through all of Huxley in high school or early college on my own (except The Doors of Perception) but can’t remember much except for a little of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Fun fact: Gertrude Stein told Hemingway not to read Huxley because he was a “dead person.” Huxley was not literally dead at the time, but you see her point.

  9. What Now? Says:

    I haven’t read Brave New World in who knows how many years; now I want to read it again!

  10. taylorqlee Says:

    I’d always read BNW as being a commentary on our “happiness”-driven consumerist society and the gross use of utility theory / greatest happiness principle to justify inequality so long as every person is in their “optimal” place. It actually is probably my favorite dystopic novel, far more than either 1984 or Handmaid’s Tale, in part because it just rings so true with the way our society is set up today– identifying “alphas” at a young age and tracking them, giving them the resources they need to flourish while putting those in the lower rungs “in their place” so to speak. I do agree the noble native trope was heavy-handed and kind of eye-roll-inducing.

    It wasn’t until well after college that I ever even thought whether or not I was the target audience for the literature I read. I knew many of my favorite books and most of the media I consumed were outright misogynistic and racist. Much of that, at the time of reading, I assumed was just the bigotry of olden times. Nowadays I don’t give the authors so much credit.

  11. Revanche Says:

    I must be the absolutely worst humanities major. I remember reading BNW with my favorite English teacher in high school but the only detail I can recall was the teacher using my face as a description of the definition of a word. Can’t even recall the word now, may have blocked it out from the sheepishness over being singled out at the time even though the word wasn’t embarrassing in and of itself.

    That said, I’m fairly certain that I’d have considered the exile a Utopian solution despite still being mostly the good student/good kid/utterly devoid of rebellion child that I was at the time. I was 13, at best, I’m not sure I had the capacity to truly appreciate the world views in a literary theory kind of way. Heck I could barely stay interested in lit theory in college and it was my major. I did perfectly fine academically but it sure wasn’t because I was dialed into lit theory.

  12. chacha1 Says:

    Just generally, people who moan about the good old days have no idea what they are talking about. The level of historical illiteracy in our society is almost as bad as the level of scientific illiteracy.

    Re: dystopias, I suppose I must have read “Brave New World” but I don’t remember a thing about it if I did. I remember “1984” and, more potently, “Fahrenheit 451” which I re-read recently and which to me is a fairly accurate extrapolation of how anti-intellectuals could (and might still) re-shape a willfully ignorant society. “Handmaid’s Tale” is a nightmare that is frighteningly close to what’s already happening in some Christian (and Muslim and Jewish) fundamentalist communities. (Basically, take your religion of choice, put “fundamentalist” in front of it, and women are chattel.)

    I never read literary theory. A little of that went a long way during my short career as an English major. I found that studying history was a great way to spend all my time reading without having to wade through some guy’s mental masturbation. … I don’t like “isms” as a rule and much prefer a “just the facts ma’am” approach to just about everything.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m a little off of Ray Bradbury because my freshman high school English teacher made us read almost all of his stuff, including some pretty lousy short stories on the evils of technology. Knowing how much of a technophobe he is made Fahrenheit 451 not as powerful it could have been without that knowledge. But he was prescient!

      The Lottery (by Shirley Jackson) is pretty powerful too. Even Harrison Burgeron which is banging a person over the head with its message. We read some pretty good short stories in middle school. I wonder if they still assign them.

      Handmaid’s Tale is terrifying.

      History has some mental masturbation in it too, but only when you take the crappy professors instead of the awesome ones. :) (Historiann was just complaining about this recently.)

      • chacha1 Says:

        Can you believe I have never read “The Lottery”? I’ve read “The Haunting of Hill House” three times, though. :-)

  13. Thisbe Says:

    Update: I got to the part where Huxley uses the word “squaw” and had to put the book down. I mean it wasn’t just that – the whole treatment of the “savages” is deeply problematic and quite upsetting. And you know I don’t know that much about Huxley, but I think he wasn’t particularly awful, right? And it doesn’t read like he was trying to be offensive.

    …blech. I’ll try to pick it up again later.

    (I get a little hair-triggered about racism towards Native people, and it got exacerbated by my recent time in my hometown near the Rez. It’s the kind of racism people apparently don’t even feel bad about. People would say the most appalling things about people on the reservation, and I would say, “Gosh, that’s pretty racist!” and they would say, “well, but it’s true!” And AS AN ASIDE, these were usually people who had moved to the area <5 years ago and maybe had been on or through the reservation ONCE or TWICE – WHO DO THEY THINK THEY ARE to make that kind of generalization? /rage)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      He’s got the noble savages thing going, so he’s actually idealizing them, IIRC. It helps if you don’t think of them as actual native americans, just people who don’t belong to civilization. But yes, the book was written in 1932 and is racist on that front. The whole wild man thing is just messed up and really doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book but is tacked on for contrast and to make the world seem dystopic (IMO). Of course, books are being published now that use slurs and offensive stereotypes for Roma, which sucks. Maybe as time goes on publishers will get better about things.

    • chacha1 Says:

      It’s really hard to find anything written before 1965 that doesn’t have some egregiously racist/sexist/homophobic language in it. That’s just the world the writers lived in. Most people didn’t know anything about anything unless it was right outside their front door.

      Now, the same thing applies to most people, but at least most Americans get glances at the larger world thanks to the Internet. Once in a blue moon someone gets slapped upside the head with a fact.

  14. Practical Parsimony Says:

    If a person is going to read from a racist period, the person has to accept momentarily the racist words, knowing she/he are learning history! Literature cannot be sanitized to conform with what we know is racist, unkind, and insulting. Mark Twain wrote life as it was, actually sanitizing it a bit. My reaction would be “what a sad time for (ethnicity of your choice) instead of thumping the author who wrote in the spirit of the time. Maybe you disagree?

  15. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Wow I haven’t read Brave New World in many many many years. The Atwood essay was fantastic and helped me sort of remember bits and pieces of it– I get my stories mashed up and mixed together so I was like “OH this is the one where the kids diddled each other! I remember that!” I think that I remember liking it because I was in a Catholic high school and was surprised we were reading this book with the sexual freedom. And then they tried to spin it as a dystopian thing but I was not so sure that made sense. And because I read it in high school, that’s mostly what stuck with me. I have to re-read it. Atwood’s essay makes me nostalgic for English classes.

  16. nicoleandmaggie Says:


    (Have you noticed that vlogbrothers is my latest addiction? How did 5 years go by without me knowing they existed?)

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