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Analysis

What’s Up With the Epigraph?

Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.

« Les utopies apparaissent bien plus réalisables qu'on ne le croyait autrefois. Et nous nous trouvons actuellement devant une question bien autrement angoissante : comment éviter leur réalisation définitive ?… Les utopies sont réalisables. La vie marche vers les utopies. Et peut-être un siècle nouveau commence-t-il, un siècle où les intellectuels et la classe cultivée rêveront aux moyens d'éviter les utopies et de retourner à une société non utopique moins « parfaite » et plus libre. »

"Utopias seem to be much more achievable than we formerly believed them to be. Now we find ourselves presented with another alarming question: how do we prevent utopias from coming into existence? …Utopias are possible. Life tends towards the formation of utopias. Perhaps a new century will begin, a century in which intellectuals and the privileged will dream of ways to eliminate utopias and return to a non-utopic society less “perfect” and more free.”


– Nicholas Berdiaeff, translated from the French by Shmoop

Besides being a really cool word, a utopia is an ideal or imaginary place or society. The etymology of the word utopia is Greek: ou means no or not, and topos means place. No place.

But we thought utopias were good things? Why is there a “no” embedded within the word itself? Probably because utopias are not real, but are imaginary places. Needless to say, this epigraph is all about utopias. And it just so happens that, in reading Brave New World, we a get a VIP tour of a dystopia (a.k.a. the opposite of a utopia).

That’s right. We begin with a French guy telling us to avoid utopias like the plague, and we finish with a rousing look into the misery and horrors of a dystopia. By process of deduction, it sounds to us like any words ending in –topia are bad news (with the exception of Dinotopia and Fruitopia). It also sounds to us like Brave New World explores said French man’s warning.

The “French guy” who authors this epigraph is in fact a Russian man named Nicholas Berdiaeff. Berdiaeff was a Russian philosopher born in 1874, and he became a great influence on Aldous Huxley and on many of Aldous Huxley’s literary contemporaries. In his youth, Berdiaeff was very scholarly and good at school. He committed himself to Marxism while in college. Marxism is a kind of thought that wonders why certain people in a society have more money and power than others. Check out “The Great Depression” in Shmoop History for more information.

After a while, Berdiaeff was exiled to places like Siberia for expressing his Marxist beliefs, which were not too popular among the rich and the powerful. Though he ultimately gave up on Marxism, Berdiaeff maintained the same passion for freedom and equality. He believed in individuality and the creative potential of humans. Eventually landing in France, he encountered the existentialists (a group of philosophers who questioned the meaning of life and who believed that individuals gave meaning to their own lives), and the two entities got along famously.

Now we are going to turn you into professional Shmoop translators. Lets discuss what is “lost in translation.” Translations are tricky because, where there is a word with a certain meaning in one language, there might not be an equivalent word with the exact same meaning in another language. Though we have provided a Shmoop translation, we want to take a moment to showcase three important words in the French version: “réaliser,” “angoissante,” and “marcher.” These three words are like golden nuggets or like loaded guns. They are packed with meaning that their English counterparts can’t fully capture.

Réaliser means much more than “to realize,” and realizable means much more than just possible. In fact, we don’t quite have an equivalent word in the English language to convey the full meaning of this verb. In our Shmoop translation, we have translated the phrase, “les utopies sont réalisables” as “utopias are possible.” But, in fact, when Berdiaeff uses this word, he implies that utopias loom large; that they are much closer and more definitive than a possibility. While the English word “possible” is a bit uncertain, the French word realizable is more definite, and it seems to have little ominous clouds following it around.

Angoissante has been translated as “alarming,” but, really, it means something more like anxiety-inducing or terrifying. In this sense, when Berdiaeff says, “et nous nous trouvons actuellement devant une question bien autrement angoissante,” he’s really saying, brace yourself, because now we find ourselves presented with a really horrifying question.” This one word, angoissante, gets our heart racing, our blood pumping, and our emotions flowing.

Marcher does mean “to walk” in French, but it also means, literally, “to march.” This word, therefore, has more of a soldierly connotation. In this way, life doesn’t just “tend” toward utopias (as we have translated) – it marches toward them. It also makes us think that utopias are inevitable and are marching toward us.

In this excerpt of Berdiaeff’s famous utopic words, we see him very worried that utopias are more achievable than ever before. In his mind, a utopia is no longer imaginary, as it’s meaning suggest, but it is becoming real. His message is not, “when can we have a perfect world and solve all of our global problems?” but rather, “how can we keep the world from ever becoming perfect?”

If we were to design a bumper sticker for Berdiaeff, it would say, “perfection shmermection.” Though he does not explicitly say so, we get the feeling that Berdiaeff believes utopias to be achievable because of the technological and societal progress humans had made at the time. To him and to Huxley, both writing in the early 20th century, humans had already made lots of big advancements and discoveries like cars, penicillin, and ice cream machines. We see this kind technological sophistication in Brave New World.

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