Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
All right, what is it with Lenina? First Foster, then Bernard, then John: everyone is obsessed with this woman, and honestly, it's a little hard to see why. She's not really unique, or interesting, or challenging, or even particularly intelligent. As best we can tell, she's just "uncommonly pretty."
Huxley's explanation is that Lenina is "pneumatic." We should take a closer look at this word, because Huxley uses it multiple times in his novel. The official definition is basically "full of air," but this description can be metaphorical. It seems to mean that she's busty, curvy, and all-around sexy. But if that's the case, why does Huxley use this completely odd word? We're thinking it's meant to have a double meaning. Lenina's body may be all cushiony, but she's pneumatic mentally, too; as in, the girl is full of air. She's vapid (i.e., lifeless and dull). In this way, "pneumatic" ends up being a buzzword for everything about the new world. The chairs are pneumatic, some guy's shoes are pneumatic—everything is empty, everything is without meaning, everything is full of air. That this term is so frequently used in association with Lenina is just another reminder that, really, she's the epitome of the World State female (or even citizen).
But in the novel, the main characters aren't left in a stagnant stage of normalcy. They're continually challenged by strange and unusual circumstances. Bernard, always unpopular, suddenly gets famous. John, used to the Savage Reservation, is thrown into "civilized" London. Helmholtz, accustomed only to hypnopaedia, is introduced to Shakespeare. The pattern is no different for Lenina. Used to emotionless sex and instant gratification, Lenina is finally denied her sexual impulses. Used to men wanting nothing more than to go to bed with her, she has to deal with a guy who doesn't want to have sex at all.
Expectedly, this causes Lenina a good amount of distress. And it raises an important question: does Lenina really love John, or is this simply a case of wanting what you can't have? Hm. Well, look at the way Lenina talks about him. Is she struck by the capacity of his mind? Not exactly. Does she wonder at his individuality? Not really. Is she in awe of his morality? Mmm… no, not so much. It's more about his body. Actually, it's all about his body. When she first meets him, her thoughts are as follows: "…such a nice-looking boy, […] and a really beautiful body."
This sort of preoccupation with the material and the physical prevents Lenina from seeing many of the important issues at stake throughout much of the novel. When Bernard expresses a wish that they hadn't slept together so soon, Lenina thinks it means she is too plump. She's too focused on her body to realize that Bernard is expressing a genuine care for her. At the Savage Reservation, she is too distracted by smell to appreciate the cultural differences of this very different world. Because she's focused on John physically, she misses out on the fact that he's probably the most interesting man she's ever met. She can only think of sex and can't understand emotion.
For better or worse, this seems to be a common trait of females in Brave New World. Many scholars berate this novel, or even Huxley as a writer, for being misogynistic (anti-female). We don't meet any women who are definitely Alphas. Lenina seems to be a Beta, although we don't know for sure. Another example is that while we might think Miss Keate is an Alpha, we're never told. Miss Keate's sole function in the text is to show us Bernard's new sexual prowess. Critics have said that the only characters with integrity, a functioning conscience, principles, or a mind in Brave New World are men.
And yet, Lenina does have a potentially redeeming moment—at the end of Brave New World, you know, right before everything goes to pot and our protagonist ends up dead. It's a really interesting paragraph:
The young woman pressed both hands to her left side, and on that peach-bright, doll-beautiful face of hers appeared a strangely incongruous expression of yearning distress. Her blue eyes seemed to grow larger, brighter; and suddenly two tears rolled down her cheeks. Inaudibly, she spoke again; then, with a quick, impassioned gesture stretched out her arms towards the Savage, stepped forward.
We wonder about that bit where Lenina "presse[s] both hands to her left side," and we're thinking left side = left side of the chest, meaning she puts her hands over her heart, like saying the pledge of allegiance, except instead she's declaring her love. Or maybe she's got her hands on her left kidney. But on a positive note, at least on the point of Lenina not being completely shallow, she cries. We haven't seen anyone except John cry in the World State before. She's showing emotion, which means there's a good chance she actually genuinely cares for John. Put this together with the heart/kidney thing, and it spells L-O-V-E, or at least L-O-V, which at the end of the day may be as much as we can expect from this woman.