Study Guide

Brave New World Themes

By Aldous Huxley

  • Science

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    Huxley wrote that the focus of Brave New World isn't science itself, but science as it affects people. Just like how Twilight isn't a book about vampires, so to speak, but a book about how vampires affect people. The vision Huxley paints of a high-tech, futuristic society is both horrifying and fascinating. In a world where people are controlled down to their very impulses, emotions, and thoughts, science tends to imprison humanity more than liberate us. Because of this, "science" is somewhat bastardized by those who seek to control; they use what's useful, but limit what's "dangerous."

    Questions About Science

    1. What's the difference between writing about science per se and writing about science as it affects humans? Huxley claims he did the latter and not the former; does that seem true?
    2. Mustapha reminds John, Bernard, and Helmholtz that science is dangerous and needs to be muzzled, but also that it's useful if harnessed properly. Do the benefits of science outweigh the drawbacks in Brave New World?
    3. Does Brave New World condemn science in our own world?

    Chew on This

    Science is subservient to human nature in Brave New World; tools like the Violent Passion Surrogate and the Pregnancy Substitute prove that science must cater to the needs of the human body because it cannot overcome them.

    Science trumps human nature in Brave New World; tools like the Violent Passion Surrogate and the Pregnancy Substitute prove that science is effectively able to replace all natural functions.

  • Sex

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    Let's talk about sex, baby. In Brave New World, sex and violence are portrayed as the two extremes of passion. In this futuristic world, promiscuity is the law and emotional attachment is straight-up illegal. That's right, no more couples and no more love. Sex is no longer used for procreation, but rather for distraction and pacification—kind of like how social media is used today. Sex has been dehumanized and made devoid of passion, treated casually and publicly rather than as a personal matter. Because of this, no space of time ever passes between a desire and the consummation of that desire.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Promiscuity is encouraged—no, demanded—in the World State. Is this a subjugation of the natural inclination toward monogamy, or is it catering to the natural inclination of sleeping with as many people as possible?
    2. Is the above question different in talking about men than it is for women? In Brave New World, which gender seems more disposed toward monogamy, and which toward promiscuity?
    3. Why do the World Controllers include sex at all as a part of daily life? Why not just eliminate everyone's sex drives altogether?
    4. Does John have sex with Lenina at the end of the novel? (There is no right answer to this question.)

    Chew on This

    Sex and violence are intricately linked in Brave New World, proving that in order to have passion one must feel the extremes of both pleasure and pain.

    All the sex in Brave New World is destructive.

  • Power

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    As one character puts it, power in Brave New World "is a matter of sitting, not hitting." Rather than using violence to enforce the law (ahem), those in power in this futuristic society have simply programmed the citizens to be happy with the laws. How do they do it? A free-flowing supply of drugs, an insistence on promiscuity, the denial of history or future as any alternative to the present, and the use of sleep-teaching at a young age. The question is—is this future any better than our current situation? Sure, it might sound fun at first, but one look at Huxley's Brave New World and you'll learn pretty fast that all play and no work makes humanity one dull group.

    Questions About Power

    1. Is Mustapha Mond truly a powerful guy? Or is it possible that he's a slave to his position in life, just like everyone else?
    2. Of all the devices the World State uses to control its citizens, which is the most powerful? Which is the most morally abhorrent?
    3. Different characters in the novel fight power in different ways. Bernard at first tries defiance; Helmholtz turns to subversive writing; and John leaves to live in solitude at the lighthouse. Are any of these effective? What is the best way to fight the system in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Helmholtz Watson is the most powerful character in Brave New World because he is the only one with control over his own mind.

    The World State's power over its citizens is threatened most by man's instinctive desire for free will.

  • Suffering

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    Brave New World takes place in a tightly controlled world where technology has all but eliminated suffering and a widely used narcotic called soma dulls whatever momentary pains may arise. It may sound like a pretty chill set up, but it's definitely not. But why, you ask?

    Have you ever read Shakespeare? Listened to Mariah Carey? You'll notice that suffering is a central part of the human experience. Without suffering, people somehow become less than human.

    Self-inflicted pain becomes, for one character, a way to regain his humanity as well as a spiritual cleansing. God, he explains, is a reason for self-denial. This is of course tied to the notion of an afterlife: denying the body in this life will be good for the soul in the afterlife. Christianity especially espouses this theory, as suffering for one's sins is one way to emulate Jesus Christ. Suffering may certainly suck at times, but a world without it means a world without love, purpose, or compassion. 

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does John want to suffer? Is it for the sake of suffering, or for the satisfaction of relief once the suffering is over?
    2. Religion is tied to suffering in Brave New World. John explicitly tells Mustapha that God is a reason for self-denial. If you take away religion, is there any other reason for experiencing pain in Brave New World?
    3. What is the general take on suffering in the Savage Reservation? Is this more or less reasonable than the World State's view on suffering?
    4. Does John commit suicide to end his suffering, or to accentuate it?

    Chew on This

    Despite John's adamant convictions, suffering serves no purpose in Brave New World.

    Inflicting pain on oneself is the only path to liberty in Brave New World.

  • Literature and Writing

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    In the futuristic dystopia of Brave New World, "history is bunk," literature is outlawed, and the only serious writing is the sleep-teachings used to condition children to function as ideal members of society. Two characters in particular try to reject this: John and Hemholtz. John introduces Hemholtz to Shakespeare, where he finds the means to express his own passions. Literature becomes a means of finding the self, of rebelling against conformity, and of seeking both truth and beauty, even at the cost of ignorant bliss. So next time your English teacher tries to make you read more often, just remember—without books, the world would be a very scary place.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What is the difference between the way John looks at Shakespeare and the way Helmholtz does? Can Helmholtz ever overcome the limitations of his conditioning to appreciate the works as John does?
    2. Helmholtz claims that beautiful, passionate prose can only be written if it focuses on beautiful and passionate subject matter. Is this true?
    3. Helmholtz wants to write about something passionate, but he laughs at the intense emotions in Romeo and Juliet. He seeks some big, important subject matter that he hasn't been conditioned to undervalue. Does anything like this exist, or is he doomed?

    Chew on This

    Both John and Helmholtz are so marred by their upbringing that neither can understand the full scope of Shakespeare.

  • Freedom and Confinement

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    The citizens of Brave New World's futuristic society are in a constant state of imprisonment. But, just like your trusty family dog, they've been conditioned to love their servitude and no one seems to have any problem with it. Well, almost no one. As one character so deftly points out, being happy all the time is its own sort of prison; being a human is about having the right to be unhappy. The prison bars are made of brainwashing catchphrases, drugs, and promiscuity—not of iron or steel. Because confinement happens in the mind, so too is freedom a mental state.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What is the difference between natural instinct and the "instinctual" feelings that the citizens of the World State have been conditioned to feel? Is there a difference at all?
    2. If everyone is always going to be driven by instinctswhether instilled by a recorded voice or by the force of evolution? Can any one ever really be free to make his own choices?
    3. Which character is the most liberated in Brave New World?
    4. Come to think of it, what would it even mean to be free in this novel?

    Chew on This

    The hypnopaedic phrase "everyone belongs to everyone else" is the perfect epigraph to Brave New World: no one is free, and every one partakes in subjugating every one else. This phrase goes much further than merely the sexual arena.

    John is as much a prisoner of conditioning as are the adults of the civilized world.

  • Isolation

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    Isolation is a tricky bird in Brave New World—even trickier than that time Big Bird counted to 17 on Sesame Street. On the one hand, it's a painful experience for the "unique" characters like John and Bernard, who find themselves at odds with the rest of society. On the other hand, it's a means to self-discovery and spirituality. Because of the latter, solitude is essentially outlawed in the novel's futuristic, highly controlled totalitarian setting. Imagine that—never being allowed to be alone. What about when you have to go to the bathroom?

    Questions About Isolation

    1. John grew up hating that he was always kept separate from the Indians. But at the end of the novel he desires nothing more than to be alone. What happened to make him do a 180 like this?
    2. What is the value of solitude in Brave New World? Is it beneficial or harmful? Is there a general answer to this question, or is it different for one character (let's say, Bernard) than it is for another (for example Helmholtz)?
    3. What's the difference between the isolation John faced in the Savage Reservation and the isolation that Bernard is dealing with at the novel's start?

    Chew on This

    John only "falls in love" with Lenina because she is the first white woman he's seen aside from his mother. He thinks she is the way out of a life of solitude and loneliness.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

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    In Brave New World, drugs aren't just pretty common; they're distributed en masse by the government. Yes, the government. So much for Just Say No, right? The drug in question here is soma, a hallucinogen described as "the perfect drug," with all the benefits (calming, surrealistic, ten-hour long highs) and none of those pesky drawbacks (you know, like brain damage). The citizens of the "World State" have been conditioned to love the drug, and they use it to escape any momentary bouts of dissatisfaction. And we mean any sense of dissatisfaction. The problem, as one character identifies, is that the citizens are essentially enslaved by the drug and turned into mindless drones. So while the government may encourage drug use, it only does so as a means of further controlling the population. How much power do these guys need?

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Everyone makes a big deal out of the fact that soma doesn't have the nasty after-effects of, say, alcohol (hangovers, guilt, shame, pregnancy). If this is true, why do we find its use morally reprehensible? Actually, does the reader find it morally reprehensible?
    2. Why does Bernard seem to be magically immune to soma at the Solidarity Service?
    3. Does soma make its users happy, or does it simply remove all emotion?

    Chew on This

    The need for soma represents the failure of the World State to adequately satisfy its citizens.

    Soma is the World State's most powerful tool to subdue and control its citizens. Without soma, even hypnopaedia would be ineffective.

  • Identity

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    Brave New World explores the classic conflict between the individual and society. Remember when your kindergarten teacher taught you about how everyone is unique? Well, forget that lesson today, because in this story, personal identity has been sacrificed for the sake of a common good, and the results are not very pretty. A form of biological reproduction produces certain types of humans in batches of 96 identical copies. A social "caste" structure separates the citizens into five groups, the result being that any given individual is little more than a faceless, color-coded member of a larger group. Certain characters in the novel grow uncomfortable with this idea, are downright disgusted by it, or for one reason or another find that they just don't fit the mold. They seek to understand their individuality through isolation, self-exploration, and of course, self-flagellation.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Think about the 96 identical Bokanovsky twins (and yes, we know, "twin" isn't the right word, but don't look at us, look at Huxley). Is there any difference at all between, say, number 47 and number 62?
    2. How do Bernard, Helmholtz, and John each seek to define themselves? Do any of them succeed?
    3. All three of these men became aware of their individuality because they were somehow in isolation from the rest of their peers. What does solitude have to do with individuality?
    4. In "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" we discussed animal imagery in Brave New World, and the way that citizens have been dehumanized. But at the end of the day, are they more like people or animals?

    Chew on This

    Women in Brave New World are defined only by their function as sexual objects. This is the extent of every female's identity.

    It is only by killing himself that John is able to maintain his identity as a human being instead of an animal.

  • Spirituality

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    Considering this is a novel about a dystopian future, there sure is a whole lot of spirituality in Brave New World. We see a mix of Christianity, the tribal beliefs of Native Americans, a non-denominational interest in the soul, a spiritual unity with the natural world, and a frenzied, orgiastic parody of religious rites. One character goes all emo on us and starts to believe his spiritual life is deepened through self-mutilation. But in the mind of the powerful world leaders, religion simply isn't needed in a world of science and machines. Comfort comes in a bottle and morality is taught in sleep-session brainwashing. In the world leaders' minds, God is obsolete.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. If religion is obsolete, what's with the strangely cultish Solidarity Service? What does this provide to citizens that they aren't getting elsewhere?
    2. How does Brave New World present the rituals seen on the Savage Reservation? With respect? Disgust? How does this compare to the way the Solidarity Service is shown?
    3. Did John learn morality from the Indians on the Reservations, from Linda, from Shakespeare, or from another source? Is John's system of morality religious in nature?

    Chew on This

    Brave New World argues that distinctions between one type of religion or another are frivolous, because, at the end of the day, all religions serve the same purpose: pacification.

    Religion is mocked in Brave New World as a less scientific form of hypnopaedia.

  • Society and Class

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    Like Greek life on college campuses around the country, the society in Brave New World is split into five castes: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, with a few minor distinctions in between. Because of the technology wielded by the World State's leaders, caste is pre-determined and humans are grown in a manner appropriate to their status; the lower the caste, the dumber and uglier the individual is created to be. As adults, the upper two castes interact socially with each other but never with the lesser groups—that would totally be social suicide. Class is yet another mechanism for stability and control on the part of the government. It's also a big part of the reason that personal identity goes by the wayside in this novel—Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons are simply faceless drones in color-coded outfits who exist to serve the more intelligent Alphas and Betas.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Huxley pretty much exclusively focuses on characters of Alpha or Beta status. Why do we get so little insight into the lives of the lower castes?
    2. Is Mustapha right in his insistence that a society of all Alphas would fail? What did you think of that "Cyprus experiment" discussed in Chapter 16?
    3. Do Alphas seem to be the least satisfied of all the citizens in the World State? If Epsilons really are happy with their lives, then what's wrong (morally) with making them that way?

    Chew on This

    The caste system is the greatest tool the World State has to subdue its citizens.

    Soma is more vital to the upper castes than it is to the lower ones.

    Soma is more vital to the lower castes than it is to the upper ones.

  • Dissatisfaction

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    The dystopian future portrayed in Brave New World clearly leaves a lot to be desired—namely individuality, passion, and love. You know, all those qualities that make humans so human. Since individuals have been programmed to be happy, those who do feel any sort of dissatisfaction are confused by it and completely unsure of how to act. Much of the novel deals with putting words to these emotions, finding other people who feel the same way, and finally acting with resolve to change the status quo. In some ways, the sheer number of dissatisfied individuals in Brave New World (apparently all the islands of the world are populated with these unique, headstrong rebels) represents the only optimistic part of the novel; despite conditioning, drugs, and biological engineering, the human spirit will always yearn for more. We're one resilient creature, that's for sure.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Are Helmholtz and Bernard dissatisfied because they are different from others, or are they different because of their dissatisfaction?
    2. John can't seem to put words to his dissatisfaction until he finds Shakespeare. Helmholtz is exactly the same way. What's up with that? Why can't they express themselves and their discontent? And why do they need to find the proper words to it before they act in any way?
    3. Does Mustapha Mond seem like he's satisfied in his position? If not, why does he continue to do what he does?

    Chew on This

    John is so dissatisfied with the emotional void of the civilized world that he inflicts pain on himself just to feel something. His actions, then, stem not from a desire for spiritual betterment but from a simple state of discontentedness.

    Bernard's feeling of dissatisfaction is a vague malaise, whereas Helmholtz's is a growing passion. They differ not in the nature of their discontent, but rather its intensity. This is why Bernard sinks back into stupor while Helmholtz escapes with his individuality.