Continuing my quest to finish all the summer reading my students have to do, I finished Brave New World this morning. I usually like dystopian novels, but I didn’t like this one, which is somewhat ironic considering it is one of the two “gold-standards” of dystopian novels (the other being, of course, 1984). It’s been a long time since I have read anything that gave me bad dreams, but even putting that aside, I didn’t like the novel for other reasons.
First of all, I found it somewhat problematic that Huxley’s society would repress family and childbirth by manufacturing children in “hatcheries,” but at the same time encourage promiscuity. It would make more sense to me that the World State would repress sex altogether and punish people caught having sex. Huxley explains this objection away through the words of his character Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe, who says that encouraging promiscuity is necessary because “[y]ou can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.”
I also found it hard to believe that the World State would allow dissenters to continue an existence in exile. What if they decided to band together and overthrow the World State? Doesn’t dissent represent too much of a threat to allow it to continue?
Another issue that bothered me was the fact that 70% of the women were sterilized in “utero” (for lack of a better term), and the other 30% were made to use contraception. Where did they get the human ova? Did they require the women who could have children to donate their ova, or did they extract them from fetuses, and if so, why not sterilize all the women after extracting the ova, eliminating the need for contraception drills? I can’t remember that Huxley mentioned where all those eggs came from.
Also, as much as I understood that this society prized consumerism and mass production to the point that they even manufactured people (the description of the hatchery was, to me, the most disturbing part of the novel), I still found the, for lack of a better word, worship of Henry Ford to be hard to buy completely. It does help explain why the society as a whole is uninterested in history, if you take Ford’s assertion that “History is bunk” at face value.
I think the novel explores some important issues, including exactly where we might be headed when we make consumerism and pleasure-seeking the point of our lives and don’t worry about learning. Huxley’s vision of equality isn’t really far from the truth with the exception that the government doesn’t actively introduce toxins to fetuses to subjugate certain groups. We are probably at the stage when we might indeed be able to mass produce people as the novel depicts — I wonder what Huxley would make of in-vitro fertilization and cloning (and please understand I don’t criticize people who use in-vitro to have children; the principles behind the creation of children in the novel and with in-vitro are similar, however).
I can easily see that my students might have trouble with this novel, particularly catching all the references and making connections, and for that reason, I should probably choose this one to study prior to assessment (as I have explained, students are assessed over two novels without benefit of class study). It would certainly provide fodder for discussion, and I already have the beginnings of a good assessment rolling around my head. I don’t think students would have the same difficulties with The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I haven’t read The Return of the Native yet, so I’ll delay making a decision until I’ve read that one.
After having finished Brave New World, I’ll say I’m glad I read it because it is one of those novels that literate folks, especially English teachers, should have read, but if I hadn’t had to read it for school, I’m not sure I’d have finished it.
In case you’re interested, the books I still need to read to prepare for school are The Return of the Native, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the latter two I began last summer, but never finished). If I have time, I will re-read The Bean Trees. If I keep up the pace I have been, even with the release of the new Harry Potter book, I should still finish all right.