Is John any freer than the citizens of the World State?
Huxley presents the World State as the extreme culmination of his era’s infatuation with technology and comfort. However, we are meant to understand that the same government control that provides subjects with peace and stability also robs them of their essential humanity. The horror of Brave New World lies in its depiction of human beings as machines, manufactured on assembly lines and continuously monitored for quality assurance. John, the “savage” from New Mexico, initially seems to represent a kind of pure human being, one whose naturalness contrasts with the mechanization of the World State. However, Huxley goes on to undermine that interpretation, demonstrating not only that John has been socially conditioned just as the World State inhabitants have, but also that his conditioning leads to his downfall.
At first, John seems to represent the fictional philosophical figure known as the noble savage. The noble savage is a primitive human being—usually a man—who grows up isolated in the wild yet possesses an innate sense of morality. John’s epithet, “the Savage,” deliberately echoes this concept, which tends to portray civilization as a corrupting influence rather than an ennobling one. Writers and thinkers who invoke the noble savage often do so to challenge the cultural arrogance of colonizers, just as John challenges the World State’s deeply held belief in the superiority of its system. Crucially, Huxley makes John not a native Indian but a lost descendant of the World State people—visually, physically, and genetically indistinguishable from Lenina, Bernard, and the others. In this way, John seems to function as a sort of scientific “control” in the World State experiment, with all things being equal except the fact that he grew up outside the system.
However, John did not grow up in a vacuum. One of the ironies of the novel is the way Bernard and the others continuously refer to the New Mexico reservation as “the Savage Reservation.” In this phrase, we are meant to hear an echo of the European settlers who derided indigenous peoples as savages or barbarians, unable to recognize that the alien-seeming native cultures represented legitimate, if alternate, forms of civilization. Like the Native Americans of our history, the Reservation Indians of Brave New World have their own set of rules, customs, and values, which John has internalized. He has been taught to value individual strength and masculinity, and is crushed that he cannot prove himself through the traditional rituals of the tribe. The tribe inculcates a reverence for the divine in John, as well as a belief in committed monogamy and a simultaneous distaste for promiscuity. This proves how powerful an influence the Reservation culture exerts on him, for in adopting their views on religion, love, and individuality, John rejects the teachings of his mother, Linda, one of the few people who shows any concern for him.
In the end, the World State doesn’t destroy John for being an intractable non-believer, as we might have expected. Rather, John kills himself when his social conditioning convinces him that he is perverse and wicked. John’s notions of love and romance do not represent natural, inherent concepts. Rather, he has learned everything he knows about proper sexual relations from a book—specifically, the collected works of Shakespeare. While we might see John’s desire for passion and fidelity as laudable, Romeo and Juliet represents just one of the romantic scripts he has learned. At other points in the novel, he identifies more with the title characters of Othello and Hamlet, who express such deep ambivalence about physical expressions of sexuality that they are driven to murder, suicide, and other brutal acts. In the end, John’s inability to reconcile his sexual desires with his romantic ethics leads him to sequester himself in a lighthouse, where he lives in a state of extreme deprivation and self-punishment. John’s value system is revealed to be the mirror image of the World State’s, which freely celebrates sexuality and forbids romantic love; his self-whippings represent nothing more than violent, physical versions of the technological and rhetorical conditioning practiced by the government.
It would be easy for us to see John’s investment in love and individuality as a set of natural principles, since his beliefs seem to reflect our own cultural values. However, to do so would mean perpetuating the same myth employed by World State, which brainwashes citizens into thinking all government-approved feelings are natural, while non-sanctioned desires represent perverse tendencies. In our society, the Reservation, as well as the World State, naturalness represents a supreme value—but each of those communities defines “natural” in a way that suits their needs. Huxley’s novel is therefore not a warning to reject technology in favor of natural living, but to carefully examine what “natural” might truly mean.