In telling the story of a civilization where suffering and pain have been eradicated at the price of personal autonomy, Brave New World explores the dehumanizing effects of technology, and implies that pain is necessary for life to have meaning. The story begins with three expository chapters describing the futuristic society of World State. In this society, marriage, family, and procreation have been eliminated, and babies are genetically engineered and grown in bottles. Citizens are programmed to be productive and complaisant through a combination of biological manipulation, psychological conditioning, and a drug called soma. A character named Mustapha Mond explains that in the previous era, people suffered from poverty, disease, unhappiness, and wars. A new society, named for the twentieth century automotive manufacturer Henry Ford, was formed to improve the human experience. These chapters do not include many significant elements of the plot, but they introduce the major themes of the novel. They signal to the reader that World State brainwashes its citizens to remain obedient, and suggest the reader should be skeptical about how truly utopian the society really is. The World State emerges as the antagonist of the novel, a sinister force that prevents characters from achieving meaningful happiness or free will.
The plot is initiated when Bernard, the novel’s initial protagonist, asks Lenina on a date to visit a Reservation. The reader can infer that Reservations serve as sort of human zoos where World State citizens can gawk at what civilization used to be like. We can soon tell that despite their mutual attraction, Bernard and Lenina are incompatible. Bernard does not want to participate in Obstacle Golf, but wants to go on a walk and get to know Lenina. Lenina wants to act like everyone else and enjoy the same activities without thinking or talking too much. We see that most of the main characters struggle to conform to society to one degree or another. Lenina is mostly content to follow the rules, but questions the government-enforced promiscuity, and feels oddly attracted to Bernard, despite the fact that he is an outsider. Bernard more profoundly questions World State’s habit of drugging citizens, and wonders if his life might have more meaning if he experienced the full range of human emotion. Bernard’s friend, Helmholtz, is even more disturbed by World State, and longs to create art that can act as a sort of x-ray for human experience, rather than propaganda that enforces World State policies.
The conflict of the novel is developed on the eve of Lenina and Bernard’s trip, when the Director tells Bernard about his own visit to the Reservation, raising further questions about how successful the society really is at creating an ideal existence. The Director describes being separated from the woman he was with, hurting himself, and having a painful and arduous trip back to the Reservation. The physical and emotional difficulty of the experience make it one of his most significant memories, and he admits that he still dreams about it. This recollection introduces the idea that pain is necessary for meaning, and also foreshadows John and Linda’s relationship to the Director. At the Reservation, John and Lenina witness several scenes directly contrasting the two ideas of civilization presented by the novel: the Native American-like civilization of the Reservation, and the futuristic civilization of World State. Unlike in World State, residents of the Reservation grow old, have disease, hunger, and treat each other with cruelty. At the same time, they create art, experience love and marriage, and have a powerful religious system.
At the Reservation, Lenina and Bernard meet John, a white-skinned resident who Bernard realizes is the Director’s son, setting up the eventual collision of the opposing cultures. John tells them his memories of growing up on the reservation with Linda, where he experienced maternal love and the joy of reading Shakespeare and learning skills, but also the pain of ostracism. Linda, still effectively brainwashed by her World State upbringing, speaks rapturously of her time in World State, and eagerly accepts Bernard’s offer to bring her home. Back at World State John joyfully greets his father but the citizens, unaccustomed to displays of deep emotion, laugh at him. Bernard enjoys momentary popularity as the officials who once shunned him now clamor for time with John. Bernard’s dissatisfactions melt away as he begins to feel powerful and important. John emerges as the novel’s protagonist at this point, and our sympathies shift to him as he years for an emotional relationship with Lenina and worries about Linda, who exists in a drugged stupor. Lenina, confused by John’s refusal to have sex with her, takes off her clothes and tries to embrace him, but John flies into a rage and beats her, showing the dark, dangerous side of human emotions and morality.
The climax of the novel occurs when Linda dies and John, deranged by grief, tries to stage a revolution. Helmholtz joins in, while Bernard watches, unsure whether it is safer for him to join or call for help. In this scene, Bernard becomes entirely unsympathetic for his cowardice and lack of morality. Mustapha Mond exiles Bernard and Helmholtz, then discusses religion, literature, and art with John. Citing Shakespeare, John argues for the importance of pain and difficulty, saying, “I don’t want comfort… I want God, I want poetry, I want danger, I want freedom, I want goodness.” Mond replies that John is asking for the right to be unhappy, a right that the book asserts is central to the experience of being human. The falling action of the novel takes place after John exiles himself from the city, and attempts to live a life as free of comfort and ease as possible. Reporters find him whipping himself, and soon he is surrounded by a crowd of onlookers demanding a show. The crowd’s frenzy turns into an orgy, which John participates in. The next day, horrified by what he’s done, he hangs himself.