Brave New World

Aldous Huxley

Chapters 17–18

Summary Chapters 17–18

Analysis: Chapters 17–18

Bernard and Helmholtz leave the scene, and the novel, at the beginning of Chapter 17. By being exiled to the islands, and by accepting their exile, they have lost the fight against the World State. Helmholtz may continue to struggle through his writing. That is the implication of his choice of a particularly harsh environment. But both of them are being physically transported to a location where they can cause little harm to the World State. Only John is left to criticize and debate with Mond.

The discussion of religion carries the book to its most abstract and metaphysical level, and the reader may have difficulty following the thread of the argument from Chapter 16 to Chapter 17, particularly given the long passages of quotation. However, this section goes to the heart of what is wrong with Huxley’s dystopia: the fact that nobody conceives of any purpose for existence beyond the gratification of their own appetites. The passage from Newman that Mond quotes suggests that individuals feel the need for religion as they lose the sense that they are in complete control of their own lives, as they experience loss and the weakening that comes with age. The sense that one is not in control of one’s life precedes the understanding that one is part of something larger (God’s plan). In the World State, no one grows old or experiences loss, so no one ever arrives at religious experience.

In one sense, this can be seen as yet another criticism of consumerism. But Huxley is actually criticizing something larger than 1920s England and America, with its Ford motor cars, diamond rings, and conspicuous consumption. He’s criticizing the way philosophers, economists, and social scientists have been thinking about society for almost 400 years—roughly since Shakespeare’s day. Before that time, political philosophers from the ancient Greeks onward thought of civil society as serving some purpose. What that entailed varied from culture to culture. For Pericles, an ancient leader of Athens, the purpose of the polis (city-state) was to enable the small minority of free men to perform heroic exploits. In the Middle Ages, the purpose of the nation was frequently conceived as being to carry out God’s plan by serving the king, his representative on earth.

Seventeenth-century writers and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes began to conceive of societies as governed by observable laws, such as the law of supply and demand, which could determine the behavior of large numbers of people. The models of society promoted by Hobbes, and later by the political economists, ultimately generated a sufficient understanding of economic and sociological dynamics to permit governments to effectively promote greater stability, as the government does in Brave New World. But these models simplify human life to the mere struggle to survive and escape starvation, and their insights come at the price of the earlier sense that human lives or societies have a greater purpose. And while the lack of a purpose, divine or otherwise, may be a serious flaw in the worldviews of sociology and economics, Huxley observes a much more dangerous tendency within them: the tendency for the government to produce more and more intervention into human life.

The meaning of the novel as a whole lies in Huxley’s critique of modernity, characterized by technocratic government, social sciences dedicated to the control of society, and rampant consumerism, and the remarkable observation voiced by Mond in Chapter 3, that everything we think of as fundamentally human—love, passion, desire, art, and culture—comes about because of the experiences of loss and unsatisfied desire. It appears that the point of Brave New World is that modernity is developing in a direction that will ultimately change human nature itself. A world in which consumerism is developed to the extent it is in the World State, where desires are immediately gratified, in which “external secretion” is carried to the baby before it has barely begun to cry, would eradicate the most fundamental fact of human existence: its inconvenience.

But at the same time that it points to this conclusion, there are signs throughout the novel that this alteration in human nature has not yet taken place, and perhaps could never take place. Just as we are being told that there are no more jealous lovers, we meet Bernard Marx. Beneath the surface of the “free love” practiced among the higher castes lurks the specter of monogamy and violent passion. Lenina has already dated one man exclusively for far too long, and she indulges with an entire feely-going audience in a scandalous fantasy of monogamy practiced in a helicopter. Routinely, the citizens find themselves having to supplement their soma ration with drugs that replicate pregnancy or violent attachment. And there is the continuing problem of the dissidents who have to be exiled.