Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Use of Technology to Control Society
Brave New World warns of the dangers of giving the state control over new and powerful technologies. One illustration of this theme is the rigid control of reproduction through technological and medical intervention, including the surgical removal of ovaries, the Bokanovsky Process, and hypnopaedic conditioning. Another is the creation of complicated entertainment machines that generate both harmless leisure and the high levels of consumption and production that are the basis of the World State’s stability. Soma is a third example of the kind of medical, biological, and psychological technologies that Brave New World criticizes most sharply. It is important to recognize the distinction between science and technology. Whereas the State talks about progress and science, what it really means is the bettering of technology, not increased scientific exploration and experimentation. The state uses science as a means to build technology that can create a seamless, happy, superficial world through things such as the “feelies.” The state censors and limits science, however, since it sees the fundamental basis behind science, the search for truth, as threatening to the State’s control. The State’s focus on happiness and stability means that it uses the results of scientific research, inasmuch as they contribute to technologies of control, but does not support science itself.
The Consumer Society
It is important to understand that Brave New World is not simply a warning about what could happen to society if things go wrong, it is also a satire of the society in which Huxley existed, and which still exists today. While the attitudes and behaviors of World State citizens at first appear bizarre, cruel, or scandalous, many clues point to the conclusion that the World State is simply an extreme—but logically developed—version of our society’s economic values, in which individual happiness is defined as the ability to satisfy needs, and success as a society is equated with economic growth and prosperity.
The Incompatibility of Happiness and Truth
Brave New World is full of characters who do everything they can to avoid facing the truth about their own situations. The almost universal use of the drug soma is probably the most pervasive example of such willful self-delusion. Soma clouds the realities of the present and replaces them with happy hallucinations, and is thus a tool for promoting social stability. But even Shakespeare can be used to avoid facing the truth, as John demonstrates by his insistence on viewing Lenina through the lens of Shakespeare’s world, first as a Juliet and later as an “impudent strumpet.” According to Mustapha Mond, the World State prioritizes happiness at the expense of truth by design: he believes that people are better off with happiness than with truth.
What are these two abstract entities that Mond juxtaposes? It seems clear enough from Mond’s argument that happiness refers to the immediate gratification of every citizen’s desire for food, sex, drugs, nice clothes, and other consumer items. It is less clear what Mond means by truth, or specifically what truths he sees the World State society as covering up. From Mond’s discussion with John, it is possible to identify two main types of truth that the World State seeks to eliminate. First, as Mond’s own past indicates, the World State controls and muffles all efforts by citizens to gain any sort of scientific, or empirical truth. Second, the government attempts to destroy all kinds of “human” truths, such as love, friendship, and personal connection. These two types of truth are quite different from each other: objective truth involves coming to a definitive conclusion of fact, while a “human” truth can only be explored, not defined. Yet both kinds of truth are united in the passion that an individual might feel for them. As a young man, Mustapha Mond became enraptured with the delight of making discoveries, just as John loves the language and intensity of Shakespeare. The search for truth then, also seems to involve a great deal of individual effort, of striving and fighting against odds. The very will to search for truth is an individual desire that the communal society of Brave New World, based as it is on anonymity and lack of thought, cannot allow to exist. Truth and individuality thus become entwined in the novel’s thematic structure.
The Dangers of an All-Powerful State
Like George Orwell’s 1984, this novel depicts a dystopia in which an all-powerful state controls the behaviors and actions of its people in order to preserve its own stability and power. But a major difference between the two is that, whereas in 1984 control is maintained by constant government surveillance, secret police, and torture, power in Brave New World is maintained through technological interventions that start before birth and last until death, and that actually change what people want. The government of 1984 maintains power through force and intimidation. The government of Brave New World retains control by making its citizens so happy and superficially fulfilled that they don’t care about their personal freedom. In Brave New World the consequences of state control are a loss of dignity, morals, values, and emotions—in short, a loss of humanity.
By imagining a world in which individuality is forbidden, Brave New World asks us to consider what individual identity is and why it is valuable. The World State sees individuality as incompatible with happiness and social stability because it interferes with the smooth functioning of the community. The Controllers do everything they can to prevent people developing individual identities. “Bokanovsky’s Process” means that most citizens of the World States are biological duplicates of one another. “Hypnopaedic” slogans and “Solidarity Services” encourage citizens to think of themselves as part of a whole rather than as separate individuals. The Controller explains that people are sent to the islands when they “have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community life.” For Bernard, Helmholtz, and John, rebelling against the World State involves becoming self-conscious individuals. Bernard wants to feel “as though I were more me.” Helmholtz writes his first real poem about the experience of being alone, and when the Controller asks John what he knows about God, John thinks “about solitude.” In the end, John and Helmholtz choose to suffer in order to preserve their individuality. Bernard, however, never chooses individuality. He has been forced to be an individual due to his faulty conditioning. He tries to resist being sent to an island. For Bernard, individuality is a curse.
Happiness and Agency
Initially, the characters in Brave New World share the same ideas about what happiness is: freedom from emotional suffering, sickness, age, and political upheaval, together with easy access to everything they desire. However, the characters differ in their understanding of the role personal agency plays in happiness. Bernard believes he wants personal agency, in that he wants to feel “as though I were more me.” Yet when the Controller offers Bernard the chance to live as an individual in Iceland, he begs to be allowed to stay in the World State—he’s not ready to sacrifice personal comfort for autonomy. Helmholtz seeks to express himself through poetry, but his idea that “a lot of wind and storms” are necessary for good poetry suggests that happiness and self-expression are incompatible, and he will only achieve personal agency through suffering. John seeks personal freedom through suffering and self-denial, but his self-imposed deprivations make him miserable. He gives in to the lure of pleasure by taking part in an orgy, then kills himself.