The tone of Brave New World is initially sardonic and dispassionate, signaling the reader to remain skeptical about the whether World State is actually a great place to live. Huxley creates this tone through incongruous imagery, such as “the air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters,” or the descriptions of stars as “depressing.” We don’t usually associate helicopters with drowsiness, or stars with depression, so these jarring descriptions clue us to not take the story at face value. The fact that the residents of World State have been conditioned to find helicopters soothing and nature unsettling, while the reader has the opposite reactions, creates a distance between the reader and the characters. The tone suggests that the reader understands what is really going on better than the people we are reading about, and we should therefore pity them for their ignorance. For example, when the “Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron” elevator man takes a load of passengers to the roof, he seems confused by his reaction to sunlight and fresh air: “He was as though suddenly and joyfully awakened from a dark annihilating stupor.” The reader understands the unfairness of the man’s sunlight-deprived existence, but the man himself returns to “the twilight of his own habitual stupor” without complaint.

The tone shifts in the second half of the novel, when we follow John’s story and Huxley’s tone becomes more admiring and also more emotionally invested. Here, the irony shifts from the characters’ ignorance about their own condition, to their ignorance about John. Most of the characters consider John a savage, and his practices uncivilized, but Huxley’s sympathetic tone suggests John is in fact the only civilized character in the book. For example, when Linda is dying, John is wracked with conflicting memories of his childhood: “there was only a hateful resurrection of jealousies and uglinesses and miseries… He tried to think about times when he sat on her knee…” This intimate tone suggests that John’s struggle to reconcile conflicting feelings makes him fully human. Near the end of the novel, John becomes more extreme in his struggle to overcome his human impulses, such as lust and the desire for comfort. By contrasting the thoughtless cruelty of the photographer, who hopes to get a good shot of John whipping himself (“it would be a wonderful film… almost as good as the Sperm Whale’s Love Life”), with John’s suicidal distress, Huxley suggests that John’s choice to kill himself is tragic, yet understandable.

Read about another shifting tone in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.