I’m on a “kick” of reading or re-reading dystopian-style novels, including 1984, We, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and Brave New World. It’s interesting that they all have so many themes in common. Certainly, the later dystopias have been influenced by the earlier ones, but I’m fascinated by the common threads running through each—and the applicability to our current world.
Published in the 1930s, this dystopian novel takes place in London, where humankind has created a perfect society free from change, unpredictability, sadness, and freedom. Though the writing style and outdated vocabulary makes the book a bit difficult at times for a general reader, the implications of this book are frightening.
In this society, which has replaced “God” with “Ford” (as in Henry Ford), and replaced the cross with the sign of the T, and started counting time at the invention of the Model-T, everything is planned, from being “born” in a hatchery to dying in a death center. Life, in essence, is like living in an assembly line. Some characters are named, and their names seem significant: one of the main characters’ last names is Marx, for instance, and the female lead’s name is Lenina, as well as John, the noble savage. There are more that you could research if you were feeling up to it.
I can’t help but compare Brave New World to 1984, which also takes place in London. But whereas 1984 controls the population with vinegar, Brave New World uses honey—which in many ways is more frightening. People are so inundated and stupid that they no longer care about anything.
John, a “savage” from a “reservation” in America, is taken to London and treated with both fear and curiosity as somewhat of a celebrity. His mother Linda was born in London, and she became trapped on the reservation during a vacation there. Left pregnant without the possibility of an abortion, Linda is horrified. The idea of a live birth, or a mother, for that matter, is horrifying in this world. Here, everyone is a “test-tube” baby, designed to fit into a strictly-defined caste system with intelligences from Alpha Plus to Epsilon (semi-moron). From “birth,” babies are conditioned to love their place in life, disliking all other social castes just enough to eliminate any possibility of envy. They are conditioned in all things society deems appropriate, including an addiction to soma, a drug with no side effects after the “trip” has passed, and sex—encouraged with sex-hormone chewing gum, rampant birth control, and a conditioning to desire many and frequent partners. Like other dystopian novels, this society frowns upon “alone time” and attachment to one particular person. The best way to be happy is to remain social on a superficial level. And if things do get frightening, there is always soma.
The most disturbing type of conditioning in the book, I think, is the death conditioning. People in this society are kept “young” until they are sixty years old, at which time their bodies are ready for death. They are placed into dying centers, and young children infest these centers like lice, watching death as it happens. To complete the conditioning, which removes the fear of death, the children are given chocolate éclairs at the time of death, so in their mind, death is comforting and sweet.
Anyone who doesn’t fit in such a society is sent to one of the world’s many islands. Though not many details are given about these islands, I imagine them to be somewhat like Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged—places where independent thinkers are left alone to invent and produce, with no contact with the outside world. Our savage John, however, is not allowed to go to such a place. He is seen as a social experiment—someone born and raised without any social conditioning. John is addicted to Shakespeare. His mother gave him the only interesting book she could find on the reservation, a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and John compares everything he encounters to a Shakespearean play or character (hence the title). In the end, guilt at witnessing his mother’s death and witnessing the dystopia of London, he punishes himself physically but even then cannot get through the conditioned skulls of London’s inhabitants just how frightening their lives are.
As in most dystopias, common threads prevail: no alone-time, as mentioned. No independent thought. No sadness. Time occupied by superficial business. When John finally does confront the population, he realizes they actually fear freedom. They do not want to make decisions. They do not want responsibility. They do not want “the freedom to be unhappy.” He criticizes their society as “infantile” and “too easy,” but none of the general population seems to care. The “Alpha Plus” caste is limited to a small percentage of the population because people of such high ability have the potential of becoming sad and discontent, proving that this society believes that ignorance is bliss. But ultimately, readers are left with the question: if society has “perfected” life to such an extent that we can live as perpetual infants, without any time delay between our desires and fulfilling those desires, what then is the point of living at all?
In making connections to modern life, I see “instant gratification” in such things as Twitter, Facebook, and other apps. If we are discontent or alone, we need not sit and think, or read, or contemplate meaning in life. Instead, we can click onto our phones and see what superficial things one of our 842 Facebook or Twitter “friends” are up to. Government subsidies largely provide phones for all members of the population unable to afford the technology on their own. As John notes, literature of the past has been replaced by “feelies,” smut-filled, plotless, mindless drivel. Reality shows, anyone? Technology has indeed kept us younger longer, and our capitalist society, as of now, has allowed us to find most of what we desire relatively quickly. The only thing we’re missing is conditioning that removes our jealousy of other “classes.” To me, “honey” is the scariest way to control a population—as in The Fountainhead, the population will be so brainwashed that they will “ask” those in power to deprive them of freedom and the rights and responsibilities that come with it.