1-Sentence-Summary: Brave New World presents a futuristic society engineered perfectly around capitalism and scientific efficiency, in which everyone is happy, conform, and content — but only at first glance.
Read in: 8 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
“You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books,” World Controller Mustapha Mond tells a group of children as they tour the “Hatchery and Conditioning Center” in London in the year 2540 AD. He has a point — and if you read books like Brave New World, you’ll want to consume even less afterwards.
Published in 1932, Brave New World was decades ahead of its time, and of its sibling, 1984, the other of two defining works outlining what a modern dystopia could look like. Unlike 1984, however, the people in Brave New World are slaves to pleasure, not pain.
Living in the extremely shaky political time that is the period between World War I and World War II, author Aldous Huxley was both drawn to the idea of stability (even to the point of sacrificing democracy) and terrified by what domination of any kind might bring. He went to the US in the Roaring 20’s, and the culture of consumerism, drugs, promiscuity, and partying scared him.
As a result, Brave New World is an ambivalent book, open to many interpretations, and after selling millions of copies over nearly 100 years of being in print, the book is still being interpreted in new ways every day. Just in 2020, a new TV show was made, and every year, young adults read the book as part of their high school education.
Part satire, part prophecy, I recently read this masterpiece for the first time. Here are three lessons from this literary classic:
- If the world were perfect and everything was easy, nothing would have any meaning.
- We hate not fitting in more than anything else, and yet, we’ll never all be the same.
- True happiness and suffering are two sides of the same coin — we can’t have one without the other.
Note: This is a book with historical significance. Therefore, we decided to double the length of our summary to accommodate more important ideas. We hope you’ll enjoy the combination of the plot points, and the lessons we can learn from them. Let’s dive into our Brave New World!
Lesson 1: A perfect world in which you can have everything will inevitably be devoid of any meaning.
In the foreword to the 2007 edition of the book, Margaret Atwood wrote: “In a world in which everything is available, nothing has any meaning.” The London described in the book is such a world.
Humans are grown in bottles as needed to perform certain tasks, ranging from smart Alphas to “semi-moron” Epsilons. From birth, people are sleep-conditioned to stay in their caste, to prioritize easy pleasures, like “soma,” the perfect drug, and sex, and to consume as much as they can. As a result, everyone is easygoing, compliant, and constantly on a drug- or orgasm-high — and no one is ever alone.
Two of the book’s protagonists, the psychologist Bernard Marx and writer Helmholtz Watson, see through this veil of cheap satisfaction. Bernard wants a traditional, monogamous relationship — a big no-no in his promiscuous society — preferably with the beautiful but all-too-well-conditioned hatchery worker Lenina Crowne. Helmholtz feels a higher calling in his writing, but he can’t access his “latent power” while writing the drivel his job requires:
“Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly–they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced. […] But what on earth’s the good of being pierced by an article about a Community Sing, or the latest improvement in scent organs?”
When you can have everything at the snap of your fingers, there’s nothing to strive for in life. No goals. Nowhere to go. And, sooner or later, not having a destination in life will make us restless. Humans are meant to move — and not just physically. Our brains need to exercise their wits. Our souls lust for creativity and beauty, and not just to see them, but to make them.
A constant state of satisfaction is its own kind of prison, and it is this prison Bernard and Helmholtz hope to escape from, one by taking the woman of his dreams on an adventurous trip, the other by penning some daring lines and reading them to his students. Of course, both of them get into trouble for breaking the mold, which brings us to the second lesson…
Lesson 2: There is nothing we hate more than not fitting in, and yet, even in the most homogenous groups, there’ll always be differences between people.
Unlike Helmholtz, who’s too smart for his own good but otherwise a perfect example of an Alpha, Bernard is slightly shorter than intended — some mishap during his “hatching” — and, as a result, often gets mocked by women, peers, and even his subordinates. Add to that his monogamous tendencies, and you have yourself a man whom others wish “weren’t so odd,” including Lenina.
No matter how hard he tries to make up for it, however, Bernard can’t find any conformity. His drug-induced “soma holidays” never last, and even attending “Solidarity Service,” basically a synthetic-music-backed sex orgy, provides no lasting relief.
Thankfully, Lenina agrees to accompany Bernard on what’s supposed to be a romantic trip to a natural reservation in New Mexico. There, they not only see people living traditionally — giving birth, drinking alcohol, practicing religious rituals, hunting for food, aging, mourning their dead — but also encounter John, “the Savage.”
As it turns out, John is the illegitimate son of the director of the hatchery and Linda, a woman he brought to the reservation years ago and who still lives there, hating every minute of it. Like Bernard, John has been ostracized by the Native American tribe for his different looks (and later, his ability to read, which he uses to devour the works of Shakespeare). Naturally, Bernard is thrilled to meet someone who, like him, doesn’t fit in.
“You see,” he tells John, “I’m rather different from most people, I suppose.” “Yes, that’s just it,” John confirms. “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.” While John and Bernard are the most prominent examples, the further you read in the book, the more you’ll realize: Every one of the main characters is somehow different from the group they’re supposed to fit into, and this is their worst source of suffering.
Helmholtz wants to write real poetry, but he’s not allowed to. Lenina secretly craves some monogamy too, much to the dismay of her friend Fanny. The director of the hatchery loses his post once everyone realizes that he fathered a child. Even Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, was originally a man of science who asked too many questions — and that’s how he ended up being a Controller in the first place, choosing misery over exile.
Few pains sit deeper than the suffering of not fitting in and feeling rejected by our fellow humans, and yet, no matter how much we try to be alike, humans will always be different from one another. Actually, our differences are our greatest strength as a species — but only if we accept, appreciate, and utilize them.
The next time you feel isolated or alone, remember that uniformity is a myth. We can’t, and should never be, all the same. It’s important to have friends, family, and professional peers you can connect with, but our equality lies in the fact that we’re all human, not any particular set of traits, behaviors, or abilities.
Lesson 3: In order for true happiness to exist, we must also face the potential for suffering.
Since the director of the hatchery threatened to send him into exile in Iceland over his odd behavior, Bernard comes up with a brilliant plan: He’ll take the Savage and Linda back to London, using them to embarrass the director out of his threat. The plan initially works and even makes Bernard famous, for he is now the custodian of the mysterious Savage everyone wants to see.
At first, John is also excited, not least because he likes Lenina, and it is before his departure from the reservation that he utters the Shakespeare line that gives the book its title: “O brave new world that has such people in it. Let’s start at once.” The fun and wonder quickly wears off, however, and when John’s disillusion drives him to lock himself in his room, Bernard falls out of favor with his guests.
“Nothing costs enough here,” John concludes, longing to be the dramatic hero of a Shakespearean play more so than a zoned-out but lifeless individual. “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin,” he will later tell Mustapha Mond in the novel’s pivotal conversation. Before that, however, he attacks Lenina who, feeling the attraction to be mutual, seems to be all too willing to have sex with him.
When he finds out his mother Linda is dying from perpetually taking soma ever since having arrived, John rushes to the hospital, causing a scene (for saying goodbye to the dying is not something people usually do). Eventually, he and Helmholtz end up fighting a horde of Epsilons, trying to take away their soma rations, thus “liberating” them. Bernard tries to break up the fight, but eventually, all three are hauled before Mustapha Mond.
Bernard and Helmholtz are sentenced to exile, which Bernard loathes but Helmholtz looks forward to. Even Mond calls it a reward, for on islands, all the intelligent, individualistic people gather, far away from conditioned society. “You’ve got to be hurt and upset; otherwise you can’t think of the really good, penetrating, X-rayish phrases,” Helmholtz explains, choosing the Falkland Islands for his exile, thinking their bad weather will inspire his writing.
The Savage, meanwhile, is made to stay, though, in a long argument, the World Controller admits he has a point when he says: “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” The government chose to sacrifice art, science, and religion in favor of the shallow but stable happiness he now sees around him, Mond admits:
“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”
The happiness in Brave New World is fake, for it is neither a side effect of true living, nor a reward for suffering. It’s just a baseline level of artificial contentment, and that’s why, to us as to the main characters, it is not truly satisfying.
Helmholtz wants to be sad so he can write better. John wants to struggle for Lenina’s love. Even the World Controller wishes he could explore science instead of abolishing it: “What fun it would be,” he thinks at one point, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness!”
Ultimately, John gets what he asks for. For a while, he lives peacefully by himself in a lighthouse, even atoning for his sins by whipping himself on occasion. When the people of London catch wind, however, they beleaguer him at his home, and the ensuing outrage culminates in an orgy. Realizing what he has allowed himself to become the next day, he hangs himself, unable to further cope with the fact that everyone around him is constantly coping.
Happiness is not something we can manufacture, no matter how hard we try. It is often a side-effect and sometimes a hard-won reward, but true happiness can never be something we get on tap or by swallowing a pill. If we reject the potential for suffering, we also reject the potential for true, deeply fulfilling happiness — and that’s perhaps the most powerful lesson the book can teach us.
Brave New World Review
While the story isn’t as straightforward, nor the characters as deep, as in 1984, that’s exactly what makes Brave New World compelling — and perhaps the better read of the two. The characters are flat because so is everyone in the book, and the story is complex because dystopia lies not in one clear enemy, like oppression.
It is the convoluted mix of meddling with biology, keeping people sedated in various ways, and conditioning them to love their enslavement that provides countless points of discussion for this book, nearly 100 years after it was published.
If you sometimes have doubts about our shiny, Instagram-happy world, you’ll get a lot out of this book. For more about the book’s context and the author’s inspiration, check out Wikipedia. The book is also one of Jordan Peterson’s favorites and comes with plenty of great quotes.
Who would I recommend our Brave New World summary to?
The 23-year-old college student, who knows she is using her smartphone too much but can’t seem to stop, the 43-year-old worker who hasn’t changed his job in years, and anyone who sometimes shakes their head at our relentless consumer culture.