Brave New World (1932) is a dystopian novel set in a world where citizens are socially engineered to be complacent and pleasure-seeking. It’s a world that worships Henry Ford – a scaled-up version of an assembly line that’s mass produced, homogenous, and ultimately consumable.
Experience life in the dystopia of the World State.
Despite being published for the first time in 1932, Brave New World began, in some ways, in 1908 – the year Henry Ford released the Model T.
That’s because the World State – the futuristic society at the heart of the novel – worships Ford and his philosophy of the assembly line. Its entire social structure is based around the concepts of efficiency, consumption, and collective. Everything is mass-produced – including human beings – and their social purposes are biologically engineered into them from conception.
Notably, however, Brave New World does not revolve around a totalitarian government, as does the dystopia in George Orwell’s 1984. Instead, it imagines a world where people take pleasure in being controlled – where, essentially, they control themselves.
In this summary, you’ll see how this arrangement plays out. We’ll explore the events that occur in the most important locations in Brave New World, starting at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center.
Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center
Community, Identity, Stability. That’s the motto of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center.
Inside, laboratory workers in white overalls handle microscopes and test tubes with white-gloved fingers. The tubes make long lines along the work tables, and the light entering the room appears lifeless and frozen. We’re in the Fertilizing Room, where new people are created. In the World State, children have no parents – the very word “mother” is considered obscene – and everyone is created in a lab.
Eggs aren’t just extracted and fertilized at the Center; they’re also conditioned. Categorization happens as soon as a group of ova is fertilized. The Alphas and Betas – the eggs destined to become important members of society – are placed into incubators. The others – Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons – undergo Bokanovsky’s Process, a cloning procedure that results in up to ninety-six identical human beings. This process is key to social stability: it produces standardized human beings in uniform batches.
Regardless of their social status, all fetuses are predestined and conditioned. Seventy percent are made sterile, so there’s no chance of uncontrolled reproduction. From infancy, they’re conditioned to have an instinctive hatred of books and flowers – both things that have the potential to disrupt the social order. They also receive hypnopaedic lessons – canned phrases projected into their minds while they’re asleep, which produce a subconscious, instinctual understanding of society’s moral values.
Other infants receive more specific types of conditioning. For instance, some are taught to detest being cold. This will inspire them to emigrate to the tropics, where they will associate their love of heat with a love of whatever job they’re assigned there.
And that, according to the theory of the World State, is the key to happiness: liking what you need to do. All conditioning is aimed toward the goal of making people not only accept, but enjoy, their fate.
The setup at the Central London Hatchery shows, in a microcosm, the values of the dystopian society in Brave New World. Unlike in other dystopias, society isn’t controlled through violence, outright oppression, or totalitarianism. Instead, the mechanism of control is made up of a tightly managed and predetermined social hierarchy, psychological conditioning, and eugenics.
By predestining the members of society to have a certain fate – and, crucially, to be happy about that fate, social stability is maintained. There is no risk of people rebelling, protesting, or rioting, because they are perfectly happy as they already are.
The conditions at the hatchery also present a clear difference between Brave New World and its philosophical counterpart, 1984. Though there is a certain amount of social conditioning in both novels, Brave New World takes it to an extreme. As you saw in this section, infants are taught to instinctively hate books and flowers. A love of flowers is risky because it inspires people to go out into the countryside and wander – and such activities don’t keep the factories running. Reading, meanwhile, is dangerous because words have the power to break someone’s social conditioning.
The safest solution? Make sure no one is interested in books or flowers in the first place.
On the tip of a rock jutting out from a lion-colored desert lies the pueblo of Malpais. Block after block, tall houses rise up high into the blue sky.
Bernard, a somewhat introspective member of the World State, has requested – and been approved – a holiday to this destination. It’s a village in New Mexico, where “savages” live. He’s brought with him a guest: Lenina, a particularly lovely young woman he’s been dating.
Immediately, the pair come face-to-face with the differences between this place and their own “civilized” society in London. They see, for instance, two young mothers nursing their babies. The sight is offensive and obscene to Lenina; she can only blush and look away.
While exploring the city, Bernard and Lenina also come across an interesting character. It’s a young man wearing Indigenous clothes – but who has blonde hair and blue eyes. His face and body are immediately attractive to Lenina. He’s also taken by her. This is the first girl he’s seen with skin the same color as his, and he likes her wavy auburn hair and benevolent facial expression.
Bernard and Lenina also encounter John’s mother, Linda. She’s a blonde woman with a stout body and wrinkled cheeks, who’s missing her two front teeth. Immediately upon seeing Lenina, Linda rushes at her, blubbering and crying and stinking of alcohol. She had been born in “civilization,” and Lenina is the first person she’s seen from her own world in years. A long time ago, she’d been accidentally impregnated and had subsequently been abandoned at the reservation with her baby.
As for John, he’d spent his entire life in the pueblo, and had grown up hearing Linda’s fantastical stories of the Other Place. While his day-to-day reality involved being ostracized from and humiliated by his peers, the Other Place was a beautiful fantasy. It was also an escape from Popé – one of Linda’s lovers, who he hated.
When he was young, John had also learned to read. On his twelfth birthday, he found a special book lying on his bedroom floor. It was called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
The words in this book worked a kind of magic on him. Their sound was like the drums at the summer dances, like the village magician casting spells. But it was even better, because the words were in his own language, even if it was one he only half-understood. More than that, it seemed to him that the words were about him. In Hamlet he found instructions for killing Popé – a man who could “smile and smile and be a villain.” Under Shakespeare’s spell, he had attempted to kill Popé and failed.
After telling his tale, John expresses interest in learning more about the “brave new world” that Bernard and Lenina are a part of. He also, not so subtly, asks if Bernard and Lenina are married. When Bernard laughs and says, “Ford, no!” John is delighted. “Let’s start at once,” he says. Bernard is perplexed and pushes back slightly – shouldn’t John wait until he sees the new world before getting so enthusiastic?
In this section, readers are exposed to a small segment of society which remains mostly untouched by that of the World State. In Malpais, women can still be mothers. People get old and sick and die. There is, seemingly, misery everywhere.
We also meet John, one of the most important characters in Brave New World. A deeply complex figure, John represents the melding of two worlds – he has connections to both civilization and the reservation, yet he is a part of neither.
Despite the obvious differences between John’s world and that of Bernard and Lenina, there are certain similarities, too. John, like the Londoners, has been conditioned – not by hypnopaedia, but by Shakespeare. These words have seeped into his unconscious, shaping his perceptions and behavior – including his attack on Popé. This shows how all people, “civilized” or not, are subject to the power of words and their suggestions.
This chapter is also the first occasion in which we hear John describe the World State as a “brave new world” – a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. These words will become a refrain marking the evolution of John’s feelings toward civilized society.
This Brave New World
When Bernard brings John – now called “the Savage” – back to London, he quickly becomes a sensation and is paraded around to various facilities. At first, he is merely unimpressed by their technology; however, his nonchalance turns to horror when he sees a factory operated by many pairs of identical twins. At the sight of this seemingly inhuman sameness, he says, almost unconsciously, “O brave new world …” and finds himself violently vomiting behind a nearby cluster of trees.
Despite John’s fame, people aren’t nearly as interested in his mother, Linda. To them, she isn’t a real savage, having been hatched out of a bottle long ago. But being disregarded is just fine by Linda, because her primary interest in London is soma, the World State’s pleasure-drug. Available to anyone at any time, it allows her to lie in bed all day, awash in a symphony of never-ending sounds, colors, images, and scents.
Though John stays away from soma and objects to his mother taking it, he does participate in the World State’s only real cultural institution: the feelies. The feelies are, essentially, a combination of a movie and a symphony with added sensory effects.
There at the feelies, the audience is blasted by smells from the scent organ. Arpeggios of thyme, lavender, rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon, and so on are released into the air. Then there is music – and, finally, visual and skin effects. Lenina and John take hold of metal knobs on the arms of their chairs as images flash before their eyes. A couple is locked in an embrace, and when they kiss, John is startled: he can feel the sensation on his own lips!
After the feelies, Lenina is still feeling titillated, and she attempts to get the Savage to kiss and touch her. He denies Lenina and tells her she shouldn’t watch films like that – they’re base and ignoble. She, of course, doesn’t understand. In her world, promiscuity is encouraged; children begin engaging in sexual play from a very young age, and there is no such thing as monogamy. Everyone belongs to everyone. So why is John acting like this? But the Savage is bound to laws, vows, and morals that the rest of society has long ago given up.
In the World State, pleasure is treated as the highest good. Here, if you’re not working, you should be having sex, taking drugs, playing sports, or attending the feelies. There is no need to ever resist temptation or experience loneliness – these things don’t make one happy, and happiness is necessary for continued social stability.
Unlike the people of London, however, John has grown up with a mother whose sexual promiscuity resulted in his ostracization and humiliation. Because of this, his own associations with sex are deeply negative. Plus, he shares the values of Malpais, which include “antiquated” notions of monogamy and marriage. This sense of morality very quickly becomes a struggle for him, as he feels a strong sexual desire for Lenina that he denies, represses, and resists.
Otherwise, it doesn’t take long for John to become entirely disillusioned with the “brave new world” he was initially so excited to explore. The reality of London clashes dramatically with what he had envisioned it to be. Here, he has become “the Savage” – once again an outcast, welcomed as a spectacle to gaze upon but not really part of the society around him.
Meanwhile, for Linda, the return to civilization means a return to soma. Having lived many hard years away from the culture into which she was born and then cast out of, she turns to the drug for relief. Her fate is evidence that the harsh reality of life outside of the constant pleasure of civilization can be full of suffering – and that suffering is not pretty or romantic.
Park Lane Hospital for the Dying
One afternoon, Lenina shows up at the Savage’s door under the influence of half a gram of soma. Uninhibited, she invites herself into the room and begins trying to seduce him. When John blurts out that he loves her more than anything in the world, Lenina takes it as a cue to strip off all of her clothes and sidle up to him.
But the Savage, despite his desire, isn’t having it. He catches Lenina by the wrists and thrusts her away, calling her “whore” and “impudent strumpet.”
After escaping to his room, John receives a shocking phone call. His mother has been taken to Park Lane Hospital for the Dying; there is no hope for her survival. Not that it matters in the World State, anyway. Dying there is taken as a matter of course.
John, however, feels quite differently, and he’s distraught to find Linda destroyed by soma. In the midst of a reverie he’s having about the stories she once told him about the Other Place, a stream of identical eight-year-old male twins enters the room. They stare and goggle with mouths open, swarming like maggots about the ward, peeping into everything with no regard for the death surrounding them.
At this, John becomes enraged. He shouts at the children while the nurse attempts to explain that they’re merely being death-conditioned. In other words, they’re being trained to see death as entirely normal. It’s just another biological process – nothing at all to be shocked or upset by.
Suddenly, Linda opens her mouth but can no longer breathe. She is dead.
John begins repeating to himself “Oh, God, God, God.” He is overwhelmed by grief and remorse. But no one around him understands either God or grief. He rises in silence and walks toward the door.
When he reaches the entrance of Park Lane Hospital, he witnesses a shipment of soma being delivered. “O brave new world!” he cries. Seeing the substance that caused his mother to die a slave, he steps forward. Overcome by emotion, he begs for the delivery to stop, for the people not to take soma; he tells them it’s poison.
His words fall on deaf ears – but when he begins grabbing the soma and throwing it away, the crowd finally responds. People start advancing toward John, and a riot begins. It’s quickly quelled by the release of soma vapor and a Synthetic Anti-Riot Speech, projected by the Voice of Good Feeling.
In the aftermath, John and two men who joined his side in the riot – Helmholtz and Bernard – are called to the office of one of the ten World Controllers, Mustapha Mond. There, Helmholtz and Bernard are informed that they will be sent to an island with others who, like them, have become too self-consciously individual. This, in Mond’s opinion, is not actually a punishment but in fact a great reward. They won’t be able to benefit from the World State – but they will be able to exist as individuals.
Ultimately, John and Mond get into a debate about societal values. For John, human life requires struggle, pain, and suffering – without tribulation, he says, people can’t understand beauty, freedom, and joy. Mond disagrees. In his world, people can have all of the happiness with none of the suffering, although it requires the sacrifice of freedom.
There’s a lot going on in this section. We witness John come to his breaking point as the horrors of the brave new world become too much for him to handle. He can no longer bear the inhuman sameness of the collective – and when this sameness comes into direct contact with the death of his mother, he explodes. Now when he speaks the words “O brave new world!” it’s an expression of John’s desire to change the world – to transform it from the dystopia he’s experienced into the utopia that was alive in his mind.
By starting the riot, John proves the point that exposure to literature and heightened emotions are indeed a threat to social stability. Only soma is able to placate the crowd.
Finally, the novel’s main themes are neatly summarized by Mustapha Mond, the World Controller. Interestingly, neither Mond nor the Savage are coded as entirely good or entirely bad – instead, it’s left up to the reader which character to side with.
The sound of vomiting comes from the bathroom. John the Savage is inside. Outside, Helmholtz and Bernard wonder whether John has eaten something that didn’t agree with him. Yes, the Savage nods – “I ate civilization.”
The World State poisoned and defiled him, John continues, and he needed to eject it from his system. So he drank mustard and warm water, the same way the Indigenous people always purify themselves.
The next step in John’s purification process is moving to a lighthouse on a hill in the south of England. He spends his first night there intentionally sleepless, praying on his knees until morning, to the gods of both Shakespeare and Malpais. Occasionally, he stretches out his arms as if he were on the cross, holding them there until it becomes excruciating, and begs for forgiveness.
In the morning, he feels he has earned the right to inhabit the lighthouse, and he sets to work crafting a bow and arrow so he can hunt for food. Though it requires intense labor, John derives pleasure from it – it’s a relief to no longer be idle like he was in London.
But during this work, John finds himself singing. Instantly, he feels guilty. He’s here to escape further contamination and to purify himself, to remember his poor mother Linda – and here he is enjoying himself.
He resolves then to punish himself. Half an hour later, he’s standing outside the abandoned lighthouse, chest bare, hitting himself with a whip of knotted cords until his back becomes crisscrossed with bloody lines.
John’s odd behavior quickly becomes a spectacle. Massive crowds begin to gather at the lighthouse to watch him perform “the whipping stunt.” One day, a massive swell of people pour out of helicopters. Eventually, they begin to chant, “We want the whip.”
Then, from another helicopter emerges Lenina. She walks toward John with her arms outstretched – but John calls her a whore and begins beating her with his whip. The crowd adores this and rushes forward, though Lenina herself runs away. John screams and grinds his teeth, crying out, “Oh, the flesh! Kill it, kill it!” Once again, he begins whipping himself.
The onlookers are drawn into John’s gestures by their conditioning, their desire for unanimity and collective frenzy. They began to strike each other, mimicking John’s whipping of himself. Suddenly, someone begins chanting “Orgy-porgy,” and the refrain quickly catches on. They continue to beat one another as they chant and dance together, on and on …
The rest of this orgy of atonement remains undescribed. The next morning, John wakes up late, having been “stupefied by soma” and “exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality.” When he remembers everything that happened, he cries, “Oh, my God, my God!”
The novel ends with a chilling image. Reporters enter the lighthouse, whose door stands ajar, and repeatedly yell out “Savage!” On the far side of the room they see an archway, and through it a staircase, where a pair of feet is dangling down, slowly swaying left and right.
In this final section of the novel, we see the culmination of John the Savage’s struggle: his attempt to maintain his own sense of morality and values despite extreme societal pressure. John attempts to stifle the urges of his flesh – his sexual desire for Lenina – by whipping himself. However, he is unable to withstand these temptations, and the realization of his own weakness ultimately drives him to kill himself.
Throughout the novel, the two worlds – the old and the new, the “savage” and the “civilized” – have been in constant tension. The “orgy of atonement” at the end represents the culmination of this clash, their consummation. In it, we see the crowd’s conditioning respond to John’s quasi-religious acts of self-flagellation. They’re so accustomed to conformity that they feel compelled to join John, even if they have no real idea of the significance of their actions. The flagellation becomes meaningless, just another sexual act – and then, the text implies, literally turns into sex.
We also see that John is unable to resist the temptations of the “brave new world” in the end. This message is a sad one: John’s individual spirit is crushed by the collective, and he is unable to find a middle ground between his world and theirs.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley envisions a society dominated by the philosophy of Fordianism: mass production, consumerism, individuality, pleasure-seeking, and hypersexuality. In it, the World State and its ten World Controllers work constantly to ensure that society remains stable.
People like Bernard, who are too aware of their own individuality, are a threat to that stability. So, too, are people like John the Savage – a character whose philosophy is antiquated and in many ways diametrically opposed to that of the World State. Conditioned by Shakespeare’s plays instead of hypnopaedia, he is disgusted by sexuality and believes in the sentimental concepts of monogamy, motherhood, and marriage. He is brought back to London, where he’s observed and studied by society’s higher-ups. Initially, he’s excited about the prospect of visiting this “brave new world” – but when he actually gets there, the awful reality shatters his beautiful dreams. The final straw comes when his mother, Linda, dies from prolonged exposure to the pleasure drug, soma.
After this, John decides to move away from the society and live alone in a lighthouse, whipping himself repeatedly as penance for his sins. Eventually, this strange behavior draws a crowd. Driven by their conditioning to imitate behavior and follow the collective, the crowd begins whipping each other amid chants of “orgy-porgy” – and then this turns into an actual orgy. John participates in it, violating his convictions. When he wakes up and realizes what he’s done, he goes back to the lighthouse and hangs himself. It’s a tragic and chilling end showing that, at least for John, there is no middle ground between his own world and the brave, new one.
About the author
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) is the author of the classic novels Brave New World, Island, Eyeless in Gaza, and The Genius and the Goddess, as well as such critically acclaimed nonfiction works as The Perennial Philosophy and The Doors of Perception. Born in Surrey, England, and educated at Oxford, he died in Los Angeles, California.