West Chester University
Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ Embarking on the Brave New World ~~
How do we move from Dante’s Inferno into Huxley’s Brave New World? It might seem like a bit of a jarring transition. We’re jumping ahead from 1321 to 1932, over six hundred years from the medieval era to our modern one, from an agricultural age to an industrial one, from brilliant poetry to flat prose. How can we bridge this gap?
One way to bridge this distance is to see some of the interesting parallels between the two works. Of course, they both present imaginary worlds, but beyond that there are some very interesting parallels (and perpendiculars) for us to note.
First, although the difference in time periods is striking, we’ve already noted that Dante, in his representation of the “self,” the “individual,” represents a kind of turning from the classical/early medieval view of the self. He is more modern than his dates might make him seem, and an attentive reading of the Inferno bears out his ability to create vividly human individuals who are not “larger than life” heroes, or grand, allegorical embodiments of abstract ideas. Instead they are life-size, lifelike, and irreducibly individual. In that sense, Dante may be the more powerful and even more “modern” artist than Huxley. Huxley may be closer to us in time, and equally as provocative, but his characters seem to many readers less like “individuals” and more like those grand allegorical types mentioned earlier, like human cutouts in a large philosophical puzzle.
Surprisingly, there are many challenging parallels and perpendiculars between the Inferno and Brave New World, between Dante’s world and Huxley’s, and this is a good time to explore them, as a way of embarking on our exploration of Huxley’s novel.
PARALLELS, in no particular orderBoth authors seem to agree that individual free will—individuality—is the root of all “sin” (immoral decision-making, bad choices), the source of all pain and suffering, as Dante’s Poet might put it, and the source of all unhappiness and instability, as Mustapha Mond, Huxley’s spokesman for the Brave New World might put it. Individual free will, our messy individuality, is the source of every right and wrong moral choice, every good and bad decision, every sensible and stupid, helpful and hurtful thing we freely do. The pain, the suffering, the instability doesn’t just affect individuals, however, but spills over into the entire society, affecting us all—so it must be dealt with. Therefore, both authors suggest, taking aggressive measures against the individual protects the whole society. There the similarity ends, as we’ll see.
Both authors seem to believe there must be something better than this. Both seem radically upset by disturbing trends in their respective societies, and as a result they’ve both become powerful, visionary social critics, the likes of which are rarely seen (and mostly silenced when they are seen). Dante and Huxley seem equally fed up, determined to confront what’s wrong with the social order surrounding them. Both respond by creating “utopian” and “dystopian” imaginary worlds to try to express their disgust and to try to it communicate it to us. They both seem interested, in their way, in consciousness-raising; they’d like to wake us up out of our blind complicity so we can divert the disastrous consequences they feel loom just over the horizon--don’t both writers hypothesize an imaginary “future”? Despite this projection into the future, the striking similarity is that both of these writers are highly critical of the prevailing current social structure, and their works raise provocative questions that lead readers to challenge some of the deeply held assumptions that lie at the root of their respective cultures.
What are those “provocative questions,” you might ask. Here’s one way of expressing them.
Huxley: What is the “pursuit of happiness”? (We know that’s one of our “inalienable rights” but what does it mean?) What is “progress”? (Is progress always good?) What role should science play in helping shape society? (Is science always ethical?) In Huxley’s imaginary brave new world, which has eliminated history, art, religion, and individual autonomy, what does it finally mean to be human? What gives meaning to human life?
Dante: What is evil? What is sin? What is justice? In a morally corrupt world where bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, what gives this seeming chaos of existence meaning and purpose?
It’s hard to miss the fact that both Huxley and Dante pursue visions of “paradise.” Although it may not be obvious in the Inferno, that is only Part One of the Divine Comedy. But even in the Inferno, we realize we are only on the first stage of a longer journey, and that even at this stage there is a kind of “paradise” of perfection: perfect justice. Dante takes his vision seriously. Huxley’s Brave New World, on the other hand, is a satire of paradise (a dystopia masquerading as “utopia”). Readers, recognizing the satire, may feel they also are only on the first stage of a journey: Huxley’s novel challenges us to purse the matter beyond the end of the story: to ask how we can improve society, whether “utopia” is possible or not, or whether any such attempts will lead to dystopia.
Both authors seem to agree that total conformity is inhuman—that individuality is a necessary human ingredient, a natural human element we can’t part with—not in Hell, and not as a trade-off for Paradise. Our humanity must travel with us everywhere—in Hell as well as in Paradise, or there can be no Paradise. In the absence of individuality, the “utopian” Brave New World seems dehumanizing—a nightmare, a dystopia. Although Dante would like everyone to act morally, he’s aware that there’s no universal prescription, no one-size-fits-all morality; each individual soul must wage his and her own unique battle. Even Dante’s worst sinners never lose their individuality; they never “conform” to a one-size-fits-all “sinner mentality.” On the other hand, the dehumanized, robotic conformists who operate Huxley’s Brave New World seem to signify Huxley’s similar belief that utter conformity is not really human. Bernard Marx, John the Savage, Helmholtz Watson, Lenina Crowne, and even Linda are all misfits who give the reader glimpses of a kind of debased individuality; together they form the basis of Huxley’s satire on our fragile humanity. Only Mustapha Mond, one of the “world controllers” seems fully “human” in his ability to make meaningful choices, and he has chosen to support the dehumanized Brave New World, a bitter irony.
Both authors explore in a deeply philosophical, emotional, and artistic way what it means to be human. The dehumanized environments they vividly bring to life help us ponder this question very meaningfully.
PERPENDICULARS, in no particular order
SO, while Dante is considered one of the west’s (and the world’s) great literary artists, Huxley is rarely given such accolades. Brave New World may not even be a “good novel,” much less a great one, if you look for qualities like narrative technique, plot design, and character development—all considered hallmarks of the art of the novel. But even if it turns out to be true that Huxley is a weak “artist” few will argue with the assessment that he’s a brilliant spokesman for some of the most profound issues of our modern era. Today this novel has the feel of an incredibly prophetic book. Whatever its status as a work of art, it runs the table when it comes to expressing a certain kind of modern malaise. If the “cure” Huxley offers is a satiric utopia that seems more like hell than paradise, that may be because he was able to see so clearly the Inferno-like futility of our modern world, with its blind assumptions about “progress” and the “pursuit of happiness”—and its unbridled faith in science and technology to rescue us from ourselves. Is this a cheerful satire or a bitter one? Read and decide.
Questions? Contact me.
All materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright ©
2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.
The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.