Dystopia-fest (aka 1984 and Brave New World)

Same but different?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) are probably the best-known dystopian novels ever written. (Lazily, I’m going to assume you know the stories; if not, the synopses here and here might be helpful.) Having spent many years concocting combinations of tenuously linked texts for comparative essays, I’m amazed I never thought to directly compare them; I suspect I would have got some great responses. As one of my book group friends put it “they’re carrot and stick dystopias”. The people in both novels are manipulated and oppressed, but (on the whole) one group believe themselves to be happy while the others live in fear. One has a World State living in mass-produced harmony while the other has three states perpetually at war. Both societies are built on brainwashing (via hypnopaedia or doublethink), sedation (soma or alcohol) and relentless consumerism. Both ban books.

I didn’t have time to reread 1984 before our meeting (though I intend to soon) but I did manage Brave New World, which I haven’t read since I was about fifteen. As in last month’s book, Fahrenheit 451, the vision of the future is frightening accurate in many ways, though grotesquely exaggerated – the idea of genetically engineered babies grown in bottles and conditioned (physically and psychologically) to accept their place in society is unacceptable but not unbelievable. Family life has been degraded to the point where ‘mother’ is a dirty word, siblings are mass-produced only for practical reasons and monogamy is considered rather perverse. The children are conditioned to accept death, somewhat superfluously in a society where nobody grieves because nobody cares. All this shocked me much more than I remember, perhaps because I’m now a mother myself.

As the novel progresses, we see ‘civilization’ through the eyes of John, the Shakespeare-quoting Savage. He functions as our representative, highlighting what is horrific about this perfect society. However, at times, it is John’s morality that seems ridiculous, his judgements that seem cruel. The alternative view is articulated by Mustapha Mond, an intelligent man who keep forbidden books in his safe and dabbled with science in his youth. He defends the status quo, arguing that it is all necessary to maintain stability, which in turn is necessary for happiness. He is persuasive, as is the fact that rebels are not punished so much as rewarded by being sent to live in a colony of likeminded individuals. If life is “nasty, brutish and short“, is it better to believe yourself happy than know yourself to be miserable? Is culture worth sacrificing for contentment? Is stability worth more than passion, truth or beauty? I suspect the answer depends on where (geographically, economically) you are…

There’s much more that could be said about this book; these are just the concerns that resonated most strongly with me. I also know that  Orwell’s novel raises at least as many questions but it’s several years since I read it. Hopefully I’ll come back to dystopia with an analysis of 1984 and a full comparison. In the meantime, I’m planning to read something a bit more cheerful!

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