Aldus Huxley’s “Brave New World” is a novel that focuses directly on the relationship between the individual and society, and that uses this relationship in order to pass judgement on both the society that he depicts and the contemporary social structures that inform it. At the same time, however, Huxley presents each of his characters as in some way compromised by this society and as being unable to fully abstract themselves.
As such, even those who exist in most obvious opposition with regrade to Huley’s fictional “World State” are presented as weak in their own way and as dependent objective structures and received opinions as those whom they criticize. This can be seen to be especially the case with regard to John, a character who, while he is a vocal critic of Huxley’s dystopia, remains beholden to his own learnt modes of expression and understanding. By considering his character, therefore, it is possible to see the tension that Huxley locates in his novel between the individuals that constitute society and the society that necessarily deforms and damages individuals.
As the only character who did not grow up directly within the global dystopia of “World State,” John is uniquely placed to be its critic, and it is through him that Huxley demonstrates some of the novels most powerful moments of critique. When John, in intense grieving for the death of his would-be lover awakes in hospital, Huxley writes: “He woke once more to external reality, looked round him, knew what he saw – knew it, with a sinking sense of horror and disgust, for the recurrent delirium of his days and nights, the nightmare of swarming indistinguishable sameness” (2007, 140). It is this visceral experience of monotony, something mediated by the intake of the drug-life “soma” by all the citizens of World State that marks the strongest point of critique in the novel.
In particular, as John lies in hospital, he not only experiences this monotony, but he also experiences the hospital staff themselves as sub-human automatons who actively interfere with any actual human process of mourning. Huxley writes that these people appear to John to be like maggots who “had swarmed defiling over the mystery of Linda’s death. Maggots again, but larger, full grown, they now crawled across his grief and his repentance” (ibid). It is John’s position as an antagonistic outsider with regard to the society that Huxley depicts which enables him to describe the inhumanity of this society’s functions.
Despite this, however, John himself is shown to be dependent on the works of Shakespeare in order to express himself and, as such, he is not able to operate outside of rigid structures of understanding and received wisdom. He quotes Shakespeare at several key moments in the novel, including times when his reliance on the texts appears to be narcissistic and maniacal. For example, the character of Lenina, despite being someone that John is deeply attracted, is someone that he can only see as instantiation of an idealized female whom he has encountered in Shakespeare. When he declares his love for Lenina and she reciprocates, John instantly recoils into an idealized mode of love and honor, stating the words: “The strongest suggestion our worser genius can, shall never
melt mine honour into lust. Never, never!” (127). His quotation of Shakespeare is wildly anachronistic and serves only to confuse Lenina. In this, John can clearly be understood to be not simply a critic of a society that dehumanizes its citizens, but also as someone who himself is deeply compromised by his own forms of received wisdom and masculine fantasies.
In conclusion, it is this tension between John’s capacity to criticize World State and his own inherently compromised and narcissistic way of thinking that informs the way one must view his character and, as such, Huxley’s commentary on society. Not only does John’s struggle against World State enabled its criticism, but it also active manifest the weaknesses in his own personality and modes of thinking.