George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are commonly classed together as distopian novels. The tenor of them are however markedly different, leading many commentators to find differences in their themes too. Some are even bold enough to suggest that Huxley’s vision of the future is not distopian at all, and could in fact be describing Utopia.
Orwell’s future, on the other, is never mistaken as such, and universally evokes horror. The contention of this essay is, however, that it is a mistake to look for either positive nor negative slants to these visions of the future, for the central message from both authors is that the future is inevitable, and is not the fault of any political party (in the case of Orwell) of social class (as in the case of Huxley). In fact, as the argument continues, the futures that they evoke are the same.
Huxley pictures a more distant future, for the events that he pictures begin in the year 2540. In this world humanity has become a product of a mass production factory, specifically that of the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre. Human eggs are artificially inseminated with male sperm, according to principles of selective breeding.
The embryos are them grown artificially, and in the process are conditioned so that, each according to its projected caste, they grow up with natures and behaviors that conform to an elaborately devised five-fold caste system. This is the civilized apex of humanity, which sits atop an expanse of savage humanity, who live in the wild and normally.
Orwell’s future, on the other hand, is proximate. The world is not yet uniform, politics is still alive with three super states contending each other for power, and the world of one of them, Oceania, is the focus of the novel. Technology is as yet rudimentary, electronic surveillance being the summit, and used to full capacity to establish an unbreakable police state, with media, education and drugs being also employed by the ruling party to control the population.
To compare the two, the first thing we realize is that Orwell’s world is still in a formative phase, while Huxley’s has reached its state of equilibrium. This is why the atmosphere is the latter is relaxed, while in the former tension is replete – both amongst the ruling elite and its subjects. The elite must always be on the offensive, lest a single renegade upset the whole system.
Thinking itself is nipped in the bud with the propaganda: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death” (2004, p. 38). The hedonistic population in Huxley’s future, in contrast, have no care in the world, or at the slightest suggestion of it take a dose of the soma drug a get rid of it: “A gramme is always better than a damn” (1998, p. 90). The social critic Neil Postman (1986, p. 1) voices this contrast poignantly:
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
We know that Huxley’s world is more secure then Orwell’s when we take notice of where the respective rebellions issue from. Winston Smith, the rebel of 1984, is actually a member of the ruling elite, though in the lower echelon of it. The first rebel in Brave New World is Bernard Marx, an Alpha citizen, so also a member of the ruling caste, but we later learn that his rebellion is shabby and mean-spirited.
In the latter part of the novel he is pitched into stardom, and as a result has the girls swarming over him. With this granted to him, his rebellion evaporates in an instant and he has conformed. Through the character of Marx, Huxley has made the statement that hedonistic Utopia has no latent heroism, and that the soma-swiggers can never rise above petty-mindedness and appearances.
Even among the savages there is no seed of rebellion. The real rebel is John the Savage, and he is a true outsider. Fathered by the Director of the Hatcheries, but raised among the savages, who ostracize him too, he is one whom fate has placed beyond the watertight caste system. Only John, with the aid of the wisdom of Shakespeare, has the heroic essence that is capable of rebelling.
The rebels in both novels, however, fail abjectly. Winston Smith not only accepts Big Brother in the end, but also loves him, and so has conformed, with no trace of his earlier rebellion left, just as O’Brien had predicted, when he had told him: “You are beginning, I can see, to realize what that world will be like. But in the end you will do more than understand it. You will accept it, welcome it, become part of it” (Orwell, 2004, p. 335).
In Brave New World, even with the magnanimity of John, he loses the argument with Mustapha Mond concerning the logic of Utopia, and is only left muttering, “But the tears are necessary” (Huxley, 1998, p. 238). The only tears shed in the end are his own, and his suicide marks the complete extinguishing of his rebellion.
Even though they deny the possibility of rebellion, by the very act of writing such distopian novels the authors are themselves rebelling against Utopia (distopia), even though they depict the advance towards it as inevitable. In the case of Huxley at least, G. K. Chesterton (1935) provides us with socio-political backdrop to such rebellion:
For the Slump [the economic depression of the 1930’s] brought even more disillusionment than the War. A new bitterness, and a new bewilderment, ran through all social life, and was reflected in all literature and art. It was contemptuous, not only of the old Capitalism, but of the old Socialism. Brave New World is more of a revolt against Utopia than against Victoria.
The attitude towards sex taken by the totalitarian states in both novels also reflects that they are in different stages of development of the same evolutionary process. In Orwell the ruling Party is trying to abolish the sex instinct altogether, on the pretext that it is the source of unguided passion, which is liable to deviate from strict Party lines.
If not for the purposes of procreation it would have been banned altogether. Only the proletarians are allowed unfettered and passionate sex, they being always under the thumb of the Party. In Brave New World the problem of procreation has been solved otherwise. But instead of the sexual act being banned promiscuity is encouraged and has indeed settled down at an extreme level, each cohabiting with the proximate next with gay and carefree abandon, very much like wild animals.
But here lies the clue. Because it is animalistic, it is emptied of all human passion, and therefore is harmless to the State. It is only a distraction, and as such it is indeed useful to it. “In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain,” says Postman, “In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure” (1986, p. 1).
The rebels in both novels are shown to be seeking passionate relationships, Smith with fellow employee Julia; John with Alpha citizen Lenina. In both cases the relationships prove to be the catalyst that brings about instability and the ultimate undoing of the participants. Smith adventure begins when Julia slyly passes to him a note saying “I LOVE YOU”, a message that conveys to him real passionate love (Orwell, 2004, p. 136). Lenina cannot understand why John cannot accept the sexual act as a routine biological function. To John, Lenina is a whore (Huxley, 1998, p. 194).
The characters who divulge, in the end, the official State philosophies, in each novel, are embodiments of that philosophy too. Oceania is still at the political stage of its development towards Utopia, and therefore O’Brien, the mouthpiece of its doctrine, gives a thoroughly political explanation of Utopia.
As he tortures Smith in room 101, while at the same time giving to him the rationale of a totalitarian state, his demeanor is one of political ruthlessness. On the other hand Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, is a philosopher, and at times is pleading a philosophical case, and wants John to understand, not to accept.
He could even be Plato, arguing the case that the philosopher-king should be the arbiter of the State. Indeed the Utopia he describes bears uncanny resemblance to the one described in Plato’s Republic. When John asks him why they don’t all become Alphas and dispense with misery altogether, he gives an explanation worthy of Plato of why stratification is unavoidable, and therefore must be built-in in any Utopia. Art and science has been banished because these are all marks of human passion and creativity, and therefore bear the seeds of instability:
But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead. (Huxley, 1998, p.230)
He readily accedes to John’s outburst that humanity is such a state is horrible and squalid, but insists that for the sake of happiness humans pay the price with their very humanity. Much of this is reminiscent of the “doublespeak” found in Orwell: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” (2004, p. 10).
It is a Kantian reality that O’Brien expounds to Smith, where contradictory states are harmoniously interposed. The logical build-up to this, however, is not metaphysics, but rather politics. The proletarian revolution and the overthrow of the capitalists, as predicted by Marx, never did realize. Instead the middle classes – the managers of capitalism – take the reins and effect, what James Burnham has called, the managerial revolution. In his seminal essay of 1946 “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution” Orwell (2000, p. 160) wrote:
The new ‘managerial’ societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom."
This is exactly the State that O’Brien defends. The War functions only to eat up the surplus production so that the proletariat is never able to rise above its station. It also lends purpose to existence that has been otherwise rendered meaningless. Both functions are indispensable for the sake of stability, and in this sense, O’Brien explains, “War is peace.”
Finally, we discuss the place of God in these totalitarian States. Ian Slater, commenting on 1984, says, “That Big Brother has replaced God is obvious throughout the novel” (2003, p. 226). It is tempting to think that God has been banished from these kingdoms, with the ruling elite having usurped the place of God.
But neither Mustapha Mond nor O’Brien are heard to deny the existence of God. In fact, we find that the perception of God of Mustapha Mond is greater that that shown by John. When he begins to quote Cardinal Newman, or William James, we feel that there is more godliness in him than in John, whose Shakespearian quips are no match. When asked on how God manifests himself in this Utopia the Controller answers that He “manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren't there at all,” and then goes on to elaborate:
Call it the fault of civilization. God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. (Huxley, 1998, p. 234)
It is a response that contains a profound sense of religiosity, and answers John’s query with such finality that he does not press the issue further. It is not a denial of God, and is neither a usurpation of His place. It is rather a claim of divine appointment, very much in line with the traditional precept of Christian kings, who had claimed “divine right to rule”.
A similar analysis applies to O’Brien’s claims to divine authority: “We are the priests of power. God is power” (Orwell, 2004, p. 330). It comes across as a political slogan too, because politics is the milieu of O’Brien. The Nietzschian Will to Power is also an element, which is heard in the following refrain:
Always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face …for ever. (Ibid, p. 334)
Smith does not believe in God, but O’Brien does, for his claim over Smith is a claim of divine authority. It is again God manifesting Himself by absence. People do not believe in God, so the state assumes a divine omnipotence, or exercises divine power, as a proxy. This is what underlines O’Brien’s statement, “God is power.”
In conclusion, both 1984 and Brave New World are novels of distopia that project a sense of inevitability. The message is that progress is synonymous with dehumanization, and it is futile to resist this march. The plots focus of isolated rebels, and continue to show that the best efforts at rebellion are quashed with such comprehensiveness that they may never have existed at all.
The fault is shown to be in human nature, is not to be projected onto isolated individuals or political movements. The only difference is that Orwell shows us the proximate future, whereas Huxley a more distant one. As a consequence Orwell is still concerned with politics, whereas Huxley shows a more developed stage in which politics have been overcome and technology has overtaken the whole process of dehumanizing humanity.
Chesterton, G. K. (1935) Illustrated London News. Issued May 4.
Huxley, A. (1998). Brave New World. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
Orwell, G. (2000). George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters. Ed. Ian Angus, Sonia Orwell. Boston: D.R. Godine.
Orwell, O. (2004). Nineteen Eighty Four. Fairfield, IO: 1st World Publishing.
Postman, N. (1986). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books.
Slater, I. (2003). Orwell: The Road to Airstrip One. Charlotte, NC: McGill-Queens’s Press.