When I started putting my fall syllabus together a few months ago, I was so, so excited to be teaching my all-time favorite novel, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s the story of a society 500 years in the future that has finally stabilized itself and organized things so that every one is happy. Sounds great, right? The catch is that people are bred like lab rats and conditioned like show dogs to do and think exactly what government scientists want them to do and think. Perfect happiness has come to the world at the cost of freedom.
Of course, the story is really about John, a man who grew up in a “Savage Reservation” outside of the World State and is horrified to learn that the people of the world were willing to sacrifice freedom and autonomy for fun and pleasure. The reader is supposed to sympathize with John and then to look at the World State and realize that their happiness is an illusion. They’re not happy at all; they’re just kept distracted so that they don’t realize how empty their lives are.
I was excited to teach the novel because of the impact it had on me as a young(er) man. It allowed me to see the plethora of distractions afforded by modern society—Internet, video games, reality television—and think about what exactly they’re keeping me from thinking about. It’s a book that challenges the very idea of status quo, which is something I desperately needed when I read it in college.
So how did my students react? Did they toss their smart phones out the window, burn their trashy magazines, and vow never to attend another FSU football game? In short, no. In the 83 years since the publication of Brave New World, Western society has evolved in such a way as to limit the shock value of Huxley’s novel. As early as 1958, Huxley himself noted in a follow-up essay that he was shocked that his prediction had come true so soon, and now, in 2015, my students were so caught up in figuring out the rules of centrifugal bumble-puppy that they couldn’t see their own faces reflected in the uniform masses of Huxley’s World State.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried.
But this is the beauty of literature and a literate culture. Through the process of reading and of talking about the book over the course of two weeks, they began to open up. By looking more closely at the text and examining some of its parallels to the real world in depth, several of them began to get out of their own head, as it were, and finally begin to let go of some of the distractions weighing down their souls by seeing the world from another perspective, an experience only a good story can really produce.
Stories and conversation are part and parcel of being a person. When you see me in the store, please tell me about what you’re reading. I want to know what’s inside your head.
Your partner on the journey,