The Bottle That Will One Day Die of Sleeping Sickness
Literary Elements in BRAVE NEW WORLD
Brave New World Symbolism, Imagery & Allegory
Sometimes, there’s more to Lit than meets the eye.
Animal imagery is rampant in Brave New World. Just look at the first chapter. There's the repetition of "straight from the horse's mouth," Foster's implicit claim that "any cow" could merely hatch out embryos, the platitude that "Rams wrapped in theremogene beget no lambs." Later, when John goes to the hospital, he sees the Delta children staring at Linda with "the stupid curiosity of animals." The hordes of identical bokanovskified twins seem to him "maggots." It looks like Huxley's message is clear: the new world has so dehumanized its citizens that they now resemble little more than animals. The irony is that "civilization" should seek to elevate man, to make him less primitive, to put some distance between him and the other creatures of the world.
Animalistic traits really come into play when it comes to sex, probably because that's one of the basest, most universal instincts. John even quotes the "goats and monkeys" line from Othello, delivered when the hero imagines his wife copulating with another man the way that animals do. Also, Mustapha's response to John's comment – "Nice tame animals, anyhow," is brilliant (on the part of Huxley, not on the part of Mustapha). While John is disgusted by the bestial nature of the new world's promiscuity, he misses the purpose behind it: animals are tame. Animals can be controlled. In this way, the people of the World State are like pets – not like free people.
But it gets really interesting in Chapter Eighteen, when the crowds come swarming to see John standing around whipping himself for having dirty thoughts. The descending helicopters are described as "locusts" and then "grasshoppers" – fits with what we've seen so far. But it soon becomes clear that, while John (and, the tone seems to suggest, Huxley as well) condemns the civilized folk for being animals, they view him in much the same way. They throw food at John as though he's an animal in the zoo. (Huxley makes this explicit for us with the phrase "as to an ape.") This explains why they take pleasure in his suffering: because they can't see him as a person. To them, he's just animalistic entertainment.
This raises an interesting question for us: of the savages and citizens, who is more human, and who more animalistic? The notion of suffering seems to have a lot to do with this. John tries to prove his humanity by inflicting pain on himself. Clearly, no animal would revere the soul over the body enough to do so. It seems likely, then, that John's suicide is the only definitive way to establish his identity as a human being and not as a creature.
"Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant" – that's what Mustapha says of soma. It's arguably the best tool the government has for controlling its population. It sedates, calms, and most importantly distracts a person from realizing that there's actually something very, very wrong – the citizens of the World State are enslaved. (Just think about the name; soma = "sleep" in Latin.)
John, of course, picks up on this in Chapter Fifteen; that's why he chucks the stuff out of the window in the name of freedom. This Mel-Gibson-in-The Patriot moment is not so effective, and mostly because of the way that soma enslaves its users – happiness. Everyone is trapped by happiness. And those are some tough chains to break.
Another thing to think about here is Mustapha's famous claim that soma is "Christianity without the tears." We get the "without the tears" bit, since a consequence-free high seems to speak for itself, but what does this drug have to do with religion? Well, as we've said, soma is an opiate that allows its users to be controlled. Brave New World seems to argue that Christianity functions in much the same way. It controls through pacification. It offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality. What do you think?
The Electric Fence
An electric fence borders the Savage Reservation and separates the primitive world from the civilized world. The question, of course, is which is which? If you look at it in a certain light – a world of people subservient to their every desire and impulse, with no sense of restraint whatsoever vs. a world of ritualistic self-mutilation. Neither looks particularly civilized (or particularly appealing). Also, did you notice that the electric fence is surrounded by dead animal carcasses? The pilot declares that these creatures "never learn," meaning seeing others die of electrocution doesn't condition the other animals out of leaping at the fence again. Conditioning is one of the dehumanizing processes in the World State, so it's interesting that animals in fact cannot be conditioned.
The Bottle That Will One Day Die of Sleeping Sickness
This is a really small passage in Chapter Thirteen, and it's easy to miss if you're reading quickly. That being said, it's arguably the most skilled, artistic moment in Brave New World, partly because it's so minute. Huxley, for once, wasn't flagrantly obvious. He didn't beat us over the head, he just inserted a little anecdote and let it stand on its own.
Lenina, distraught by her unchecked and unsatisfied desire for John, gets flustered at work and accidentally misses giving one bottle its immunization against sleeping sickness. The story then halts for a minute while the narrative reveals this: "Twenty-two years, eight months, and four days from that moment, a promising young Alpha-Minus administrator at Mwanza-Mwanza was to die of trypanosomiasis – the first case for over half a century."
Beautiful. Look at the specificity on display here: ""Twenty-two years, eight months, and four days." Then Huxley uses "trypanosomiasis" instead of "sleeping sickness." He's really driving home the notion of scientific exactitude. This is the same sort of horrifying precision we saw in Chapter One, when the Director and Henry Foster outlined with a sickening barrage of numbers the way in which humans are created and grown. The difference is that here, the chain of cause and effect isn't effectively controlled by the human hand. After all, humans are fallible, so as exact and as rigid men like Mustapha might think their system is, there are always going to be errors, mistakes, and other minor disasters. So while this passage is horrifying, it's also hopeful, – Lenina, in making this error, has proven herself more human than machine.
But mostly, we're impressed with the fact that Huxley didn't tell us this in the subsequent paragraph, so maybe that's the real achievement here, gorgeous literary artistry aside.
Did you notice that all the clothing in the World State has zippers on it? Because in case you didn't, Huxley helps us out with his repeated "zip," "zip," "zip," often followed by "zip," and even occasionally, "ZIP!" This is as simple as it sounds: zippers = easy access. In this world of instant gratification, buttons would cause people to lose precious seconds of nakedness.
If that wasn't enough, you can probably say something about the sterilization of passions, the technology-infused perversion of sex, and the repetitive, rhythmic, almost musical sound of the zippers. Or not.
In other places of this guide we discuss the connection between sex and violence in Brave New World. All the violence is vaguely sexual, all the sex vaguely violent. (That's our premise, but feel free to argue, complain, and list your general grievances. We want to hear them.) Music comes in because it connects the two – in this novel, both acts have a strangely controlled rhythm to them. Let's start with Bernard's Solidarity Service. The whole sexual fiasco starts with a ritual singing of "Orgy-porgy." (For lyrics, see your book. We don't want to get into that.) As far as we can tell, the orgy actually happens during the singing. Observe: "'Orgy-porgy…' In their blood-coloured and foetal darkness the dancers continued for a while to circulate, to beat and beat out the indefatigable rhythm. 'Orgy-porgy…'"
Then you've got John's almost-sex scene with Lenina, when she throws her naked body at him and he says, "AH, my virgin eyes!" and so forth. Notice what he says? "Impudent strumpet." Or, more accurately, he says, "Impudent strumpet, impudent strumpet, impudent strumpet," and very possibly, "impudent strumpet." Do you hear a rhythm here? Huxley even points it out: "'…impudent strumpet.' The inexorable rhythm beat itself out. 'Impudent…'"
Once you start looking for it, you see "rhythm" everywhere in Brave New World. Look at the drums Lenina hears at the Savage Reservation – followed shortly by the ritualistic, rhythmic whipping of one the Native Americans. Then you've got the "zip, zip, zip" of Lenina's clothes coming off. Because of this, we're prepared for the big moment at the end of the text when everyone dances around, singing Orgy-porgy, having sex, and "beating one another in six-eight time." It's the most violent and the most explicitly sexual moment in all of Brave New World – and it's couched in musical rhythm.
The World State seeks to control everything about its citizens and environment. The weather, of course, presents a bit of difficulty. As far as we can tell, the World Controllers haven't figured out how to make the weather, so instead they try to control the perceived environment, through soma and indoctrination. Observe Lenina and Henry's drug trip: "They were inside, here and now – safely inside with the fine weather, the perennially blue sky. […] The depressing stars had travelled quite some way across the heavens. But though the separating screen of the sky – signs had now to a great extent dissolved, the two young people still retained their happy ignorance of the night." Then there's that calming, controlling song that seems to be forever playing in the background: "Skies are blue inside of you, / The weather's always fine."
Of course, the weather is not always fine, and those that recognize as much are those who are able, even for the briefest of moments, to step outside the distorted reality of the World State and look the real world in the stormy face. We're thinking… Bernard and Helmholtz. Look at Bernard's date with Lenina – he takes her to the edge of the water to look at the weather, which "ha[s] taken a change for the worse; a south-westerly wind ha[s] sprung up, the sky [is] cloudy." Interestingly, it is this dreary image that makes Bernard feel "as though [he] were more [himself], […] not just a cell in a social body."
Of course Lenina just switches on the radio, which quite appropriately is playing the "skies are blue inside of you" ditty.
Helmholtz picks up where Bernard left off as far this weather thing goes. Throughout the novel, he's been wanting to write something with the passion of Othello – it's just that all the passionate topics (love, jealousy, hatred, family, age, death) aren't available to him as subject matter. What is it that he can understand that makes him feel, perhaps, as though he, too, is more than "just a cell in a social body"? What's the only intense, violent thing left in the World State?
Um…peanuts? No, the weather. Look at what Helmholtz says at the end of his conversation with Mustapha: "I should like a thoroughly bad climate […]. I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example…"
The choice of Henry Ford as the deity-like figure in Huxley's dystopia reveals the new world's value system. Henry Ford was famous for the perfection of mass production and the assembly line. In Huxley's world, even humans are mass-produced and grown with the help of, yes, that's right, an assembly line. Efficiency, production, and consumerism are the most important values here; not morality, compassion, or piety (as might be the case with a more traditional deity).
Bottles are introduced in Chapter One as the new way in which humans are created and grown. Right off the bat, this just seems very, very wrong. But far more disturbing than the notion of little zygotes inside bottles is the notion of full-grown humans being similarly trapped. Now we're in the realm of the metaphor. Of course, Huxley being Huxley, we're told directly that this is what he's going for in Brave New World. Look at Mustapha's words in Chapter Sixteen: "Even after decanting, [man is] still inside a bottle – an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations. Each one of us, of course, […] goes through life inside a bottle."
Let's go back to some earlier mentions of bottles.
Take a look at Lenina and Henry's date: "Bottled, they crossed the street; bottled, they took the lift up to Henry's room on the twenty-eighth floor. And yet, bottled as she was […], Lenina did not forget to take all the contraceptive precautions." OK, great, Lenina and Henry are trapped inside a bottle. But what is it that traps them? Let's look at some more text: "Lenina and Henry had what they wanted […] they might have been twin embryos gently rocking together on the waves of a bottled ocean of blood-surrogate." OK, so when the text talks about them being bottled, what it really means is that they're infantile. Makes sense, right? Pre-infants are grown inside bottles, so infantile imagery should go hand in hand with bottle imagery.
Now look at one more passage, this time the Orgy-porgy scene with Bernard: "And as they sang, the lights began slowly to fade – to fade and at the same time to grow warmer, richer, redder. […] In their blood-coloured and foetal darkness the dancers continued […] in the red twilight."
Wait a minute…red light…does that sound familiar? Indeed, yes. Hop back to Chapter One and listen to Henry Foster: "Embryos are like photograph film […]. They can only stand red light." Exclamation point! If the twelve people at the solidarity service are bathed in red light, it must have something to do with them being embryos, with them being bottled, and with them being infantile – just like Henry and Lenina on their date. So what do these two scenes have in common?
The adults who are bathed in red light and trapped inside metaphorical bottles are made infantile when they have sex. Why? Think about babies. When they want something, they cry. When they're hungry, they eat. They basically have no restraint. They're servants to their impulses. There's no length of time for them between a desire and the consummation of their desire. If this language also sounds familiar, it's because we took it from Mustapha Mond in Chapter Three: "Feeling lurks in that interval of time between desire and its consummation. Shorten that interval, break down all those old unnecessary barriers." Because the adults of the World State have been trained to give into their every desire, especially sexual impulses, they have also been trained to be infantile, to be bottled, to be just like those embryos bathed in the red light. And as proud as we would like to be for coming up with this all on our own, we have to give credit to Bernard, who very famously said to Lenina in Chapter Six: "[We're] infants where feeling and desire are concerned. […] That's why we went to bed together yesterday – like infants – instead of being adults and waiting."
The tragedy lies in the results of such infantile behavior. Mustapha claims that the indulgence of all impulses is freeing – the citizens of the World State are freed from the pain of waiting and wanting. In fact, however, it is this sort of indulgence that imprisons the citizens and bottles them up just like infants. They aren't free to act on impulses, they are instead slaves to their basest desires.