Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?

An interesting piece on retellings of classic novels, which is the focus of this semester’s free class.

Cultural Life

What would you say if I told you that one of the most popular classic novelists of all time was coming back, with her works reimagined for a twenty-first century audience?

When I received an advance reader copy of Sense and Sensibility last week, my initial reaction was curiosity, followed by thoughts about the audacity of the title: the blue cover with “Sense and Sensibility” emblazoned on it in gold lettering. You see, this is not Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Look upwards from the golden title and you will see Joanna Trollope’s name glinting on the cover, above an image of two modernized Regency-style silhouettes.

The Austen Project is “a major new series of six novels teaming up authors of global literary significance with Jane Austen’s six complete works”.

Three of the titles are still to be revealed but the reimagining of Sense and Sensibility will be followed…

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Welcome to a long delayed post on another classic dystopian novel.  Today I’ll be introducing you in a general way to Brave New World, and we’ll be examining the relationship, if any, between biology and destiny.  This post will also lay the foundation for a later post on the 1997 movie, Gattaca.     


Crossing the Frontier into Huxley’s Brave New World

Huxley            Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, I think, a departure from most of the dystopian fiction we’ve encountered or are likely to encounter.  Huxley’s description of a dystopian society, for example, lacks the grime and poverty evident in 1984.  Instead of describing rundown apartments and outdated technology, Huxley depicts a society at that is technologically advanced, that possesses a range of commodities, and that can only be described as decadent.  This departure from Orwell’s grim vision of dystopian society can perhaps be understood when one realizes that the World State was modeled, in part, on Huxley’s perception of the United States.  As David Bradshaw points out in his introduction to Brave New World, the feelies (an advancement on Hollywood movies), the over consumption of goods, the references to Ford and the Model T, and the depiction of amoral men and women living life in the present were all meant to be caricatures of life in the United States in the early 20th century.


Can We Believe Huxley’s Vision of America?

Great Gatsby

For those of us who might wish to protest that life in America in the ’30s couldn’t have resembled life in Huxley’s World State, it might be wise to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925.  The characters of that novel, with their lavish parties and decadent lifestyles, would have undoubtedly felt just as at home in the World State.


The difference between Orwell’s dystopic vision and Huxley’s extends, of course, beyond simply the physical descriptions of their respective societies.  More surprisingly, where Orwell describes a citizenry that wears an “expression of quiet optimism” because it fears Big Brother, Huxley presents a citizenry that at least thinks itself happy, even if that happiness is illusory (Orwell 5).  Indeed, Huxley’s World Controllers are also very different from Orwell’s Big Brother and Zamyatin’s Benefactor.   For one, we, the readers, can be sure that, unlike the other “leaders”, the World Controllers actually exist.  Their function is also different.  Where Big Brother acts as a deterrent for bad behavior by creating fear, the job of Mustapha Mond is, according to himself, “to serve happiness.  Other people’s — not mine” (209).  Unlike O’Brien in 1984, Mond clearly does not have to rely on torture to control his citizens.  By comparison to 1984 and We, the apparatus of governmental control in Brave New World is virtually invisible.  Huxley dispenses with the Thoughtpolice of 1984 and the Guardians of We.  Spies apparently are not necessary in this “utopian” dystopia.  Of course there are police, but far from using the violent methods described in 1984 and We, these police use the calming influence of drugs and soothing voices to quell a rioting mob (195-196).   The results of this mob control are quick and effective:

Two minutes later the Voice and the soma vapour had produced their effect.  In tears, the Deltas were kissing and hugging one another — half a dozen twins at a time in a comprehensive embrace.  Even Helmholtz and the Savage were almost crying.  A fresh supply of pill-boxes was brought in from the Bursary; a new distribution was hastily made and, to the sound of the Voice’s richly affectionate baritone valedictions, the twins dispersed, blubbering as though their hearts would break.  “Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you!  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you.  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest …” (196-197).

This description of the rioters parting would be starkly out of place in either Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s novels.  Nothing here suggests the violence implied by the Guardians and the Thoughtpolice.

Perhaps more striking than the absences of a police apparatus and a totalitarian regime are the things that are present in Huxley’s society.  Sexual activity, far from being discouraged, like it is in Oceania, or being controlled, like it is in The One State, is permitted and, indeed, actively encouraged.  Where Winston and Julia have to slip away Brave New World namessurreptitiously for a rendezvous in the countryside, Lenina and Bernard can simply take his plane for a romantic weekend.  Where the young women of Oceania join the Junior Anti-Sex League, the children of the World State engage in erotic play, and Lenina gets scolded for being too monogamous.

Religion, absent from the two prior novels, is also present, but it appears to be a religion that lacks dogma or condemnation of any sort.  The religion of the World State combines the fetishization of Ford with religious elements from Christianity.  The following passage shows how the World State has mimicked the Eucharist in its Solidarity Services:

The President made another sign of the T and sat down.  The service had begun.  The dedicated soma tablets were placed in the centre of the dining table.  The loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand and, with the formula, “I drink to my annihilation,” twelve times quaffed.  (72)


The soma tablets at the center of the table are meant to stand for the wafers offered during communion, and the cup of strawberry ice-cream soma replaces the cup of wine traditionally passed around among Catholic celebrants.

In addition to sex and religion, the World State differs from Oceania and the One State in that it provides a range of leisure activities.  These activities include visits to the feelies, games and, of course, the use of the drug soma.  

Omelas and Brave New World            Given Huxley’s sharp departure from the model established by earlier dystopian authors, we might ask if this novel can fairly be characterized as dystopian.  Part of the ambiguity that readers experience when reading Brave New World is a consequence of Huxley’s own ambivalence about the society he had described.  While he seems to decry much of what he describes, Huxley actually had a much more complicated relationship to the themes discussed in his novel.  He was, at least up to the time of writing Brave New World, partially convinced that in order for humanity to be saved, a dictatorship might have to be imposed and eugenics (the act of selectively breeding humans for certain traits) might be necessary in order to save the European race (Bradshaw 1994).  For all of his implicit criticism of the United States and American technology, Huxley actually applied for American citizenship, and, although it was denied, lived for many years in America.  While Huxley’s description of the drug soma seems disturbing, Huxley actually used psychedelic drugs such as peyote, mescaline and LSD.  His experiences with the drug mescaline are described in his book The Doors of Perception.  All of this background information obscures any facile interpretation of Brave New World.    If the novel is dystopian, then it presents a complicated dystopia, more in line with the Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas than with Oceania or the One State.


Losing Human Freedom:  Predestinating and Conditioning

            If law enforcement seems remarkably absent in Huxley’s Brave New World, it is because the World State does not require force and violence to control its citizenry.  Clearly, the abdication of violent means took some time.  In describing the evolution of society to the students at the hatchery, Mond notes that in the early years, “[e]ight hundred Simple Lifers were mowed down by machine guns at Golders Green” and “[t]hen came the famous British Museum Massacre [where] [t]wo thousand culture fans [were] gassed with dichlorethyl sulphide” (44, 45).  It was only after these violent attempts to regulate the citizenry that the World Controllers came to realize that violence was a highly inefficient way of controlling the population (45).  In essence, the World Controllers recognized what John Locke, the British philosopher, had argued in the 17th century:  rulers only rule with the consent of the ruled.  The problem was that the World Controllers did not want their citizens to have any choice in giving their consent to the social structure.  Fortunately for the Controllers, science offered solutions to the nagging problem of free-will and individuality.  The solution that the Controllers would take was premised on the same ideas that would be developed by the American psychologist and writer, B. F. Skinner who, in his novel Walden II, argued that “man is determined by the state” (1957, 276).  For the Controllers, the means of determining the destiny of humanity resided in two areas:  1)  biology and 2)  conditioning.

The biologic aspect of control in the World State is premised on the assumption Picture5that biology is destiny.  If a person inherits certain genes, he or she will excel at certain activities and do poorly in other activities according to this theory.  While Huxley could not have foreseen the genetic manipulation that is available today, he was able to foresee the concept of “designer babies”.  All of the babies in the World State are, in fact, designer babies inasmuch as they are created to specifications determined by the state.  To begin, experts at the haterchery carefully screen genetic material.  The best genetic material is reserved for manufacturing upper caste members of society.  Less desirable material is reserved for the lower castes.  After the material is selected, it is carefully manipulated to produce or enhance specific characteristics.  The fetuses destined to be lower caste citizens are injected with alcohol to create brain damage, thus ensuring lower levels of intelligence.  As Mr. Forester explains to the students at the hatchery, “in Epsilons […] we don’t need human intelligence” (12).  Using this pragmatic approach, the World State only gives to its citizens what they will need to fulfill their predestined existences.  For example, citizens destined for a life in the tropics are acclimatized to hot conditions and are immunized against tropical diseases before they are even “decanted”. The state’s tampering with these humans/products effectively narrows the possibilities available to each of them.  Even if an Epsilon could possess the desire to be an engineer, for example, she would never possess the intelligence required for the job.

The production of humans is carried on along the same basis as a production line.  Indeed, Henry Ford’s automobile plant is clearly the inspiration for the assembly line at the hatchery.  Among the stages involved in this assembly line are quality control and the tailoring of each product to, as I’ve already indicated, fill specific social needs.  As Mond points out, the task of mass producing these humans is made infinitely easier by Bokanovsky’s Process, a process which allows for the creation of clones.  The result of the process is “[s]tandard men and women; in uniform batches [so that the] whole of a small factory [can be] staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg” (5).  Humans, then, become interchangeable cogs maintaining the social machinery.  Individual identity is sacrificed in favor of caste identity.  One of the consequence of this mass production is that citizens are also “plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about” (201).  These roles are abolished, both because they are unimportant to the continuation of the World State and because everyone is replaceable.  If a woman loses the man she was sleeping with, she can always get an identical product to replace that man.  In theory, at least, nothing distinguishes him from any of the men produced from the same bokanovskified egg.  Given that each caste member is also conditioned to have the same likes and dislikes, it is possible that the substitute product male would be identical to the original.  Who needs to worry about the concept of a boyfriend when you can date an identical individual whenever you want to?

Given the fact that the World State designs and produces its citizens, it is easy to understand why citizens like Lenina are willing to accept the hypnopaedic proverb, “Everyone belongs to everyone else”.  In the case of the World State, this is very nearly true.  This proverb echoes the law in Zamyatin’s One State: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  In both societies, the individual is viewed as a product of the state.  However, where in the One State a law has to be made to the effect that each citizen has the legal right to any other citizen’s body, no such law is necessary in the World State.  After all, the World State doesn’t merely claim to own its citizens, it actually manufactures them.

Biologically predestinating individuals determines the likely future of each citizen; conditioning makes them happy with that lot.  As the Director of the hatchery explains, “All conditioning aims at that:  making people like their unescapable social destiny” (13).  This conditioning occurs through a number of different techniques.  There is both physical conditioning, as when Delta children are electrocuted to make them dislike and fear books, and verbal conditioning, as in hypnopaedia.  The point of hypnopaedia is to shape the mind of the child through repeated suggestions, until, according to the director at the hatchery,

at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind.  And not the child’s mind only.  The adult’s mind too — all his life long.  The mind that judges and desires and decides —- made up of these suggestions.  But all these suggestions are our suggestions!  [….] Suggestions from the State.  (25)


The director’s point is made even more cogently by Mond when he explains to John Savage the role of Epsilons in the World State:

Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle — an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course […] goes through life inside a bottle. (203)


A very similar view of the power of conditioning is presented in B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel, Walden II.  In Walden II, the spokesperson for the society, Frazier, explains to his guests:

Our members are practically always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do—but we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community.  Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free (Skinner 1976, 279).

Frazier’s assertion that citizens can be free even when their behavior is predetermined presents a paradox.  To a certain extent, the citizens of Huxley’s World State have a more accurate understanding of the limits of freedom and predestination.  Thus, when Lenina observes to Henry that perhaps Epsilons, whom she personally finds revolting, don’t mind being Epsilons, he responds, “Of course they don’t.  How can they?  They don’t know what it’s like being anything else.  We’d mind, of course.  But then we’ve been differently conditioned” (66).  Henry goes on to explain to Lenina, “if you were an Epsilon […] your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren’t a Beta or an Alpha” (66).  Evidently Henry recognizes that he and Lenina aren’t in fact free; more disturbingly though, this lack of freedom doesn’t bother either of them.  To a certain extent, these two products of the World State are far closer to the machine-men envisioned in Zamyatin’s One State.  After all, Henry and Lenina can’t help but be happy.  The state has won, not because it has shaped reality to suit its citizens, but because it has shaped its citizens to suit its reality.  Unlike the rebels in Zamyatin’s One State and Orwell’s Oceania, far from rebelling, these citizens of the World State cannot even grasp the concept of rebellion.

Although upper caste members of society seem to lack choices just like their lower caste counterparts, they do, in fact, have some capacity for rejecting the conditioning that they have experienced.  Perhaps they require an element of rationale thought and free will to ensure that society continues to operate smoothly.  The possibility of bucking this system is revealed by the Director’s criticism of Bernard Marx, “Alphas are so conditioned that they do not have to be infantile in their emotional behavior.  But that is all the more reason for their making a special effort to conform.  It is their duty to be infantile, even against their inclination” (88).  As I shall show in my next post, the inclination to remain infantile is encouraged by promoting unconstrained consumption and instant gratification.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  Brave New World.  Perennial, 1998.

Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. MacMillan, 1976.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We.  Penguin Books, 1972.