Bernard Marx and John the Savage: The Costs of a Supposed Utopia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: GREAT UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN WORKS OF LITERATURE

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the citizens are kept pacified by drugs and sex. But the costs of this are rather high, and this is seen through of eyes of both an insider, Bernard Marx, and an outsider, John the Savage. Together they express the fundamental problems with the brave new world.

Futuristic pyramid-style city covered in glass with channels of greenery.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is based on maintaining a stable society at some cost to individual freedom. (Image: 3000ad/Shutterstock)

The Insider’s View of Sexuality

In the novel, children learn that sexuality is natural when they engage in public sexual play in their prepubescent years. Adults are very open about their sex lives and even offer correctives if they think a friend has become too emotionally invested in another individual. For example, we see Bernard Marx being corrected by his peers when he becomes attached to one single woman, Lenina Crowne.

Lenina is described as pneumatic. Physically, this suggests that she’s busty.  But there’s also something charming about this descriptor: Lenina knows how to float. She knows how to rise to the surface of her expectations, how to perform her tasks well and cheerfully, and how to take a little extra soma when she needs it in order to be a buoy on her society, never a drag. Bernard Marx is not pneumatic in this sense. Bernard is the insider who understands the costs of utopia and who, no matter how hard he tries, can never accept them.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Art and Aesthetics in Brave New World

Well, it’s through Bernard Marx that we learn most about the aesthetics of the brave new world. As you might know, utopias and dystopias both provide interesting perspectives on art. The early feminist utopia of Herland talks about the boring fiction produced by women who live in such a stable, well-balanced community that they have none of the conflicts that arise from sex and competition.

On the other hand we have the supremely mathematical approach to art in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. In Brave New World, art gets discussed repeatedly through the novel. The title itself is borrowed from Shakespeare. The title refers to an ironic line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the brave new world actually contains the worst of humanity, and not even the newest. The men who are new to Miranda are in fact from the old world. 

A scene from "The Tempest".
The title of Huxley’s novel is from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which one of the characters, Miranda, talks about a new world, which is ironically an old one. (Image: George Romney/ Public domain)

The Alpha-Plus and the Savage

Our two main perspective characters are an unusual insider—Bernard Marx, the Alpha-Plus who has an unnatural attachment to Lenina Crowne and realizes he’s at odds with his society because he thinks of himself as an individual—and the visiting outsider, John the Savage, from the Savage Reservation, who visits civilization. Bernard comes into John’s room to hear him throwing up in the bathroom. Here’s what he says:

“Did you eat something that didn’t agree with you?” asked Bernard.
The Savage nodded. “I ate civilization.”
“What?”
“It poisoned me; I was defiled.”

The Prohibition on Good Art

John enjoys the comforts of civilizations at first, but he very rapidly sees the costs: freedom, monogamy, and, most of all, art. After a trip to the feelies—movies that provide a full sensory experience—he has an intense conversation with Bernard and with Mustapha Mond, the Controller.

The conversation turns quickly to John’s beloved Shakespeare, as he rails at the terrible quality of the feelies. To John’s—and Bernard’s— surprise, Mustapha Mond recognizes a passage from The Tempest. He explains that reading Shakespeare is prohibited, but he makes the laws, so he can break them.

Learn more about dystopian pleasure.

The Alternative to Art

Painting showing Othello lamenting Desdemona's death.
In place of the cathartic effects of high art such as Othello, the citizens of the World State undergo a Violent Passion Surrogate process to feel rage and fear. (Image: William Salter/Public domain)

Why is Shakespeare prohibited? Because it’s old, Mustapha says, and civilization works better when people want new things. John is unconvinced. Another reason put forth by Mond is that the people of the brave new world wouldn’t understand it. Well, John and Bernard can both easily see that that’s true.

They also have V.P.S., Violent Passion Surrogate, a mandatory pharmaceutical process that floods the body with adrenaline once a month.

It gives people the feeling of fear and rage they would get from Othello, all in the comfort of a laboratory. This is shallow comfort to John the Savage. Mustapha Mond has chosen happiness over art on behalf of the citizens he controls. Bernard Marx and John the Savage are left to make choices at the end, too. And, in a sense, so is the reader.

Learn more about dystopian technologies.

Huxley’s Utopian Vision

Did Huxley trust readers to make responsible choices? Well, Brave New World is not his only foray into utopia. In 1948, the same year Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley published Ape and Essence, a straight-up dystopia providing a horrific picture of a post-nuclear war USA.

In 1962, he published Island, a novel literary critic Robert Elliott cleverly calls an anti-anti-utopia. Elliott’s point is that Huxley was specifically trying to rehabilitate the utopia after it had gone into the space of dystopia, or anti-utopia.

Huxley wrote in 1958 that young people didn’t care enough about freedom, and that we should resist the loss of freedom, even though the forces that menace freedom may be too strong. That opinion about freedom could be taken right out of a 21st-century blog. It could be taken right out of a Young Adult dystopian novel.

The world has changed, in some ways Huxley anticipated, and in lots of ways he didn’t, but that concern about preserving individual freedom is just as alive now as it was in 1932. And maybe, in a small way, that’s because of this book.

Common Questions about Bernard Marx and John the Savage

Q: Why is Bernard Marx corrected by his peers in Brave New World?

Bernard Marx in Brave New World is corrected by his peers when he begins to develop what they believe to be an unhealthy interest in being with just one woman, Lenina Crowne.

Q: What does the title of Brave New World refer to?

The title of Brave New World refers to an ironic line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the brave new world actually contains the worst of humanity, and not even the newest.

Q: What is V.P.S. in Brave New World?

In Brave New World, citizens of the World State have access to V.P.S., Violent Passion Surrogate, a mandatory pharmaceutical process that floods the body with adrenaline once a month.

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