When I read A Handmaid’s Tale about five years ago, I realized that I really like dystopian literature and have since been steadily trying to read through the canon. I didn’t love Brave New World, but it definitely provides some interesting food for thought.
In the year 632 AF (After Ford), the social structure of civilization looks a little different than how it does now. In the first chapter, the reader, with a number of students, is taken on a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. This is where the new babies are born–not from a mother’s womb, but essentially from test tubes. It is here that the infants are born into their pre-determined social sphere (Alpha being the highest, Epsilon the lowest) and then conditioned through sleep hypnosis so they will fit in with their given social status. Only the Alpha and Beta babies are born of one egg and one sperm; the rest bud off from the same fertilized egg so that thousands of babies can be produced at the same time.
In this society, there is no religion, there is no family, there is no commitment to anyone else, and if life begins to get a little difficult there is always a tab of soma that can be taken for a little mental holiday. When two characters, Lenina and Bernard, decide to go on vacation together to visit the Savages in New Mexico, their lives turn topsy–turvy when they decide to bring a Savage, John, back to civilization with them. The Savage cannot reconcile the decisions and actions of those in the civilized world and begins to question the basis of their beliefs.
There is too much in this book for me to discuss here–and this is another one of those books where everyone can take away something different. What struck me as one of the most curious aspects of this civilization is that the citizens are sheltered from any type of pain or hurt. They don’t have literature because they can’t understand the elements of feeling, they can’t have only one partner because of the attachment (no marriage at all!), there is no God or religion. In a discussion between John, the Savage, and the Controller, the merits of an easy life versus a difficult life are explained and John exclaims:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
The Controller answers:
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind” (240).
Yes, John says. What is a life without a little pain to balance–to make the good that much sweeter? But, this is only a small part of the book. Even though I had to laugh at the fact that this is a commonly assigned high school book despite the discussion of god and especially the blatant promiscuity, there are so many themes to be discussed: technology, family relations, education, class system, etc etc. I would recommend this book to those who are interested in these themes–aren’t we all??–but don’t be frightened by the first few chapters. I had to re-read several passages until I became more familiar with this foreign world. After those first chapters, the book was very engaging and even at times gripping. I got lost in a little bit of religious discussion near the end, but overall it was a fascinating little book.
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