Close Reading: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

7 January 2015

What makes great writing work? Is there a science behind the art? On Radio 4’s Open Book, Dr Sarah Dillon takes a forensic look at passages of prose from 20th century literature. BBC Arts presents her second analysis from the series, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. This extract comes from the beginning of the 1932 novel, packed with imagery that sets the scene for his dystopian masterpiece.

Analysis by Sarah Dillon

This passage is at the very opening of Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopia, Brave New World. At face value, it’s just the description of a room, and the revelation of what that room is used for. But it’s also so much more than that. It’s packed with imagery, with metaphors, similies, chains of synonymous adjectives, careful rhetorical tropes. All of these work together to create an opening which, in the guise of scene setting, actually sets up the key theme of the novel.

Dr Sarah Dillon

What do we learn about this room? The first sentence gives us three pieces of information: size, location and aspect. It’s ‘enormous’, it’s on the ‘ground floor’ and it faces north. As we all know from buying houses, north facing rooms are not coveted – they get little sunlight. So already two pieces of information – enormous and north facing – actually create in the reader an emotional response: we raise our shoulders and shiver slightly as we enter into the room and the paragraph that describes it.

The second sentence confirms this emotional response because it opens with the word ‘cold’: ‘cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself’. There is actually no grammatical subject in these two clauses, so we just assume that the subject remains the same as it’s been in the previous sentence – the room is cold for all the summer beyond the panes. That’s the natural reading process, but it flounders on the second clause: ‘the room is cold for all the tropical heat of the room itself’? How could this be so? How can the room be both hot and cold at the same time?

One answer to this question comes from looking at the rhetorical device Huxley’s using here. The ‘cold’ of the first clause governs the second clause as well, even though it’s not repeated at the beginning of it. This is called ‘zeugma’. The zeugma makes us think that it’s the same cold in each clause. But it can’t be, because a room can’t literally be cold and tropically hot at the same time. So the first cold might well be literal, but the second cold must be figurative. And this is where rhetoric unfolds into theme.

We must now think that the room is not just a cold temperature, but cold in the same way in which we’d describe someone as being heartless or lacking in feeling. Figuratively, ‘cold’ can also mean lacking sexual passion, from where we get the synonym ‘frigid’. We’ve now gone from literal coldness to a figurative coldness that has led us to the lack of sexual desire and activity.

This is hugely significant given that we discover at the end of the passage that this is supposed to be the ‘Fertilizing Room’. The rhetorical trope of zeugma has spun us out to one of the main concerns of the novel – to the fact the mechanisation of human reproduction through cloning might produce a more ordered and smooth running world, but it is lacking in the sensual warmth of human sexual reproduction. Something that is in fact essential to defining us as human, as we’ll see.

As we continue reading, we realise that we’ve made a mistake: ‘the room’ is not actually the subject of these two clauses at all; the harsh thin light glaring through the windows is. Literary prose works brilliantly weirdly in this way, in that this realisation of error doesn’t actually change the interpretation we’ve just had, or the effect it’s produced. It just adds another one on to it. Literary prose layers up often contradictory meanings and affects without cancelling any out.

What might a cold, harsh, thin light be hungering for? Warmth? Affection? Voluptuousness?

This light continues to be the subject of the next adjective and verb – the light is ‘hungrily seeking some draped lay figure’. What on earth does this mean? For one, it means the light’s animate, it takes on a life of its own, it is capable of a sensation – hunger – and actions to allay it, it’s ‘seeking’. What might a cold, harsh, thin light be hungering for? Warmth? Affection? Voluptuousness? All the qualities that define life, vital human life, and the sex that produces it? Possibly, but not here.

Here it would be content even just to find a semblance of human life – a mannequin (that’s what the lay figure means). This starved light would even settle for ‘pallid academic goose-flesh’. But it gets nothing, not the actuality nor even the semblance of humanity, what it finds is ‘only the glass and nikel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory’.

There are people in this room, the workers, but they are rendered inhuman by the imagery and, we come to realise, by the cloning process by which they’ve been created and in which they are now engaging. Huxley’s brave new world is populated by the living dead, ‘their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber’. In this laboratory, and beyond it, Huxley’s humans are just one more mechanical cog in the wheel. They are so dead, in fact, that they kill the light which finds them: it is frozen dead when it touches. But this is not the end of the light. It may be frozen and dead, but it turns into a ghost and so has a certain type of living-on – ‘only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance’.

The only things in the room to have life are the laboratory instruments, not the human beings – if we can still call them that – who operate them. The light settles on the barrels of the microscopes, weirdly having sated its hunger by being turned into a richly calorific food stuff – ‘lying along the polished tubes like butter’. Given the sexual connotations of ‘cold’ above, it is not unlikely that a reader might now be sensitised to the phallic symbolism of the lubricated microscope barrels, ‘streak after luscious streak’, producing cloned embryo after cloned embryo after cloned embryo but with no humanity in sight.

Sarah Dillon is a lecturer in Literature and Film at the University of Cambridge. Listen to her close reading of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley on Open Book.

Extract: Brave New World

The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north. Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, hungrily seeking some draped lay figure, some pallid shape of academic goose-flesh, but finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory. Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost. Only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance, lying along the polished tubes like butter, streak after luscious streak in long recession down the work tables.
And this,’ said the Director opening the door, ‘is the Fertilizing Room.’