Brave New World tells the story of a future Earth society where cloning, drug culture, sleep teaching, and other technologies have combined to radically alter human life. Bernard Marx, a self-loathing member of this new society, is torn between seeking the truth behind it and enjoying his privilege as a member of its highest class. Bernard is subjected to a rude awakening as to the nature of his life by the arrival of John the Savage from a reservation of Old Earth recidivists.
Brave New World is a novel of ideas which takes place in a densely imagined dystopian state.
The World State is a benevolent dictatorship headed by ten World Controllers. In this respect it is similar to the societies imagined by Huxley's near-contemporaries H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. The World State has established a stable global society where the population is permanently limited. The basis of that stability is the conditioning of citizens to accept their station in life. This is achieved by:
In the context of the book, the programme had proven successful. The lower castes' restricted abilities, ambitions and desires make them contented with their lot. There is no dissatisfaction because each caste member receives the same workload, food, housing, and soma ration. Nor is there any desire to change caste; conditioning reinforces the individual's place in the caste system. The upper castes (with a few exceptions) revel in the hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle provided for them.
People enjoy perfect health and youthfulness until death at age 60. Death is not feared; the population is confident that everyone is happy, and since there are no families, there are no strong ties to mourn.
The vast majority of the world population lives under the World State. In geographic areas not conducive to its system, "savages" are left to their own devices. These "savage reservations" are similar to reservations established for the Native American population during the colonization of North America.
The novel opens in London in AF 632 (AD 2540 in the Gregorian calendar). The society described above is illuminated by the activities of two of the novel's central characters, Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx, and the other characters with whom they come into contact. Lenina, a hatchery worker, is socially accepted and contented, but Bernard, a psychologist in the Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning, is not. He is shorter in stature than the average of his Alpha caste—a quality shared by the lower castes, which gives him an inferiority complex. His intelligence and his work with hypnopaedia allow him to understand, and disapprove of, the methods by which society is sustained. Courting disaster, he is vocal and arrogant about his differences. Bernard is mockedby other Alphas because of his stature, as well as for his individualistic tendencies, and is threatened with exile to Iceland because of his nonconformity. His only friend is Helmholtz Watson, a lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. The friendship is based on their feelings of being misfits (in the context of the World State), but unlike Bernard, Watson's sense of alienation stems from being exceptionally gifted, intelligent, handsome, and physically strong. Helmholtz is drawn to Bernard as a confidant.
Bernard takes a holiday with Lenina at a Savage Reservation in New Mexico. (The culture of the village folk resembles the contemporary Native American groups of the region, descendants of the Anasazi, including the Puebloan peoples of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni.) There they observe ceremonies, including a ritual in which a village boy is whipped into unconsciousness. They encounter Linda, a woman originally from the World State who is living on the reservation with her son John, now a young man. She too visited the reservation on a holiday, and became separated from her group and was left behind. She had meanwhile become pregnant by a fellow-holidaymaker (who is revealed to be Bernard's boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning). She did not try to return to "civilization" because of her shame at her pregnancy. Neither Linda nor John are accepted by the villagers, and their life has been hard and unpleasant. Linda has taught John to read, although from only two books: a scientific manual from his mother's job in the hatchery and the collected works of Shakespeare. Ostracised by the villagers, John is able to articulate his feelings only in terms of Shakespearean drama, especially the tragedies of Othello , Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet . Linda now wants to return to London, while John wants to see the "brave new world" his mother has told him about. Bernard sees an opportunity to thwart plans to exile him, and gets permission to take Linda and John back. On his return to London, Bernard is confronted by the Director, but turns the tables by presenting him with his long-lost lover and unknown son. John calls the Director his "father", a vulgarity which causes a roar of laughter. The humiliated Director resigns in shame.
Bernard, as "custodian" of the "savage" John who is now treated as a celebrity, is fawned on by the highest members of society and revels in attention he once scorned. However, his triumph is short-lived. Decrepit and friendless, Linda goes on a permanent soma holiday while John refuses to attend social events organised by Bernard, appalled by what he perceives to be an empty society. Society drops Bernard as swiftly as it had taken him. Lenina and John are physically attracted to each other, but John's view of courtship and romance, based on Shakespeare, is utterly incompatible with Lenina's freewheeling attitude to sex. Lenina tries to seduce John, but he attacks her for being an "impudent strumpet". John is then informed that his mother is extremely ill. He rushes to her bedside, causing a scandal as this is not the "correct" attitude to death. Some Delta children who enter the ward for "death-conditioning" irritate John to the point where he attacks one physically. He then tries to break up a distribution of soma to a lower-caste group and is set upon by the outraged recipients. Helmholtz, who has been called by Bernard, also becomes involved in the fracas.
Bernard, Helmholtz and John are brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident "World Controller for Western Europe". Bernard and Helmholtz are told they are to be exiled to islands, seen by society at large as a punishment for antisocial activity. Bernard pleads grovelling for a second chance, but Helmholtz welcomes the opportunity to be an individual, and chooses the Falkland Islands as his destination, believing that their bad weather will inspire his writing. Mond says that Bernard does not know that exile is actually a reward. The islands are full of the most interesting people in the world, individuals who did not fit in the World State community. Mond outlines for John the events that led to the present society and his arguments for a caste system and social control. John rejects Mond's arguments, and Mond sums up by saying that John demands "the right to be unhappy". John asks if he may go to the islands as well but Mond refuses, saying he wishes to "continue the experiment".
John moves to an abandoned hilltop "air-lighthouse" (meant to warn and guide helicopters) there, near the village of Puttenham, where he intends to adopt an ascetic lifestyle in order to purify himself of civilization and make amends for his mistreatment of his mother. He practises self-mortification, and his self-flagellation is witnessed by bystanders, turning him into a sensational spectacle. Hundreds of sightseers, hoping to witness his behaviour, arrive at John's lighthouse; one of them is Lenina. At the sight of the woman whom he both adores and loathes, John attacks her with his whip. The onlookers are whipped into a frenzy by the display and John is caught up in a soma-fueled orgy. The next morning, John remembers the previous night's events and is stricken with remorse. Onlookers and journalists who arrive that evening find that he has hanged himself, his body twisting aimlessly in the lighthouse.