Guide to the classics: Shakespeare’s sonnets — an honest account of love and a surprising portal to the man himself


Giovanni Cariani, Portrait of Two Young Men. The bulk of the sonnets are addressed to a young man known as the ‘fair youth’.

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, University of Sydney

Most of us are familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. Even if we aren’t Shakespeare geeks, chances are we’ve waded through five or six in school, seen several movie adaptations and been to an “in the park” production.

And then there is the constant background of Shakespearean quotations and references colouring our lives, from recognisable lines like “let slip the dogs of war”, to the oh, I didn’t know Shakespeare wrote that cliches, such as “one fell swoop” or “wear my heart upon my sleeve”.

However, apart from a few hits, Shakespeare’s sonnets are less known.


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Fortified with a familiarity with the plays, a virgin journey into the sonnets is as good a literary adventure as anyone could hope for. It is both unsettling and beguiling.

The Shakespeare of the plays is god-like: he is everywhere in his creations as a masterful and unifying presence, and yet he is aloof. If I had to take a punt, I’d say he was wise, wry — the kind of person who knew how to do life right.

Thus it is a shock to meet the Shakespeare of the sonnets. This Shakespeare is frail (sonnets 29 and 145), obsessed (28), judgmental (130), fickle (110) and self-pitying (72). And so we are drawn in. We begin to ponder how much of himself Shakespeare reveals in the sonnets, and, if he is in there, how one of the most remarkable humans could be so like the rest of us.

What is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a short poem, traditionally about love. The “English” or “Shakespearean” sonnet has a standard form. There are 14 lines, each with five “beats”.

Each beat has two syllables, with the second being stressed. This is known as “iambic pentameter”. Try it out with the most famous line from the sonnets: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (18)

The sonnet has three “quatrains” — stanzas with four lines — and a final rhyming couplet — two lines that rhyme. The couplet packs a certain punch that turns the sonnet on its head or provides the key to the sonnet or something similar.




Read more:
Explainer: poetic metre


A brief overview

When we talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets, we are usually referring to the 154 sonnets published in 1609 when Shakespeare was about 45. The sonnets were likely written and revised throughout Shakespeare’s adult life (though there is debate).

Keeping to the tradition, Shakespeare’s sonnets are about love. But they take us into love’s maelstrom. The sonnets speak, often in the most raw fashion, of jealousy (61), fear (48), infidelity (120) and love triangles (41, 42), but also of the simple happiness that love can bring (25). Because of this, according to poet and essayist Anthony Hecht, young lovers make up the most substantial readership of the sonnets.

The bulk of the sonnets (1-126) are addressed to a young man, often referred to as the “fair youth”.

The dedication to the sonnets.
Author provided

The last 28 are mostly addressed to or about a woman: “the dark lady”. The real-life identities of both figures are not known. However, the dedication to the sonnets, which some consider to be a code, may contain the youth’s identity (see this article by amateur Shakespeare scholar, John Rollett).

Within these two broad sets there are smaller groupings. Sonnets 1 to 17 are known as the “procreation sonnets”, while 78 to 86, which reveal that another poet is drawing inspiration from the fair youth, are referred to as the “rival poet” sequence.

And throughout, two and sometimes three sonnets are directly linked as if they were a longer poem (for instance 66, 67 and 68 — look out here for the objection to the silly wigs everyone wore).




Read more:
Friday essay: 50 shades of Shakespeare – how the Bard sexed things up


The fair youth sequence

There are several recurring themes here.

A number of sonnets address the pain of being apart (such as 44 and 45). And in 49 we see the persona’s anxiety about parting permanently when he imagines the time “when thou [the fair youth] shalt strangely pass, / And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye.”

But we also witness the persona drawing on his love for the youth to fortify himself against unhappy memories. The well known 30 begins with:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past, / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, / And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.

It finishes with the lines, “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.”

There are also the themes of time’s destruction of beauty and the horror of death. And hand-in-hand with these, we see the persona searching for ways for the youth to achieve immortality.

In 12, one of the “procreation sonnets”, the youth is encouraged to seek immortality by having children. It finishes with: “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence, / Save breed, to brave him, when he takes thee hence.”

However, even more poignant are the persona’s many explicit attempts to preserve the youth through his poetry — a quixotic enterprise that, remarkably, has worked. This is best exemplified in 18. We read:

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou growest. / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Portrait by John Taylor, thought to be of Shakespeare.
Wikimedia Commons

A common discussion is whether the fair youth sequence reveals that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual. Unless the sonnets are a wild fabrication, Shakespeare certainly wasn’t straight.

However, we should, as scholar Dennis Kay reminds us, be cautious of “applying a modern understanding of, and attitudes toward, homosexuality to early modern culture.” Read 20 and see what you think.

Not all the sonnets in the fair youth sequence are addressed to the youth. An exception is another of the evergreen sonnets: 116. This ode to the eternal nature of love begins with:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark.

Returning to sonnet 66 (my favourite), although the final couplet addresses love, the sonnet stands out because its focus is not love, but the corruptions of the world.

In it, the persona objects to “folly (doctor-like) controlling skill” and “art made tongue-tied by authority.” Here we are reminded of the battles many who are capable and spirited must fight against soulless bureaucracies and the censorious.

The dark lady sequence

The “dark lady” is “dark” because when she is introduced in 127, her complexion and eyes are described as black:

In the old age black was not counted fair, / Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name; / But now is black beauty’s successive heir, / And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame.

And later in the sonnet we read: “my mistress’ eyes are raven black.”

In the dark lady sequence, the persona suffers familiar torments. But there are also several instances of humor — the fair youth sequence is almost humorless.

In sonnet 135 and 136 the persona puns bawdily and relentlessly on the world “will”: “Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious, / Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?”

But the stand-out is 130. Here the persona pointedly declines to use tired comparisons to praise the attributes of his mistress.

We read: “My mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, and, “And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.”

Then come the glorious lines: “I grant I never saw a goddess go; / My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground.”

Their reception

The sonnets were not much read for nearly 200 years after their publication, but since then they have only grown in popularity. This was, perhaps, assisted by Wordsworth’s own sonnet: “Scorn Not the Sonnet”. (I know, it’s hard not to laugh.)

Today, lines from the sonnets turn up from time to time in popular culture. Naturally, in “Dead Poets Society” sonnet 18 is recited.

So what do the sonnets mean for us today? Many things. Most commonly, they have come to stand for perfect love, but this is likely because few readers make it past two of them: sonnets 18 and 116.

For those who do read further, the sonnets provide a more honest account of love, while exploring other substantial themes such as fear of death and the search for immortality.

The sonnets can also be enlisted to support social and political causes, from freedom to sexuality. And then there is the possible portal they provide into Shakespeare the man.

Ultimately though, we read on because of Shakespeare’s inimitable commingling of beauty and truth — if the two can be separated. And because each reading reveals that we are still only splashing about in the shallows of an immeasurable ocean.The Conversation

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

World Classics Online


The link below is to an article reporting on Oxford University Press putting its ‘World Classics’ online.

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2021/01/oxford-university-press-makes-puts-its-world-classics-online-covid19/

Five tourist trips in England inspired by classic novels


Heather Green, Nottingham Trent University

Some books can really bring to life the place in which they’re set. Their words knit together in such a way that whole landscapes or entire floorplans of buildings you’ve never visited before spring forth in your mind.

Often these settings are based upon real places. So with domestic travel restrictions set to be relaxed from April, that might be the opportune moment to discover some of the UK’s best literary heritage sites. From violently beautiful windswept moors to boisterous town squares, here are five such places and the books they inspired:

1. Greenway, Devon in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly

Poirot commented on the geography of the property, ‘So many paths, and one is never sure where they lead’ … They passed the Folly and zig-zagged down the path to the river.

Agatha Christie’s house at Greenway on the River Dart is the setting for her 1956 novel Dead Man’s Folly. About a charity game of murder that becomes a bit too real, this Hercule Poirot mystery vividly came to life on my visit to Greenway.

Not only is the Georgian house itself perfectly depicted, but the zig-zagging path to the murder scene in the boathouse is so uncannily described that to visit it is chilling. The house and grounds are so evocative that Greenaway was used in ITV’s 2013 adaptation of the book.

2. Nottingham in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Market Square lights danced all around him.

Sillitoe’s cult novel set among the working class in Nottingham follows Arthur Seaton (rebel, thinker, drinker and womaniser) after he puts away 11 pints and seven gins one Saturday night.

Town sqyare with fountain, bordered by shops.
Nottingham’s Market Square.
Destinos Espetaculares/Shutterstock

Nottingham might have changed somewhat since 1958, but Sillitoe’s detailed descriptions of the city’s streets are still wonderfully recognisable. Nothing says Nottingham like wondering amid the drunken revellers in Market Square or experiencing the cacophony of the annual Goose Fair, one of the largest funfairs in the UK. The many locations Seaton visited over his fateful weekend can be further explored on The Sillitoe Trail.

3. Wirksworth, Derbyshire in George Eliot’s Adam Bede

Look at the canals, an’ th’ acqueducs, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford.

George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) provides a snapshot of the rural Midlands at the beginning of the 18th-century. Eliot’s aunt was a Methodist preacher in Wirksworth, and the local landscape, coupled with her aunt’s reminiscences, became the germ of the novel

Waterways at Arkwright's Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire.
Arkwright’s Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire.
Daniel Matthams/Alamy

Thoough Eliot irritably rejected suggestions that any of her characters or settings were carbon copies of real life, Wirksworth can certainly be found in the industrial landscape that she conjures. Arkwright’s mills can be still be explored, the canal strolled along, and the remains of the mining industry discovered.

4. The West York Moors in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

But it was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and the after-punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at.

Wuthering Heights (1847) is a tale of obsessive love. Divided in life, Cathy and Heathcliff are finally joined in death and their spirits roam the Yorkshire moors. For me, Emily Brontë’s classic is more about the landscape than love. When first reading the novel, my interest in Cathy and Heathcliff’s undying love was secondary to my imaginings of the moorland that is their playground and escape. The windswept barren landscape feels synonymous with freedom.

Aeiral shot of the ruins of the Top Withins farmhouse
The ruins of the Top Withins farmhouse.
Julian Hodgson/Shutterstock

You can walk in the Brontë sisters’ footsteps by following the Brontë Stones, which are situated between Thornton, where the girls were born, and Haworth, where they wrote their classic novels. The Emily Walk is marked by a poem carved into a rocky outcrop from Kate Bush, whose 1978 number one Wuthering Heights was inspired by the novel. The walk leads you away from civilisation and takes in the lovely ruins of Top Withins farmhouse, which is believed to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw home in Wuthering Heights.

5. Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers

The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block.

Lawrence’s most autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), follows the fates of a mining family in Nottinghamshire.

The once coal-mining town of Eastwood and the surrounding landscape has been recreated in detail gleaned from Lawrence’s memories of his childhood, from The Breach where his family lived (“The Bottoms” in the novel) to descriptions of the Moon and Stars pub (actually the Three Tuns). Visiting The DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum, visitors can step inside a typical mining family home of the period.The Conversation

Heather Green, PhD Candidate, Literary Heritage, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

10 ‘lost’ Australian literary treasures you should read – and can soon borrow from any library



Perfecto Capucine/Unsplash

Rebecca Giblin, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, University of Melbourne

Many culturally important books by Australian authors are out of print, hard to find as secondhand copies, and confined to the physical shelves of a limited number of libraries. Effectively, they have become inaccessible and invisible — even including some Miles Franklin award winners by authors such as Thea Astley and Rodney Hall.

To ensure these works can be read, a team of authors, librarians and researchers are working together on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project.

By digitising out of print books and making them available for e-lending, the project will create a royalty stream for the authors involved, as well as income for the arts workers we are employing as proofreaders.

Commercial publishing lists, such as Text Classics and Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, do a great job of breathing new life into some of Australia’s lost books. But they often focus on literary fiction, to the exclusion of genre fiction, children’s books and non-fiction, which also need to be preserved.

Here are 10 of our favourites we’re excited to digitise so you can borrow from your local library straight to your e-device. We expect these and other books in the project to be available in the first half of 2021 – and you too can nominate a book for inclusion in the collection here.

Working Bullocks (1926) by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Book cover

Before Coonardoo (1929), Prichard’s best known work, there was Working Bullocks.

The novel describes the trials of Red Burke, a bullock driver in Western Australia, trying to make a living in a post-war Australia.

Just after the novel’s original publication, it was described by John Sleeman of The Bookman in the UK as “the high-water mark of Australian literary achievement in the novel so far”.

Metal Fatigue (1996) by Sean Williams

Sean Williams has written over 50 books, including co-authored titles with authors such as Shane Dix and Garth Nix which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Metal Fatigue was Williams’ debut. Set in a small American city 40 years after the end of a nuclear war, the residents must decide if they want to join the newly forming Re-United States of America.

Depicting a dystopic future of violence, shortages and a divided USA, it still feels remarkably current today.

I’m Not Racist, But… (2007) by Anita Heiss

Book cover

This poetry collection from activist, writer and member of the Wiradjuri Nation, Professor Anita Heiss, skewers Australia’s racist underbelly.

I’m Not Racist, But… explores identity, pride and political correctness; proposes alternative words to the national anthem; and reveals how it is to grow up as an Indigenous woman in Australia.

This is a landmark work along Australia’s slow road to racial reckoning.

Space Demons (1986) by Gillian Rubinstein

The multi-award winning Space Demons was Gillian Rubinstein’s first book and began the much-loved trilogy of the same name.

It follows four ordinary kids drawn into a dangerous new computer game – instead of simply watching the game on the screen, they become part of it. And there is no way to know if they will escape.

With its gripping plot and local setting, Space Demons introduced many children to Australian science fiction – and led to many Australians first discovering their love of reading.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do adults think video games are bad?


Noonkanbah: Whose Land, Whose Law (1989) by Steve Hawke, with photographs by Michael Gallagher

Book cover

In 1979-80, the Yungngora people protested to stop the American company Amax drilling for oil on a sacred site on Noonkanbah Station, Western Australia.

This book is the detailed first-hand account of what became a high profile, ground-breaking land rights campaign, leading to the formation of the Kimberley Land Council. The Yungngora people wouldn’t have their native title rights recognised until 2007.

Alongside the reporting by Hawke, son of former PM Bob Hawke?, the book includes photographs taken by anthropologist Michael Gallagher.

This is an essential work of Australian history.

The Unlucky Australians (1968) by Frank Hardy

Frank Hardy was known for his political activism around labour rights, and as the author of 16 books. Almost his entire backlist is out of print, with the notable exception of Power Without Glory (1950).

In The Unlucky Australians, Hardy tells the story of the Gurindji people and the opening years of the strike they began in 1966.

Their protest against poor working and living conditions, seeking the return of their traditional lands, lasted nine years.

The Whitlam government returned some of those lands in 1975 with the historic transfer of “a handful of dirt” and the strike led to the passage of the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976.

A vital piece towards understanding the shameful labour conditions inflicted upon Indigenous Australians, this book should never have gone out of print.




Read more:
An historic handful of dirt: Whitlam and the legacy of the Wave Hill Walk-Off


The Mandala trilogy (1993-2004) by Carmel Bird

Inspired by three real life charismatic and dangerous individuals, these dark stories of abused trust and misplaced faith are transformed, taking on a gothic quality, with complex narratives, unlikely narrators and fairy-tale elements.

The White Garden is an ambitious novel following the misdeeds of the psychiatrist Dr Goddard (or Dr God, for short) in a hospital in the 1960s. Red Shoes takes us into the world of a religious cult. Cape Grimm looks at a religious order after its members are killed by their charismatic leader.

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks (2003) by Brett D’Arcy

The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks is coming-of-age story about “Floaty Boy”, an 11-year-old with a love of body-surfing, his family, and what happens when his older brother disappears.

Described by the Australian Book Review as “Tim Winton on speed”, D’Arcy shines his own spotlight on Western Australia, exploring the duality of a life spent between the waves and the shore – and what happens when a family becomes torn apart by loss.


Untapped will launch with a free online celebration on November 24 at 6pm. Register for the launch here, nominate a book for inclusion at untapped.org.au – and let us know what you think we should digitise in the comments.The Conversation

Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor; Director, Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia, University of Melbourne and Airlie Lawson, Postdoctoral Fellow, ‘Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project’, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Like ‘Little Women,’ books by Zitkála-Šá and Taha Hussein are classics



Louisa May Alcott has delighted readers for generations.
AP Photo/Steven Senne

Sheila Cordner, Boston University

I’m a scholar of literature who spends a lot of time thinking about why certain stories continue to be revisited, and what works can be considered classics today.

So I’m looking forward to seeing Greta Gerwig’s film version of “Little Women,” even though I’ve seen similar movies before. Gerwig’s film is the eighth film adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel that lets readers escape into the 19th-century New England world of witty Jo March and her three sisters. It will arrive in theaters on Christmas Day.

But I believe in a broader notion of what counts as a classic than books which are most widely recognized. That is why I’ve written a children’s book that introduces kids to an array of famous authors including ones you may not have heard of.

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is the eighth movie based on the classic novel.
AP Photo/Steven Senne

From one generation to the next

Gerwig, an actress and filmmaker, has talked about how the issues facing the women in Alcott’s novel feel modern and urgent to her. Her passion for the story told in “Little Women” gets at the heart of what makes something a classic: a tale generations of readers can relate to.

Other examples include Lewis Carroll’s story about an imaginative young girl who learns to find her own way in “Alice in Wonderland” or Charles Dickens’ tale of financial hardship, family and personal redemption in “A Christmas Carol.”

These books are beautifully written, of course. But the reason they are told and retold in countless adaptations is because they express themes that people relate to.

This Alice in Wonderland statue is in New York City’s Central Park.
Gzzz, CC BY-SA

An expanding range

In my view, what counts as a classic today must come from an ever-expanding range of authors.

This is especially important for children. Parents, teachers and librarians are demanding more representation in the books that children read because reading more diverse books can benefit readers from all backgrounds.

Diverse books can help all readers develop empathy for other people’s experiences. And opening the gateway to a broader spectrum of books can lead to reading experiences that are rich, stimulating – and just plain fun.

The author, musician, composer and reformer Zitkála-Šá.
Gertrude Kasebier/Smithsonian

By all means, go ahead and read – or re-read – Alcott’s “Little Women” and similar classics.

In addition, kids and readers of all ages should also become familiar with works by authors like Sui Sin Far, who wrote about the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, one of the first Mexican-American novelists.

They should also, pick up a volume of poems by African-American poet Langston Hughes and sway to the blues in his haunting lines. Read the accomplished Native American musician and writer Zitkála-Šá’s raw account of a young girl who leaves her Indian reservation to start a new school and is nervous about making friends. Learn about the dreams of the young Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, who was nominated 14 times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Sheila Cordner, Senior Lecturer of Humanities, Boston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Donald Trump’s Brave New World and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian vision


File 20180723 189335 20dgan.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A graffiti portrait of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.
Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr, CC BY

Keith Booker, University of Arkansas and Isra Daraiseh

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.


A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.

Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.




Read more:
How the moral lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird endure today


These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.

Aldous Huxley.
LIFE Magazine/Wikimedia Commons

Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.

An illustrious family

Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.

His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.

By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.

A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)

History is bunk

In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.

The first edition of Brave New World.
Wikimedia

Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.

We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.

Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.

The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.

Henry Ford on the cover of Time in 1935.
Wikimedia

It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.

The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.

Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: The Tale of Genji, a 1,000-year-old Japanese masterpiece


Disturbing resonances

Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.

These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.

Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.

Huxley’s World State was centred on consumerism and entertainment.
Shutterstock.com

Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.

In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.

Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.

We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.The Conversation

Keith Booker, Professor of English, University of Arkansas and Isra Daraiseh, Assistant professor, Arab Open University, Kuwait

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.