Power of Images/Images of Power in Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four

By Varricchio, Mario | Utopian Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Power of Images/Images of Power in Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four


Varricchio, Mario, Utopian Studies


Two OF THE MOST IMPORTANT dystopic novels of our century, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, make use of cinema and television to draw an extremely pessimistic picture of humanity's future, emphasizing their role as essential means for distorting reality and, in the case of the fordian society,(1) also for providing artificial pleasures which dim the mind. The big and the small screen--Huxley dedicates more space to the former while Orwell to the latter--perform a crucial political function by preventing and repressing protest and, more generally, by conditioning and inhibiting oppositional forces in a fashion that ominously foreshadows the present. This is particularly striking in Huxley's work, published as early as 1932. While for Orwell it was comparatively easy, after World War Two, to predict the potential twisting power of television, Huxley was able to see beyond cinema, the most popular visual medium of his age, envisaging the consequences of the invention of the small screen.

In the standardized societies depicted in both novels the media uphold conformity, denying individuals their own privacy and personal feelings. Simultaneously, they strengthen powers capable of controlling every single facet of their subjects' life by depriving them of all critical attitude. Both societies have been emptied of a sense of history and of memory of the past. In Airstrip One, the emptiness is filled by a host of images of propaganda whereas in the fordian world it is shallowness and sensationalism which nullify any possible counteraction, acting as disabling drugs.

Peter E. Firchow points out that Huxley's antiutopia possesses many of the typical aspects of the American society contemporary with him: "that the United States is the present model for Huxley's vision of the future emerges [...] clearly from an essay entitled, `The Outlook for American Culture, Some Reflections in a Machine Age', published in 1927 [...] one of the most ominous portents of the American Way of Life is that it embraces a large class of the people who `do not want to be cultured, are not interested in the higher life. For these people existence on the lower, animal levels is perfectly satisfactory. Given food, drink, the company of their fellows, sexual enjoyment, and plenty of noisy distractions from without, they are happy'" (455). Bernard Crick remarks that Orwell drew on the features of the totalitarian regimes which developed in the Soviet Union and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and on his personal experience of life in Britain in the aftermath of World War Two. He was also affected by the thesis expressed by James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941) according to which, in industrially developed countries, there is a trend towards the establishment of hierarchical and technocratic forms of society (7-10; 20-23; 46-47 and passim). In particular, the resumption of BBC television broadcasting played a role in Orwell's prominent use of the telescreen: apart from alluding to the USSR, "the general reeling off of triumphant and possibly imaginary production statistics was familiar to wartime listeners to the BBC itself" (21). In Orwell's work the theme of images is reinforced by the use of visual metaphors and of metaphors of the screen as a `frame', which projects and delimits pictures at the same time.

New media for new worlds

In Brave New World the first allusion to the cinema is made right after the initial sequence of the visit to the Conditioning Centre, when the Assistant Predestinator asks Henry Foster if he will go see the new, sensational feely: `Going to the Feelies this evening, Henry?' enquired the Assistant Predestinator. `I hear the new one at the Alhambra is first-rate. There's a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it's marvellous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects' (30). The new `films', which also stimulate the senses of touch and smell, are perfectly in tune with the hedonistic social picture that takes shape before the reader's eyes: together with the children's erotic play (26-27) and the conversations between Lenina and Fanny and between Henry and the Assistant Predestinator, they characterize a world which reifies individuals and predetermines the satisfaction of sexual desires. …

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