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The term “utopia” was first introduce by Sir Thomas More in 1516 who chose it as the title of his book which describes the ideal or perfect society. Ironically, the term was coined from Greek words which, literally translated, mean “no place”.
Sir Thomas More’s view of the perfect society runs parallel to that of both Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, and John Wyndham, the author of The Chrysalids. Both these authors use the extremes of human ideals to demonstrate that the perfect society cannot exist and striving single-mindedly towards that society will inevitably lead to dystopia.
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One of the reasons these societies are fundamentally flawed is that they are built, maintained and designed by humans, who themselves are fundamentally flawed. No human has ever been or will ever be completely indefectible and even the smallest of defects can lead to extreme unhappiness. In Brave New World even the small mistake of putting alcohol in Bernard Marx’s blood-surrogate while he was still in a bottle led to a lifetime of malcontentedness on his part. As humans, our inability to separate ourselves from our emotions also leads to any number of missteps. Again in Brave New World the unintended consequences of Lenina’s fascination with John are fatal when she becomes distracted at work:
‘My Ford,’ she wondered, ‘have I given this one its sleeping injection, or haven’t I?’...Twenty-two years eight months and four days from that moment, a promising young Alpha-minus administrator at Mwanza-Mwanza was to die of trypanosomiasis. (Huxley 164)
Similarly, in The Chrysalids David’s Aunt Harriet defies what she has been taught to believe her entire life because of her love for her daughter. These responses, however imperfect, are entirely human, which is exactly why a society under our control can never achieve perfection.
Another key to perfection within a society is the happiness of all its members; for this to occur all members of society must want the same things, be treated the same and essentially be exactly the same. However since it is impossible to eliminate all our differences it is impossible for everyone to conform to even the most flawless of societies, and therefore impossible to completely eradicate unhappiness. Despite the enormous amount of conditioning seen in Brave New World, Bernard and Helmholtz still manage to exist outside of societies norms, as shown when Huxley writes, “What the two men shared was the knowledge that they were individuals” (Huxley 140). This feeling of apartness will inevitably lead to feelings of resentment; in the case of Brave New World this resentment is most clearly shown through Bernard Marx when Huxley writes
…feeling an outsider he behaved like one, which increased the prejudice against him and intensified the contempt and hostility aroused by his physical defect. Which in turn increased his sense of being alien and alone. (Huxley 56)
In The Chrysalids even minor differences among people are met with cruelty and intolerance as Sophie explains in this quote, “To be any kind of deviant is to be hurt-always” (Wyndham 167). Those who are different will always face persecution and because we are incapable of eliminating our difference there will always be persecution and unhappiness.
To insure the happiness of a society that society must remain absolutely stable; unfortunately that need for stability eliminates any chance for evolution and improvement. To quote The Chrysalids, “The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are a part of it” (Wyndham 196). Therefore change is an essential and unavoidable part of life, and there can be no life without it. However, a society without change is exactly what the perfect utopia would need to attain because as Mustapha Mond put it “Every change is a menace to stability” (Huxley 198). This paradox dictates that there cannot be a perfect society without stability and stability cannot exist where there is change; however, since change is unavoidable, there can be no perfect society.
As seen in these two novels the perfect society is, despite our best efforts, unattainable. The main reason we will never be able to achieve such a society is the simple fact that perfection and humanity cannot coexist. In Brave New World they attempt to create a utopia by dehumanizing everyone and turning them into something that can only be compared to robots. However, this attempt fails because at their core they are still human and still very flawed. In The Chrysalids they attempt perfection by destroying or casting out anyone they view as not being the perfect human. However, once again they were doomed to failure because there is no such thing as the perfect human. The sacrifices required for perfection are simply too great. To achieve perfection the very essence of humanity would need to be sacrificed; art, religion, creativity, science, change, freedom, love and countless other aspects of our lives would have to be eliminated before perfection could be reached. Even if an attempt were made at eliminating these things, as it was in these two books, the attempt would fail because without these things we are truly nothing and as such will never be able to separate ourselves from them.
The best things in life come from our imperfections and our ability to rise above them. As John says when faced with the choice of living a life of suffering or a life in perfect comfort, “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin…I’m claiming the right to be unhappy” (Huxley 211-212). He understands that there cannot truly be life without imperfection, and even if it were by some unexplainable means made possible, life in a perfect society would not truly be worth living because in our imperfect universe our version of the perfect society is indeed the most perverse, inhuman and imperfect society of all.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Toronto: Grafton Books, 1977.
Wyndham, John. The Chrysalids. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1958.