contributed by Michelle Smith, UR English 05/04
The caste system in Brave New World is one of the most striking features of the novel for me. One of the reasons for this is that the actual definition for caste is “2. A social class separated from others by distinctions of hereditary rank, profession, or wealth. 4. A specialized level in a colony of social insects, such as ants, in which the members, such as workers or soldiers, carry out a specific function”. It is this last definition that I would like to stress. There are a few important things to note if we choose to utilize this definition for the castes in Brave New World. First, this would mean equating humans with insects. Second, the definition makes it clear that this term applies to social insects or animals. Third, as opposed to the earlier definition, castes are differentiated by the specific function they perform for their society, rather than by rank, profession, or wealth.
My first and third points merely support the argument that it is this definition of caste that should be applied to Brave New World. While it may be unseemly to equate human beings with insects or vermin, one can hardly ignore the fact that Huxley does so repeatedly throughout the novel. For example; “like aphides and ants, the leaf-green Gamma girls, the black Semi-Morons swarmed round the entrances, or stud in queues to take their places in the monorail tram-cars”(BNW 49), “[t]he approaches to the monorail station were black with the ant-like pullulation of lower-caste activity”(BNW 56), “swarming like lice across the mystery of her death”(BNW 190).
As far as being differentiated according to your specific function as opposed to your profession, one's profession in Brave New World is simply a specific function done over and over again, like a part of an assembly line, or a machine. Alphas don't have respect because they are engineers, or poets, but because they are alphas. Again, they don't have respect because being engineers or poets means that they have more money, but it is simply their rank that merits respect. The difference in Brave New World is that people are truly sorted by intelligence into their functions, but again, their intelligence level is purely dependant on how many Alphas, Betas, etc. are needed to fill the Alpha and Beta vacancies in society.
The most interesting part of understanding caste in Brave New World in relation to caste in an ant colony is the part of the definition that tells us that ants are social insects. In an ant colony, only the queen ant reproduces. Other female ants may lay eggs, but these are used for food only. This control over reproduction is quite similar to the situation in Brave New World, where reproduction is completely controlled by the state. The gene pool in an ant colony is limited because the only female genes that are passed on are those of the queen. Similarly, in Brave New World, one sperm and one egg will be tampered with to create as many identical twins with the exact same genes as possible. Ant colonies are huge and require that each ant do what's good for the entire colony. In Brave New World individual relationships are downplayed, but the individual's relationship to society, to the whole, is stressed, most notably through the religious community sings. The colony of the ant functions as a whole, where the individual worker ants are the arms and legs of the body of the colony, and the queen is the head. (Orson Scott Card paints a picture of a truly social colony of aliens that have all the qualities of an ant colony- and even look like insects- in his book Speaker for the Dead). In Brave New World, the citizens of the World State are encouraged to think of themselves as a part of the social body. Bernard explains why he likes to look at the night sky in these terms; “I makes me feel as though… as though I were more me, if you see what I mean. More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body”(BNW 69).
In Brave New World Revisited, Huxley claims that “biologically speaking, man is a moderately gregarious, not a completely social animal—a creature more like a wolf, let us say, or an elephant, than like a bee or an ant. In their original form human societies bore no resemblance to the hive or the ant heap; they were merely packs”(BNWR 19). Human beings are not meant to live in colonies like ants, though this is what our society tries to push us to. “If human beings were in fact the members of a truly social species… then, obviously, there would be no need for liberty and the State would be justified in persecuting the heretics who demanded it”(BNWR 84). Human beings will never act like corresponding parts of one large organism, and “in the process of trying to create an organism they will merely create a totalitarian state”(BNWR 19). Some scholars have compared the sociality of ants and termites to that of wolves, but this is missing the point. While wolf packs may consist of only one actively reproducing pair, this is because the groups are often family groups of eight to ten wolves, consisting of two parents and their children, and maybe an older relative or two. When younger wolves want to reproduce, they go out and start packs of their own. As only one set of wolves is reproducing at a time, this allows the entire pack to concentrate on protecting and raising the young. Surely this sounds like a more realistic copy of human behavior. Deleuze and Guattari discuss the different packs that humans belong to and the parallels between the social characteristics of wolves and men in their book A Million Plateaus .
So why do we want to be like ants? Truly social colonies are the most productive groups of animals found in nature. We humans treat productivity as progress, and therefore want to arrange ourselves into colonies where the individual think only of doing what is best for the entire organism of beings. This, again, ties in very closely to the focus on production and consumption in Brave New World and in our own society. Unfortunately, no matter how altruistic it may seem to act as is best for society, humans are not built like ants, but like wolves; we are much more capable of feeling a strong connection to small groups of people, packs, if you will, then of feeling a strong duty to serve the rest of society. Furthermore, ants do not do what is best for the group out of some altruistic aim, they are simply not capable of functioning individually without the leadership of the queen. Humans cannot altruistically decide to change their nature so that they to can serve as the gears and levers in some organism of human society. “However hard they try, men cannot create a social organism, they can only create an organization”(BNWR 19). Regardless, the project of Brave New World can be clearly seen as a project of making human beings as much like unthinkingly social ants and termites as possible, and the project succeeds to a frightening degree. This is illustrated towards the end of the book when the crowd is watching the Savage beat himself;
“[d]rawn by the fascination of the horror of pain and, from within, impelled by that habit of cooperation, that desire for unanimity and atonement, which their conditioning had so ineradicably implanted in them, they began to mime the frenzy of his gestures, striking at one another as the Savage struck at his own rebellious flesh”(BNW 198).
Other links regarding class consciousness & caste:
History and Class Consciousness by George Lukacs 1920
Caste System in India