In Huxley’s Brave New World, the government embodies oppression. The antonym, ‘democracy’, is entirely absent. From decanting to death, the government controls every breath and thought without asking the consent of the governed. Further, every resident has become a tool of mind control – tattling, or shunning anyone deviating from expected behavior. There is no need for violence: as the Controller puts it,
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“Government’s an affair of sitting, not hitting. You rule with the brains and the buttocks, never with the fists.”
In such an environment, one’s personal integrity (which appears here as a set of entirely personal standards for moral behavior) is nearly impossible to maintain. However, some individuals do attempt it, perhaps without understanding why. Bernard Marx, Helmholz Watson, John, and even Lenina, all struggle to stay true to an individual code of behavior, never mind the government’s position. Despite universal nutrition, health, and erotic outlets, they variously, and truly, suffer.
They suffer acutely from a sense of disconnectedness, exclusion, and revulsion (Bernard), from creative frustration (Helmholz), from horror, outrage, and loss (John), and even from a painful sense that monogamy would be preferable (Lenina). It is entirely fair to describe their mental suffering as unspeakable, if only because they literally lack the vocabulary to articulate their pain. (The State has long since obliterated all such words.)
Their divergence from government expectation is emotionally distressing, and leads them into behaviors which appear peculiar, but which allow them to be temporarily free of their subjugation. Bernard Marx’s strategies for dealing with the conflict between his own notions of sexual morality and dislike for soma are effective but not uniformly attractive.
He begins by despising and scorning the behavior around him, but then he chooses not to leave the cushioned A.F. world. When this stance places him at risk of exile, he demonstrates a cool resourcefulness in exploiting John to blackmail his boss. His efforts end by causing his exile anyway, but as Mond points out, he has a better chance to exercise personal integrity in Iceland than anywhere in the Brave New World.
He retains his own opinions in spite of the disapproval and isolation this causes
Bernard feels pain from his perceived inadequacy and isolation from others, burdened as well with acute awareness and insight. In the first portion of the book, he makes his stand for the principles which he holds dear by means of his private, internal scorn for his co-residents’ behavior and treatment of each other. He is deeply ambivalent about this, since he does desire human connection, but he retains his own opinion stubbornly.
Take the example of the conversation on the day following his evening with Lenina. On that ‘date’, he approached as close to revealing his inner turmoil as anyone ever does in the Brave New World (to Lenina’s total mystification and irritation). The next day, he says to her,
“I didn’t want it to end with our going to bed”.
This encapsulates his powerful personal desire to have a relationship for which there exists no model in his society. His behavior does not necessarily follow his principles (he did, after all, engage in the expected erotic activity with Lenina), but he wishes it could have. As always, Bernard’s actions reveal a mixed and flawed character.
He chooses to stay on, despite his clear disapproval of the society around him
Before his trip to the wilds, he becomes aware of the imminent threat of exile. He does not perceive the advantages of this outcome, not having the benefit of the Controller’s perspective, noted above. He neither grovels, at this point, nor offers to leave for Iceland, and freedom from constant government oppression, right away. Instead, we read that,
“Bernard left the room with a swagger, exulting, as he banged the door behind him, in the thought that he stood alone, embattled against the order of things; elated by the intoxicating consciousness of his individual significance and importance. Even the thought of persecution left him undismayed, was rather tonic than depressing.
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He felt strong enough to meet and overcome affliction, strong enough to face even Iceland. In addition, this confidence was the greater for his not for a moment really believing that he would be called upon to face anything at all. People simply were not transferred for things like that. Iceland was just a threat. A most stimulating and life-giving threat. Walking along the corridor, he actually whistled.”
Bernard is strengthened, by the threat of exile, in his sense of the rightness of his views and preferences. He neither gives up nor runs away. Of course, as the quote above indicates, he also does not believe that he is truly at risk. As noted before, he is a mixture of aspirations and fallibility.
He takes advantage of a serendipitous opportunity to sabotage his oppressor
The risk of exile takes on a very concrete reality, once he is on his trip, but he only finds out because he has contacted his friend to turn off his apartment scent tap. Learning of his imminent dismissal from the only world he knows seems equivalent to the current humiliation of being broken up with on Facebook or by text message.
Bernard is, as always, not eager to give up his material, comforts, nor his principles! He plots his effective revenge against the petty oppression and intrusiveness of his boss with a masterful bit of extortion.
He shamelessly uses the hapless John and Linda to humiliate the Director. He thereby creates a space (temporarily) in which he can remain both a social critic, and nonetheless enjoy as much pleasant social contact as he can absorb. We see that,
“Success went fizzily to Bernard’s head, and in the process completely reconciled him (as any good intoxicant should do) to a world which, up till then, he had found very unsatisfactory. In so far as it recognized him as important, the order of things was good. But, reconciled by his success, he yet refused to forego the privilege of criticizing this order. For the act of criticizing heightened his sense of importance, made him feel larger.
Moreover, he did genuinely believe that there were things to criticize. (At the same time, he genuinely liked being a success and having all the girls he wanted.) Before those who now, for the sake of the Savage, paid their court to him, Bernard would parade a carping unorthodoxy. He was politely listened to.”
Bernard, by his creative exploitation of the Savage’s discomfort, also postpones the inevitable punishment for his own different and unwittingly disruptive behavior. However, he shows his underlying weakness once the axe falls and Mond pronounces his sentence of exile: Bernard has to be carried off and sedated to stop his sniveling. Helmholz, by contrast, is far more dignified in his response.
Bernard is never an entirely admirable character, from start to finish. He even contemplates running away and abandoning the Savage when John tries to toss out the soma, for example. However, he does indeed have a sense of integrity, which he sticks with almost all the way to the end (he shamefully offers to sacrifice his views in his groveling final speech to Mond).
He is clearly in distress, because of the oppressive societal insistence on sameness. Furthermore, given the wiping out of literature, he has only limited vocabulary to express his therefore unspeakable pain. He has a code of behavior to which he aspires, including a courtly attitude towards females.
To hold on to his integrity, he tries to avoid soma, fumblingly attempts to establish an outmoded and prohibited relationship with Lenina, and retains a critical view of the world around him. He stays on in his world, refusing the implicit opportunity to leave and emigrate to a place where the government has only minimal control (the Falklands, Iceland, Samoa).
When presented with the ingredients of a tidy blackmail, he grabs it and temporarily gets the best of everything: girls, adulation, the freedom to criticize, and his daily three squares. His ultimate fate may also be his greatest vindication and the validation of his cherishing of his personal integrity in the face of oppression and unspeakable pain. After all, as the Controller says,
“…he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who’s any one.”