Some classic novels offer such extraordinary insight into the weaknesses of modern western civilization that they seem almost prophetic.
1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The picture of Dorian Gray is the first on my list of classic novels. True, it’s not quite a sci-fi dystopia, but it offers insight into the traps that the modern western mindset can push us into. Written by British late 19th century playwright Oscar Wilde, this is the story of a stunningly attractive young man whose beauty leads him to his own torment and ultimate destruction.
The story begins when Basil Hallwood is talking to his friend Lord Henry about the subject of his newest painting, Dorian Gray. Not only is Dorian the most beautiful young man the painter has ever seen, but he’s also innocent and good.
Lord Henry is envious of Dorian’s youth and beauty and is thrilled by the idea of what power Dorian could wield over people and what sensual pleasures he could enjoy. Within hours of meeting him, Lord Henry has managed to convince Dorian of the futility of his morals and values and has taught him what Lord Henry already understands: that a man as attractive as Dorian should seek all the pleasure he can get from life and forget about the cost to others.
So, following Lord Henry, Dorian descends deeper and deeper into an abyss of hedonism and sin, ruining lives, and causing his own young wife’s suicide as he falls. Whenever he returns home after a spell of debauchery, Dorian notices that his portrait is changing. It becomes uglier and more twisted-looking with each of his indiscretions. Nevertheless, Dorian himself remains as beautiful and as sweet-looking as ever. The portrait becomes his tormentor as he spirals out of control.
More than ever today, we live a world dominated by Lord Henrys, urging people to place their own pleasure above all else and to consume and consume to get it, so that they can cash in on the spoils. We live in a society where we’re sold the idea that we deserve as much pleasure as we can possibly extract from life and physical beauty and wealth are the tools to get it.
The Picture of Dorian Gray reminds us how the traps of vanity and narcissism can lead us to lose sight of the things in life that actually bring happiness. Once you start betraying your own values, you begin to disintegrate as a human being. The same is true of society.
2. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Another of George Orwell’s masterpieces, 1984, is one of the classic novels most often cited as being prophetic of the collapse of Western civilization. I want to talk about the second most famous of his classic novels, Animal Farm, that also contains a great deal of useful insight in an increasingly unstable political climate.
The novel is set on Manor Farm. It begins with an assembly of the farm’s animals in the barn, called by a wise old pig named Old Major. Old Major teaches the animals to recognize humans as their oppressors and to sing a revolutionary song called beasts of England:
Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone.
Old Major dies, however, and two young pigs called Napoleon and Snowball move to take over. They urge the animals on the farm to revolt against the drunken and neglectful owner of the farm, Mr. Jones, and finally to put an end to their oppression and exploitation by human keepers.
The animals revolt and chase Mr. Jones off the farm. The name of the farm is changed from Manor Farm to Animal Farm. The animals immediately adopt an ideology called animalism, which contains 7 principles:
- Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
- Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
- No animal shall wear clothes.
- No animal shall sleep in a bed.
- No animal shall drink alcohol.
- No animal shall kill any other animal.
- All animals are equal.
Snowball and Napoleon continue to monopolize power over the animalist revolution on the farm. Later on, they change the commandments of animalism to escape accusations that they have been breaking laws themselves:
- No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
- No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
- No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.
As time passes, the pigs become more and more like human beings and begin to slip into the same corrupt and exploitative ways as their human predecessors. By the end of the novel, animals on animal farm, whose name by this time has been changed back to Manor Farm, can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the humans.
Animal farm teaches us the important lesson, that even a revolution that has the best of intentions can develop into a corrupt regime that falls into the same, or even worse, excesses and abuses as the regime the revolution overthrew in the first place.
It says a lot about human nature and how fallible it is. People can easily be swayed by revolutionary rhetoric, but are too often shamelessly deceived. Revolutionaries themselves fail to see how self-interested their activism is, and then become as corrupt as their predecessors. The media allow themselves to be used as servants of the status quo to cover up the mismanagement and hypocrisy of the authorities.
By our vices and weaknesses as a species, our struggles for freedom end in our falling back into the habits of slavery.
3. Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World
Only the last of my classic novels is real sci-fi dystopia. Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece, A Brave New World divides opinion greatly. In other words, not everyone agrees that a world like that described in A Brave New World is so terrible as that which we live in now.
The question A Brave New World poses is whether you think the suffering that we have in the world now is worth it for the authenticity, freedom, and comparative joy we feel when it’s not us suffering personally; or, alternatively, if it would be worth sacrificing some of the most sublime experiences to eradicate suffering altogether.
The world we are introduced to in A Brave New World is a world in which nobody suffers. Infants are conceived and born in laboratories, and through a combination of biological engineering and psychological conditioning. They’re streamed into castes, Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so on, that perform different tasks and are taught to be perfectly content in their position, even when that position is just serving people in higher castes.
It’s a good thing too because there’s no chance of mobility in this society.
There’s no violence or crime though, and there are various other aspects of it that are new too. Monogamous relationships are considered perverse; in this society, men and women simply ‘engage’ each other during their leisure time, and everybody in Brave New World belongs to everybody else.
All relationships are superficial and all pleasure is gained from the use of a psychotropic drug called Soma; sexual promiscuity, consumerism, and recreational activities such as going to the ‘Feelies’ (a sensory experience like the movies, except that you feel everything happening as if it is happening to you yourself).
When an Alpha female, Linda, and male from Brave New World visit the colony of ‘savages’ who retain the primitive, barbaric ways of traditional human society, everything goes awry. Linda becomes pregnant because of her contraception malfunctioning.
Moreover, because she’s abandoned there after a storm, she has the baby naturally. Her baby doesn’t undergo the necessary conditioning and care that he’d get in Brave New World’s hatchery. So when John the Savage, as the baby comes to be known, tries to integrate into Brave New World’s society later on, the results are tragic.
A Brave New World poses many questions that we who stand on the brink of what some people are calling ‘transhumanism’ should consider. Whether we’ll transcend our humanity by way of technological, pharmacological, or genetic enhancement of the species in the pursuit of happiness, we need to have thought out all of the implications in advance to avoid an unnatural disaster.
Do you know any other classic novels that would fit this list? Share your thoughts in the comments below.