Utopias can serve as this ultimate criticism for our world through proposing an alternate world in which things are totally different. Aldous Huxley does this for us through the use of a critical Utopian world, Pala. In his novel, Island, Huxley grapples with strong themes – some political, some philosophical, and some personal. One such theme is sexuality.
In Huxley’s Island, the story of Babs appears at various points. It begs the question: why did Huxley give our visitor, Will Farnaby, this backstory?
Breaking down the question, why would Huxley give Farnaby a backstory to begin with? In his Sept. 8 lecture on Utopias, Professor Ganyard explained that a Utopian society is focused more on the world itself (Ganyard, 2016). It is less so about character development; so why then, does our visiting character get a backstory? Well, simply, I think Huxley wanted to show the reader that the visitor could be anyone. Farnaby is human. He is fallible just like you and I. Why is this important to the story, though? To some extent, I think Huxley wanted us to see his world through the eyes of someone who is himself struggling with cognitive dissonance and forced to face his own history. Though, I am sure there are other reasons in need to expanding on.
Further yet, why did Huxley give Farnaby this particular backstory? The novel begins with our disoriented Will, who is shipwrecked and hurt. As the readers, we find ourselves just as confused (a brilliant introduction). Farnaby remembers the last moments of his wife, Molly. She said, “‘I still love you, Will — in spite of everything'” (Huxley, p. 3). Just before she died, we also learn, Will had told her that he had a lover – “Babs“. As a result, we know that Will is no saint; he is no hero; he is a fallible person. It’s also clear that he felt guilty about his actions as he gives us this description of the neon light outside of Babs’s apartment (p. 4). This memory resurfaces again, though not exclusively, near the end of the book. Will recounts those moments before Molly left (and ultimately died) to Susila (p. 285 – 286).
Though this memory is not the only piece of Farnaby’s history, it certainly is an interesting part. If the characters are less important than the world itself, why did Huxley give Farnaby this back story? Assuming this was deliberate, I think it ties into one of the major themes of the novel: freedom, and more specifically, sexual freedom.
Palanesian people engaged in different sexual practices then in the 1960s culture in America. While conservative, prudish, stiff – if you will, many Americans didn’t believe in the widespread distribution or use of contraceptives, nor was the talk of sex so open. (It should be noted that 1960s counterculture would have engaged in practices more closely tied to the Palanesians). Huxley is attempting to show us a world in which sex is not a taboo; safe sex is celebrated, and even more so, the practice of “yoga sex” encouraged. The closeness and attentiveness between partners is an achievement. In Farnaby’s world, he was seduced away from his wife, his long term partner, and this act is taboo, shamed, disgraceful, and hurtful. So much so that Molly left and subsequently, died in an accident. The concept of sex not being “just sex” is a foreign concept to Will. Huxley, via Will, introduces Oedipus. Even in the Palanesian version, Oedipus doesn’t rip his eyes out for his sexual crime (p. 300). Jocasta, his mother doesn’t hang herself in shame (p.300). In our common version and in so many words, Oedipus travels to another kingdom, kills the King of Thebes, and sexually conquers his wife (Heany, p. 9).Turns out, the wife, Jocasta, was also his mother. His greater sin was killing his father (though he did not know at the time). That being said, his accidental sexual relationship with his mother was so shamed, it was written that he took out his own eyes and she committed suicide. Here, I think Oedipus is making claims about sexual conquests: how it is disturbing to think of sex as devoid of meaning – that it is just sex – and that a partner can be a sexual object. Rather, he wants us, and Will, to think about sex as a deeper connection. With this in mind, the sheer number of partners doesn’t matter; the difference in partners doesn’t matter. We should, even for a brief moment, think about sex as an intimate connection, that brings people to a higher consciousness of others. Also, by re-writing the story of Oedipus, Huxley is showing us how dramatic we are. We found a sexual crime to be so disgusting we physically punished (vicariously through the Oedipus trilogy) the so-called criminals.
Huxley is making a point, perhaps, about the desires of sex and the freedom that could be.
Ganyard, Clif. Lecture. University of Wisconsin Green Bay, 8 Sept. 2016, Green Bay, WI.
Huxley, Aldous. Island. New York, Harper Perennial, 1962.
Heaney, Seamus. The Burial at Thebes. New York, Farra, Straus and Giroux, 2004.