The year is 632 A.F., (which stands for After Ford). Henry Ford’s name is reverenced and used the way Christians once used the Lord’s name. Innovation and technology abound in this society, which abides by the motto “Community, Identity, Stability.”
The story opens with the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning (DHC) explaining his work to young students. He shows them around the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, where children are mass-produced. He explains the Bokanovsky Process, in which groups of up to 96 identical human beings can be created at once. It provides uniformity and stability, he explains, if groups of identical individuals can all work in the same factories doing the same tasks.
Children are grown and conditioned at the Centre to be Alphas or Betas and downward to include the least intelligent Epsilons. They receive messages when they sleep (called hypnopaedia) and conditioning, including shock therapy, while they’re awake. They’re trained to know exactly what to think, say, feel and believe based on their predestined position in society.
They’re also conditioned about how to think and feel about the other social classes. They’re repeatedly assured that everyone is happy now. They’re told history is bunk, including religion and other stories contained in forbidden books like the Bible or anything else published before 150 A.F.
No matter the social class, children are taught to be consumers for the good of society. They should always buy something new rather than try to repair something old. Some embryos are developed as freemartins. They are structurally normal but guaranteed sterile. Technology allows people to remain fairly young-looking until they reach about 60, when they die quickly and happily.
Viviparous reproduction (or the development of a child within its mother’s body) is scorned as an antiquated and repulsive practice. Leaders believe the kind of strong love and passion that once existed between mother and child or monogamous lovers caused unnecessary pain and isolation. In this society, sexual promiscuity is encouraged and even required.
As all children are taught hypnopathically, everyone belongs to everyone else. People also use a substance called soma regularly. It supposedly includes all of the advantages of Christianity and alcohol but none of the side effects.
Lenina Crowne is a young woman who follows the conventions of her time. The problem is that she’s been having sex with the same man lately. Her friend urges her to follow protocol and be more promiscuous. Lenina decides to accept an invitation from co-worker Bernard Marx to go on holiday in America.
Even though he’s an Alpha, Bernard is shorter and thinner than the typical highly intelligent male. Some speculate alcohol accidentally got mixed in with his chemicals during fertilization. Bernard always feels he’s not receiving the credit and attention he deserves. He feels isolated on many levels, and people look down on him for his desire to spend time alone.
He seems less susceptible to the conditioning messages and soma-induced relaxation than others. Bernard’s only real friend is Helmholtz Watson. Helmholtz is a massive, handsome specimen. But like Bernard, he suffers from mental excess. Both men are just a little too smart, which makes them keenly aware of the emptiness in the people and activities around them.
Bernard wants to take Lenina to an Indian reservation in New Mexico, but he has to get clearance from the Director. The Director lapses into a story of a time he took a woman named Linda to that same reservation. She got lost, and he was never able to find her again. He had to leave without her.
The reservation is a startling contrast from Bernard and Lenina’s insulated society. The so-called savages don’t have pleasant golf games, scented rooms or anti-aging technology. They honor Jesus and practice other ancient worship rituals. Most unsettling, women still give birth to babies.
Bernard is fascinated, but the overwhelmed Lenina drowns her feelings in soma until she runs out. They meet a young savage with light-colored skin named John. When Bernard hears that John’s mother was trapped here, he realizes John must be the Director’s son. Bernard and Lenina are shocked to meet Linda, an ugly and old woman.
On the reservation, Linda had continued to practice her conditioned promiscuity. She was scorned and even beaten by the Indians who believed in marriage and fidelity. Since soma wasn’t used on the reservation, Linda drowned her sorrow in alcohol. She tells Bernard and Lenina she doesn’t know how her contraception failed. Since there was no abortion clinic available, she had to go through the horrible process of childbearing.
Because of Bernard’s unorthodox behavior at the Centre, the Director has threatened to transfer him to an island. Bernard realizes Linda and John are his bargaining chips. He brings them back to London with him as part of a social experiment. When the Director tries to publically transfer him, Bernard brings the boy and his mother in to meet Daddy.
The abashed Director resigns immediately. Linda is too horrid for anyone to look at, so she’s hospitalized and given large doses of soma that will ultimately kill her. People are fascinated by the savage John, and Bernard quickly takes on the role of publicist. For the first time in his life, Bernard enjoys the respect of others.
He starts taking soma, sleeping with more women and enjoying all the happiness offered by his society. John, however, is shocked and appalled by the society he’s entered. Having grown up with a combination of Native American tradition and a love for Shakespeare, he can’t fathom people’s desire to numb all of their emotions.
John is enamored with Lenina, but he’s a romantic with a vastly different value system. They go on a date to see a feely, which is a 4-D, sexually-charged movie. Lenina is disappointed that John is appalled by the movie and that he won’t sleep with her.
Bernard plans a major event at which his savage is supposed to appear. John, who is growing more distraught, refuses to attend. Bernard is scorned by all, and his foray into fame immediately ends. Lenina tries again to seduce John, who wants to have a pure and romantic relationship.
He asks her to marry him, which she considers absurd. She begins to undress, and the aghast John pushes her off, calling her a whore. She hides in the bathroom while, in his anger, he quotes Shakespeare . Just then, John gets a call that his mother is dying. He rushes to Linda’s side.
John is shocked by the cheerfully decorated Hospital for the Dying. Linda barely knows John, though she remembers her old lover from the reservation. John panics and starts crying out God’s name as her face turns blue. Traumatized children, who are present because they’re supposed to be receiving positive conditioning about death, are quickly given chocolate eclairs.
John rushes from the ward to find the menial staff, two large Bokanovsky groups, lining up for the nightly soma distribution. John addresses the men and women, passionately urging them to choose freedom from soma. When they will not, he starts throwing the pills out the window. Their supervisor calls Bernard to tell him John is there and has gone mad. Bernard and Helmholtz arrive while police calm the anxious employees by playing relaxing messages and spraying soma gas.
The police take John, Bernard and Helmholtz to the office of Western Europe World Controller, Mustapha Mond. John is surprised to hear Mond likes Shakespeare, too. He’s allowed to read such an old book because he makes the rules. But, Mond explains, Shakespeare doesn’t work in the society he rules.
People must be encouraged to find beauty in new things, not old. In their blissful ignorance, the people in his society wouldn’t understand the pain and passion in Shakespeare. This is the price that must be paid for a stable society. Science, too, must be muzzled. That’s the reason he’s sending Bernard and Helmholtz to an island. He explains this is really a reward. It means they’ll get to be with smart, interesting people who don’t fit in with the bulk of society.
Mond should be on an island himself, but he chose to help the greater good by staying and creating false happiness for the masses. He acknowledges John’s points when the savage says true happiness means a person can feel things. John and the Controller then discuss God and His absence in this society.
The Controller says he believes God may very well exist, but that a culture of perfect, ignorant happiness like theirs can’t include Him. They don’t feel a need for Him. The Controller explains there is even a compulsory treatment that produces all the feelings of rage and passion so the people won’t have to express them outwardly. John says he chooses the right to feel pain.
John moves to an old lighthouse where he can be alone. He repeatedly prays, beats himself and drinks warm mustard-water in an effort to purge himself of societal evils and lustful feelings. Reporters stalk him. At one point, reporters chant that they want to see him whip himself. Lenina arrives on the scene. In his rage, John turns the whip on her. A giant orgy ensues. When John awakens from a soma haze to realize what he’s done, he is devastated and hangs himself.