(When I searched up “Many a Summer Dies the Swan” on Wikipedia, I found a picture of the cover of the U.S. mass-market paperback version of the book. I laughed at the picture: a sexy woman and a man behind her holding her by the arms. It was funny to me because the cover shows off a feeling of lust, although the book didn’t really concentrate on this theme. Seemingly the cover was designed as such to have a sex appeal to the consumers. anyway…)
Huxley’s “Brave New World” was, to me, a controversial and provoking novel that had just the right amount of thrill and philosophy. “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” shares the same characteristics, with perhaps a bigger portion of discussion essays. I understand why it took some readers months to finish; the amount of philosophical discussion is large and the topics Huxley raised in this book are abstract and complex. Ideas of eternality, the withdrawal of one’s personality, time and evil, goodness and self-interest and the meaning of being ‘human’, are discussed at length throughout different parts of the book. The plotline is only a tool of getting these ideas across and each character serves as a messenger of Huxley’s philosophical ideas.
For this reason, the book is a challenging read, not only because Huxley presents such abstract themes, but also due to the fact that when the plotline is going, the story is so fascinating and delicious that a pause for philosophy lessons is abrupt and delaying. In the end it is worth the wait; the story reveals its outrageous and mocking ending in a surprise switch of pace to highlight the narcissism and stupidity of the superficial, wealthy and ignorant man. Huxley’s story telling skills are superb; he has the ability to weave many voices into one, many stories simultaneously ongoing, to create a big picture of the complexity and self-absorbness of human psychology. This was seen in chapter 6, when the characters had lunch together: Pete was observing Virginia quietly as he went on about the Spanish War, and Jeremy was observing Pete surreptitiously with great detail on his demeanor, vocabulary and tone, while Virginia also indulged in her own thoughts while appearing to be listening to Pete. The characters surrounded each other, all putting up a front much different from what thoughts were going on in their minds, eyeing each other and connecting on the outside. Later on when Virginia’s relationship with Pete is further revealed, their behaviour in this scene is explained and the complexity breaks down, revealing their true personality and simplistic motives.
Throughout the book, as Pete becomes a more complicated thinker, Mr. Propter dives deeper into his analysis of philosophy and psychology and Jeremy Pordage discovers more about eternality, Mr. Stoyte, Dr. Obispo and Virginia start to strip down from their mysterious skin. These two opposing motion contrast each other greatly. At the beginning, Mr. Stoyte was quite a “mysterious” character, who befriends Mr. Propter whom he hates but likes at the same time, who devoted money to build a home for sick children, who pursues living eternally. On the outside he seems like a complicated person, but as the plot moved on, and when the ending came, he is revealed a simple-minded person who is so obsessed with living forever that he has no thought on the meaning of life whatsoever. Virginia, whose name I consider an irony, portrays similar intellectual emptiness. She embodies those who has little or no self-control, possessing a childish behaviour and blindly religious. Though her actions were not “evil”, they were unsophisticated and shallow. Dr. Obispo is a man of intellect and deep thought and provides counter arguments against Mr. Propter to give meaningful debates, but his motives were simple and symbolizes the apathetic population of the society. Meanwhile, Pete, Mr. Propter and Jeremy engage in complex discussion. It is through these characters that Huxley presents his eloquent discussion on philosophy. Chapter by chapter, the essay-typed conversations between them develop and the multi-layered views on humans and life unravels. Each character represents a way of life and thinking.
Along with the portrayal of an array of personalities, Huxley provides deep discussion on a number of topics. One of my favorite topics was the role of literature: “the enormous defects of so-called good literature.” Literature has always been hailed as the art of writing, a product of beauty and revelation, but in Mr. Propter’s argument, it is “evil”; it helps “to perpetuate misery by explicitly or implicitly approving the thoughts and feelings and practices which could not fail to result in misery. And this approval was bestowed in the most magnificent and persuasive language. So that even when a tragedy ended badly, the reader was hypnotized by the eloquence of the piece into imagining that it was all somehow noble and worthwhile. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Because, if you considered them dispassionately, nothing could be more silly and squalid than the themes of “Phedre,” or “Othello,” or “Wuthering Heights,” or the “Agamemnon.” But the treatment of these themes had been in the highest degree sublime and thrilling, so that the reader or the spectator was left with the conviction that, in spite of the catastrophe, all was really well with the world, the all too human world, which had produced it.” True, the power of literature is immense and the motives of literature are hidden so tactfully by beauty. It is a dangerous tool; and that is why people study and write literature, because by understanding and being able to use this tool, great things happen, either catastrophes or miracles.