Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The smell of dystopia: Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find Dystopias a lot easier to believe in than Utopias: Utopias we can only imagine, Dystopias we’ve already had.”
– Margaret Atwood

Photo by Trude Jonsson Stangel on Unsplash 

Brave New World1 is a science fiction novel about a high-tech, controlling dystopia. It is clearly a satire. Nineteen Eighty-Four2 is a story about a brutal, dictatorial, unforgiving dystopia. Its author has described it, too, as a satire.3 In both books, smell is an important characteristic of the societies they describe.

In Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), we are in an England, part of the World State, in the year 632 AF (After Ford). Society is happy, conflict-free, stable, and pharmacologically tranquilized with the drug “soma.” Consumerism and sexual promiscuity are the norm and are encouraged. The carefree, infantilized people have “nothing left to wish for.”4 Humans are produced and gestated in the laboratory, with levels of intelligence and physical strength tailored to society’s needs. Among the pleasures of this society is the absence of bad odors, and the constant presence of good smells; “one of the cardinal sins in the brave new world is retaining one’s natural aroma.”5

After a shower at work, a woman may give herself a blast of warm air scented with talcum powder. Then she has the choice of “eight different scents and eau-de-Cologne” from “little taps over the wash basin.” Movies are “feelies,” at which the audience is able to feel the sensations felt by the actors in the film, and to smell the action as well. London’s finest scent organ can produce “rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, and tarragon…and a slow return through sandalwood, camphor, cedar and new-mown hay.”

Homes have boxes for “making nice smells.” At the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying, in each patient room “the prevailing perfume of the room was automatically changed” every fifteen minutes. Students learn just enough about the customs of the past to understand how bad it was: “Home, home – a few small rooms… no air, no space, an understerilized prison; darkness, disease, and smells.” Brave New World makes bad smells a marker of “lower class or savagery” more strongly than anything else in modern literature.6

Bad smells are found only on the “Savage Reservation,” a place where “uncivilized” people live in rural poverty, religion, and tribal customs. Those who dared to visit this place found that the people there smelled, and lived in rooms “smelling of smoke and cooked grease and long-worn and long-unwashed clothes.” The inhabitants of the reservation drink mescal, which has a bad smell, burns your mouth, and makes you cough. In the overly hygienic society of Brave New World, “unpleasant smells are experienced as a threat to civilization itself.”7

In Nineteen EightyFour (1949) by George Orwell (1903–1950), daily life is not like the shallow, don’t-worry-be-happy “world of senses”8 in the World State. Here, after the atomic war, the world has been divided into three superpowers. The story takes place in the state of Oceania, in London, in the region called Airstrip One (formerly the UK). There is no freedom. The state controls everyone and everything. Airstrip One is shabby, rundown, and poor. Funds are mainly spent on waging continual wars, and on allowing the elite members of the Inner Party to live well.

Winston Smith is the hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and is one of the clerks, writers, editors, and minor bureaucrats who work as members of the Outer Party. His job, in the Ministry of Truth, is to revise old newspaper articles and make them conform to the party’s current truth. He also airbrushes non-persons out of old photographs. He generates old “fake news.” The smells in Winston’s life are “the stenches of totalitarian oppression.”9

The book starts with him entering his apartment building, which smells of “boiled cabbage and rag mats.” He is called by a neighbor to help unclog a sink filled “with filthy greenish water which smelled worse than ever of cabbage.” His neighbor reeks of sweat. In the canteen at the Ministry of Truth (which may have been based on the canteen at the BBC building, where Orwell worked during World War Two), the stew has a “tinny smell,” and the Victory gin “gave off a sickly, oily smell.” In a pub in the “prole” area, where the lower classes without party connection live, there is the smell of “urine, sawdust, and sour beer.” The lodgings of a prostitute smell of “bugs and cheap scent.”

Winston goes to the home of an Inner Party member whom he naively imagines is in the opposition “underground,” which he too wants to join. There he tastes wine for the first time. It has a “sour-sweet smell.” Does anything smell good in Winston’s life? Not much. His lover, Julia, puts on scent when they are alone in their secret trysting place. She has also obtained some “real coffee,” which has a “rich, hot smell.”

Winston is imprisoned for his anti-Party “thought crimes.” He is beaten, tortured, and brainwashed. Filthy, starved, emaciated, losing his teeth and hair, his torturer asks him, “Do you know that you stink like a goat? Probably you have ceased to notice it.” The final torture, the one that will break Winston, starts with the threat of what he fears most—rats. He will be eaten alive by starving rats. He is immobilized, and caged rats are ready to be released on his face: “Suddenly the foul musty odor of the brutes struck his nostrils.” He cracks, says what his torturer wants. His brainwashing and loss of sense-of-self are complete.

Neither Huxley nor Orwell called their novels “predictions.” Orwell called his “a warning.” Which dystopia is to be more feared—the tranquilized, chattering, hollow life of Brave New World, or the controlled, brutal, uncompromising life in Oceania? “A hit of soma or a boot in the face?”10 And which one is on the way?


  1. Aldous Huxley. Brave New World & Brave New World Revisited. New York: Harper Perennial, 1965.
  2. George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: The New American Library, Inc, 1983.
  3. William West (ed). Orwell: The Lost Writings. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
  4. Eduardo Casagrande. Each one of us goes through life inside a bottle: A reading of Brave New World in the light of Zygmunt Bauman’s theory (thesis). Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Allegre (Brazil), 2016.
  5. Katherine Ashenburg. The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. New York: North Point Press, 2007.
  6. Michel Delville. “The smell of disgust: Modernism and the social politics of olfaction,” in Katharina Herold and Frank Krause (eds), Smell and Social Life: Aspects of English, French, and German Literature (1880-1939). Munich: Iudicium, 2021.
  7. Delville, “The smell.”
  8. Casagrande, Each one of us.
  9. John Sutherland. Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography. London: Reaktion Books, 2017.
  10. Dorian Lynskey. The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. London: Picador, 2019.

End note

There are several worthwhile films made of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as a 1980 British version of Brave New World, shown on BBC 1.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Fall 2023



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