Review: Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

“…‘I am interested in everything,’ interrupted Gumbril Junior. ‘Which comes to the same thing,’ said his father parenthetically, ‘as being interested in nothing.”
~Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay

Plot summary

“Antic Hay is one of Aldous Huxley’s earlier novels, and like them is primarily a novel of ideas involving conversations that disclose viewpoints rather than establish characters; its polemical theme unfolds against the backdrop of London’s post-war nihilistic Bohemia. This is Huxley at his biting, brilliant best, a novel, loud with derisive laughter, which satirically scoffs at all conventional morality and at stuffy people everywhere, a novel that’s always charged with excitement.” More on Goodreads

On Aldous Huxley

“Aldous Huxley, born in England in 1894, is best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World, a dark vision of a highly technological society of the future. He published over 50 books, novels, travel books, histories, poems, plays, screenplays, and essays on philosophy, arts, sociology, religion, and morals.

The interior of Hotelli Punkaharju in September 2016. Photo: fiktiivinenstina
The interior of Hotelli Punkaharju in September 2016. Photo: fiktiivinenstina

His family was considered the blue-bloods of English intellectualism, well known for scientific and literary achievements: Huxley’s father, Leonard, was a renowned editor and essayist, and his highly educated mother ran her own boarding school.  His grandfather. T.H. Huxley, worked with Charles Darwin, his brother, Julian Huxley, a biologist, founded UNESCO, and his half-brother, Andrew Huxley, won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for his work in physiology. When he was sixteen Aldous Huxley went to England’s prestigious Eton school and was trained in medicine, the arts, and science. From 1913 to 1916 he attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled academically and edited literary journals. Huxley was considered a prodigy, being exceptionally intelligent and creative.” More on the Huxleys

Key concepts
  • Bohemian comedy
  • The lost search for happiness while going out of control ridiculously
  • The rhythmic beauty of language

When times were hard and generations were lost – as in Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned – the youth was becoming disenchanted on the other side of the Atlantic as well. In London, the protagonist in Antic Hay, Theodore Gumbril, comes up with a brilliant idea: he wishes to manufacture special trousers he has invented, trousers that “contain a pneumatic cushion in the seat” (see further in Wikipedia). This is where the reader is set off on a journey to the midst and minds of intellectuals and members of the London cultural elite in turbulent times in the after math of World War I.

The “adventures” of one particular Theodore Gumbril and his acquaintances form the superficial level of the story, but the real thing revolves around the aimless search for meaning and purpose for one’s life, love, happiness etc. The story is filled with diverse characters, one more bohemian, absurd or artsy than the other, but they only represent ideas, so the personages behind the ideas come secondary.

When restlessness culminates in aimlessness

The reading experience is guaranteed: Huxley’s language is pure golden poetry to the heart. He grips the reader in the heart but the novel pleases the brain the most. Although the novel is nearly a century old, it is timeless about the quest of the youth for meaningfulness. Nonetheless, the youth in Antic Hay does not resort to revolutions, barricades or other more dramatic measures, but they show the most human qualifications possible – inadequacy to come to one’s own full potential, jealousy for the success of others, superficial measures of success, partying and finding momentary happiness in the arms of someone rather meaningless. Their goals do not reach far and thus they live in the realm of a futureless sadness.

As an interesting side story, the novel received criticism for its cynicism and the open discussion on sex in its time. The book was also banned or burned in some places.

Also, a second side note on the title of the novel. According to, the phrase antic hay refers to an absurd dance, originating in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1593). The definition of dance the antic hay is to live hedonistically (see The Free Dictionary).

The very catchphrases of the novel – hedonism, absurdity, bohemian comedy and loss of identity – are not novel concepts of the youth. The role of identity is at the core of what it is to be human and the search for meaning is an endless feature of the role it embodies. Being jammed or stuck, however, could be seen rather as a choice not having to be accountable for one’s own actions and desires. It is precisely the restlessness that moves the youth but without a set goal in the near or far future. Restless persons get to see places but pragmatic ones often make it further in the end.

Maybe it is the longing after an ideal that is not there anymore that is the problem with the gang in Antic Hay. Ruined by the historical period between the wars, they ran after ideals that were not relevant – impractical inventions, superficial ways to measure success, unattached romantic adventures – although not as such unacceptable. Nonetheless, all is not lost. Learning, adapting and reapplying is what makes the youth to change the world. And we cannot feel but sympathy for the failures and choices others before us have made. Nothing is easier than to apply hindsight. Role models and experimenters in new waters have it harder.

Aldous Huxley is a fascinating and complex author. I’ve added below a few links to some interesting interviews, opinions and reviews. He never fails in his descriptions of characters. A thought provoking read is also After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), one of the perhaps less known novels by Huxley. If you’re keen on the vanity of human endeavours in the face of death, this is THE book for you. Brave New World (1932) is a classic in its own right, so I won’t elaborate on it any further.

More information
– Aldous Huxley – Helping People Realize Their Potentialities, YouTube link retrieved on 30 October 2016
– Matt Staggs (21 December 2015): Aldous Huxley’s Role in the History of Psychedelic ScienceSignature link retrieved on 30 October 2016
– John Naughton (22 November 2013): Aldous Huxley: the prophet of our brave new digital dystopia, Opinion in the Guardian, retrieved on 30 October 2016
– An Interview by Mike Wallace on 18 May 1958: Aldous Huxley on Technodictators, at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, YouTube link retrieved on 30 October 2016
Open Culture (17 March 2015): Huxley to Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949), retrieved on 30 October 2016

Other novels and stories by Huxley
  • Mortal Coils (1920), short story collection
  • Crome Yellow (1921)
  • Those Barren Leaves (1925)
  • Point Counter Point (1928)
  • Brave New World (1932)
  • Eyeless in Gaza (1936)
  • After the Fireworks (1936)
  • After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939)
  • Time Must Have a Stop (1944)
  • Ape and Essence (1948)
  • The Doors of Perception (1954)
  • Island (1962)

“Grief doesn’t kill, love doesn’t kill; but time kills everything, kills desire, kills sorrow, kills in the end the mind that feels them; wrinkels and softens the body while it still lives, tots it like a medlar, kills it too at last.”
~Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay

Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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