Brave New World opens in London, nearly six hundred years in the future ("After Ford"). Human life has been almost entirely industrialized — controlled by a few people at the top of a World State.
The first scene, offering a tour of a lab where human beings are created and conditioned according to the society's strict caste system, establishes the antiseptic tone and the theme of dehumanized life. The natural processes of birth, aging, and death represent horrors in this world.
Bernard Marx, an Alpha-Plus (or high-caste) psychologist, emerges as the single discontented person in a world where material comfort and physical pleasure — provided by the drug soma and recreational sex — are the only concerns. Scorned by women, Bernard nevertheless manages to engage the attention of Lenina Crowne, a "pneumatic" beauty who agrees to spend a vacation week with him at the remote Savage Reservation in New Mexico, a place far from the controlled, technological world of London.
Before Bernard leaves, his superior, the D.H.C., spontaneously reveals that long ago he, too, visited the Savage Reservation, and he confesses in sorrow that he lost the woman who accompanied him there. Embarrassed by the disclosure of his socially unacceptable emotion, the D.H.C. turns on Bernard, threatening him with banishment for his own social sins — not engaging enthusiastically enough in sex and soma.
In the Savage Reservation with Lenina, Bernard meets a woman from London who gave birth to a son about 20 years before. Seeing his opportunity to gain power over the D.H.C. — the father of the child — Bernard brings Linda and John back to London and presents them publicly to the D.H.C., who is about to banish Bernard.
Shocked and humiliated by the proof of his horrifying connection with natural birth, the D.H.C. flees in terror. Once a social outcast, Bernard now enjoys great success, because of his association with the new celebrity — John, called "the Savage."
Reared on the traditional ways of the Reservation and an old volume of the poetry of Shakespeare, John finds London strange, confusing, and finally repellent. His quotation of Miranda's line from The Tempest — "O brave new world / That has such people in it" — at first expresses his awe of the "Other Place" his mother told him of as a child. But the quotation becomes ironic as John becomes more and more disgusted by the recreational sex, soma, and identical human beings of London.
Lenina's attempted seduction provokes John's anger and violence, and, later, the death of Linda further arouses his fury. At last, John's attempt to keep a crowd of Deltas from their ration of soma results in a riot and his arrest, along with Bernard and Helmholtz Watson, an "emotional engineer" who wishes to be a poet.
The three face the judgment of World Controller Mustapha Mond, who acknowledges the flaws of this brave new world, but pronounces the loss of freedom and individuality a small price to pay for stability. Mond banishes Bernard and Helmholtz to the Falkland Islands and rules that John must stay in London.
When his two friends leave for their exile, John determines to make a retreat for himself in a remote, secluded lighthouse outside the city. There he tries to purify himself of civilization with ritual whippings and vomiting.
Drawn by the spectacle of his wild penances, reporters and crowds press in on John, who becomes a public curiosity — a kind of human animal in a zoo. When Lenina appears in the crowd, John furiously attacks her with the whip. John's frenzy inflames the crowd, and, in accordance with their social training, the violence turns into a sexual orgy, with John drawn in more or less unwillingly.
The next day, when John awakes from the effects of the soma, he realizes in horror what he has done. The novel closes on an image of John's body, hanging lifeless from a wooden beam in his lighthouse retreat.