Greatest Literature banner

Point Counter Point


Point Counter Point, first UK editionFirst edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literary form


Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 154,000 words

Notable lines
First lines

"You won’t be late? There was anxiety in Marjorie Carling’s voice, there was something like entreaty.

Great lines

"Mystical experience and aestheticism. The fornicator's hatred of life in a new form."

"What shall I do when I'm old?" she suddenly asked.
"Why not die?" suggested Spandrell with his mouth full of bread and Strasbourg goose liver.

I disbelieve in the adequacy of any scientific or philosophical theory, any abstract moral principle, but on scientific, philosophical, and abstract-moral grounds.

Last line

The bathroom was drenched with their splashings. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Fascinating two-dimensional people

It's the ultimate novel of ideas. A book of characters who spend most of their time spouting thoughts on big topics like love, religion, science, politics and sexuality. That is, when they're not engaging in the latter.

In the 1920s, Aldous Huxley's novels presented what must have seemed rather scandalous notions of sex—with men and women openly having affairs. This now seems a rather unimportant part of Point Counter Point.

Many of the big ideas are still big today. However their presentation seems rather dated. It's hard to imagine an intellectual these days getting bent out of shape over the benefits that humankind would gain if they were only to follow their instincts, instead of trusting to science and reason. Yet that's the earnest message of one of the most talkative characters, supposedly based on Huxley's friend D.H. Lawrence. Same with all the moaning about the need for spirituality. It all seems rather naïve three-quarters of a century later.

As indicated by the title, Huxley sets his characters' idea in a sort of musical composition: first we get the presentation of one view, then the opposite view is developed, back and forth throughout the work. And the resolution in the end? There isn't one, except for the cynical outcome that only the most hypocritical character, whose ideas are the weakest and most shopworn, is the only character to find satisfaction in the end. (I almost said "to find happiness" but I remembered another character's warning that happiness is not something to aim for but is something you get when you're making something else.)

What I enjoy most about Point Counter Point though is not the play of intellectual ideas, nor the sophisticated banter, nor the philandering, and certainly not Huxley's growing hunger for a spiritual replacement for Christianity. What I get the biggest kick out is how he gets inside the petty minds of many of the seemingly confident characters. The jealousies and superstitions that rack the supremely cocky artist John Bidlake as he grows older. The humiliation that embitters the working-class scientist Illidge (especially in that wonderfully embarrassing scene of stumbling down the stairs during the classical performance at an aristocratic party). The self-proclaimed great thinker who spends his time doing crossword puzzles instead of writing his masterpiece, while convincing himself he's an unfairly neglected genius. These and other inwardly fallible characters strike a chord because we recognize bits of our own psyches in them.

Huxley is always accused of creating two-dimensional characters—and there is some truth to the charge that his characters exist mainly to present intellectual or emotional positions. He's even got a character in Philip Quarles here to represent himself as a writer who is unable to depict flesh-and-blood human interaction and feelings.

But he also presents devastating insight into the characters within this framework, and this lifts a book such as Point Counter Point above the usual, dry novel of ideas. I enjoy meeting and getting to know his two-dimensional characters.

(I still prefer the characters in his earlier and less verbose Antic Hay though.)

— Eric



See also:

To the Lighthouse

Buy the book:

Book cover
Point Counter Point

On Twitter:

Follow on Twitter