- Author Biography
- Plot Summary
- Historical Context
- Critical Overview
- For Further Study
Published in 1948 and set thirty-six years in the future, 1984 is George Orwell's dark vision of the future. Written while Orwell was dying and based on the work of the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, it is a chilling depiction of how the power of the state could come to dominate the lives of individuals through cultural conditioning. Perhaps the most powerful science fiction novel of the twentieth century, this apocalyptic satire shows with grim conviction how Winston Smith's individual personality is wiped out and how he is recreated in the Party's image until he does not just obey but even loves Big Brother. Some critics have related Winston Smith's sufferings to those Orwell underwent at preparatory school, experiences he wrote about just before 1984. Orwell maintained that the book was written with the explicit intention "to alter other people's idea of the kind of society they should strive after."
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India, in 1903, into a middle-class family. The son of a British civil servant, Orwell was brought to England as a toddler. The boy became aware of class distinctions while attending St. Cyprian's preparatory school in Sussex, where he received a fine education but felt out of place. He was teased and looked down upon because he was Page 234
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not from a wealthy family. This experience made him sensitive to the cruelty of social snobbery.
As a partial-scholarship student whose parents could not afford to pay his entire tuition, Orwell was also regularly reminded of his lowly economic status by school administrators. Conditions improved at Eton, where he studied next, but instead of continuing with university classes, in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police. Stationed in Burma, his class-consciousness intensified as he served as one of the hated policemen enforcing British control of the native population. Sickened by his role as imperialist, he returned to England in 1927 and resigned his position. He planned to become a writer, a profession in which he had not before shown much interest.
In 1928, perhaps to erase guilt from his colonial experiences, he chose to live amongst the poor of London, and later, Paris. In Paris, he published articles in local newspapers, but his fiction was rejected. His own life finally provided the material for his first book, published in 1933. Down and Out in Paris and London, which combined fictional narrative based on his time spent in those two cities with social criticism, was his first work published as George Orwell. The pseudonym was used so his parents would not be shocked by the brutal living conditions described in the book. The next year, Orwell published Burmese Days, a novel based on his stay in Burma. Subsequent novels contain autobiographical references and served as vehicles for Orwell to explore his growing political convictions.
In 1936, Orwell traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to write about the Spanish Civil War and ended up joining the battle, fighting against Spanish leader Francisco Franco on the side of the Republicans. Wounded, he returned to England. Two nonfiction books, The Road to Wigan Pier, a report on deplorable conditions in the mining communities of northern England, and Homage to Catalonia, the story of his participation in the Spanish Civil War, allowed Orwell to explicitly defend his political ideas. Dozens of pointed essays also revealed his political viewpoint.
By that time, Orwell clearly saw himself as a political performer whose tool was writing. He wrote in a 1946 essay, "Why I Write," that "every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it."
Orwell's next book, Animal Farm, a fable about the events during and following the Russian Revolution, was well liked by critics and the public. He had had trouble finding a publisher during World War II because the work was a disguised criticism of Russia, England's ally at the time. When it was finally published, just after the war, however, it was a smashing success.
The money Orwell made from Animal Farm allowed him, in 1947, to rent a house on Jura, an island off the coast of Scotland, where he began to work on 1984. His work was interrupted by treatment for tuberculosis, which he had contracted in the 1930s, and upon his release from the hospital in 1948 Orwell returned to Jura to complete the book. Under doctor's orders to work no more than one hour a day, but unable to find a typist to travel to his home, he typed the manuscript himself and collapsed upon completion of the book. For the next two years he was bedridden. Many critics claim that Orwell's failing health may have influenced the tone and outcome of the novel, and Orwell admitted that they were probably right.
Orwell did plan to write other books, according to his friends, and married while in the hospital, but three months later in 1950 he finally died of tuberculosis.
In George Orwell's 1984 Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party from Oceania (a fictional state representing both England and America), lives in all visible ways as a good party member, in complete conformance with the wishes of Big Brother—the leader of the Inner Party (Ingsa). He keeps his loathing for the workings of the Party—for the vile food and drink, the terrible housing, the conversion of children into spies, the orchestrated histrionics of the Two Minutes' Hate—deep inside, hidden, for he knows that such feelings are an offense punishable by death, or worse. But, as the year 1984 begins, he has decided, against his better judgment, to keep a diary in which his true feelings are laid bare. He sits back in an alcove in his dingy apartment, just out of view of the telescreen (two-way television screens that are in all buildings and homes, which broadcast propaganda and transmit back the activities of anyone passing in front of the screen) and writes of his hatred for Big Brother.
Winston works at the Ministry of Truth (Mini-true, in Newspeak), the branch of the government responsible for the production and dissemination of all information. Winston's job is to alter or "rectify" all past news articles which have since been "proven" to be false. Only once has he ever held in his hands absolute proof that the Ministry was lying. It concerned three revolutionaries, Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford, who were executed for planning a revolt against the state. Winston found evidence that their confessions were falsified and out of fear he destroyed that evidence.
One day during a Two Minutes' Hate session, Winston catches the eye of O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party who seems to carry the same disillusionment about the Party that Winston harbors. Winston realizes that all the stories told by the Party about Emmanuel Goldstein—the head of an underground conspiracy to overthrow the Party—and the traitorous Brotherhood are at least partly true. Perhaps there is another way, and he begins to see hope in the proletariat. They are the 85% of the population of Oceania that exists outside the Party, kept in a perpetual state of slovenly poverty but mostly unregulated, unobserved.
Winston's wanderings among the proles, desperately searching for that little bit of hope, take him one evening to the junk shop where he purchased his diary. The proprietor, Mr. Charrington, Shows him a back room outfitted with a bed, where he and his wife used to live before the Revolution. And there is no telescreen—the proles aren't required to have them.
As he leaves the shop, Winston notices that he is being watched. A dark-haired woman from the fiction department at Minitrue was spying on him. Fearing the worst, Winston contemplates killing her, but instead he quickly heads home.
Winston sees the dark-haired girl at the Ministry of Truth. She stumbles, and as he helps her up, she passes a slip of paper into his hand. Winston reads it in secret and discovers that it is a note saying that she loves him. Lonely and intrigued by her, he manages to eat lunch one day with her. They make plans for another such accidental meeting that evening. In the midst of a crowd, she gives him a complex set of directions to a place where they will meet on Sunday afternoon.
Winston and the girl—Julia—meet in the woods, far out in the country, away from the telescreens. There they are actually able to talk and make love. Julia reveals that she is not what she appears; she despises the Party, but pretends to be a good party member.
The couple meets at irregular intervals, and never in the same place, until Winston suggests the idea of renting Mr. Charrington's room. The two meet, sharing the delicacies that Julia gets on the black market (delicacies like sugar, milk, and real coffee) and relishing their moments of freedom. Their bliss is interrupted only once by the presence of a rat. Julia chases it off and prevents it from coming back.
O'Brien, under the guise of having a copy of the newest Newspeak dictionary, approaches Winston at the ministry and invites him to his apartment. Winston believes he has a friend and agrees to go with Julia. When Winston and Julia finally do appear, O'Brien assures them that Goldstein and the conspiracy to overthrow the Party do indeed exist, that he is part of that conspiracy, and he wants them to work for it. O'Brien sends Winston a copy of Goldstein's forbidden book on the secret history of Oceania which Winston and Julia read in the privacy of Mr. Charrington's room.
Shortly after waking up from a long nap, Winston and Julia hear a voice from a hidden telescreen which suddenly commands them to stand in the middle of the room. Mr. Charrington enters with a Page 236 | Top of Articlecrew of stormtroopers who beat Winston and Julia, then hurry them separately away.
Winston is tortured in jail—known as the Ministry of Love—for an interminable length of time. O'Brien is in charge of the torture. Winston confesses to various crimes, including his years of conspiracy with the ruler of Eastasia—one of the three superpowers that are often at war with Oceania. O'Brien explains to Winston that, among other things, Goldstein's book was in fact a Party creation.
It becomes clear, however, that the purpose of Miniluv is not to produce forced confessions and then kill its victims, but to "cure" the confessors, to enable them to see the truth of their confessions and the correctness of the Party's doublethink, in which "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength." The Party is not content with negative obedience, but must have the complete and true belief of all members. No one is executed before coming to love Big Brother.
Winston is at length able to persuade himself that the Party is right about everything—that two and two, in fact, make five—but he has not betrayed Julia, whom he still loves. At last the time comes for that step, and O'Brien sends Winston to Room 101, where each individual's darkest fear is catalogued. In Winston's case it is rats. When they threaten him with rats, he betrays Julia.
One last hurdle remains: Winston must come to love Big Brother, for the Party wanted no martyrs, no opposition at all. Winston is released a shell of a man, his hair and teeth gone, his body destroyed. He is given a small job on a committee that requires no real work. He spends most of his time in a bar, drinking oily victory gin. He sees and even speaks to Julia one day, who admits matter-of-factly that she betrayed him just as he betrayed her. They have nothing more to say to one another.
At last, it is announced over the telescreen in the bar that Oceania has won an important victory in the war. Suddenly Winston feels himself purged, no longer running with the crowd in the street but instead walking to his execution in the Ministry of Love. He can be shot now, for he at last believes. He loves Big Brother.
Big Brother, the mysterious all-seeing, all-knowing leader of the totalitarian society is a godlike icon to the citizens he rules. He is never seen in person, just staring out of posters and telescreens, looking stern as the caption beneath his image warns "Big Brother Is Watching You." Big Brother demands obedience and devotion of Oceania's citizens; in fact, he insists that they love him more than they love anyone else, even their own families. At the same time, he inspires fear and paranoia. His loyal followers are quick to betray anyone who seems to be disloyal to him. Through technology, Big Brother is even able to monitor the activities of people who are alone in their homes or offices.
Of course, Big Brother doesn't really exist, as is clear from the way O'Brien dodges Winston's questions about him. His image is just used by the people in power to intimidate the citizens of Oceania. Orwell meant for Big Brother to be representative of dictators everywhere, and the character was undoubtedly inspired by Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, all of whom were fanatically worshipped by many of their followers.
Mr. Charrington is an acquaintance of Winston's who runs a small antique/junk shop and rents Winston a small room above it. Winston and Julia do not realize he is actually a cold, devious man and a member of the Thought Police. Charrington is responsible for Winston and Julia's eventual arrest.
Emmanuel Goldstein is the great enemy of Big Brother. An older Jewish man with white hair and a goatee, Goldstein is a former Party leader but now the head of an underground conspiracy to overthrow the Party. When his face is flashed on tele-screens, people react to him as if he were the devil himself, frightening and evil. He personifies the enemy. Winston fears him yet is fascinated by him as well. He thinks Goldstein's speeches, which are broadcast as a warning against anti-Party thoughts, are transparent and shakes his head at the thought of people less intelligent and more easily led than him being taken in by such revolutionary talk. Yet Winston changes his mind later, and as he reads Goldstein's revolutionary tract, "The Theory and Page 237
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Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism," he is more impressed than ever by Goldstein's ideas.
Goldstein is reminiscent of Leon Trotsky, the great enemy of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who led an unsuccessful revolt and was later brutally murdered by Stalin's men. It is no accident that he is a Jewish intellectual because dictators Stalin and Adolf Hitler deeply feared and hated the Jewish intelligentsia.
At first Winston doesn't like Julia because she seems like a zealous pro-Party advocate. Moreover, she is also a member of the Anti-Sex League, and deep down Winston resents that he will never be able to have sex with her. However, when he takes her up on her request that they meet privately, Winston discovers that Julia is smart and funny and loves sex, and she doesn't care at all about Big Brother. As for her membership in the Anti-Sex League, she is simply doing what is expected of her in society. A pretty woman with dark hair and freckles, she is basically a simple woman who doesn't worry about the revolutionary implications of her actions; she does what she does because it feels good and right. She cares little about revolution and even falls asleep when Winston is reading from Emmanuel Goldstein's revolutionary tract. Julia is practical as well. For instance, she is discreet in arranging her meetings with Winston and warns him that they will eventually get caught.
When they are caught, it is Julia who insists that her love for Winston cannot be destroyed, but she betrays Winston more quickly than he betrays her (at least, according to O'Brien), and when they finally meet again she is indifferent to him.
Winston's wife. She was a tall, fair-haired girl, and, according to Winston, remarkably vulgar and stupid. Technically, he is still married to her, though they've lost track of each other. They parted ways about ten or eleven years before, after only fifteen months of marriage, when they realized that she could not get pregnant by him. The Party has declared that the only reason for marriage is procreation, and in fact it is illegal to have sex simply for pleasure. Therefore, there was no reason for Winston and Katharine to stay together. The Party does not believe in divorce, just separation, so Winston and Katharine just sort of drifted apart.
Readers only see Katharine through Winston's memory of her, and her main purpose in the novel Page 238 | Top of Articleis to show how the Party destroys love, sex, and loyalty between husband and wife.
O'Brien is a member of the Inner Party. He is a large, burly, and brutal-looking man, and yet Winston thinks he has a certain charm and civility. Winston suspects he is very intelligent and may share his subversive views of society. When O'Brien reveals that he does have revolutionary thoughts, Winston is excited to go with him to a secret underground meeting led by Emmanuel Goldstein. The group aims to overthrow the Party. Winston does not realize that O'Brien is secretly loyal to the Inner Party and that the secret underground group is simply a set-up by the Party to detect potential subversives. O'Brien betrays Winston and becomes his interrogator and torturer. It is he who reveals to Winston that the true, ugly purpose of the Party is to stay in power for power's sake. Like the Party, O'Brien cares for one thing only: power. He has no personal ambition, however. He only needs and wants to be a part of the Party's power structure.
As a torturer, O'Brien reveals himself to be extremely intelligent and sophisticated. His relationship with Winston is complicated and twisted. O'Brien seems to respect Winston, and he enjoys their conversations because Winston is a challenge. O'Brien and Winston ought to hate each other; after all, it's O'Brien's job to brainwash Winston and thereby destroy him. Still, they are drawn to each other out of respect and mutual understanding.
Old man is a prole who lives near Winston. He remembers a lot about the past, but only insignificant snippets of his own life, so he can't answer Winston's pressing questions, such as, "Was life better then than it is now?" Winston describes him as an ant who can't see the bigger picture.
Winston's neighbor, Tom Parson, is a representative of the proletariat, or working class. His children, like children in Nazi Germany, belong to scout-like organizations sponsored by the government. They wear uniforms and are encouraged to betray their parents to the authorities should they see any signs of disloyalty. His wife, Mrs. Parsons, is about thirty but looks much older because she lives in constant fear of her own children. Tom Parsons, age 35, is sweaty, fat, pink-faced and fair-haired. He is also not very bright, a zealous man who worships the Party. Eventually, his daughter turns him in for Thought crime because he says "Down with the Party" in his sleep. He tells Winston he is grateful he was turned in before his terrible thoughts became conscious.
A heavyset neighbor of Winston's, he watches her singing to herself as she hangs out the laundry. She is a symbol of the future, representing the spirit of the proletariat that cannot be crushed.
Orwell named his central character Winston Smith after Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England during World War II; he also gave him the most common British last name, Smith. A thirty-nine-year-old man who works in the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith is fairly ordinary. His heroism is heartfelt, not out of false notions of rebellion for the sake of power and glory. Because of the visceral nature of his actions, he acts in a foolhardy manner. For example, he keeps a diary in order to record events as he experiences them, even though he is very likely to get caught by the Thought Police. Similarly, he rents the room above a junk shop to use as a love nest with Julia despite the obvious risks. Finally, Winston trusts O'Brien, not suspecting that he is a loyal member of the Inner Party who is trying to entrap him.
When he is captured and tortured, Winston continues his defiance as long as possible. He has a strange respect for his torturer, O'Brien, and seems to enjoy their battle of intellect, ideas, and wills. Indeed, he has been thinking about and fascinated by O'Brien for years, even dreaming about Page 239 | Top of Articlehim. In a way, he seems happy to be confronting him at last.
Syme, who works in the Research Department of the Ministry of Truth, is a small man with dark hair and large eyes. He is helping prepare a new dictionary of Newspeak which will eliminate even more words from the language. He is so smart and straightforward that Winston knows Syme is destined to be purged. Syme's lack of savvy and self-protectiveness irritates Winston because he knows he is loyal to Big Brother.
Dead for thirty years, Winston's mother appears only in his dreams of the past. He recalls her as a fair-haired and self-possessed woman. He's not certain what happened to her, but he thinks she was probably murdered in the purges of the 1950s (reminiscent of Joseph Stalin's infamous purges in Russia, in which large numbers of people simply disappeared overnight and were murdered). Winston misses his mother greatly and feels guilty that he survived and she did not. In fact, he has the feeling that somehow she gave her life for his.
Freedom and Enslavement/Free Will
Orwell's 1984 is set in Oceania, a totalitarian state ruled by a god-like leader named Big Brother who completely controls the citizens down to their very thoughts. Anyone who thinks subversive thoughts can be turned in by spies or by Big Brother, who monitors them through highly sensitive telescreens. If someone does not have the proper facial expression, they are considered guilty of Facecrime, so all emotions must be extremely carefully guarded. It is even possible to commit Thoughtcrime by being overheard talking in one's sleep, which Winston Smith fears will happen to him; it actually happens to his neighbor Tom Parson. Freedom exists only in the proletarian ghetto, where crime and hunger are commonplace. Winston feels he could not live in this ghetto, even though his life is almost as grim as that of the ghetto dwellers.
The punishment for even minor crimes is severe, yet people occasionally choose to break the law. The Party knows that people instinctively want to have sex, form loving bonds, and think for themselves instead of accepting unquestioningly whatever the totalitarian government tells them. As long as people choose to exercise free will, the Party must be ever-vigilant against crime and make their punishments severe in order to remain in control.
Appearances and Reality
In totalitarian Oceania, it seems as if everyone is slavishly devoted to Big Brother and believes everything the government tells them. However, as we can understand from Winston's thoughts, all is not as it seems. Some people secretly feel and believe differently from how they behave; of course, they are extremely careful not to betray themselves. Moreover, the Party is in control of all information and revises history, even yesterday's history, to reflect their current version of events. Winston is very much aware of this, because it is his job in the inaccurately named Ministry of Truth to change the records of history. He cannot ignore what he remembers: Oceania was at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia yesterday, and not vice versa. If anyone else remembers differently, they certainly won't say so.
Only the old man, a powerless prole who lives on the street, speaks about what really happened in the past, but in short and irrelevant snippets about his personal experiences. It is Winston's need to reconcile what he knows with the Party's version of reality that leads to his downfall. The Party cannot allow people to have a perception of reality that is different from theirs. As Winston writes in his diary, "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."
Loyalty and Betrayal
In order to remain all-powerful, the Party destroys loyalty between people: coworkers, friends, even family members. Children are encouraged to betray their parents to the state if they suspect them of Thoughtcrimes (thinking something that goes against the Party line).
The Party has outlawed sex for pleasure and reduced marriage to an arrangement between a man and woman that exists only for procreation. Sexual urges must be repressed for fear they will lead to love, human connection, and personal loyalty, all of which threaten the Party. Winston believes that love like the love he and Julia share will eventually destroy the Party, but he underestimates the Party's ability to destroy that love and loyalty. Winston and Julia both give in to torture and betray each other. When they are released, their love and loyalty to each other has been destroyed.
Because the Party can easily detect Thought-crimes, people always act as if they are completely loyal to the Party. No one trusts anyone else completely. Winston makes fatal mistakes when he trusts O'Brien and Charrington, both of whom betray him. His misjudgment is almost understandable, given the subtle cues both give him to indicate that they are fellow subversives. But as it turns out, they are deliberately setting a trap for him and Julia. In the end, no one can be trusted.
Utopia and Anti-Utopia
1984 is clearly an anti-utopian book. As O'Brien tells Winston, the world he and his comrades have created is "the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined." Instead of being a society that is a triumph of human spirit and creativity, the society the Party has created is full of fear, torment, and treachery that will worsen over time. O'Brien gives Winston an image of the future: a boot stomping on a human face, forever and ever.
Such a pessimistic vision of the future serves a purpose, as Orwell knew. He wrote 1984 as a warning in order to make people aware that this type of society could exist if trends such as jingoism, oppression of the working class, and the erosion of language that expresses the vastness of human experience continued. Readers are supposed to see that this is only one possible future, one they must work to avoid. Orwell's anti-utopian vision captured the horrors of World War II and the fears of the cold war in the same way that earlier utopian novels, from British author Thomas More's Utopia to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, captured the hope and self-confidence after the end of the medieval era.
The blind patriotism that fueled the dictatorships of German leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s inspired Orwell to write of Oceania and its leader, Big Brother. Just as the Germans fanatically cheered and revered Hitler, treating him as a beloved father, the citizens of Oceania look up to Big Brother as their protector, who will watch over them just as a real brother would. The huge pictures of Big Brother that can be found everywhere in Oceania are reminiscent of those of Communist leader Mao Tsetung displayed by the Chinese.
As in real totalitarian regimes, the children of Oceania play a large part in maintaining the loyalty and patriotism of the citizens. Just as German children joined the scout-like and militaristic Hitler Youth organization, the children of Oceania enjoy wearing their Junior Spies costumes, marching around, and singing patriotic songs. Orwell depicts how sinister it is for a government to use children to promote their policies when he portrays the Parsons' children as holy terrors, threatening to denounce their parents to the authorities if they don't give in to their childish demands. In the 1960s, the Chinese under Mao would indoctrinate an entire generation of children to be loyal to the state by taking them away from their parents for long periods in order to insure that the government's message could not be contradicted by the children's parents.
Point of View
Orwell's 1984 is told in the third person, but the point of view is clearly Winston Smith's. Through his eyes, readers are able to see how the totalitarian society functions, in particular how an individual deals with having illegal thoughts that can be detected easily by spies and telescreens that monitor one's every movement. Because readers are in Winston's head, they make the mistakes he makes in judging people. At one point he looks around a room at work and tells himself he knows just who will be vaporized within the next few years and who will be allowed to live. His percep-Page 241 | Top of Articletions of who is a loyal party member and who is not turn out to be inaccurate, however. In this way, Orwell shows that in a paranoid society, where personal relationships with others are at best only tolerated and at worst illegal, no one can really know his fellow man.
Winston is a well-drawn character with clear opinions (clear to the reader, that is; he cannot reveal his opinions to anyone in his society). Often, critics have claimed that these opinions echo George Orwell's. For example, Winston admires the spirit of the proletariat, but looks down on them because they will never have the means or intelligence to change their lives and their government. On the other hand, he admires the sophistication of the wealthy, cultured O'Brien, even though he is an evil character. This may reflect Orwell's own class prejudices, as someone who was far more educated and worldly than most of the people from the economic class in England (the lower middle class).
Written between 1947 and 1948, 1984's original title was 1948, but Orwell changed it so that it would be set in the future, but still be close enough to the present to be frightening. The action takes place in London, which is now part of a country called Oceania. Oceania is one of three world superpowers, and it is continually at war with one of the other two superpowers, Eastasia and Eurasia. Enemies can change overnight and become an ally, although the Party automatically rewrites history when this happens so that no one will remember that circumstances were ever any different. This perpetual state of war consumes most of the state's resources, so city buildings are in a constant state of disrepair. All consumer goods, from food to clothing, are rationed, just as they were in England during World War II. Winston lives in what was once London, now a drab, gray, and decaying urban area.
Language and Meaning
Orwell was very aware of the power of language, so he has the totalitarian government of the future create a new language called Newspeak. Newspeak is used throughout the book by the citizens of Oceania and explained in detail in an appendix. The language is derived from Standard English and will go through many versions over the years until it reaches its final version in the year 2050. The 1984 version, however, still bears a strong resemblance to English.
The basic idea behind Newspeak is to take all words that refer to ideas the Party disagrees with and strip them of their original meaning or eliminate them entirely. The purpose of Newspeak is to narrow the range of ideas that can be expressed, so as the language develops it contains fewer and fewer words. Word forms and grammar are simplified, as is pronunciation, so that eventually the number of readers can be kept to a minimum. Newspeak also contains words to express new ideas, such as oldthink, which means the way people thought before the revolution. Naturally, it has a wicked and decadent connotation.
When Newspeak appeared citizens were unable to read about old ideas and express new ones that were counter to what the Party wanted them to think. An entire passage from the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident …," can be reduced to one word: crime-think. Simplistic slogans replace more complicated ideas. The Party's most famous slogans are "War Is Peace," "Freedom Is Slavery," and "Ignorance Is Strength."
Through the device of a fictional language, Orwell is able to point out that language can be misused to mislead people. In creating Newspeak, Orwell was influenced both by political rhetoric that takes the place of substantive communication and advertising lingo that makes ridiculous and vague promises.
1984 is divided into three parts plus an appendix. Part one sets up Winston's world, which readers see through his eyes and his thoughts. They understand his loneliness and why this leads him to take risks that will lead to his downfall.
In part two, the lengthiest part of the narrative, Winston becomes connected with people he believes are rebels like himself. He has an affair with Julia and follows O'Brien to an underground meeting of dissidents. Also in part two, Orwell includes lengthy sections from the fictional Emmanuel Goldstein's political tract. It is interesting to note that his publishers originally wanted Orwell to delete this material, because it stops the action of the narrative.
In part three, Winston and Julia have been caught by the Inner Party and separated. Winston undergoes severe torture and brainwashing at the hands of O'Brien. His dialogue and interaction with O'Brien has much dramatic tension because underlying their battle is mutual respect. Unfortu-Page 242 | Top of Articlenately for Winston, this respect does not translate into O'Brien freeing him. O'Brien successfully brainwashes Winston into loving Big Brother.
The book ends with an appendix on the development and structure of the language called "Newspeak." The appendix is written as if it were a scholarly article, and while it serves to clarify the use of Newspeak in the novel it is interesting to note that the publisher originally wanted to cut it, thinking it unnecessary.
In 1948, when Orwell's 1984 was published, World War II had just ended. One of England's allies had been Russia, which was ruled by a despotic dictator named Joseph Stalin. Stalin ruled with an iron fist, and was famous for his midnight purges: he would round up hundreds of citizens at a time and murder them in deserted areas, much as Oceania citizens are "vaporized." Stalin's victims were his imagined enemies, such as political dissidents, artists, or Jews. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler, in Germany, had slaughtered his enemies as well, in the end killing six million Jews plus nine million Slavs, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, and mentally challenged people. Mao Tse-tung in China was fighting for communism against Chinese nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek. Mao would finally defeat the nationalists in 1949 and begin a long, oppressive totalitarian regime.
Other dictators of the time included Francisco Franco in Spain and Benito Mussolini in Italy. These oppressive rulers controlled citizens through propaganda and violence. This state of affairs prompted Orwell to create Big Brother, the ultimate totalitarian leader who dominates all political, social, and economic activities.
Socialism and Communism
Orwell fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s, supporting the socialist left. He was not a communist, but a dedicated Democratic socialist who believed that the government, not private enterprise, should control the production and distribution of goods, and as such he was greatly concerned about the lives of the poor and working class.
All over the world, throughout the twentieth century, working class people had been fighting for better lives. In America, workers fought a long and hard battle for labor reforms that would eventually include such benefits as job security, safety regulation, overtime and hazardous duty pay, vacation and sick days, health insurance, pensions, disability, and child labor laws, which modern workers sometimes take for granted. Some U.S. and British workers turned to socialism and communism, thinking that perhaps these alternate forms of economic and social structure would solve their problems. In the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx of Germany proposed that to resolve the gross inequality between the workers and the bosses, the working class, or proletariat, would have to revolt and establish a new communist regime in which one authoritarian party would control the political and economic systems. He believed workers ought to own their farms and factories and distribute the profits evenly among workers.
Here in America, the capitalist factory and mine owners eventually conceded to labor's demands and the socialists and communists were marginalized. This act deferred American workers from revolting against their government. Communist revolutions did occur in Russia and in China, but eventually those countries modified their economic systems.
America's response to communism was extreme during the Cold War era of the 1950s; in fact, many people believed the U.S. government was acting just as oppressively as communist governments were. Under the leadership of Senator Joe McCarthy, the House (of Representatives) Committee on Un-American Activities aggressively attacked public figures who were suspected communists, demanding that they name other communists or be blackballed in their industries. Hollywood writers and filmmakers were especially hard hit by the mania and many careers were destroyed before President Truman and public opinion turned against McCarthy and the witch hunt ended. The paranoia that characterized the McCarthy era was similar to the paranoia in 1984, as people were pressured to betray their friends, co-workers, and even parents in order to save themselves. Today, communism still has some followers in the United States and England, as does Democratic socialism, which Orwell embraced wholeheartedly.
Aside from being concerned about labor and government, Orwell was very aware of an important invention that was just becoming popular after World War II and would eventually be a dominant force in Western culture: the television. The first Page 243 | Top of ArticleBBC broadcast in Britain occurred in 1937, and TV was first demonstrated to the American public in 1939 at the New York World's Fair. Television's popularity grew enormously throughout the 1950s, and today 98% of American households own at least one color television set. Orwell recognized the enormous potential of this communication tool, which would soon be in every home. He imagined that the television could one day not only broadcast propaganda nonstop but that it could transmit back images of action in front of the screen, allowing the broadcaster to spy on its viewers.
When 1984 was published, critics were impressed by the sheer power of George Orwell's grim and horrifying vision of the future. They Page 244
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praised Orwell's gripping prose, which captured so well the details of life under an oppressive regime, from the tasteless, sodden public meals Winston eats to the gritty dust of the gray streets. In 1949, critic Mark Shorer wrote in his New York Times Book Review essay that "No real reader can neglect this experience with impunity…. He will be asked to read through pages of sustained physical and psychological pain that have seldom been equaled and never in such quiet, sober prose." In the same year, British novelist V. S. Pritchett wrote his reaction to the novel in New Statesman and Nation. "I do not think," the critic concluded, "I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down."
Critics also praised Orwell's ability to provoke moral outrage at Oceania, a society that so completely destroys the human values many people hold dear, from love to art.
Because 1984 was published during the reign of Russian leader Joseph Stalin, a former ally of England and the United States who was proving to Page 245 | Top of Articlebe a cruel and violent dictator, critics of the time believed that the novel was about the events in the Soviet Union. Some mistakenly believed that by setting the story in England, Orwell meant to criticize British socialism, particularly since he names the Inner Party Ingsoc ("ENGlish SOCialism"). Orwell strongly denied this. Then again, some critics saw the novel as a satire of the contemporary social and political scene. Certainly, many of Orwell's details bear a resemblance to life in London post-World War II. However, over time critics came to realize that Orwell meant the story to be a universal warning about the dangers of any totalitarian dictatorship.
In the following essay, Fitzpatrick, an author and doctoral candidate at New York University, maintains that although Orwell's dystopian vision has not been borne out by Soviet-style communism, the author's fears about the ability of the state to control people is still a danger in modern society.
George Orwell's dystopian (a fictional place where people lead dehumanized and fearful lives) vision of the year 1984, as depicted in what many consider to be his greatest novel, has entered the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world more completely than perhaps any other political text, whether fiction or nonfiction. No matter how far our contemporary world may seem from 1984's Oceania, any suggestion of government surveillance of its citizens—from the threatened "clipper chip," which would have allowed government officials to monitor all computer activity, to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to place security cameras in Central Park—produces cries of "Big Brother is watching." Big Brother, the all-seeing manifestation in 1984 of the Party's drive for power for its own sake, has come to stand as a warning of the insidious nature of government-centralized power, and the way that personal freedoms, once encroached upon, are easily destroyed altogether.
Critics generally agree that the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, may be recognized by his name as related to both the great British statesman and World War II leader Winston Churchill and a non-descript Everyman. However, the point is not that Winston is a great man, or even that he is one man among many; rather, O'Brien, while torturing Winston, says that if Winston is "a man," as he claims to think of himself, then he is the last man. In fact this echo of the novel's original title, The Last Man in Europe, reveals Winston as symbolic of what critic Ian Watt has described as Orwell's conception of a dying humanism. Whether Winston Smith is truly a humanist, in the classical sense of the term, is of no matter; in comparison to the totalitarian regime which destroys him, Winston is, in fact, the last embodiment of the human. In converting Winston to the love of Big Brother, the last man in Europe is destroyed.
Winston maintains, throughout the novel, two avenues of hope for a life outside the confines of the Party and the watchful eyes of Big Brother, a life which may undermine or even overthrow the Party's hold on Oceania. One of these possibilities is conscious, spoken: the proles. Just as Marx foresaw, in the nineteenth century, that the Revolution would come from a spontaneous uprising of the proletariat as they shook off the chains of their oppressors, so Winston writes in his diary that if there is hope, it lies in this 85 percent of Oceania's population that exists outside the confines of the Party. And yet, the impossibility of a proletarian uprising presents itself to him at every turn. Echoing Marx, Winston writes: "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious." And, unfortunately, he is right; as O'Brien admonishes Winston in the Ministry of Love, "The proletarians will never revolt, not in a thousand years or a million. They cannot." Thus this small bit of hope is crushed.
The second possibility remains mostly unspoken and unconscious: desire. It is this possibility, the momentary destruction of the Party through intimate union with another person, which solidifies Winston's relationship with Julia. Though they are drawn together at first by what seem to be basic animal urges, it is precisely the baseness and the animality of those urges that gives them their liberatory potential. As Winston relates earlier, in contemplating the sterility of his relationship with his wife: "The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion. Desire was thoughtcrime." Desire is thought crime in Oceania because it elevates the human, the individual, above the powers of the state to control him. In fact, as Winston and Julia begin to make love for the first time, this piece of repressed knowledge becomes conscious; "the animal instinct," he thinks, "the simple undifferenti-Page 246 | Top of Articleated desire: that was the force that could tear the Party to pieces."
The threat to the Party of the thoughtcrime that desire represents is sufficiently serious that the state must exert formidable control over any such human, instinctual reactions. In his essay "1984: Enigmas of Power," Irving Howe writes, "There can be no 'free space' in the lives of the Outer Party faithful, nothing that remains beyond the command of the state. Sexual energy is to be transformed into political violence and personal hysteria." It is this recognition by the Party that there may be no element of "human nature" which can remain the province of the individual without endangering the Party's hold on its members that represents the great "advance" of Ingsoc (English Socialism, in Oldspeak) over previous totalitarian regimes. There was always room, notes Howe, in these previous Page 247 | Top of Articleregimes, for "'free space,' that margin of personal autonomy which even in the worst moments of Stalinism and Hitlerism some people wanted to protect."
The "advance" represented by Ingsoc, according to Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchal Collectivism, the book written by a collective of Inner Party members including O'Brien, is the realization by the Party that all previous oppressive regimes were nonetheless "infected" with liberal ideas about the individual:
Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.
With that development, the totalization of surveillance of Party members, not only does private life come to an end, but so does the possibility of sexual desire as truly liberating. Julia and Winston do manage to steal their moments together away from the Party. But the Party's enforcers, the Thought Police, are watching even when the lovers are convinced they are safe, and the revenge they exact for this transgression of Party control is enormous.
It is significant that the instrument of this totalized surveillance is the "telescreen," Orwell's projection of the future of television. As Orwell was writing 1984 in 1948, television was just emerging from the developmental hiatus forced upon the broadcasting industry by World War II. Many people were worried, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, about what this new medium would be, how it would function, how much control over its watchers it would create. Orwell's own concerns about the future development of television are reflected in 1984's telescreens, which on the one hand, broadcast an endless barrage of Party propaganda, and on the other hand, act as transmitters as well, enabling the Party to exercise the total surveillance it required.
Martin Esslin has claimed in his essay "Television and Telescreen," however, that Orwell's fears about television missed the mark on two counts. First, Orwell was evidently more concerned about the potential for televisions to become cameras, a technological development which has not taken place, overlooking the importance of "what they have actually become, the omnipresent, constant providers of highly colorful visual entertainment for the broad masses." Secondly, Orwell's notion of what these telescreens did transmit was the crudest possible sort of propaganda—martial music and endless lists of production figures—which overlooks the utility of entertainment as a form of mass manipulation. In Esslin's words:
There is, after all, not that much difference between a society that floods the masses with cheap, novelettish romance, raucous and sentimental pop music, and pornography to keep them amused and politically inert and one that does the same thing for commercial gain—but with the identical ultimate political result: apathy, ignorance of real issues, and acquiescence in whatever the politicians are doing. And does not commercial television do just that?
Furthermore, both Esslin and Irving Howe point out another weakness in Orwell's depiction of the telescreen when compared to the development that television has actually taken in the latter half of the twentieth century: the proles—fully 85 percent of the population of Oceania—are not required to have telescreens. If the machine-made novels and songs are being put onto the market in order to keep the masses complacent, wouldn't the telescreen prove much more effective? Moreover, the proles, kept free of the telescreen's powers of surveillance, retain the ability to have a private life which Party members have lost. The Party clearly regards the proletariat as not being worth watching, as being unable to develop the "humanity" which must be guarded against in Party members. As it is stated in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchal Collectivism, "What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect."
This division of society into Party members and proles in 1984 was clearly modeled on the division which was coming into focus in the Soviet Union in 1948, in which Party members were closely monitored while proles were less controlled. Both Esslin and Howe, however, point out that Orwell's vision of the powerlessness and inertia of the proles did not bear out, given the evidence of history. In fact, numerous uprisings against the Soviet machine, from the Hungarian Revolution to the student uprisings in France, from Page 248 | Top of Articlethe Prague Spring to the rise of Solidarity in Poland, to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrate that the proletariat, and even party intellectuals, were not completely crushed by Party ideology, and that, in Esslin's words, "the totalitarian manipulation of popular feelings and ideas by the mass media is far less effective than Orwell had imagined."
Nonetheless, by the novel's end, Big Brother is ultimately victorious, having won over the last man in Europe. In today's world, Big Brother is still a force, especially to those who worry about the continued possibility of the rise of totalitarianism today. However, there is another face to Big Brother, which is precisely that "manipulation of popular feelings and ideas by the mass media" about which Orwell warned. If people find in government endless new reasons to be vigilant about the incursions into personal liberties which 1984 depicts, they would do well to remember, as Neil Postman claims in the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, that there is a very different version of the dystopian universe presented in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which "no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think." Big Brother may not be watching; he might be broadcasting.
Source: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
James E. Davis
In the following essay, Davis argues that, in addition to its literary merits, 1984 should be kept in the high school curriculum for its look at totalitarianism.
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four has been challenged on such grounds as profanity, immorality, and obscenity. It has been charged with being Communistic, containing sex references, and being depressing. Some of these charges are absurd, and though some have a grain of truth when items are taken out of context, on the whole the book stands up well and though frequently challenged has a history of rarely being removed from classrooms and libraries. Critics, as well as readers in general, have recognized the book as significant and valuable since its appearance at the end of the 1940s. Some examples: On the dust jacket of the first American edition of Nineteen Eighty-four Bertrand Russell and Alfred Kazin are quoted. Russell states, "Nineteen Eighty-four depicts the horrors of a well-established totalitarian regime of whatever type with great power and skill and force of imagination." He adds that it is important that we should be aware of these dangers. Alfred Kazin characterizes the book as "an extraordinary experience … overwhelming in its keenness and prophetic power." He further comments: "I hardly know which to praise more—Orwell's insight into the fate of man under totalitarianism, or his compassion for him." Reasons for reading and teaching Nineteen Eighty-four continue today to be much the same as these critics gave four decades ago.
The book does express a mood of near but not complete despair. The mood is despair only if readers do not heed the warning of what will happen if we continue on some of our present courses. But we do not have to become soulless automatons. It is not foreordained. The scenario of Nineteen Eighty-four is that atomic wars had started in the 1940s, accelerated ten years later in Russia, Western Europe, and North America. This atomic war led the governments (Eurasia, Oceania, and Eastasia) to conclude that unless atomic wars stopped, organized society would be doomed. Of course, this would also mean the end of governmental power. Thus atomic war stopped, but bombs continued to be stockpiled awaiting the right time to kill a large segment of the world's population without warning in a few seconds. Orwell portrays this continued military preparedness as essential also for the continuation of the economic system and shows the consequences of a society in a constant state of war readiness, always afraid of being attacked.
As Erich Fromm says in the Afterword to the 1961 New American Library paperback, "Orwell's picture is so pertinent because it offers a telling argument against the popular idea that we can save freedom and democracy by continuing the arms race and finding a 'stable' deterrent." With technical progress geometrically progressing, the caves will never be deep enough to protect us.
The novel begins on a bright cold day in April, "and the clocks were striking thirteen." From there on a world is presented that is permeated by fear and hate with such slogans as HATE WEEK, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The society has nothing like our first amendment. Everything is censored by the MINISTRY OF TRUTH. It is even a crime to keep a diary and Winston Smith's life is endangered by doing so. Ironically Winston is employed by the MINISTRY OF TRUTH, and his job is to constantly rewrite history. Government predictions Page 249 | Top of Articlewhich do not come true (and they never do) are made to disappear. And, of course, people have to be made to disappear too (to become nonpersons) if they commit THOUGHT CRIME, which the THOUGHT POLICE are to control. BIG BROTHER affirms that: "Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past." The following extended quotation from the book demonstrates in some detail how this control of the past was accomplished:
As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed in the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, pho-tographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place. The largest section of the Records Department, far larger than the one in which Winston worked, consisted simply of persons whose duty it was to track down and collect all copies of books, newspapers, and other documents which had been superseded and were due for destruction.
A few cubicles away from Winston is Ample-forth, who juggles rhymes and meters, producing garbled versions of poems which have become ideologically offensive but for one reason or another are to be retained in anthologies. There is also a whole army of reference clerks who spend all of their time preparing lists of books and magazines to be recalled. There are also huge warehouses where corrected documents are stored and furnaces where original copies are burned.
By controlling all information BIG BROTHER controls responses of citizens, primarily through the giant two-way TV screens in every living space. These permit THOUGHT POLICE to observe all citizens to see that they are responding in a desirable manner—hating enemies and loving BIG BROTHER. Reality control, DOUBLETHINK in NEWSPEAK, means an "unending series of victories over our memory."
In Nineteen Eighty-four orthodoxy means not thinking or even needing to think. It is unconsciousness. Orthodoxy is to close the book. One of the U.S. Supreme Court justices in the Island Trees case talks about censorship resulting in a "pall of orthodoxy." One of the functions of literature in a free society is to help protect us from this "pall of orthodoxy." This book is one of the best examples of a work of considerable literary merit worth reading and studying in the classroom as part of a protection program against the orthodoxy pall. It is also a very interesting study of the effects of an orthodoxy that finally convinces Winston Smith, a party member who opposes the system, that four is five. It takes brain-washing and torture by the MINISTRY OF LOVE to accomplish this convincing. Winston's final orthodoxy is: "Whatever the Party holds to be true is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party."
In answer to the question of why this particular novel to study the relationship between totalitarianism, technology, psychology, and language instead of a social studies, science, or language text, Roy Orgren, writing in the Fall 1983 Connecticut English Journal, says:
Simply because, set forth in a work of fiction, the ideas are more accessible, more interrelated, and more engaging; the sheer horror of totalitarianism is more real. We flinch when the truncheon-wielding guards in the MINISTRY OF LOVE crack Winston's fingers and shatter his elbow; we writhe in our armchairs as O'Brien virtually disembodies Winston with electric shocks; we shudder as moist pads are applied to Winston's temples; and we, like Winston, are dazed by the "devastating explosion," "the blinding flash of light" which so numbs his mind that he consents to seeing—no, actually sees—five fingers when only four are held to him.
We are jolted out of our complacency so that it is likely that we will never slacken our vigil against oppression and human rights violations.
Orwell, with his presiding interest in language, shows how BIG BROTHER manipulates society and controls reality by corrupting language. NEWSPEAK is calculated to get rid of individuality by limiting the range of thought through cutting the choice of words to a minimum. As Syme, the NEWSPEAK expert, says, "You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We're cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won't contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050."
Studying the effects of NEWSPEAK can only help us in cherishing our language with all of its rich diversity and ambiguities. Valuable, exciting classroom discussion and writing projects can grow from this, and surely the lesson of the importance of using language that is not vague and misleading but clear and precise can be learned.
Another major emphasis of the novel is the use of technology combined with advertising techniques (especially by the government) that are deeply psychological to eliminate individuality and privacy. Many of the same techniques used in Nineteen Eighty-four are in use today in our world, and many of them have become much more sophisticated. We surely have full-wall TV screens and the two-way television. Closed circuit security systems are not just for banks anymore. In fact, they are practically everywhere. Heartbeat, respiration, surface tension of the skin, stiffness of hair, and temperatures can be measured remotely by voltage sensors and ultrasensitive microphones. Our government puts out a glut of newspeak. It is significant that National Council of Teachers of English Doublespeak Award has twice been awarded to Ronald Reagan. The number of records, many kept without our knowledge, on each of us stored in computers, retrievable in seconds by almost any person or organization with the knowhow, is frightening. Behavior modification and drug therapy are widely used. Studying about these technologies and techniques, discussing them, exposing them, can make students aware in a way that may serve to make them less vulnerable to these techniques.
Perhaps the most interesting and discussable feature of Orwell's novel is its description of the nature of truth. Is there an objective truth, or is "reality" not external? Does it exist only subjectively and internally? Is it reality that what the Party holds to be truth is truth? The Party believes that truth is only in the mind and that by controlling the mind truth is controlled. Controlling minds and truth is ultimate power. Truth is subordinated to the Party. As Erich Fromm says, "It is one of the most characteristic and destructive developments of our own society that man, becoming more and more of an instrument, transforms reality more and more into something relative to his own interests and functions. Truth is proven by the consensus of millions; to the slogan 'how can millions be wrong' is added 'and how can a minority of one be right.'" The "one" must be insane. The "consensus truth" concept can serve as the basis for much valuable discussion about many things such as individuality, minority rights, majority rule, and, of course, values.
It is hard to imagine a modern novel that has more reasons to be read and taught. In addition to its literary merit, it has special implications for our times and the society toward which we may be heading. Its depiction of a well-established totalitarian regime, a nuclear stand-off with a world in constant fear, total censorship, NEWSPEAK, DOUBLETHINK, orthodoxy, and consensus truth offer almost sure-fire topics for discussion and writing in classes—discussions that can serve to foster sincere thinking and maturity. Yes, the book is depressing, but readers can react to that by trying to do positive things to influence the future rather than becoming more depressed and pessimistic. Nineteen Eighty-four teaches us, as Erich Fromm says at the end of his essay, "the danger with which all men are confronted today, the danger of a society of automatons who will have lost every trace of individuality, of love, of critical thought, and yet who will not be aware of it because of 'doublethink'. Books like Orwell's are powerful warnings."
Critical language involving reading, thought, and discussion of books like Nineteen Eighty-four may help us to avoid Winston's fate of total loss of self, of humanity, as presented in the last paragraph of the novel:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
Source: James E. Davis, "Why Nineteen Eighty-Four Should Be Read and Taught," in Censored Books, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 382-87.
Ralph A. Ranald
In the following essay, Ranald discusses Orwell's presentation of controlled madness and of a reversed society in his novel.
"I shall save you, Winston, I shall make you perfect." So O'Brien, the Grand Inquisitor of 1984, has said to the antihero Winston Smith, in one of the dream sequences which strangely go almost unnoticed in that inverted Platonic dialogue which is Orwell's monument. It is as if the lives of the Platonic philosopher-kings were viewed from the point of view of one of the Auxiliaries. But it is not the old style of dialogue, in which there is a certain Page 251 | Top of Articleamount of free interchange of ideas, even between master and disciple. Rather, in this new style of dialogue, one party has the ability to inflict pain on the other party in any degree desired, even while the two proceed to discuss the most abstruse political questions. Dialogue implies the ability to have one's mind changed, but in the condition of "controlled insanity" which is 1984, communication consists in the imposition of an insane view of reality by the strong few upon the weak many, through overwhelming force. O'Brien must "save" Winston, but this is religious salvation turned backward, and its purpose is to prevent even one "just man" from existing anywhere in the world, by convincing that man that he is insane. "Is it possible that a whole society can be insane?" asked Orwell in one of his essays, speaking of Hitler's Germany.
Orwell's 1984 is about religion reversed, law and government reversed, and above all, language reversed: not simply corrupted, but reversed. In the world of 1984, the mad world which Orwell sought by his writing to lead men to avoid—for he was a political activist not interested in simple predic-tion—in this world, which I call Orwell's "anti-universe," because of his conversion of all the positives of Western civilization into their negatives, all of the channels of communication are systematically being closed down, restricted to just the minimums necessary for the technical functioning of society. For Orwell, as for his master, Swift, language and politics are equivalents, and political corruption is always preceded by linguistic corruption, of which the phrases "two plus two equals five" and "black is white" are only the ultimate logical (and mad) projections. Communication will become, if the political tendencies which Orwell saw in the forties continue, not the transmission of meaning, but the attempt to avoid meaning in furtherance of a political end which we feel must be mad but are unable to prove, even as Winston Smith cannot prove to his tormentor the madness of the Party's doctrines.
Instead of the Electric Age resulting in a quantum jump in communication, as Professor McLuhan asserts in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, when he says that "as electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village," what McLuhan calls both "cool" and "hot" media have been, in the Orwellian view, dampened down as between individual and individual, and distorted terribly as between the individual and the State. I mention McLuhan not only because his book is current but also for what I think is his place in the direct line of descent from Orwell on the general subject of communication, and Orwell would have understood what McLuhan was driving at while not agreeing with most of his doctrine. At any rate, the deliberate, managed breakdown in communica-tion—not extension but breakdown—at the linguistic level and indeed in all media is one of Orwell's master themes, as it is such a theme in the Theater of the Absurd, the Beat Generation, the use of the lunatic in literature to convey truth, as in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or the recent hit play, Marat-Sade, and, it may be, in the language of current underground cultures, such as that of drug addiction or crime.
If meaningful communication has less and less chance of conveying impressions in the usual communications media, how does Orwell envision communication as taking place in his nightmare world? He does so primarily at the level of the infliction of pain. Torture is communication. Worse, to be tortured is not the worst thing in the world, if only the victim is understood by his torturer, as Winston feels he is understood by O'Brien.
In the mad world of 1984, all human relationships are based on pain, either its infliction or its avoidance. "We are the dead," says Winston of himself and his mistress, Julia, but just as the Platonic dialogue form has been adapted in 1984 in the torture scenes for satiric purposes, so Orwell has modified the Cartesian cogito to "'I suffer pain, therefore I am.'" No communication, nor self-definition, nor relation can occur in the Orwellian anti-universe without pain, and in this Orwell follows an important trend in modern literature. If one suffers pain, he is at least certain of being alive.
One is reminded, in the relationship between O'Brien and Winston which is the only human relationship in 1984—the Winston-Julia relationship being hollow and merely physical by comparison—of relationships between pairs of characters such as Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, and while we think of Crime and Punishment, one of the prime progenitors of this theme, also Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovitch. "Suffering, Rodion Romanovitch, is a great thing," observes Porfiry, as he invites him to confess. There is the climactic, though brief, relationship between Joe Christmas and Percy Grimm—their entire lives having been preparation for this confrontation—in Light in August, when the only way in which Grimm can become a man communicating with another is via an automatic pistol, emptying its magazine through a tabletop into his victim and then castrating him and defining him as the hated Other. There is the relation-Page 252 | Top of Articleship between the former agent provocateur, Rubashov, and the commissar Gletkin in Koestler's Darkness at Noon which, written a decade before 1984, shows some of the same but is on a cruder level, especially in terms of the dynamics of the power-pain relationship between O'Brien and Winston Smith. And in Brecht's haunting 1927 play, Im Dickicht der Städte, occurs the very sophisticated perception of the ambivalent relationship between Shlink, the Malay lumber dealer residing in the Chicago of 1912, and George Garga. "You observe the inexplicable boxing match between two men …," says Brecht, and he explains it in sexual terms. Shlink explicitly dies the death of Socrates, by poison, sitting upright, even as Winston Smith dies the death of Socrates reversed: spiritually, not physically, by the mastering of his will by that of the Party incarnated in O'Brien. Orwell explains the relationship in ostensibly non-sexual, political dynamics. Brecht uses such communication through pain in many of his plays, especially, I should say, in that between P. Mauler and Joan in St. Joan of the Stockyards, and in the enforced metamorphosis of Galy Gay in A Man's a Man. This kind of communication only between political or sexual aggressors and victims is that which Orwell was to dwell on. The Brechtian distinction between sexuality and politics is blurred by Orwell, because he saw the two drives as convertible, each an aspect of the other, in that sexual frustration or hysteria was one of the primary causes of political fanaticism.
That human beings can communicate only by inflicting pain on each other, or at any rate that this will be the state of things soon, is a desperate thesis. Orwell's life was a consistent development toward this frightening perception. But Orwell was, as has been said of Browning, "an ardent and headstrong conventionalist," who was defining a norm by its opposite, a moral universe by an antiuniverse.
Orwell saw human life under the primary philosophical category of relation, and this may be why he was never able to create a "round" character, even those characters which in the terms of what we know about Orwell's experience were clearly his own personae, aspects of himself at different stages of his life. He is the "I" as a schoolboy and the "I" as a Paris plongeur and English tramp in "Such, Such were the Joys …" and Down and Out In Paris and London, respectively. Incidentally, neither of these purportedly autobiographical documents is really the objective truth, as those who knew Orwell have testified; he took his artist's liberty of arranging the time sequence in Down and Out in the same way as Thoreau did in Walden, compressing two years of clock time into a single seasonal year, for increased concentration of effect. There is the civil servant, Flory, in Burmese Days: Orwell, or rather his portrait of the artist as a young imperialist. Flory shoots himself, as one imagines Orwell about to do in Burma before he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police. There is Winston Smith as middle middle-class man of the future, whom I have called a member of the Auxiliaries, the Outer Party, in the inverted Platonic Republic which is 1984. There is S. Bowling, the very important member of the English lower-middle class who has sharp perceptions about his society as the result of native wit and his educating himself beyond his class because of absurd circumstances in World War I. There is Gordon Comstock, the literary intellectual of the English lower-middle class, who refuses to climb out of his impoverished and unsatisfactory life at first when he has the opportunity; he leads the life of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, refusing the shackles of his society, until he is brought to bay by that most fundamental drive: the procreation of the race. Least believable of his characters is the antiheroine of A Clergyman's Daughter—a novel in which we again have the impoverished middle class, seen through the eyes of a neurotic and repressed woman, and in this portrait we see more than a hint of Orwellian antifeminism. For while Orwell deplored what he saw as the modern denigration of love in favor of sheer power, he recognized power as the greater reality.
In each of these characters, essentially the same story—the conflict of an individual with an unsatisfactory, if not mad, society—is told from a somewhat different perspective. But all of them are two-dimensional, and the central focus is not even on society, but on power, the central question of which, as Orwell himself said, was "how to prevent it from being abused." Orwell's basic motivation was to communicate with other social classes, especially with the working class which is as near to a true hero, albeit a collective hero, as he ever developed. And he emphasized the difficulties of such communication: for him, bred to an extreme class-consciousness despite himself, the simple step of walking into a working-class pub, incognito, was as hazardous as visiting a tribe of isolated Australian aborigines, and his equivalent of obtaining First Class Honours in P.P.E. at Oxford, which he never attended, was his being accepted by English coal miners and Spanish revolutionaries in The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage Page 253 | Top of Articleto Catalonia. This effort at interclass communication on Orwell's part was to succeed beyond the achievements of any of his English contemporaries. But it led him to pessimistic conclusions. "If there is hope," writes Winston Smith in 1984, "it lies in the Proles." But the Proles will never become rebellious against their insane surroundings until they become self-aware first, and, as O'Brien assures Winston, they will never become self-aware until they rebel, a rebellion which is impossible.
Lately, one still reads Orwell, and his books are available in most paperback stores, but few write about him. Perhaps this is a blessing, or the highest form of praise of him. One wonders why there is such a lack of interest in the man. Or is it that everything which can be said about him and his portrayal of the Mad World has been said? I doubt it. The biographical and critical studies, such as they are, leave one absolutely unsatisfied. Lionel Trilling expressed best a belief about Orwell, in his introduction to Homage to Catalonia fifteen years ago, that Orwell was a very unusual kind of man, almost a saint, and not a genius; one who, uncharacterized by really superior intelligence, lived his vision as well as wrote it. He is in this view a Mark Twain, Thoreau, Whitman, or possibly Henry James. "He is not a genius—what a relief!" observed Trilling. "He was a virtuous man."
Yet Orwell lived a life of allegory on which his works are the commentary, unobtrusively passing through the very worst phase to date of European and British civilization, noting everything about the actual power realities, successfully communicating in his personal life with a wide range of nationalities and classes both inside and outside of his own country. He told us something very significant about his works when, in his will, he specified that no biography of him was ever to be written. Perhaps his mystery is that he made no mysteries in his writings, though his life I would call mysterious; he may have concluded early that the rarest of all sophisticated literary devices is clarity. As he wrote of a mad antiuniverse in his work, and expressed his despair at the breakdown of valid communication, so his style was exceptionally clear, as though he would prove his point in terms of technique by its opposite, just as he wished to establish a norm by a portrait of its opposite. For him, the only valid communication is nondestructive communication.
In considering 1984 it is well to proceed by way of Animal Farm, for it is substantive: the first work, as he himself said later, "In which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole." This avowed political purpose accounts for the absence of real characters in Orwell's writing, other than himself moving through an absurd world. It is, in fact, to his political interest to show non-characters, such as Winston Smith who, passive as he is in the grip of overwhelming force against which he briefly rebels, is the only one in 1984 who is even given a complete name: the most ordinary English family name, and the first name of the most extraordinary Englishman of the century. Winston is passive and not self-aware, though we see something of his stream-of-consciousness through his dreams, his diary, and his reactions to various tortures in the Ministry of Love. He does not act; he is acted upon, even in his revolt against Big Brother. Winston, from the first moment we meet him, never makes a free decision.
We can document the completeness of Winston's slavery by reference to the series of dreams which he has, involving his mother, his sister, O'Brien, Julia, "The place where there is no dark-ness"—i.e., the torture cellars of the Thought Po-lice—and The Golden Country. This last is the Orwellian archetypal dream, to be set against the nightmare of the Mad World, which perhaps ultimately stems from some boyhood experience. Whatever it was, it is his pre-Adamic state, and it appears again in Coming Up for Air, in the hidden fishing pool with the huge trout. The dreams are a key to the deeper meaning of 1984, and to the lunacy of this projected world which is even more sinister than has been perceived. The truth is that Winston Smith has been designed as a victim of his society and his Party from childhood; he is marked down years before we meet him at the beginning of the book, on that day when he sets his will against that of the Party and, on April 4, 1984, writes in his diary: DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER!
Seven years prior to that date, Winston had dreamed that he was in a dark room and that someone had said to him: "We shall meet again in the place where there is no darkness." And that someone was O'Brien. It is clear that Orwell intended his readers to perceive that Winston has been under surveillance for at least that long. It may be, in the highly efficient madness of 1984, that O'Brien, one of the society's most important men, has had no other job than to be a sort of "project officer" in charge of Winston's entrapment, torture, and repentance. To be the project officer of Socrates would have been a full-time job in ancient Athens. Page 254 | Top of ArticleIt is O'Brien himself who explains to Winston in the torture chamber why such pains are being taken with him. And there is a deep psychological tie between Winston and O'Brien, with sexual overtones transposed into power fantasies. Winston has a guilt neurosis implanted in his subconscious; his parents and his sister have "disappeared," and as he tells Julia, he believes that he was partly responsible for this, though he had been only a child at the time. In defiance of his surroundings, he comes to the intuitive belief that everything about his society is mad. They foresaw this, too. Finally, when Winston is arrested by the Thought Police, and O'Brien appears to him in prison, he, Winston, realizes that he has always known that O'Brien was an agent of the State. "You knew this, Winston," said O'Brien. "Don't deceive yourself. You did know it—you have always known it." And Winston reflects, even as the guard moves toward him with a rubber truncheon: "Yes, he saw now, he had always known it."
This, too, follows the classic criminological theory that the criminal commits his crime because he is seeking to be caught and punished: seeking, in other words, structure and order, and in Winston's case seeking simply communication. The most ingenious tortures are used on Winston; some of them, for example, based on his fear of rats, could only have been known if he had been the object of minute study. This he has been—a textbook case.
As for Winston's job—the rewriting of history in a minor office of the Ministry of Truth—it is absolute madness by any rational norm, that is, if there were rational norms in 1984 instead of anti-norms. History is bunk, and Winston's creation of a Party hero, a Comrade Ogilvy, has its exact, almost uncanny parallel in the published diary of the Chinese Communist soldier, Lei Feng, passages of which were reprinted in the New York Times of April 7, 1963. Lei Feng is "a model for the youth of New China." He exists on the same evidence as Comrade Ogilvy and is more likely than not a fictional creation.
As for law, this instrument for the structuring of society is reversed in 1984. In that antiworld, there is no written law, and everything is, or can be, considered a crime at the pleasure of the State. The legal maxim nulla poena sine lege is completely reversed. All crimes are comprehended in one crime: thoughtcrime, which involves the religious offense (converted into political terms) of setting up one's will against that of Big Brother, in "an instant of rebellious pride." Thoughtcrime involves, not forbidden acts, but forbidden thoughts. The common law, or the civil law, takes no account of thoughts, other than tangentially in the doctrine of mens rea in the specific instance of the establishment of degrees of homicide or manslaughter. These regard only acts, while for the Party in a universe whose values are transposed, the act is unimportant; it is the prohibited thought which is the cardinal danger. When Winston confesses to all of the crimes it is possible to commit, including treason and murder, it makes no difference that the confession is objectively false. By willing these acts, he has done them.
If, finally, in 1984, Orwell was presenting a satiric antiuniverse, with the expressed political intention of alerting democracy to the perils of its only and coming alternative, totalitarianism, what is his norm? It is expressed most straightforwardly in three works: Down and Out …, The Road to Wigan Pier, and a little-known short history which he wrote in haste right after World War II and before 1984, a History of the English people. This last is particularly valuable because it was not colored by the wartime propaganda from which even Orwell was not immune (proving his point about the Two Minutes' Hate and its all-enfolding nature in 1984, if proof were needed). What is the special thing, he asks, which the English can contribute to the Western world? Simply their outstanding and—"by contemporary standards—highly original quality … their habit of not killing one another." In other words, he holds up the possibility of communication not by the infliction of pain but by rational discourse.
Orwell's thought, in this same History, about the English language adds to what he was to say in Politics and the English Language and in the linguistic satire of 1984. English, he said, is peculiarly subject to jargons. And, as he always did, he made the jump from the quality of language to the morality of politics, concluding that "the temporary decadence of the English language is due, like so much else, to our anachronistic class system." This is, he adds, one of the chief evils resulting "when the educated classes lose touch with the manual workers." And we can foresee, at this juncture, where he will end, for these statements about language touch on his own deep desire to immerse himself in a class other than that "lower upper-middle class" into which he was born. One must have human contact, and the world, if one can no longer communicate through language but only through the infliction of suffering or the enduring of pain, Page 255 | Top of Articleis mad, because embraced pain is madness—or sainthood. For Orwell, it is madness. Orwell desired to communicate without smashing in faces with monkey wrenches, or goosestepping over the prostrate, in a world which he saw as that of an increasing, though at the same time a controlled, madness. It is easy to decry his vision, and, after all, he was desperately ill while writing 1984, which may have darkened his outlook. But there he is, an honest man at noonday with a candle, searching for his like, seeking rational discourse, and not finding it.
Source: Ralph A. Ranald, "George Orwell and the Mad World: The Anti-Universe of '1984,'" South Atlantic Quarterly, Autumn, 1967, pp. 544-53.
Elaine Hoffman Baruch, "The Golden Country: Sex and Love in 1984," in "1984" Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 47-56.
Robert Christgau, "Writing for the People," in The Village Voice, February 1, 1983, pp. 54-5.
Martin Esslin, "Television and Telescreen," in On Nineteen Eighty-Four, edited by Peter Stansky, W. H. Freeman & Co., 1983, pp. 126-38.
Irving Howe, "1984: Enigmas of Power," in 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century, edited by Irving Howe, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 3-18.
Marcus Smith, "The Wall of Blackness: A Psychological Approach to 1984," in Modern Fiction Studies, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 42-33.
Ian Watt, "Winston Smith: The Last Humanist," in On Nineteen Eighty-Four, W. H. Freeman, 1983, pp. 103-13.
For Further Study
Paul Chilton and Aubrey Crispin, editors, Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984, Comedia Publishing Group, 1983.
Collection of essays focusing on the relevance of Orwell's novel in contemporary political and social life.
College Literature, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1984, pp. 1-113.
Issue devoted to studies of 1984.
Miriam Gross, editor, The World of George Orwell, Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Collection of critical and biographical essays.
Alfred Kazin, "Not One of Us," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, no. 10, June 14, 1984, pp. 13-4, 16, 18.
Kazin discusses the political nature of Orwell's novel.
Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1975, pp. 3-136.
Issue devoted to Orwell criticism.
Erica Munk, "Love Is Hate: Women and Sex in 1984," in Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, February 1, 1983, pp. 50-2.
Munk criticizes Orwell novel for its inattention to the roles (or lack thereof) of women in Oceania.
Norman Podhoretz, "If Orwell Were Alive Today," in Harper's, Vol. 266, No. 1592, January, 1983, pp. 30-2, 34-7.
Podhoretz, using the text of 1984 as evidence, claims Orwell for the neo-conservatives.
Ian Watt, "Winston Smith: The Last Humanist," in On Nineteen Eighty-Four, edited by Peter Stansky, W. H. Freeman & Co. 1983, pp. 103-13.
Watt describes Winston Smith as a humanist and his destruction at the hands of the Party as the destruction of the values of humanism.
George Woodcock, Remembering Orwell, edited by Stephen Wadhams, Penguin, 1984.
Woodcock disagrees with writers such as Podhoretz who claim Orwell for the neo-conservatives, placing him instead in a line of English literary radicals including Jonathan Swift and Charles Dickens.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2592000024