How does George Orwell's 1984 relate to modernism?

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Modernism is a term that has usually been applied to artistic movements (modernism in literature, in painting, music, and so on) or, less frequently, to general cultural attitudes associated with the early to mid twentieth century (or even up to our own time). If we are talking about the style in which Orwell's 1984 is written—in other words, about 1984 as a novel—I would not regard it as "modernist," in comparison with certain other novels, or literature in general, of Orwell's time and earlier. Orwell gives us a straightforward third-person narrative as opposed to, say, the stream-of-consciousness manner of James Joyce. Even in comparison with a much more accessible writer like Hemingway there is, in my view, something much more traditional about Orwell's prose style, almost harking back to the novels of Somerset Maugham, whom Orwell greatly admired and whose influence he acknowledged.

If we are talking about the content of 1984—its story, themes, and characters—it describes a world not "modernist" but modern in a negative way, emblematic of the worst political and societal movements of the twentieth century. The scenario depicted by Orwell is one in which the entire world has been subjected to totalitarian rule under three "superstates." This is a neo-primitive world which is the opposite of the enlightened future that might have been expected to come about as the result of modernist attitudes and predictions by elites in the modern age. In 1984 the technology used by the Party, which enables the continuous surveillance of the population and the falsification of historical records through computer-like systems, is ultra-modern, but the conditions under which people live are almost a throwback to a time before the 1940s when Orwell wrote the book. Food is poor and scanty, and material wealth is non-existent for the entire population apart from the tiny circle of the Inner Party. There is thus a dichotomy between, on the one hand, the modern technology that enables the Party to rule and, on the other, the primitive conditions of living for most people. This is the "modern" world that Orwell saw taking shape based on not only the totalitarian states of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but the conditions of privation to which democratic Britain, despite victory, had been reduced as a result of World War II.

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One of the most important modernist trends was the description of alienation felt by citizens of a rapidly changing and technologically advanced society. Examples of alienation can be seen in many modernist works, such as The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, in which the main character leads a dissipated and purposeless life in Paris during the '20s. In general, modernism chronicled the dismantling of traditional values, codes, and ways of life, and so modernist writing is often characterized by a "lost," lonely feeling (many modernist writers were known as the Lost Generation, after all.)

George Orwell's 1984 can be seen as an extension of this modernist alienation. Like many modernist characters before him, Winston feels alienated by his society, as he sees himself as little more than a faceless tool used by the overlords of the Party. Indeed, the Party seems chiefly concerned with dismantling all traditional modes of life in order to replace them with their own, more "efficient" ways of living. This process even includes a complete overhaul of the English language. With such demoralizing and dehumanizing change occurring around him, it's easy to see why Winston is essentially an alienated, modernist figure. 

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Modernism in art and literature in the first half of the twentieth century has often been related to the rise of the city and the machine, and to a fascination with the automated, the mechanized, and the new. Modernist work also often addresses or incorporates the collective sense of alienation and anxiety that seems to pervade modern life. Ezra Pound, a modernist poet, wrote "Make it new!" and this has sometimes been taken up as modernism's rallying cry. We can easily see how the Party's attempt in 1984 to use technology to eradicate and remake history fits with modernist ideas of a break with the past. The Party also works to remake people into cogs or parts of the machine of its vast system, valorizing the technological. 1984's world is largely urban and mechanized, and the monumental, faceless architecture of buildings like the Minilove headquarters suggest the monolithic, geometrical form of modernist skyscrapers. The regimented world of 1984, at least for Party members, has become a figure of the modernist nightmare.

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