In Orwell's 1984, what are Winston's thoughts about human heritage and dying?
In the early chapters of George Orwell’s novel 1984, the protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, comes to various conclusions about human heritage and about dying or death. These conclusions include the following:
- At one point, Winston thinks of himself as
a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.
In other words, only by preserving one’s reason, only by resisting the impulse to go mad or become crazy, was it even possible to imagine resistance to the Party of any kind, let alone bring such resistance into actual practice. Resistance had first to be imagined as possible before it could become a social fact. If the Party were able to drive people insane, it would be able to control not only the present but also the past and the future. Only human rationality – only the ability to think for oneself and to think freely – could preserve human freedom. As long as one person remained sane, the Party had not yet completely triumphed. Even if that one person were unable to communicate with others, the mere fact of his or her continuing sanity made it at least conceivable that the Party could be challenged and perhaps even overthrown. Of course, resistance from many persons would be preferable to resistance from just one, but only by holding on to one’s own sanity was it even possible to imagine making contact with other sane persons.
In a way, the quotation cited above seems relevant to Orwell’s own position in life. He must sometimes have thought that in an age of horrific totalitarianism, he ran the risk of being one of the few sensible people left. His novel is in some ways his own small attempt to preserve his own sanity, to encourage sanity in others, and to make contact with the other sane persons who did continue to exist.
- Shortly after the passage quoted above, Winston has another thought:
He was already dead, he reflected. . . . Now that he recognized himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible.
Winston, of course, is not literally dead – at least not yet. He is “already dead” in the sense that he has already lost much of his liberty, especially much of his intellectual freedom. Paradoxically, however, the mere fact that he can see himself as “already dead” suggests that he is still alive, still free enough intellectually to recognize the threat of metaphorical death and to resist it. By calling himself a dead man, he gives evidence (to himself and to us) that he is still alive enough to resist true total intellectual death – the kind of death that really matters.
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