In his novel titled 1984, George Orwell frequently depicts Winston Smith’s obsession with the past and explains that obsession in various ways, including the following:
- One of the first references to the past occurs in the paradoxical phrase “the mutability of the past.” We usually think of the past as immutable – as unchanging – but in 1984 the history of the past is rewritten so often and so thoroughly that it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what, exactly, did happen in preceding years. The Party knows that if it can not only erase previous history but create “new” history, it can control the way people think in the present and future. Ironically, Orwell’s book, published in 1948, is set in an imagined future (1984), so that he is imaginatively writing the history of the future before it even happens.
- At one point, Winston reflects on the power of the Party’s control of history and the writing of history:
If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture or death.
The party’s potential control of the past is “more terrifying than mere torture or death” partly because “mere torture or death” typically affects individuals or groups, whereas tampering with the past potentially affects everyone, and it also ironically makes more torture and death possible but perhaps also unnecessary. Torture and death imply continued resistance to the Party; torture and death therefore imply the continuance of free thought and of skeptical thinking. If the past can ever be entirely rewritten to the Party’s liking, torture and death may no longer be necessary because all independent thought will have ceased. That, in some ways, is a more frightening prospect than continued torture and death. Ironically, Orwell, by imagining a future in which the past is rewritten, tries to encourage us to resist allowing any such future to ever come about. He tries to preserve truth about the past by imagining a terrifying dystopian future.
- Later, Winston recalls actual party slogans, including this one: “Who controls the past . . . controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Past, present, and future thus become nearly identical and indistinguishable. Individual differences – even the individual differences between the past, present, and future – collapse and are erased. Freedom of thought thus becomes impossible. Winston has good reason, then, to worry about what may become of the past in the present and future. His obsession with the past is therefore one small indication that the past has not yet completely died or been erased or transformed.