1984: Then and Now

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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 thoughtcrime in Oceania because it elevates the human, the individual, above the powers of the...

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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 undifferentiated 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 regimes, 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 the 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. Fitzpatrick is an author and doctoral candidate at New York University.

Why Nineteen Eighty-Four Should Be Read and Taught

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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 which 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, photographs—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 Ampleforth, 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. ©2000-2004 eNotes. 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.

George Orwell and the Mad World: The Anti-Universe of 1984

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“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 amount 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 prediction—in this world, which I call Orwell’s “antiuniverse,” 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 communication—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 relationship 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 to 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 darkness”—i.e., the torture cellars of the Thought Police—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. It 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 antinorms. 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, is 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.


Critical Overview


Special Commissioned Entry on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, W. Scott Lucas