It has long been known that George Orwell drew upon his wartime experiences when he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The drab, forbidding landscape of Winston Smith’s Oceania (subject of two films, the most recent of which captures this aspect of the novel rather better than the 1950’s version) reflects Orwell’s almost phobic aversion to the England that emerged during and after the war, revealing not only the bombed-out buildings and the war-enforced deprivations but also the generalized regimentation and imposed conformity in domestic and public building, which became part of the postwar Labour government’s effort to rebuild and reshape a shattered nation. INGSOC, the political and social dogma of Oceania, while it was in part motivated by a generous dose of anti-Communist ideology (deriving from Orwell’s long-standing contempt for the Soviet Union and its local incarnation, the Communist Party of Great Britain), was more directly a representation of the Clement Attlee government’s attempt to direct social spending toward the masses of underprivileged British workers and the unemployed, to give them for the first time in history a solid and secure material basis upon which to build a decent life. To the extent that any such program of general social improvement would require centralized bureaucracy and state control, it can be said that Orwell’s horrific fantasy of the future (he himself always insisted that this is what the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four was) had no particular government or social system as its model. Nevertheless, given what is known about Orwell’s political beliefs and prejudices, it is not so wrong to say that the novel gives warrant for the Cold War appropriation of it that ensued immediately upon its publication, and that has shaped its reception down to the mid-1980’s. That Big Brother was intended to suggest Joseph Stalin (once more, Orwell made no bones about this) is but another indication of the book’s basic polemical thrust. England is there all right, but behind the picture of war-ravaged London lay Orwell’s nightmares about a Socialist future, which he thought he detected emerging in Labour-led Great Britain and which had as its ultimate avatar what Orwell thought he knew about Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The value and interest of Orwell: The Lost Writings lies in the light it sheds on that period in Orwell’s life when he worked for the India Section of the Far Eastern Service of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), writing and broadcasting radio scripts and arranging for speakers and programs. This period was undoubtedly influential upon Orwell’s ultimate picture of those aspects of Oceania which he saw already incarnated in His Majesty’s government’s wartime organization and administration. It is by now a commonplace in the scholarship on Orwell that much of what Winston Smith experiences in his work for the Ministry of Truth reflects Orwell’s own experiences at the BBC, then under tight rein by the Ministry of Information. Even the physical description of the Ministry of Truth building resembles quite closely the actual University of London Senate House on Malet Street (pictured in a recent photograph in the present book), where the Ministry of Information was headquartered during the war. To a degree, then, Orwell’s novel was less a projection than a recollection, a kind of report of what things were like for at least some of those employed by “our side” in the “struggle against Fascism.” One might profitably read Nineteen Eighty-Four with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), rather than, as has most often been the case, in the company of Eugene Zamyatin’s We (1959) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Orwell’s supposed fantasy might well be taken less as a dystopian fantasy than as a grim, but scarcely exaggerated, historical novel.
The point, however, should not be overdramatized. One can...
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