Saturday, September 17, 2016

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I decided to read this classic again after it was assigned to my 8th grade son. I thought it would be fun to re-experience it through his eyes.

My hope was that he would have the same experience I had when reading the book for the first time. Slogging through the depressing and soul-crushing first section of the book, coming to understand the intentions and machinations of a purely totalitarian State, and wondering, like our protagonist, Winston Smith (like ourselves, the only seemingly sensitive and human character we are allowed to know), wondering through the permeating fear and paranoia, if any hope existed anywhere in the world.

He tried with a little more success than before to summon up the image of O’Brien. “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,” O’Brien had said to him. He knew what it meant, or thought he knew. The place where there is no darkness was the imagined future, which one would never see, but which, by foreknowledge, once could mystically share in. But with the voice from the telescreen nagging at his ears he could not follow the train of thought further. He put a cigarette in his mouth. Half the tobacco promptly fell out onto his tongue, a bitter dust which was difficult to spit out again. The face of Big Brother swam into his mind, displacing that of O’Brien. Just as he had done a few days earlier, he slid a coin out of his pocket and looked at it. The face gazed up at him, heavy, calm, protecting, but what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache? Like a leaden knell the words came back at him:




That’s how Part 1 ends, the Orwellian slogans of Big Brother ringing in the ears of Winston and the reader, defining the contradictory logic of Oceania’s oppression over its citizens. And when Part 2 begins, Winston is back at work at the Ministry of Information, and a woman that he recognizes but doesn’t know trips and falls at his feet while passing him in the hallway.

A curious emotion stirred in Winston’s heart. In front of him was an enemy who was trying to kill him; in front of him, also, was a human creature, in pain and perhaps with a broken bone. Already he had instinctively started forward to help her. In the moment when he had seen her fall on the bandaged arm, it had been as though he felt the pain in his own body.

Winston is torn. His society has taught him to trust no one, to believe that literally anyone could be a spy for the Party, or that any accidental word he might utter or expression that might cross his face, could be observed and noted by the Party apparatus. Contact between strangers is a dangerous game in Oceania, and made all the more complicated when, upon helping the woman to her feet, she surreptitiously slips a folded piece of paper into his hand.

It terrifies him. He tucks it immediately into his pocket, and hides it under a pile of papers when he gets back to his desk.

Whatever was written on the paper, it must have some kind of political meaning. So far as he could see there were two possibilities. One, much the more likely, was that the girl was an agent of the Thought Police, just as he had feared. He did not know why the Thought Police should choose to deliver their messages in such a fashion, but perhaps they had their reasons. The thing that was written on the paper might be a threat, a summons, an order to commit suicide, a trap of some description. But there was another, wilder possibility that kept raising its head, though he tried vainly to suppress it. This was, that the message did not come from the Thought Police at all, but from some kind of underground organization. Perhaps the Brotherhood existed after all! Perhaps the girl was part of it! No doubt the idea was absurd, but it had sprung into his mind in the very instant of feeling the scrap of paper in his hand. It was not till a couple of minutes later that the other, more probable explanation had occurred to him. And even now, though his intellect told him that the message probably meant death--still, that was not what he believed, and the unreasonable hope persisted, and his heart banged, and it was with difficulty that he kept his voice from trembling as he murmured his figures into the speakwrite.

This, of course, is Winston Smith in a nutshell, the Winston Smith that was born and shaped by the totalitarianism of Oceania. Fearing and knowing the hopelessness that confronts the individual spirit, but still, quietly, secretly, in his mind if nowhere else, harboring the dangerous idea that things were once different, and could be different again.

And then…

He rolled up the completed bundle of work and slid it into the pneumatic tube. Eight minutes had gone by. He readjusted his spectacles on his nose, sighed, and drew the next batch of work toward him, with the scrap of paper on top of it. He flattened it out. On it was written, in a large unformed handwriting:

I love you.

It is, in my opinion, one of the most memorable and jarring moments in all of fiction. When, through the imposing edifice of the world that Orwell has so skillfully built around you, comes slipping they very thing a reader yearns for, yearns for in the same way that Winston yearns for hope and freedom. Surprise. The only thing that would make it sweeter would be if the reader him or herself could unfold the paper and read the secret words in the same way Winston does, preventing the wayward eyes from stealing their way down the page for a peek at what’s coming next.

That’s the experience I hoped my son would have, although, I fear, at fourteen, he may not yet have the maturity to understand it.

As for me, while it was quietly thrilling to relive those anxious sensations again as a much older man, I also had a number of other experiences upon my second reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

At first, I found myself fixated on details I had never even considered as a younger man. The first that struck me was trying to figure out if the novel itself was written in Newspeak--the official language of the book’s fictional nation, Oceania. Since Newspeak was purportedly invented “not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits” approved by Oceania’s ruling Party, “but to make all other modes of thought impossible,” it seemed an impossible task to write a novel, any novel, but especially a novel about ideas that the State depicted would find subversive, in that limited tongue. Perhaps that was one of the reasons Orwell chose to write in the voice of a third-person omniscient narrator. It gave him the freedom to express ideas and concepts many of his characters, already dulled by the limitations of Newspeak, could not.

But in the novel, Newspeak has clearly not yet fully taken hold. Most people are only beginning to inject a few Newspeak words into their usage and vocabularies. One comrade of Winston’s, Smye, is one of the Party members working on the Newspeak dictionary, and he perfectly understands what Newspeak is and what a diabolical tool it really is.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. “Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

Of course, in Newspeak such a tool wouldn’t be called diabolical. There’s a reason why we call certain turns of phrase Orwellian after all. Newspeak would probably be called patriotic, or rather, doublegood Partylove. Smye continues...

“By 2050--earlier, probably--all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron--they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change, Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking--not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

Orwell spends a lot of time on this idea of orthodoxy--and the mindless gibberish that is its stock and trade. And in his descriptions, it is hard not to see reflections of our own society. Sometimes it feels different only in degree, not in kind.


He was a man of about thirty, with a muscular throat and a large, mobile mouth. His head was thrown back a little, and because of the angle at which he was sitting, his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes. What was slightly horrible was that from the stream of sound that poured out of his mouth, it was almost impossible to distinguish a single word. Just once Winston caught a phrase--“complete and final elimination of Goldsteinism”--jerked out very rapidly and, as it seemed, all in one piece, like a line of type cast solid. For the rest it was just noise, a quack-quack-quacking. And yet, though you could not actually hear what the man was saying, you could not be in any doubts about its general nature. He might be denouncing Goldstein and demanding sterner measures against thought-criminals and saboteurs, he might be fulminating against the atrocities of the Eurasian army, he might be praising Big Brother or the heroes on the Malabar front--it made no difference. Whatever it was, you could be certain that every word of its was pure orthodoxy, pure Ingsoc. As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking; it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise, uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

And the working class…

In reality very little was known about the proles. It was not necessary to know much. So long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern. They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumors and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous; but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party, It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations. And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.

Reading this again as I transcribed it, I find myself struck again by just how accurate this description is of whole classes of people in modern American society--or, at least, how accurate the description is when measured against my own observations and conclusions about modern American society. And it’s not just some kind of uneducated and backward underclass, but people of my very own class--college-educated, professional, financially comfortable with a mortgage, two cars and expensive hobbies. Replace “heavy physical work” with “intellectually demanding work” and all the other comments about the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and gambling aptly seem to describe the horizon of our minds.

But the most dangerous premise on which the State of Nineteen Eighty-Four is founded in the one that says individuals do not exist as individuals. They are all, every one of them, pieces of the State itself. It’s a reality that both Orwell the writer and Winston the character seem to understand from the very beginning, despite the mental gymnastics that Winston performs and the risks he takes, creating the flimsiest glimmer of hope that such may not be the case.

It is, in fact, Julia--the woman who slips Winston the note at the beginning of Part 2, that best represents this seductive delusion in the novel.

She would not accept it was a law of nature that the individual is always defeated. In a way she realized that she herself was doomed, that sooner or later the Thought Police would catch her and kill her, but with another part of her mind she believed that it was somehow possible to construct a secret world in which you could live as you chose. All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead, that from the moment of declaring war on the Party it was better to think of yourself as a corpse.

Julia is an entirely different kind of “individual” than the proles. They are largely ignorant of the Party and its propaganda. Julia isn’t. She’s a member of the Party. She’s part of the apparatus that works its intentions in the world. She just doesn’t care.

In the ramifications of Party doctrine she had not the faintest interest. Whenever he began to talk of the principles of Ingsoc, doublethink, the mutability of the past and the denial of objective reality, and to use Newspeak words, she became bored and confused and said that she never paid any attention to that kind of thing. One knew that it was all rubbish, so why let oneself be worried by it? She knew when to cheer and when to boo, and that was all one needed. If he persisted in talking of such subjects, she had a disconcerting habit of falling asleep. She was one of those people who can go to sleep at any hour and in any position. Talking to her, he realized how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.

This is even more frightening, I think, than what it happening to the proles or even than what winds up happening to Winston. Because a State like Oceania can’t survive and grow without people like Julia. Those on the inside who turn its wheels and pull its levers, but have mentally separated themselves from the horrors that their action cause. Too many proles and the State can’t get started. Too many Winstons and the State’s machinery can’t work. But too many Julias and the State becomes unstoppable.

It’s an extremely pessimistic book. That’s one of the things I love about it. O’Brien turns out to be not Winston’s co-conspirator, but his interrogator, and “the place where there is no darkness” is not the envisioned future, but the interrogation chambers of the Ministry of Love. We join Winston there in Part 3, experiencing both his torture and eventual re-education. “He” is not an individual, an entity with its own mind and memory and sense of self. He, despite what he may think or believe, is only and always an agent of the State itself--and until he accepts that, the State still won’t treat him as an individual, but as a diseased part of itself. As O’Brien explains…

“You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.”

Yes, in the logic of Oceania, it is madness for the individual to believe that he is right and the Party is wrong. Those people are not revolutionaries, or insurgents, or saboteurs. They are simply insane, and the Party is obligated to bring them back into the fold. In this way, the O’Briens of Oceania are different from the totalitarians of the past.

“We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days the heretic walked to that stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out. The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art.’ No one whom we bring to this place ever stands out against us. Everyone is washed clean. Even those three miserable traitors in whose innocence you once believed--Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford--in the end we broke them down. I took part in their interrogation myself. I saw them gradually worn down, whimpering, groveling, weeping--and in the end it was not with pain or fear, only with penitence. By the time we had finished with them they were only the shells of men. There was nothing left in them except sorrow for what they had done, and love of Big Brother. It was touching to see how they loved him. They begged to be shot quickly so that they could die while their minds were still clean.

O’Brien is right. Oceania is the final step in the evolution of despotism and totalitarianism. A State that is neither feared nor opposed, just living on in the minds of its people. Its method of perpetuation is not purging actions, but thoughts that transgress its dogma, and it is accomplished by people who either purge those thoughts themselves (like Julia), or who purge them in others (like O’Brien). Against either kind of opponent, individualists like Winston Smith don’t stand a chance.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a cautionary tale, written by a political observer and activist in 1949, essentially about the failure of individuals to stop the despotism and totalitarianism of his own time. But in its bleak vision of an oppressive future, its most valuable lesson is for people of every generation to remember that, although “the Party” may always be wrong about the nature of reality and the role of the individual in its society, in the end, that fact, in itself, is not an adequate protection against its ever encroaching power.

Winston and Julia, as they conduct their love affair, know that they will eventually be caught; caught and tortured and killed. And when that happens, they know that they will helplessly tell their tormentors all they wish to know about the other.

“If you mean confessing,” she said, “we shall do that, right enough. Everybody always confesses. You can’t help it. They torture you.”

“I don’t mean confessing. Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you--that would be the real betrayal.”

She thought it over. “They can’t do that,” she said finally. “It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can make you say anything--anything--but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.”

“No,” he said a little more hopefully, “no; that’s quite true. They can’t get inside you. If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”

He thought of the telescreen, with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking. Perhaps that was less true when you were actually in their hands. One did not know what happened inside the Ministry of Love, but it was possible to guess: tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning. Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by inquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

Winston is wrong, as he comes to discover in Room 101 of the Ministry of Love. The individual and his inner heart is not impregnable. For in the end, even he learns to love Big Brother. And it is in this final revelation that Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates its final pessimism. There are, after all, no human beings. Not the proles, not Julia, not even Winston Smith, the precious embodiment of the reader him or herself. There is only one kind of State or another.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment