Orwell’s 1984

Throughout my reading of 1984 I couldn’t help but remember what the real 1984 had been like. It was so completely, diametrically opposed to Orwell’s terrifying vision. In 1984 the novel, the populace is maintained on the brink of poverty and want, their lives dedicated whether they want it or not, to upholding the ideology of a totalitarian state that has systematically removed all trace of truth, love and beauty from its culture. In 1984 the reality, the western world was gearing up to a new generation of greed, of delicious excessive consumption and ostentatious wealth. It was all about fun and freedom and shopping and entertainment.  Every time Winston Smith cast a fearful glance at his telescreen, I couldn’t help but overlay its stream of propaganda with a series of hits by Prince and Madonna. The ugly utilitarian overalls that the characters in the book wear, tied at the waist by a piece of string, were replaced in my imagination by the power dressing suits of Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. In 1984 everyone, apart from the ruling few, is imprisoned in their own life, refused all possibility of personal choice. In 1984, the religion of personal entitlement was just beginning to take off.

Only one part of the novel’s vision came true: the ability for technology to be used as a form of constant vigilance over individual lives (although that wasn’t quite in place until the 90s). The internet, mobile phones, credit cards, satellite navigation, all these are ways in which we are open to continuous monitoring, without our really thinking too much about it. Technology had the genius insight of coupling up with consumerism and our desire to be cool, in communication and distracted from the tedious business of living. Given that Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, when he was dying of consumption and Britain (at least) was crumbling under the debts of a war it was supposed to have won, it’s probably not surprising that he didn’t take account of how important it would be to people to have fun and to base their self-esteem in what they possessed. Instead Orwell was seriously concerned that Communism would become the dominant political ideology and that it would have fearful consequences. Orwell himself favoured democratic socialism, but having fought in the Spanish Civil War, he disliked what happened to potentially decent principles when they were in the hands of totalitarian thinkers.

And so the novel 1984 was born. It follows the fortunes of Winston Smith, malnourished, discontent and silently, fearfully rebellious. He lives in a society that aims at no less than complete possession of his thoughts and emotions, demanding full and submissive loyalty to the party run by Big Brother, a cipher for total governmental control. The world has been split up into three large countries – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, all of whom remain in constant, steady warfare, partly as a way of consuming all the goods that the countries over-produce (over-consumption being something Orwell could not envisage) and partly as a way of keeping the citizens in that state of instinctual patriotism that hatred of an external enemy produces. Hatred is in fact the key to this fearsome society as the only emotion actively encouraged. Every day sees the three-minute hate, in which the telescreens show images of Goldstein, the purported leader of the revolutionaries and people are encouraged to scream abuse and throw things. Individuals are set against each other by a culture of tale telling; children are taught to inform on their parents, marriage is an arranged affair that holds husband and wife in an uneasy trustless bond, and the workplace is rife with difficulty. The government pursues a policy of historical revisionism, altering all documents belonging to the past that do not correlate to the present, and is attempting to bring in a language, Newspeak, that will be so reduced as to foreclose the possibility of thinking otherwise to party dogma. There is no privacy at all, as even the countryside is bugged; life plays out against a backdrop of constant monitoring, so that Winston knows he dare not risk even a change in expression that might indicate to Big Brother the rebellious desires that swill around inside him and leave him continually menaced by the possibility of a visit from the dreaded Thought Police.

But of course, Winston cannot help but give in to his hopes for an undercover uprising, and when he meets Julia, a young woman yearning for the experience of sensuality and pleasure, he begins an affair with her that will lead him into disaster. So you may have gathered that this is not a cheery read. In fact, it’s like everything terrible you could possibly imagine, squished up together and injected with lethal negativity. And then again it is a powerful, disturbing and important book. One that shows us in no uncertain terms how dangerous it is for thought to become inflexible and domineering, how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. At the same time, it pays tribute to the strength within the individual mind for independent thought, and how hard it is to break human beings of their autonomy, their free spirit, their capacity for love and kindness. And it suggests that we are also capable of the ruthlessness required to preclude these essential things to other people, that the very desire for control is fraught with inhumane and dangerous impulses.

It was very intriguing to read this book, and then read Franzen’s Freedom directly afterwards.  1984 struck me as being all about the monstrous overdevelopment of the superego. Let me explain: Freud suggested the mind is split into three domains – the superego, the voice of internalized authority, the id, repository of our drives and desires, and the ego, the embattled voice of reason trying to negotiate between what we want and what we know we ought to do. In 1984 authority is abusive – this might be best demonstrated by the analogy of an abusive parent, controlling its child’s every move, invading its thoughts and refusing it any privacy, threatening it with terrible annihilating punishments if it doesn’t do what it is told. The Party is a bad parent, attempting to control its citizens by making them control themselves out of terror.  When we read about Winston struggling to rebel, we see that he does not live sufficiently in fear of his own superego; he does not control himself the way others (in authority) need him to, and that has to be fixed (horrifically).

In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the situation is reversed – it is, if you like, the natural conclusion to the era of consumer power and autonomy that the real 1984 ushered in. In Franzen’s world, the id is out of control. People refuse all possibility of restraint, making their individual desires and whims the most important impulses they possess. They all have the right to mess up their lives if they want to, Franzen states on a couple of occasions, regardless of the health of the planet or the happiness of other people, on the grounds that individual desire must not be checked. Personal entitlement has grown out of hand and is exerting the same bullying and destructive force as the abusive authority in 1984. In both books, then, the freedom that seems to matter the most is the ability to say ‘no’ and be heard; to stand up to the bullies, either in the form of dictatorial authority or our own excessive desires, and to find a middle ground that is an honorable battlefield against all forms of mindless compliance.


10 thoughts on “Orwell’s 1984

  1. Orwell had a few philosophically defunct notions, but his observations about totalitarian rule were excellent. What I’ve always felt to be missing, however, is the explanation as to the people’s compliance with such misery. If you haven’t read any of Orwell’s short stories I would definitely encourage you to do so. The reason I say philosophically defunct is this notion that “democracy” – the majority of a population – knows what’s better for EVERYONE than each individual does. The notion of being against a totalitarian state while believing in the goodness of a political elite voted approval for ruling everyone by the majority being another.

    I admit that, based upon your words, I’m now almost excited to read “Freedom” when it arrives at my library. Mindless compliance indeed. Will be interested to find out whether or not he thinks the government feeds into the problem.

  2. This book was ruined for me because I did costumes for our high school drama production of it. Absolutely awful. The high school drama kids were extremely uncooperative, and the sets, which were weirdly elaborate for a play about a colorless totalitarian regime, kept refusing to roll when they were supposed to, so there were like five minutes of dead air between acts. *shudder*

  3. Another great post. You certainly gave a fresh perspective on a book I thought I knew quite well, and I loved how you put it in the context of your own experience of that particular year. I also enjoyed your parallelling with the Franzen book – though I have to say Franzen is sounding increasingly dour and humourless to me!

  4. What a great compare and contrast opportunity! Now you need to find a book to read that falls somewhere in the middle 🙂 Whenever I have read the book I always wonder what would be in Room 101 if I were taken there. A reportcard with all F’s? A waiting room in which I sit and sit and wait and wait with nothing to read and nothing happening?

  5. Interesting comparison! On first thinking about it, I’d rather live in Franzen’s world than in Orwell’s. And I’m not likely to change my mind about that. But there are definitely costs to living in Franzen’s world. It makes you think about how important the poor beleaguered ego is!

  6. How interesting to read the book in the context of the other books you are reading. I did the same thing when I reread 1984 last year. I had just read a biography of a woman in Pakistan in the 1970s. I was struck by how Orwell did get some aspects of dictatorship right — the it’s your freedom to say 1 and 1 is 2 that is taken away in that environment.

    Anyway, I don’t know anything about the Franzen, but I found it interesting that we both read 1984 and found ourselves considering the other books we were reading around that time.

  7. Kimberley – I really must read Orwell’s stories, and I’ve heard his essays are excellent, too. I’ll be most interested to hear what you make of Freedom, and yes, the government is certainly implicated (but I won’t give anything more away that that!). I think the question about why the people put up with it is multi-layered. On the one hand, the Thought Police with their terrible tortures and interrogations are a powerful threat. On the other, the prols, the main underclass, are considered too unintellectual to form a rebellion. That sounds a bit bad, but I think Orwell’s point is that social horizons are very very different for every society, and they are hard to see beyond. If all you had ever known was totalitarian rule, then you would be hard pressed to imagine an alternative. Have you read Emma Donaghue’s Room? That novel is making a lot of waves at present and is about introducing a small child to a world beyond the room he has always lived in, and I should think it would present a fascinating response, in microcosm, to the difficulties of cultural limitations.

    Jenny – lol! Although not at the time, I imagine! Oh boy, it only takes an experience like that to truly put a person off a book, doesn’t it? I do agree.

    Baker’s daughter – oh it’s me being humourless about Franzen, I promise. He is continually, slyly, darkly funny. I don’t remember laughing out loud, not that kind of read, but amusing in other ways certainly. And thank you for your lovely comment!

    Stefanie – oh my! I had exactly the same thought about Room 101. I figured it would be a casualty ward on a Friday night, full of people with terrible injuries needing me to fix them up. Or any situation at all that put my husband and son at risk. Actually, the more I think about it, the more of a soft touch I look. I think it would be best all round if I could avoid being tortured! 🙂 And you’re quite right I need a book between totalitarian rule and freedom – I wonder if crime fiction would do the trick? 😉

    Lilian – oh thank you! How very kind.

    Dorothy – no doubt about it, Franzen’s is the better world, for all its faults and failings! And yes, the ego has to do masses of work, like holding the walls of the house up and apart so there’s space to live. We are our own worst enemies, is a useful phrase in this context! 🙂

    Rebecca – that’s fascinating and what a great comparison your book provided! You are so right about 1 and 1 equals 2 – you remind me I wanted to say something about that but forgot in the heat of the moment. It’s really important that we should be able to use reason and logic and recognise the outcome – it’s another sort of basic right, isn’t it, once survival has been assured. Thank you for reminding me of that!

  8. I read 1984 at school (in 1984) and then revisted it last year as part of a reading group. I enjoyed it so much more the second time round, particularly the aspects of the media Orwell talks about. What would he have made of the internet, Twitter and Facebook I wonder??

    Funnily enough, I recently read a non-fiction book about North Korea (Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick), which I’m yet to review on my blog, which basically reveals how North Korea is 1984 writ-large. The only thing the North Koreans don’t do is the two-minutes hate, but pretty much everything else is right up there.

    Finally, I enjoyed your comparisons with Freedom, a book I’m yet to read, but which clearly exposes the American Dream as being not without consequences.

  9. I think fear does quite a lot to keep people down and be accepting of situations they don’t like. You only have to take a look at Latin/South American countries. Even in ‘first world’ countries fear of what might happen is a way to control people. Orwell was quite a thinker–I read 1984 a very long time ago and I’m sure I missed a lot of what he was trying to say–another one for the reread pile. I’ve been dragging my feet, but I guess I will have to read Franzen, too. Wonderful post–you’re so good at tying lofty thoughts into everyday life and making sense of them.

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