Some phrases coined by George Orwell in 1984 are so well-known today that I had a familiar feeling when finally, I started reading this novel. I had already read about the principles of Newspeak (the absolute opposite of what writers work for and what readers appreciate) and of course I knew that 1984 was where Big Brother made his first appearance. However, entering George Orwell’s metallic, dehumanized, empty world was more chilling than I expected. The writing itself has a lot to do with this feeling: it has a coldness to it, a mechanic efficiency that is melted with Winston’s inner thoughts, his fears or expressions of relief. This focalisation shifting from external to internal points of view recreates a feeling of fear: we are never sure that what we read are ‘orthodox’ thoughts (as per the Party’s ideology) or the secret rebellion of the main character, and the reader ends up feeling watched, just like the characters in the novel.
1984 is built around three parts, the first one composing the set-up: in this slow-paced, explicative and descriptive part, George Orwell details the ways of this post-Revolution society (the date of this ‘revolution’ remains unclear, as do all historical events), in which human beings, or more precisely, those who are worth it, are placed under the unrelenting scrutiny of Big Brother. Under constant surveillance, Winston Smith, a Party Member who struggles against his inner instincts telling him that things oughtn’t be like this, has long learnt to check his natural impulses and always presents an emotionless face to the many ‘telescreens’ that are sure to notice the subtlest dark shadow in one’s eyes. Deeply unsatisfied with his life, Winston cautiously looks for hope. Only, hope is dangerous in a society where even your kids can denounce you to the Thought Police. In Big Brother’s society, people are divided: they can be ‘comrades’ but no one will ever risk sharing their inner thoughts, because Spies and traitors can be everywhere. Friendships disappear, trust is never an option, love is simply impossible.
As a Party member, Winston’s job is to constantly alter the past, so as to make it concord with the Party’s decisions, prophesies, promises. This job deeply upsets him as he is well-aware that this method destroys the truth: historical facts can’t resist the power of the Party, and if they are inopportune for the Party’s ideology, they are conveniently erased. So are people, for that matter: those who protest a bit too loud, or those who show too much support to the Party (for that, too, can be suspicious) are captured, and unspeakable things, that no one knows about, happen to them in the ill-named Ministry of Love, from which they emerged skinnier, broken, and ready to confess crimes bigger than the ones they were initially accused of. After that, they are, in the terrifying word George Orwell chose, “vaporized”. They disappear and it is the job of people like Winston to erase them from every list, every article, where they might have been mentioned. They are not dead. They have never existed. Being vaporized is the greatest fear of every inhabitant of Oceania (Orwell’s Great Britain, allied with the US), which probably explains the zeal that certain people develop in supporting the Party’s horrible doings and nonsensical declarations.
However (or there would be no story…) Winston knows, deep inside, that this is not what life is meant to be and the novel opens on his committing his first crime: he starts writing revolutionary thoughts in a diary. This act of writing immediately liberates him from the urge to shout insults at the top of his voice: in a world where free expression, free thought, free movement are forbidden and impossible, writing in hiding is the only way to let the dangerous steam off. Writing fulfills Winston with a sense of achievement, pride and secret rebellion that make him feel alive. Secretly powerful, he is able to cope with his daily life slightly better. Until Julia enters his life. This young woman who shouts like a lunatic during the daily Two Minutes Hate fills Winston with dread at the idea that she’s a Spy. However, when they meet by chance in an empty corridor and she manœuvres to slide a tiny piece of paper into his hand, a piece of paper that bears three simple words, Winston doesn’t think twice before reaching out to her. The two of them start a romance that has, at first, a political colour, for love is forbidden and yet here they are, loving each other, having sex together, defying the Party with their very humanity. They soon sincerely fall in love with one another, and decide to enroll in the subterranean and secret rebel organisation, the Brotherhood, which attempts to sabotage the Party from the inside.
1984 can be read from many points of view and its publication date, 1949, bears a strong political meaning. Orwell imagines a world where only three political powers are constantly at war, two of them allied against one another, until the alliances change, for obscure reasons. As explained in the middle of the novel, contant war is the best way to keep people in a state of fear and willing submission, and it makes it more acceptable, especially for the ‘Proles’, comprising 80% of the population, to accept the sacrifices that are demanded of them. The visionary dimension of Orwell’s novel is confusing.
What interested me most in the novel, though, is the recurrent question of what is history, who makes it, and how it can be preserved or destroyed. Winston’s work illustrates to perfection the logic of the Party which consists in eliminating every element going against its proclamations. But if Winston makes people disappear, then truth is what the Party proclaims: if the Party can change facts, and alter the past, then truth becomes a malleable notion, which explains why people rely on the Party to dictate their lives. The Party knows, the Party IS the truth. The systematic destruction of works of arts, troublesome testimonies, the re-writing of classic pieces of literature in Newspeak, the erasing of dates, the assurances by the Party that life has always been like this (Julia, much younger than Winston, cannot, indeed, imagine another type of life), contribute to a complete loss of cultural, historical and in the end, human landmarks. Through this manipulation of facts and alteration of history, as well as the constant looming threat of vaporization, the Party slowly dehumanizes its people.
[!! there will be spoilers in this paragraph!! Hop to the next one for the conclusion.]
The issue of dehumanization is at the heart of the novel. Some characters, like Winston’s neighbour, fully embrace the ideology of the party and accept whatever sacrifices and humiliations are demanded of them — that neighbour, when he’s arrested by the Thought Police after having been denounced by his own daughter, is still proud of his daughter. Others like Winston, like Julia, want to have a taste of what it feels to live like a human being, without telescreens to watch you and shout orders at you, without having to pretend all the time, to hide, to be wary of everybody. However, when the lovers are caught by the Thought Police, in a plot twist so unbelievable that the reader expects until the end that this cannot be real, they undergo a session of tortures that aim at destroying this desire for freedom and make them as malleable as the Party needs them. Winston resists for a long, long time and we can’t help feeling relieved by the fact that he’s able to play a double game and fool his torturer. In spite of the pain, the humiliations, the violence, the lack of food, the degradation of his body, the preposterous confessions, Winston doesn’t betray Julia. His love for her remains intact and at this point, we can still believe that love can win. But that’s only until they terrorise him out of his wits. By threatening to make him live his worst fear, they manage to make him betray his beloved and after that, Winston Smith is forever changed. Same goes for the revolutionary Julia, and as they say to one another, when they randomly meet after they’ve been freed: “And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.” Big Brother’s technique, the extent of its power, the fanaticism of its devotee, the violence of its methods give it all the ingredients to provide the Party with a long life, for, as Winston’s torturer tells him, ‘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 shall crush you down to the point there is no coming back. (…) Everything will be dead inside of you. (…) You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.’ In Big Brother’s world, it is impracticable to be a heretic and the depressive conclusion that Orwell reaches is that it is possible to dehumanize a human being and make him or her forget about naturel desires such as love, friendship and solidarity.
George Orwell’s 1984 is no doubt a timeless classic that still warns us, today, on how a society can quickly deviate to the most inhumane dictature in which the dignity of life is permanently trampled on. 1984 shows, denounces, illustrates how possible it is, for the Powerful, to create a world with no escape, where Power is the only objective of the few, and distress the only reality of the many. A warning that is resounding even today, seventy years after its publication.