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1984:The Quintessential Negative Utopia
(Or How to become really depressed about the future of the human condition in 267 pages or less.)
1984 is George Orwell's arguably his most famous novel, and it remains one of the most powerful warnings ever made against the dangers of a totalitarian society. George Orwell was primarily a political novelist as a result of his life experiences. In Spain, Germany, and Russia, Orwell had seen for himself the peril of absolute political authority in an age of advanced technology; he illustrated that peril harshly in 1984.
Orwell's book could be considered the most acknowledged in the genre of the negative utopian novel. The mood of the novel aims to portray a pessimistic future. This prospect is to show the worst human society imaginable and to convince readers to avoid any path that might lead toward societal degradation. Orwell's world of post-atomic dictatorship, in which every individual is ceaselessly monitored through the telescreen seemed just possible enough to terrify. When Orwell postulated such a society it was only 35 years into the future that made the horror depicted by the novel seem more relevant and real.
While the year 1984 has long since come and gone it is more than obvious that the world Orwell describes has not materialized. But the message of 1984 remains relevant enough to frighten, and accurate enough to feel possible. War is used as a device for political manipulation on television--a concept presented strikingly in the recent film Wag the Dog. The governmental forces have historical records rewritten to match the political ideology of the ruling Party. This is a technique has been used by the Soviet Union and is still all too common in some parts of the world. The warning remains significant: the world has not completely escaped from the dangers Orwell describes.
The novel is based on the experiences of Winston Smith, an insignificant member of the ruling Party in London, in the nation of Oceania. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, he is watched through telescreens, and everywhere he looks he sees the face of the Party's omniscient leader, a figure known only as Big Brother. The Party controls everything from history to language. The Party is currently forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which attempts to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is illegal. Thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all.
One of the most convincing aspects of 1984 is Orwell's understanding of the roles that thought and language play in rebellion and control. In Newspeak, Orwell postulates a language that will make rebellion impossible, because the words to conceive of it will cease to exist. With doublethink--the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one's head simultaneously and believe in them both--Orwell conceives of a mental mechanism that explains people's willingness to accept control over their memories and their past. Doublethink is crucial to the Party's control of Oceania, because it enables the Party to alter historical records and pass off the altered records as real to a populace that ought to know better; because of doublethink, the populace does not know better, but is able to accept the Party's version of the past as real.
The protagonist is Winston Smith; a minor member of the ruling Party in near-future London, Winston Smith is a thin, frail, 39 year-old-man who wears blue Party coveralls. Winston is sick of the Party's rigid control over his life and world, and begins trying to rebel against the Party. By writing defiant thoughts in a secret diary and starting an illegal affair with Julia, Winston is guilty of these societal crimes.
Julia is a beautiful dark-haired girl working in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth. She enjoys sex, and claims to have had affairs with dozens of Party members. Winston is a fatalist, harboring no illusions about his chances of rebelling successfully: the moment he begins to write in his diary, he knows he has condemned himself to death at the hands of the thought police. Even as he joins the legendary anti-Party order called the Brotherhood, Winston considers himself a dead man.
Winston is 39, Julia 26. Winston's childhood took place largely before the Party came to power around 1960; Julia is a child of the Party era, and many of the regime's elements that seem most frightening and evil to Winston fail to upset or even faze Julia. Like Winston, she hates the Party and sees through many of its techniques--she understands, for instance, that it uses sexual repression to control the populace. She even has a better intuitive grasp on the Party's methods than Winston does, planning their affair and often explaining the Party to him. The Party's control of history does not interest her as it interests Winston, because she does not remember a time when the Party was not in control.
In stark defiance of Party doctrine, Julia enjoys sex and rebels against the Party in small ways. But growing up under the Party regime has made her unconcerned about the difference between truth and falsehood, and she has no patience for Winston's desire for a categorical, abstract rejection of Party doctrine. Julia seems to mistrust doctrine and abstract philosophy. She even falls asleep when Winston reads to her from Emmanuel Goldstein's book, a powerful sign of her simple, sensual approach to life.
The beginning of the novel Orwell introduces the major characters and themes. He acquaints the reader with the main character Winston Smith's world. The primary plot development in this section is Winston's writing in his diary, his first overt act of rebellion. Evidently, Winston's hatred of Party oppression has been festering for some time, possibly even for most of his life; his story begins on the day that hatred finds an active expression. As Winston realizes, once he opens the cover of his diary and writes, his life is irrevocably altered. Never again will he be simply another citizen of Oceania; now he is a thought-criminal, and he considers himself doomed from the very start. As he thinks, "Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever . . . Sooner or later they always got you."(Page 9)
Winston's fatalism--his belief that the Party is so powerful and Big Brother so omniscient that any act of rebellion, any expression of individuality, is doomed almost before it begins--becomes a central component of his character. Throughout the story, he allows himself only occasionally to feel any hope for the future. Winston feels extraordinarily oppressed by the Party's control: he cannot think for himself or act for himself, and he must repress his sexual desires almost entirely.
Winston feelings can only emerge in his dreams. Within his repressed psychological state he has dreams of a golden country and making love to a dark haired girl. Winston's dream is prophetic--he will indeed make love to the dark- haired girl in an idyllic country landscape. The same is true for his dream of O'Brien, in which he hears O'Brien's voice promise to meet him "in the place where there is no darkness."(Page 25) At the end of the novel, Winston will indeed meet O'Brien in a place without darkness, but that place will be nothing like what Winston expects. The phrase "the place where there is no darkness" recurs several times throughout the novel; it orients Winston toward his future, and works as one of a number of recurrent motifs that reappear throughout the book.
Winston's world is a nasty, brutish place. His London is dilapidated and crumbling; the electricity seldom works, living conditions are uncomfortable, and everything is constantly monitored and controlled by the Party through telescreens. Winston's encounter with the Parsons children is an example of the Party's influence on the family--children are reminiscent of the Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany The fear Mrs. Parsons shows for her children foreshadows Winston's encounter in jail with her husband (who was turned in for thoughtcrime by his own child).
Winston's repressed sexuality— one of his key reasons for despising the Party and wanting to rebel-- becomes his overt concern when he remembers his last encounter with a prole prostitute. The dingy, nasty memory, made even more unpleasant by the sight of the ugly prostitute in the lamplight, makes Winston even more desperate to have an enjoyable erotic experience. He thinks that the Party's "real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act." While Winston thinks about his encounter with the prole prostitute, he realizes that his own nervous system has become his enemy. Under constant oppression, forced to repress every feeling and instinct, a person might lose control, even if only for an instant, and show some visible sign of tension or struggle--even a facial twitch could lead to arrest. This emphasis on the physical aspect of the Party's oppression is continued throughout the novel, and culminates with Winston's realization toward the end of the book that nothing in human experience is worse than the feeling of physical pain.
Winston's work in the sprawling Ministry of Truth shows the Party in operation. Everything presented is part of calculated propaganda, altered records, or revised history. The idea of doublethink (the ability simultaneously to believe and disbelieve in the same idea, or to believe in two contradictory ideas simultaneously) becomes very important. Doublethink enables the workers at the Ministry of Truth to believe in the false versions of the records that they have altered, and with their belief, for the Party's purposes, the records become the reality of the truth. Even Winston cannot quite trust his own memories--he too believes the “official” falsified records. This is doublethink, the psychological key to the Party's control of the past. It allows the citizens under Party control to accept slogans like "War is peace" and "Freedom is slavery."(16)
Life in the prole district is animalistic, filthy, and impoverished. Only Mr. Charrington seems to share Winston's love of the past--he sells him the paperweight and shows him the upstairs room. In the context of 1984, this room’s lack of a telescreen is quite remarkable; it becomes one of the few places in Winston's world in which the Party is not watching. Like Winston's dream phrase "the place where there is no darkness," the picture of St. Clement's church hanging in Mr. Charrington's upstairs room becomes a symbolic motif, reappearing throughout the novel. (Page 47)
Like the paperweight, another symbolic motif, it represents Winston's desire to make a connection with a past he cannot recover. The rhyme associated with the picture ends on an ominous note--"Here comes a chopper to chop off your head"(page 86) --that foreshadows the picture’s role in destroying Winston's private rebellion: he does not know that a telescreen is hidden behind the picture. He will eventually be caught by this telescreen, left there by Mr. Charrington, a secret member of the Thought Police.
Winston's paperweight symbolizes the past, and also comes to represent a kind of temporal stasis in which he can dream without fear, imagining himself floating inside
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