NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1984)
BY GEORGE ORWELL
Submitted by Romy Blystone
HIS 106 History of Western Civ SU11
UWCOL 1117 8W2 ONL-HIS 106 SECQ381 1309
August 5, 2011
George Orwell (pen name of Eric Arthur Blair), wrote his most well-known novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), in post-war Europe in 1948 and published it in 1949. It has since influenced politics, economies, cultures and languages; and is considered by many as one of the most brilliant and prophetic dystopian novels of all time.
Below, I will humbly attempt to answer the following essay questions:
- Part 1) How Oceania’s government works?
- Part 2) What historical antecedents did Orwell draw on?
- Part 3) What is Orwell’s message and what can we learn about the early post-war period?
First, let’s discuss Oceania’s government (the Party and Ingsoc) and how it works. The Party, personified by Big Brother, watches over the people and is perceived to be in complete control of everything. Control is exerted over the people via Ingsoc, pronounced in Oldspeak as ‘English Socialism,’ which was the Party’s original political ideology before it was turned on its head and evolved into oligarchical collectivism. Ingsoc, eventually became a system of psychological controls including, but not limited to, Newspeak, doublethink, telescreens, memory holes, thoughtcrime, Thought Police, Prolefeed, Two Minutes Hate, and Hate Week to name a few. These controls were created for the specific purpose of oppressing the Party’s greatest threat… the middle class.
Having said that, let’s explore Ingsoc’s social class system. Ingsoc divides Oceania’s society into three social classes including:
- the Inner Party (or upper/ruling class) which is in power and responsible for governing, making policy, and keeping an eye on the middle class;
- the Outer Party (or middle class) who work for the government and are considered to be the most dangerous as history has shown they are most probable to incite revolution; and
- the Proles (the proletariat or lower class workers) who live in the poorest of conditions and make up the majority (85%) of society. ,
Ingsoc is also made up of at least four ministries responsible for governing Oceania:
- the Ministry of Love which enforces loyalty and love of Big Brother through fear, pain, torture, and brainwashing;
- the Ministry of Peace which serves as the military wing of Oceania’s government;
- the Ministry of Plenty which is in control of Oceania’s economy and distribution (i.e. rationing) of goods and services; and
- the Ministry of Truth which is responsible for the ‘revision’ of all knowledge, records, facts, and language for the purposes of creating propaganda aimed at repressing the people and edifying the Party.
Of the four ministries, I believe the Ministry of Truth serves as the centerpiece in Orwell’s depiction of the decadence of governments and ultimately the human race. As it has been said many times before, “the first casualty of war is truth.” This explains the nature of the Party’s most technologically advanced weapon of mass destruction, Newspeak – Oceania’s official language, designed specifically to dehumanize society. Bluntly, Newspeak is Ingsoc’s attempt at simplifying the language by removing a large portion of its vocabulary as well as its linguistic (i.e. form, meaning, and context) and moral (i.e. the knowledge of good and evil) foundations in an effort to eliminate the public’s ability to think, question, or even comprehend the times in which they live, have lived, or will live. In other words, Newspeak renders the populace susceptible to whatever the Party wants them to believe and removes their ability to question the Party line, much less revolt against it.
Following is a passage from Orwell’s book in which the character, Syme, explains how history is to be rewritten. To better appreciate the weight of this paragraph, imagine adding other names like Bible authors, scientists, and philosophers to the list:
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 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.
I believe Orwell was greatly influenced by the leaders and governments of Germany, Russia, and Spain. However, I would attribute his writing styles and subject matter to a more visceral, cynical response to living in one of the most violent times in all of history which included the Great World War, Russia’s Revolutions, the Great Depression, the rise and fall of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow (Stalinist Show) Trials, World War II, the emergence of Communist China, and roughly 30 other political conflicts between 1900 and 1950 . Still, in 1984, Orwell does emphasize many of Germany’s and Russia’s Socialist and Communist themes in his writing including the concepts of Big Brother, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police, his surveillance society, unpersons and erasing people from public record, Goldstein – a popular Jewish surname, Two Minutes Hate, and many other wartime practices.
Orwell seemed adept at recognizing how power hungry leaders usurped control from the people they had pledged to serve and protect. Ultimately, Orwell understood the true nature of man’s imperfect rule, that absolute power corrupts absolutely – especially in Germany and Russia, and he simply wanted to save socialism from becoming communism or worse yet, fascism.
In point of fact, Orwell admits, in his essay ‘Why I Write’ (1946),
“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism, as I understand it.“
I willingly admit that on the surface, Orwell wrote 1984 as a political thriller about a dystopian society ruled by an oligarchical dictatorship and what that might actually look like in the very near future (a mere 35 years from its original publication). Behind the veneer, I trust that Orwell wrote 1984 with the purpose of warning the world, especially the West, of the inherent dangers of totalitarianism, the absolute necessity of clarity in language, and to advocate for democratic socialism. On a much deeper level, I fantasize that Orwell was describing, in great detail, what life might actually be like if God were absent and instead, Satan was in control of the people. It is this very concept in which I wish to elaborate.
Although I recognize that many considered Orwell an atheist in both his writings and his personal life , I still consider his novel, 1984, to speak to the truth of the existence of God even if he wouldn’t say it that way.
You see, for me all of life is wrapped up in one’s approach to orthodoxy (right belief) as well as orthopraxy (correct action). The two cannot stand independent of one another and each must support the other. For this reason, I not only want to be able to discern some truths about Orwell’s book, motives, and intentions, I also want to be able to express my views in a way that articulates those truths, in love, that I might offer my readers hope.
Having said that, allow me to explain my understanding of God and how it relates to 1984.
I believe in the Holy Trinity which consists of three entities including:
- God the Father (the Truth) is like absolute truth, unlike the relative truth of man.
- God the Son (the Way) is like unconditional love, unlike the conditional love of man.
- God the Holy Spirit (the Life) is like perfect awareness, unlike the limited self awareness of man.
Now let’s examine how Orwell addresses each of these entities within his book:
- With regards to absolute truth, Orwell’s novel diminishes the already blind relative truth of man even further by erasing the language, rewriting HIStory, and replacing it with lies for the sake of the Party.
- When Orwell writes of unconditional love (for the Party), his methods weaken the already self-serving conditional love of man by outlawing passion, removing meaning, and confusing love with fear, pain, and torture.
- Lastly, Orwell steals away the last vestige of man (i.e. self awareness) by threatening to erase his main character’s very existence and deem him an unperson unless he bows to the collective essence of the Party, which the Party may still do anyway after he dies. To me, this speaks to the very nature of evil and the intentional removal of God.
To further compare Orwell’s 1984 to scripture, consider when Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I understand this passage, and many others like it, to mean that in order to be in relationship with God (i.e. The Father of Truth), which is to say comprehend what God wants to reveal to us about anyone or anything, one must first be perfectly aware of one’s self as well as one’s unconditional relationship to and with another (i.e. person, place, and/or thing). Orwell, describes this very principle in great detail within the many conversations between Winston and O’Brien.
For example, consider one of the great lines Orwell writes:
It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: “Freedom is Slavery”. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.
There are many betrayals in the above quote including the connection Orwell makes between being free and being alone as well as the need to escape from our own identity. But none is more dangerous than when O’Brien says ‘death is the greatest of all failures’. To the contrary, all men die… not all really live. Instead, to not live the life which is truly life (i.e. to have embraced the one, true Triune God of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit or put another way, The Truth, The Way and The Life or translated simply to Truth, Hope, and Love – and the greatest of all these is Love) is the most regrettable sin of all.
So, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…“, He is talking about being invited, never forced, into “being” in balance and harmony with God and all of His creation… having access to many absolute truths, feeling unconditionally loved thereby affording us the ability to love unconditionally, and experiencing perfect awareness of self and our relationship to and with all things within the context of any given situation whether in the past, present or future (i.e. hope).
I also believe that Heaven is about being in the presence of God (i.e. to know the truth, to be in love, and to have an awareness of such things – without having to know everything and without having to be in love with one thing to the exclusion of all other things). I also believe Hell is to be in the absence of God (i.e. not being able to trust in anything, therefore not being in real relationship with anything, especially goodness, and thus being denied even the comfort of self awareness in relation to all other things leaving the individual acutely alone to be trampled on by evil forces). Now, consider what Orwell later describes as the Party’s vision for the future:
There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
Lastly, I believe that Satan is the father of lies for Jesus says,
“Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
Now consider Orwell’s writing:
His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.
It appears that at the very heart of Orwell’s message is a deep reckoning that truth itself is slipping away and that the relative truth of man is being consistently hijacked by those responsible for collecting it, documenting it, reporting it, and archiving it. This altered relative (un)truth is then repackaged (in the form of propaganda) and sold (i.e. read ‘Force Fed’) to the public as absolute truth. Perhaps that is one of the many meanings behind the poem that Winston recites throughout the story:
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.
Here, the context of the spreading tree is an image of evil spreading and growing, covering all things, overshadowing all in its shade. The references ‘I sold you and you sold me‘ or ‘There lie they, and here lie we‘ both seem to point to deceit and lies as much as they speak to the literary truth that each has traded what makes each of them human (i.e. their core beliefs of truth, hope, and love) in exchange for a few more shallow breaths before even that is violently taken from them.
Personally, I am in agreement that this is a Newspeak translation of Longfellow’s original poem, The Village Blacksmith because the new version paints Winston as someone who has sold out instead of being like the mighty smith with brawny arms portrayed in the original.
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
Deeper examination and further study reveals how some have posited that the Chestnut tree is symbolic of justice, honesty, and chastity while others have drawn parallels between it and the tree mentioned in Psalms 37:
I have seen a wicked and ruthless man
flourishing like a luxuriant native tree,
but he soon passed away and was no more;
though I looked for him, he could not be found.
However you fancy the poem, it is clear that it consumes Winston, serves a literary role in foreshadowing the coming death(s) of Winston and Julia (i.e. both of their love for one another and their individual physical deaths), and ultimately reveals the ill intent of Ingsoc, which is to corrupt everything, even a harmless childhood rhyme, for their own evil purposes… power and control.
Poignantly, Winston’s last thoughts are of winning the victory over himself and that he finally loved big brother. This image runs counter to the Newspeak version of the rhyme mentioned above. It also runs counter to the Gospel message. Yes, Christians are invited into relationship with God, but Winston’s character was forced to do so (i.e. be in a one-sided relationship with his god – Big Brother) at the expense of truly living… the ultimate betrayal. In fact, his life was stolen from him, not given freely by choice, and that I believe is at the heart of Orwell’s message.
In other words, I believe Orwell has hidden within his novel a secret call to his readers to continually ask, seek, and knock … and to never roll over and simply accept the party line. Here, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act, politics in Madison, WI, and many other recent news(peak) items come to mind.
In summary, I find Orwell’s 1984 depiction of the early post-war period and its subsequent future conspicuously absent of God. Orwell’s portrayal of a not-so-distant possibility for life seems purely hellish. And Winston, Orwell’s main character, is dead after having ‘lived’ (I use the term loosely) a truly horrific life. Although Winston believes he succeeded in life, only the reader (i.e. read Follower), with a clear and unobstructed view (i.e. read ‘Perfect Awareness’) of the Author’s intended message (i.e. read ‘Gospel’), can see that Winston failed miserably.
“We are human beings, not human doings… and in Orwell’s world of 1984, man was reduced to just that ~ a slave to the evil ruling class.”