Nineteen Eighty-Four: 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. Thought crime 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, “Thought crime 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 tele screens. 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 thought crime 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 the glass walls of the paperweight with his mother. The phrase “the place where there is no darkness” works as a symbol of hope throughout the novel, as Winston recalls the dream in which O’Brien tells him about the place and says they will meet there one day. The phrase therefore orients Winston toward the end of the novel, when the phrase becomes bitterly ironic: the place where there is no darkness is the Ministry of Love, where the lights remain on in the prisons all day and all night.

Winston’s affair with Julia becomes an established part of each of their lives, leading up to Winston’s meeting with O’Brien. Despite the risk given the thoroughness of Party monitoring, Winston rents the room above Mr. Charrington’s shop so that he and Julia can have a regular place to meet. As the preparations for Hate Week cast a shadow of heat and fatigue on Winston’s life, a number of important minor details surface throughout this section, each of which has some bearing on later developments in the novel.

First, the return of the glass paperweight: A “vision of the glass paperweight”(Page 91) inspired Winston to rent the room above the shop. The recurrence of this symbolic motif reemphasizes Winston’s obsession with the past, and connects that obsession with his desire to rent the room; by renting the room for Julia, he hopes he can make their relationship resemble one from an earlier, freer time. After Julia leaves the room, Winston gazes into the paperweight, imagining a temporal stasis inside it, where he and Julia could float, free of the Party and free of time.

Second, the prole woman singing outside the window. Winston has already thought—and written in his diary that hope for the future must come from the proles. The prole woman singing outside the window, with her obvious virility, becomes a symbol of the hoped-for future to Winston; he imagines her bearing the children who will overthrow the Party eventually.

Third, Winston’s fear of rats: When he sees a rat in the room he shudders in terror; his worst nightmare involves rats in a vague, mysterious way he cannot quite explain. This is another moment of foreshadowing: when O’Brien tortures Winston in the Ministry of Love at the end of the novel, he will use a cage of rats to break Winston’s spirit.

Fourth, the recurrence of the St. Clement’s church song. The mysterious references the song makes continue to pique Winston’s interest in the past, and its last line continues to obliquely foreshadow his unhappy ending. A more pragmatic interest makes the song relevant in this section: Julia offers to clean the St. Clement’s church picture had she done so, the lovers would have discovered the telescreen hidden behind it.

The most important part of this section is Winston’s meeting with O’Brien, which Winston considers the single most important event of his life. The meeting is brief but establishes O’Brien as an enigmatic and powerful figure. At this point we cannot tell whether he is trustworthy or treacherous, whether he is truly on Winston’s side or simply wants to trap him for the Party. In the end, Winston will discover the answer to that question in the place where there is no darkness.

The most remarkable aspect of the capture of Winston and Julia is that it comes as a surprise. Even though Winston has predicted his own capture throughout the novel, Orwell manages to time the arrival of the authorities perfectly to catch the reader off-guard. The long excerpt from Goldstein’s book is the mechanism he uses to accomplish this shock effect, and in this sense, at least, the excerpt is fully justified.

Winston’s obsession with O’Brien (which began with the dream about the place where there is no darkness) was the source of his undoing, and it undoes him now as well. Throughout the torture sessions, Winston becomes increasingly eager to believe anything O’Brien tells him- -even Party slogans and rhetoric. In the last book of the novel, Winston even begins to dream about O’Brien in the same way he now dreams about his mother and Julia.

This apparent death wish is the key to Winston’s character is his fatalism—he rebels against the Party not because he desires freedom, but because he wants the Party to kill him. Given Orwell’s political aspirations for his novel, this seems an idle and unprofitable speculation. 1984 may include psychological imbalance among its list of ill effects caused by totalitarian government, but it seems clear that 1984 is not primarily about psychological imbalance. Winston no longer has any reason to think for himself: he loves Big Brother, and Big Brother will take care of him. His love of Big Brother has not cured his fatalism; Winston still envisions the day the bullet will enter his brain.

The causes of Winston’s shattered will. After months of agonizing torture and unrelenting brainwashing, Winston is nevertheless able to hold on to his love for Julia until O’Brien threatens him with the cage of rats. At this point, Winston is finally faced with a torment he would rather see Julia experience than feel, and he calls out her name to save him. Once he has offered Julia as a sacrificial victim to take his place, Winston has finally been destroyed.

The novel’s pivotal scene in which O’Brien straps the cage of rats onto Winston’s face seems an anticlimax. It has been argued that the cage of rats is not horrible enough to make the reader feel Winston’s torment, and that it feels arbitrary, as though Orwell were simply reaching for some horrible device with which to conclude his story. Winston’s collapse does follow hard upon his passionate restatement of his love for Julia and hatred for Big Brother

Throughout the novel, Orwell argues that physical pain and the sense of physical danger override human reason. When Winston is facing a writhing swarm of rats prepared to devour his face cannot act rationally. He is a prisoner to his nervous system. And betraying Julia is his instinctive salvation. Rather than the rats themselves, it is the awareness the Party forces on Winston, that he is a prisoner of his body that ultimately breaks him. Once he believes his body limits him, he has no reason to think, act, or rebel. Doublethink is equally crucial to Winston’s gradual process of conversion to love for Big Brother, because it enables him to accept his torturers’ words as true, even though his own memories contradict those words.

The Supplemental Paper: The Principles of Newspeak

1984’s Appendix contains Orwell’s ideas about Newspeak. Although Orwell felt that these ideas were too technical to integrate into the novel, they develop the novel’s stance on language and thought in the public’s acceptance of governmental control. And although this paper is to long it is important that the principals of Newspeak be addressed.

Newspeak is the official language of Oceania; it is scheduled for official adoption around 2050, and is designed to make the ideological premises of Ingsoc (Newspeak for English Socialism: the Party’s official political alignment) the only expressible ideology. Newspeak is engineered to remove even the possibility of rebellious thoughts by eliminating the words in which thoughts might be expressed. Newspeak contains no negative terms—the only way to express the meaning of «bad» is through the word “ungood.” Something extremely bad would be called “doubleplus ungood.” Newspeaks grammar is arranged so that any word can serve as any part of speech. There are three different vocabulary spheres within Newspeak.

“A Vocabulary” contains everyday words and phrases for such things as eating, drinking, working and so on. In comparison with Modern English, these words are fewer in number but more rigid in meaning. Newspeak leaves no room for nuance, or for degrees of meaning.

“B Vocabulary” contains all words with political or ideological significance. These words are especially tailored to provoke thoughtless acceptance of the Party’s doctrines. As example: «goodthink» means roughly the same thing as “orthodoxy.” The “B Vocabulary” is formed entirely of compound words and often squeezes words into smaller forms to attain abstract ease. The English phrase “Thought Police,” for instance, is compressed into «thinkpol»; “the Ministry of Love” becomes “miniluv.”

“C Vocabulary” is made up of words that relate to science and to technical fields. It is intended to guarantee that technological information remains segmented among many domains. Thus no one person would have access to too much knowledge. In fact, there is no word for science; «Ingsoc» already covers any meaning it could possibly bear.

The particularities of Newspeak make it impossible to translate older English (oldspeak) texts into the language; the introduction of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, could only be translated into a single word: crime think. Furthermore, each of the technical manuals must be translated into Newspeak; it is this bulk of translation work that explains the Party’s decision to hold off the full adoption of Newspeak to 2050.

Recommendation for Teaching

George Orwell’s novel is depressing and fatalistic in nature. There are parts that are difficult to read and are (for lack of a better description) boring. But this is one of those pieces that should be read. Some students will get it but as teaching tools it, although it might be meet with some derision.

The importance of Orwell’s message is an important lesson. The Negative Utopia concept he presents is essential to any understanding of the future. The questioning of governmental programs, what this generation leaves behind for future age groups are concepts that need to be addressed by the young, if not at least introduced to. The importance of technology and business are also a consideration. Does it control society or does society command it. Going hand in hand with the concepts of governmental power is the antithesis of Civil Disobedience. Which might make an excellent supplemental reading.

While the body of this essay did not (purposely) contain mention of Big Brother it is another reason for reading this novel. Big Brother is the figurehead of a government that has total control. The Big Brother regime uses propaganda and puts fear in its citizens to keep the general population in line. “Big Brother is watching you”(5) is just one example of many party slogans that puts fear in its citizens. Big Brother uses various ways to catch people guilty of bad thoughts and the term Big Brother is used though out other literature as well as other forms of media and communication.

Lesson Ideas

1. The entire class would have to comply with the societal rules that Winston has to. By either having the class have a discussion on how to make everyone completely equal. If one person has glasses they all would have glasses. Etc.

2. Write a paper in Newspeak, or have a class conversation in Newspeak.

3. How would they feel if their entire life was predestined? What if the only way to survive was to conform.4. What is freedom? What is this type of society born from? If a class of seniors is they involved with government or do they allow it to happen?

5. Might teach Civil disobedience along with this. At least a supplemental reading for a one-day discussion.