George Orwell, 1984
In a speech entitled ‘Literature as Freedom’ Susan Sontag defines a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world”. Writing entails, “trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this insight into ‘wickedness’ – so thoroughly explored – continues to connect so many readers with the struggle for freedom. Winston Smith, the novel’s hero speaks to the anguish of those under totalitarian control when he asks,
For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn…How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature, impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him; or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.
The future did listen however to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, the novel appeared at a point in history following a world war that claimed the attention and lives of millions, when capabilities for human ‘wickedness’ seemed at no point more unfathomable. In doing so, it connected through iron curtains the unmistakable message of individual freedom. Perhaps no novel communicates more our Literature’s potential to recognize the universal in humanity, separated by ‘mind-forged manacles’ and real world boundaries.
Set in ‘Oceania’, a future socialist dystopia, the individual citizens of a former England are subordinated by ‘Big Brother’, a vast government machine whose technology of surveillance controls its subjects’ thoughts and actions.
1984‘s hero Winston Smith cannot repress his memory of history, even as he toils in the ‘Ministry of Truth’. He works as a propagandist, under orders to alter facts according to the official ruling party’s allegiances. Smith comes to see ‘2+2=4’, if no longer a ‘fact’, as a personal and self-controlled connection to reality, the expression of freedom itself. He contrives to commit the ‘thoughtcrime’ of privacy, writing – at great risk- to a diary.
Translated into 65 languages, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a psychological thriller, a story whose individuals live in constant fear. The novel’s airtight atmosphere surrounds the reader through a minimal use of dialogue.
What makes 1984 such an important historical fiction work, is – like Winston Smith’s diary – that the novel was at risk of never being read. The book was banned in Eastern Europe, and, like the shifting alliances in the story, almost banned in England while the country remained an official ally of Stalin after WWII. Yet Nineteen Eighty-Four helped in smuggled form (samizdat) to forment dissent throughout eastern bloc states. Through Orwell’s characteristically simple, direct style, the novel’s insightful, complex themes were shown to be well suited to translation in many languages
This ability for art to cross borders was in fact, two-way. In Russian author Ayn Rand’s Anthem (published in Britain, 1938) the characters live in a world where only ‘we’– not ‘I’ – is ever spoken. Language is used as a symbol of the repression of individual thought itself. In this respect both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthem must acknowledge a literary debt to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the 1920 Russian satire of a post-revolution police state. The exchange of works across the East-West divide, writes Hitchens, “kindled a spark in the Siberias of the world, warming the hearts of shivering Poles and Ukrainians, and helped melt the permafrost of Stalinism”.
Author Czeslaw Milosz, who worked under communism in the Polish Ministry of Culture, testifies the banned Orwell “fascinated [communist officials] through his insight into details they knew well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden because allegory; by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor”. (qtd in Hitchens, 2002,p.54)
This insight is further captured fictionally in Nineteen Eighty-Four , and is shown by character Big Brother‘s orders to reduce language to basic ‘Newspeak’ terms; “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect”. The citizens of ‘Oceania’ are so removed from private abstractions and imagination, they even work to a 24hr clock, lest ‘8 o’clock’ share two abstract meanings.
Nineteen Eighty-Four remains utterly relevant today, reminding us of the powerful manipulative role language can play in the shifting contest over History: “He who controls the Past, controls the Present.” It also gives powerful testament to why those living under tyranny place themselves at such evident risk to their own life fighting against it.
He was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now when he began to formulate his thoughts that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote, “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.” Now that he recognised himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible.
“To die hating them, that was freedom,” thinks Orwell’s hero. Life must have meaning and sanctity. In the real world, the oppressed began living again, committing the unpardonable act of opening secret copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and beginning to read. ♦