‘If there is hope,’ writes Winston Smith in his illicit diary, ‘it lies in the proles’. Readers familiar with Orwell’s esteemed dystopia, 1984, will know that Smith – the novel’s doomed hero – is contemplating the overthrow of the seemingly invincible Party and its totalitarian regime. And it doesn’t take long for him to reason, ‘Until [the proles] become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.’ This paradox comes to haunt one of literature’s most renowned dissidents – Winston Smith’s fancy that the proles may provide humanity’s salvation is repeatedly undermined, so that a lower-class insurrection is both a ‘mystical truth and a palpable absurdity’. Yet until his arrest Winston clings to the notion as a ‘faith’, and one that is apparently upheld by what he believes to be the underground resistance’s subversive literature.
Hope and The Proles
The Brotherhood’s legendary ‘Book’ appears to be leading to the conclusion that a prole uprising will someday defeat the Party. If Winston is arrested before he can finish reading the treatise, readers of Orwell’s actual novel understand that any such revolutionary idealism is cheerlessly exposed by the limited third person narration, which depicts the masses in a state of unconscious hopelessness. The proles were born, grew up in the gutters, worked from childhood, had crushing physical jobs, married young and died way before their time. Their horizons or reasons for ‘remaining alive’ were limited to their sprawling, messy families, football, films, beer and gambling, including the fixed Lottery. Indeed, this culturally-unstimulated class developed a ‘primitive patriotism’ though not ‘strong political feelings’ and ‘the larger evils invariably escaped their notice’.
Inhabiting crime-ridden areas and lacking education, the proles are regarded by the Party as natural inferiors, and for that reason they are prohibited from graduating into its ranks. Consequently, it is a policy of the Thought Police to root out and annihilate the most gifted of the common people. The Inner Party member, interrogator and torturer, O’Brien, can attest with some confidence that the proles (and slaves) will never rebel: the people who make up the largest section of society are as helpless as animals.
1984 – arguably the most successful political novel of the twentieth-century – constructs an image of humanity that appears, at face value, to be devoid of hope. Is its sole purpose to critique the rise of Stalinist systems of oppression? Or does the novel contain a subtler, more positive message?
Although the three super-states – Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia – have agreed a truce preventing further nuclear warfare (Colchester is one victim of an atomic catastrophe), self-propelled missiles frequently devastate London, which is no longer England’s capital, but a conurbation of Airstrip One, a province of Oceania.# The city is characterised by slum housing, bomb sites and imposing government buildings, while machine gun nests, omnipresent police patrols and the Thought Police control the population (though little is done to fight crime in the prole areas). In this environment of perpetual warfare, oppression, rations and grubby poverty, propaganda is omnipresent – Orwell’s readers can never be totally sure that the text is stable or reliable. This is especially true when the narration focalises through Winston Smith, a man who, like the majority of Oceania’s citizens, has been systematically misled by the authorities.
Political posters intimidatingly declare that Big Brother is always watching, and for once the regime is telling the truth: Party members are under the constant surveillance of telescreens, a technology advanced enough to detect a heart beat changing pace. The dire upshot is that Ingsoc’s ideology, slogans and political rituals must be adhered to at all times. The Two Minute Hate and Hate Week virulently attack alleged traitors, prisoners-of-war and opposing states (either Eastasia or Eurasia, depending on who is currently an ally or an enemy) – any Party member who isn’t seen to participate passionately will most certainly be accused of Thought Crime, punishable by torture, indoctrination and vaporisation.
After death, most ‘Thought Criminals’ are painstakingly removed from every record, as if they never existed. Meanwhile, the Party disseminate the lie that a ‘new, happy life’ has been created. Should the consequences of independent thought not be fatal, no one would be capable of disagreeing – a point of comparison between eras cannot be found because all records are doctored for political purposes. The dictatorship’s iron, cruel grip on life and reality even destabilises mathematical certainties – O’Brien’s torture of Winston demonstrates that two plus two might make three or five whenever the Party has a nefarious reason to make such claims.
Unsurprisingly, hope perishes in a society where war, fear and persecution are the chief driving forces. And that’s before we consider Room 101, the torture chamber where the worst thing in the world (subjective to every victim) is to be endured. Inner Party members like O’Brien are intellectual, lunatic fanatics who believe in indoctrination and torture, boldly, madly professing that their abuse of others cures insanity. The treacherous concept of doublethink – the ability to accept fundamental contradictions in order to submit to the Party’s line – facilitates their inhumanity.
The Party’s thirst for ‘pure power’ has developed methods of torture from which no martyrs emerge. The former non-conformists who have suffered in the Ministry of Love are also publicly humiliated, and these broken shadows of humanity genuinely love the figurehead of oligarchy, Big Brother, before they are murdered. Humanity’s desperate plight is encapsulated by O’Brien’s menacing, infamous line, ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’
Human Relationships and Love
In such a fearful, paranoid milieu it is impossible to know anything about other human beings except that they have the potential to report you to the ruthless authorities. Winston originally suspects Julia – a woman he comes to love – of being an amateur spy serving the Thought Police. The irony doubles because he is drawn to one of his eventual tormentors in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien, even if Winston cannot figure out whether the Inner Party man is a friend or a foe.
Coupled with the all-encompassing promotion of war, hatred and general suspicion of ‘comrades’, Winston Smith is deeply, violently disturbed by the suppression of human emotions and physical needs (the Party never permits people who are attracted to one another to marry and sex is legal only for purposes of reproduction). In a flash of vicious imagination, 1984’s hero envisages himself smashing in Julia’s skull before he knows anything about her. In another instance he regrets not murdering his estranged wife when the opportunity presented itself years past. Not only has the regime generated psychotic misogyny (through the above-mentioned regulations and the sickening preaching and purity of the Junior Anti-Sex League), it has vehemently shredded family ties – youth groups successfully encourage children to report their parents’ ‘suspicious’ behaviour. After allegedly shouting ‘Down with Big Brother!’ in his sleep, Parsons briefly shares a cell with his former neighbour, Winston. The blubbering family man, Parsons, reported by his young daughter, hopes that he will be rewarded for his conscientious Party work, reasoning that he’ll be sent to a labour-camp rather than be shot. A certain type of hope springs eternal?
Readers learn the Party is striving to eliminate orgasms. The all-out war on sex aims to divert the energy of sexual frustration in ways that advance the establishment’s hateful political ends. And yet even in this tyrannical culture where love and lust must be hidden, Orwell’s text raises a sliver of hope only to gradually, excruciatingly crush it. Winston’s devotion to Julia initially inspires a glowing desire to stay alive, but the couple finally betray their vows to remain true when faced with Room 101’s horrors. In the most terrible torture chamber Winston and Julia wish their ordeals on one another when they realise unfaithfulness is their sole means of escape. Only love for Big Brother is permitted, and after the Party destroy Winston’s spirit, he comes to love the regime’s figurehead and all that it symbolises.
The Past and History
Early in the novel, Winston sought to deconstruct the Party’s narrative and ideology, a process that involved trying to find out if people enjoyed better living conditions in the past. As far as he can ascertain, the poverty and injustices alluded to in official history books could be accurate and legitimate accounts or politicised, wild fabrications. When Winston ignores Party orders and strays into a forbidden zone his discussion with an inarticulate, unfocused, aged prole suggests that the workers were severely impoverished under the system of capitalism. Historically aware readers will confirm that dreadful conditions existed in pre-WWII England for many working people, nevertheless, the regime’s historical perspective isn’t authenticated: for example, the Party lies that the period of capitalism did not oversee the erection of any great buildings, placing impressive architecture in the medieval period or claiming that grand constructions are post-revolution achievements.
Unable to prove or disprove his doubts about the Party’s presentation of history, Winston is fully aware of the systematic manipulation of more recent events – his work in the Ministry of Truth concerns altering records to guarantee that the Party’s line is flawlessly impervious. In essence, ‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth’.
The Book and the Brotherhood
The ‘Book’ (supposedly authored by the arch dissenter, Goldstein, and published by the proscribed Brotherhood) seems to concur with Winston’s memories: Smith recalls that the original revolutionaries were dubiously tried, shamed and executed and The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism relates that socialism’s original principles were betrayed and twisted out of all recognition by the Party. Paranoid uncertainty soon reasserts itself, however – the Party interrogator and torturer, O’Brien, avers that he and other Inner Party members wrote the legendary subversive text (O’Brien certainly set-up Winston so that he was caught with it in his possession). While O’Brien opines that The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism provides an accurate historical context, the unscrupulous apparatchik also maintains that the text purposely misleads its readers towards a groundless conclusion. Namely, that the proles are the source of hope. We have already seen that Orwell’s text supports O’Brien’s negative appraisal of the likelihood of a successful prole insurgency.
Winston speculates that Emmanuel Goldstein – Public Enemy Number One and a regular target of the Two Minute Hate – is the ‘sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies.’ That this great protector and his organisation, the Brotherhood, might actually be creations of the Party’s propaganda (as Big Brother likely is) mocks the suggestion of even the faintest revival in humankind’s fortunes.
Rather than enlighten Winston, the section of the ‘Book’ he manages to study articulates much of what he already sensed. If O’Brien and other Party members are responsible for the tome and expounded an accurate historical and sociological account, then we encounter a vile boast; namely that societies have always been hierarchical and that the Party have developed the most formidable oligarchy ever. According to the Book, the regime’s power is rooted in the endless war: the conflict ensures that the
general population never benefits from their endeavours, that is, the masses do not become comfortable (because the war consumes all production) and therefore do not go on to gain an education (which a more comfortable life would afford them). The motive for this economic duplicity is simple: a mass of educated people would dismantle an oppressive hierarchical society.
The chances of widespread education (as opposed to universal indoctrination) are ever more negated by policies such as the ongoing translation of literature into Newspeak. These new editions strip canonised works of their art and their thought-provoking human interest, while maintaining an illusion of cultural prestige. 1984’s commentary on books and the control of their potential influence is perhaps best illustrated by Winston’s thoughts on his diary: he knows he is condemned to death the exact moment he even considered clandestinely keeping his own record of life.
The Party expect Newspeak to replace the English language in just over six decades. The regime’s language planning is typically about domination – Newspeak is designed to limit thought and expression: Thought Crime and the ability to rebel and hope for change will be eradicated by linguistic constraints.
I984’s final, sad scenes show broken Winston reflecting on his final meeting with Julia after their release. Knowing that they betrayed their love the couple can barely stand the sight of each other. Crushingly, Big Brother is the focus of Winston’s affections, no matter that the Party will seal his fate with a bullet. It is an utterly bleak denouement in an utterly bleak world. But what is its purpose? Does it actually enable close readers to take something positive from the novel?
1984’s critique of Stalinist regimes attests that a violent revolution will be succeeded by a more virulent counter-revolution that mercilessly kills the original insurrectionists and trounces their ideals. In contextualising Oceania’s society, Orwell’s text alludes to the declining fortunes of the democratic British Labour Party due to the revolutionaries’ ascent, subtly, inversely making the point that democratic reform is the sole means to justice and change? Such a reading certainly accords with Orwell’s well-documented support for democratic socialism, and 1984 was conceived at the time the UK’s post-war leftist government was founding the National Health Service and establishing a progressive Welfare State to tackle social evils.
Do we currently live under a threat posed by violent revolutionaries? We certainly inhabit an increasingly 1984 type-world as far as government surveillance is concerned (just consider the UK’s proposed Snoopers’ Charter), and war in some shape or form is continual (the latter is frequently used to justify the former). Perhaps our societies have undergone some far-reaching changes without many of us entirely appreciating their highly-dangerous consequences. 1984 is a grave warning, not a guidebook to help nefarious politicians and powerful groups to accomplish their agendas.
#Oceania comprises the Americas, the British Isles, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and other disputed, fought-over zones.