Orwell’s Reminders of Absurdities

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By Elyse Ferris

Contemporary political discourse has caused a surge in sales of George Orwell’s groundbreaking dystopian novel 1984. Remembering Big Brother’s brainwashing methods and ‘newspeak,’ Orwell readers connected aspects of the book to Kellyanne Conway’s comments about “alternative facts” following President Trump’s inauguration. The discussion of ‘alternative facts’ and the comeback of 1984 also call to mind interpretations of Orwell’s book in general, as well as the seemingly contradictory points of his ideology.

I first read George Orwell’s 1984 for a high school English class, and I was entranced. I recognized how aspects of the novel might have inspired contemporary literature for younger audiences, such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, or other series like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent. I tried to identify a common significance between these examples of dystopian literature. I came to think that some of these books were made almost exclusively for entertainment purposes, but others send a stronger message. What does dystopian literature (particularly that which includes a totalitarian state) imply about the reach of government? To what extent did Orwell intend for 1984 to be a warning?

   I think I misinterpreted 1984 to some degree the first time I read it. I identified what appeared to be contradictions not only within the story (such as Big Brother’s idea of ‘truth’) but also in the thoughts presented by Orwell himself. I was surprised to learn that he was liberal, indeed a socialist. Initially viewing his work simply as a book with straightforward, anti-government sentiments, I assumed he must have been a zealous pacifist and  libertarian. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Orwell began to consider himself a socialist in the 1930’s, but “he was too libertarian in his thinking ever to take the further step – so common in the period – of declaring himself a communist.” For a while, it was almost impossible for me to reconcile these opposing viewpoints. I couldn’t understand how someone could be part libertarian, part socialist.

I still sometimes struggle with the idea, but I think it’s important to remember the political context in which Orwell developed his views and wrote his books.

 

   Britannica says Orwell’s articles and essays during WWII revealed a mixture of his patriotic, libertarian, and decentralized socialist ideas. I believe that 1984, the last novel of his life, points to his vision for a compromise of government’s societal role. Orwell recognized government’s beneficial potential, but hated its invasive potential to control and manipulate. We can speculate that in the aftermath of WWII, Orwell feared a future in which the world was divided up between just a few powers. Maybe it was only natural for one’s mind to wander when observing interactions between the ‘big three’ (Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt) in the early stages of the Cold War. A future of totalitarianism around the globe was not necessarily inevitable, but its potential must have been great enough to inspire aspects of the book. Orwell’s warning in 1984 does not detract from his faith in the state. Overall, I still see the novel as a cautionary tale which warns against the dangers of extreme nationalism, thoughtless submission, and totalitarianism.

In a similar regard, does contemporary dystopian literature aim, above all, to send a message? If so, I think its message can often be misconstrued. For example, The Hunger Games series features the downtrodden citizens of the Panem districts whose backbreaking labor benefits the capital. I think people could observe this from a couple of different perspectives: 1. citizens suffer at the hands of a cruel totalitarian regime which, like Big Brother, watches everything, or 2. an abused proletariat rebels against the elite, addressing their grievances and fighting for rights and equality. The way I see it, readers could focus on blaming the Panem government for the suffering of the districts. On the other hand, they could view the story as a struggle of rich versus poor, emphasizing similarities between the citizens of Panem districts and lower classes of contemporary society who fight inequality.

Maybe people will always just see what they want to see. I think we are often tempted to interpret ideas based on our own bias and predispositions, picking out thoughts here and there that we agree with, sometimes ignoring the rest. Readers (*guilty as charged*) can pick up 1984 and gather from it a defense for a political ideology which they’ve already been exposed to. Perhaps Orwell had an idyllic potential in mind. Perhaps ‘alternative facts,’ like newspeak, are simply a contradictory construct used to push an agenda. I think Orwell condemned ignorance as he encouraged a healthy degree of skepticism of authority and bias. 1984 reminds readers that political absurdities and contradictions are simply inevitable.

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.”

 – George Orwell 

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One Response to Orwell’s Reminders of Absurdities

  1. Arlette Hernandez says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Elyse! I hate to be the one student who brings it up repeatedly, but I studied abroad in England last semester and one of the classes I took was on Post-War British Literature. Of course, 1984 was the first book we read in that class. In fact, we even saw a live production at the Playhouse Theatre in London. What struck me most about reading the novel was how closely it paralleled all the stories I grew up hearing. My father, who was born in Cuba two years after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, grew up with the shadow of Fidel Castro and the Cold War looming over him. I grew up listening to stories about food rations, government controlled television and radio stations, and family members being put in jail for political dissent. One of the most striking scenes for me was in the seventh chapter of part two. Winston recalls a memory where hunger drives him toward a selfishness that does not come without consequences–he steals his sister’s rationed chocolate and runs away, his mother calling out after him. After he escapes, he is left guilt and when he returns home to find his mother and sister missing, he blames himself for their absences. The descriptions of Winston’s hunger, the pathetic way in which his sister clung to their mother “like a baby monkey, ” and the mother’s desperation, her constant struggle to feed her children–all of it struck so close to home. I found a Spanish translation of the chapter and sent it to my father, who then called me with a somber voice, repeating over and over, “Es verdad, es verdad”–it is true, it is true.
    The novel is a deeply political one, yes. It was interesting to learn that Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War against Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, an experience that largely influenced the composition of 1984. I am in total agreement with you about the fact that Orwell is consumed with the idea of totality especially in reference to governmental structures and that ultimately no regime that exists in a totalitarian state is or can be successful. I’ve often heard it said that even though Hitler and Stalin made very different ideological claims, at the end of the day, they were both very similar. Political opinion exists along a circle, not a spectrum–carried to both of their extremes the right and left wings eventually dissolve into each other. That said, I would also challenge you on your two interpretations of The Hunger Games. While I am not familiar with the series, I think that when you think of the two interpretations in a certain way, much like fascism and communism, the two readings collapse into one another. Nevertheless, this inevitable Derridean collapse hints at the absurdism behind the novel. Well done!

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