1984 essay response
Loren A. Santiago
As children, our behavior is controlled not necessarily by who is present but instead by a threat of being punished by someone we cannot see. Why else do children behave themselves (more often than not) all year long, other than the big payoff of receiving gifts from Santa Claus on Christmas? Why else do children feel guilty and contrite for misbehaving when they are reminded that God is always watching them? And even today, is it merely a suspicion or an established fact that the government knows more about us than we think they know or want them to know? Even though we may not have obvious direct government intervention on a daily basis, with officials stationed in our homes and places of business, the government--today’s real-life version of Big Brother--is maintaining a constant vigil, monitoring our movements, usually for the sake of “national security.” In the year 1948, George Orwell began writing the novel 1984, a treatise that was to serve as an indictment of Stalin’s reign and as a cautionary tale of what could happen to any country if the citizens let their conscience sleep and allow a government to seize too much control over them; limiting their freedoms and restricting their speech, thoughts, and actions, and causing people to live in fear of the consequences of not adhering to that government’s policies. More specifically, in the novel Big Brother is the face given to an otherwise vague notion of the government that rules the super power known as Oceania. Despite the ubiquitous presence of posters of Big Brother--who has more than a passing resemblance to Joseph Stalin--the citizens of Oceania do not see any signs of government officials or know who they are. Still, the people live in constant fear of Big Brother because they are monitored constantly by microphones, telescreens, and a group known as the Thought Police; all of which control and limit everyone’s thoughts, actions, and speech.
The novel begins on a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks have just struck thirteen (5), the first indication of a disequilibrium in the world of Orwell’s novel. But just how deep and significant are these differences? Turning his back on the telescreen on the wall to hide any possible incredulous and defiant looks on his face (an act known as facecrime in Newspeak) and looking out through the window of his grimy and desolate flat--across the equally grimy and desolate landscape, save for the four gleaming Ministries that dwarf everything around them--Winston Smith, the main character of the novel, vaguely remembers a time before the revolution when conditions were not as bleak as they are now, a time when food and other resources were more plentiful, a time when people were actually able to trust the government instead of fear them. Winston is very aware of how much power the government has as well as the dangers inherent in defying Big Brother. He works for the Ministry of Truth--one of the four ministries--whose responsibility, ironically, is to rewrite history, lying in the process, if necessary, so that the government can limit resources, control people’s memories and beliefs; and deny any culpability in any past, present, or future indiscretions. Their government--the Party--even has a slogan that expresses the power it wields with their blatant abuse of facts: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (32). Smith understands how his ministry changes the truth, but he does not understand why. Nonetheless, he complies with the demands of his job, fearing the vague, dreaded consequences of what lies behind the door of the mysterious room 101 lurking in the bowels of the Ministry of Love, the branch of the government whose job it is to re-indoctrinate the rogue, militant citizens who defy the authorities into once again “loving” Big Brother.
Despite outwardly pretending to be a dutiful Party member, Winston harbors hatred for the Party. Early in the novel, he shows his rebellion not only by purchasing a journal but also by writing his thoughts in that journal; both crimes punishable by time in a forced-labor camp, re-education in the Ministry of Love, or even death. In his first entry, he writes about a propaganda film he has just seen that contains images of refugees being attacked while trying to flee some unnamed enemy. The enemy could have been Eastasia or Eurasia. No one ever really knows whom Oceania is at war with, if in fact they truly ever are at war. For this is just one more piece of “truth” that the government continually alters for its own needs. In fact, some characters, Julia in particular, believe that the government is bombing its own citizens. This theory makes sense considering that the government continuously manipulates the people’s emotions and thoughts, trying to channel all of their energy into hating the shadowy enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein; and the superpower they are currently at war with, whether that is Eastasia or Eurasia. Arguably, Orwell’s notion of a government’s attacking its own people has become a reality more than once in the time since he wrote his novel. Some conspiracy theorists contend that governments, even the United States government, have deliberately attacked or allowed their own citizens to be attacked simply to stoke that nation’s martial spirit and get the people to support their government’s desire to get involved in someone else’s war (as was the case with the attack on Pearl Harbor to justify the United States’ entering WWII or even sending troops into the Middle East to hunt for Saddam Hussein after OsamaBinLaden allegedly “attacked” the World Trade Center).
Winston concludes his first journal entry by repeatedly writing “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (19), another heinous act of rebellion. Almost immediately he hears a knock on his door, and he thinks the government has already discovered his activities, for he knows how adroit Big Brother is at catching thought criminals and how swift the government’s retribution is. He knows that the thought police have come to get him, despite his efforts not to get caught by turning his back to the telescreen, lest he divulge his true feelings by way of committing an unconscious facecrime; and by sitting out of view of the telescreen in his flat, and by concealing his contraband journal from any cameras. Still, he senses that they have discovered him, and in his mind he has already surrendered to his fate by writing in his journal, “theyll shoot me i dont care theyll shoot me in the back of the neck i dont care down with big brother they always shoot you in the back of the neck….(sic)” (20).
And it is very easy for the government to observe the citizens’ activities, especially since they monitor the population every minute of every day. For in addition to the ubiquitous cameras and microphones, the government also recruits young children, indoctrinating them at an early age by instilling in them an unquestioning love for Big Brother and an adherence to the Party’s propaganda; and encouraging them to spy on other citizens, even their own family members. Early in the novel, Orwell notes that Winston’s neighbor, Mrs. Parsons, “must lead a life of terror,” knowing that “[a]nother year, two years, and they (her children) would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy” (24). Even Mr. Parsons, a “fattish but active man of paralyzing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms” (22), is not safe from the prying eyes and ears of the junior spies, least of all his own two children who are quick to action because of their martial indoctrination and brainwashing. At one point, ironically, Parsons brags to Winston about his daughter’s keen sense of detecting a potential spy by noting that the suspected enemy agent was wearing foreign shoes. “Mischievous little beggars they are, both of them, but talk about keenness,” he boasts to Winston. “All they think about is the Spies, and the war of course” (50). Even later, when Parsons is arrested for thoughtcrime--for not even the most dutiful and empty-headed Party member is safe from Big Brother--he is still proud of his daughter, who turns him in after overhearing him shout out “Down with Big Brother” while talking in his sleep. “I don’t bear her any grudge for it,” he says. “In fact I’m proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway” (193).
Not only do people fear their family, but Big Brother also tries to prevent people from loving their family, fearing that a cohesive family unit would create solidarity among the masses, bonds that might lead to eventual rebellion. The Party believes the only purpose for marriage is to give birth to children who will be indoctrinated to serve the Party, based on its agenda and propaganda. To prevent this unity, people must apply before they marry, and if the Party senses genuine love between the applicants, it will disallow the union. Winston remembers his own mother, trying to provide for him and his younger sister, shielding them both from danger and even sacrificing her own health to provide them with the only food that she had. He notes that this very human and humane gesture cannot happen in his world now because “[t]oday there was fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, or deep or complex sorrows” (28-9).
Winston’s memories of his mother are his link to a more compassionate past, and he recalls how she sacrificed herself for her own children’s health and happiness, whether that meant giving them her food or buying a battered game to play with them. In the world of Oceania, only the Proles maintain any of those positive human emotions, connecting them to a more compassionate and humane past. Considered to be no better than animals and therefore not a serious threat to the Party’s stability, the Proles are able to live outside the incessant watchful eye of Big Brother and the Thought Police. “Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern. They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming-period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds” (61-2). A life not unlike what many people live today, save growing up in gutters and being subjected to excessive physical labor--undoubtedly just more of the Party’s propaganda.
However, Winston also knows that the Proles still possess love and compassion, as he notes in his first journal entry when he writes about the Proletarian woman trying to shield a refugee child from bullets, just as his mother once tried to protect his sister from hunger by holding her close to her chest, both futile gestures. At one point in his diary entry, Winston writes about the emotional outburst of a woman in the theater who is also watching the horrific images on the screen. “there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air,” Winston writes. “a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say….(sic)” (11).
The Party tries to remove all traces of these positive emotions from relationships among Party members--such as the love and compassion that Winston’s mother had for him and his sister--ultimately hoping to eliminate relationships completely. The government even hopes to eliminate human emotion from sex, wanting the entire experience to be perceived as a “slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema” (57). In fact, Winston’s wife, Katherine, already views sex and procreation in these terms. For Winston, it becomes a weekly ritual that his wife refers to as “making a baby” or “our duty to the Party” (58). Ideally, the Party would like to eliminate sex completely, replacing it with artificial insemination (artsem, in Newspeak). Until then, Outer Party members sneak into the Proletarian sectors, looking for prostitutes to satisfy their natural human urges, urges that the Party knows it cannot totally control or eliminate.
Perhaps this is a sign of at least one weakness in the Party’s plan for total control. And one of its biggest fears, for the Party knows how easily love and sex could undermine their plans and expose the “man behind the curtain.” Julia, who does not care about Party policies unless they affect her directly, is very insightful regarding the Party’s fears and desire to remove all interest in sex: “When you make love you’re using up energy;” she tells Winston, “and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans (a reference to Stalin’s Five-Year Plans) and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?” (110-11).
Winston and Julia realize how dangerous their seemingly secret trysts above Charrington’s shop are, yet they repeatedly tempt an inevitable fate by continuing to meet there, thinking they are safe in their world built only for two--just like the symbolic piece of coral in the paperweight that Winston purchases from Charrington--trying to live a life not unlike that of the Proles, who are able to live a more ordinary life free of constant surveillance by the Party and the Thought Police, who could at any moment summarily arrest or vaporize them for defying the Party, just as Parsons was vaporized, despite feeling safe as a loyal and dutiful Party member.
Parsons is not the only dutiful Party member who thought he was safe, only to be apprehended and “vaporized” by the Thought Police. Syme, another of Winston’s co-workers, also vanishes, perhaps because he is too smart, also perhaps because “he talks with a disagreeable gloating satisfaction of helicopter raids on enemy villages, the trial and confession of thought-criminals, the executions in the cellars of the Ministry of Love” (44). Syme also talks very lovingly on the subject of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. The Party’s aim is to limit and control the human range of thought and speech by continually destroying “extraneous” and “ambiguous” words and replacing them with words that will prevent any chance to voice a rebellion. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” Syme tells Winston. “Afterall, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well--better because it is an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still” (45-6).
Syme then explains Big Brother’s goal behind continually revising Newspeak: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten...The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect” (46-7).
As a writer, Orwell knew how powerful words could be in addressing social injustices and effecting change. He also knew of the potential dangers in limiting those words. For just as he notes in 1984, eliminating words limits human thought and forces people into the same mindset, which in turn allows one group--the government--to subjugate the masses more easily. Unable to think for themselves, the citizens of Oceania will be forced to adhere to the Party’s orthodoxy, which in their world “means not thinking--not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (47). And people who speak out or speak too openly could also suffer the consequences. Syme knew this as well. He spoke too eagerly about it, and he was eliminated for it. Using the power of his own words, words that can destroy when in the hands of the wrong people, Orwell lifts Syme from the stream of history. “Syme had vanished,” he writes. Winston can find no record of Syme anywhere at work one day, not even on the roster of the Chess Committee that Syme had been a member of. “It looked almost exactly as it had looked before--nothing had been crossed out--but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist; he had never existed” (122).