George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Professor John Bowen explores truth, fiction, repression and freedom in George Orwell’s iconic 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The film is shot at Senate House in London, formerly the Ministry of Information, and the building on which Orwell based the Ministry of Truth.

So we’re in the Senate House of the University of London. This is an enormous 1930s tower that dominates the landscape that it’s over, and Orwell was interested in it, his first wife Eileen worked here, and in the Second World War it was the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, which controlled the press, propaganda and censorship. So in many ways very much like the Ministry of Truth in the novel. And he would see this building every day, and it stands proud above its landscape. And of course that landscape in the 1940s after the end of the war was a pretty rotten one. It was full of bombed buildings, it was full of poverty, it was a world of a country almost bankrupt, and Orwell would look around at this sort of devastation around him, and that feeds in so much to what the novel looks like. It’s a world of deprivation, of rationing, of stench. That’s the world that Orwell wants to draw, and it’s one that partly is a fantasy world, but it also draws very heavily on the reality of London in the 1940s.

Caption: A novel about writing

So Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, and what he has to do is revise the past. If a political change has taken place, all the old newspapers are sent to Winston and he has to re-write the past so it will fit neatly with whatever the truths of the present are. And the process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, soundtracks, cartoons, photographs, to every kind of literature or documentation, which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance.

Julia also is a writer too, she works in the fiction department, but she’s an engineer. Fiction is written not by people but by machines, and she’s the engineer who works on the fiction writing machines. And so the whole novel in a way is troubled by the relationship between truth and fiction, whether there can be a true kind of fiction, or whether fiction will always substitute for truth, and Winston is always trying to keep to a sense that there might be a real truth there, but his work is one that destroys truth.

So it’s also a novel about novel writing, so Winston in one way doesn’t seem a very important figure, but in another way he is, and in some ways he’s a novelist himself, a bit like Orwell. So what he specialises in is inventing things, inventing the past, re-writing the past. And when we read about Winston’s work, we get a sense of how important writing is to the whole story.

Caption: Hatred and love

Fundamentally all the feelings in the book seem to be contradictory. When he first thinks about Julia, the girl that he’ll fall in love with, he hates her, he wants to shoot her full of arrows like St. Sebastian, he says, or cosh her with a rubber truncheon. It’s like love and hate are inseparable in this book. And that’s true also about Winston’s feelings about O’Brien, who will torture him at the end of the book, he also sort of loves him. It’s also true of his feelings politically on a bigger scale about Big Brother. At the very end of the novel Winston says that he loves Big Brother, but for much of the book he also hates him as well, or moves between the two, or finds the two inseparable, hatred and love. And indeed the political slogans of the state in which he lives, of Oceania, are themselves radically contradictory, war is peace, these two things completely contradict each other, and yet somehow they’re the truth of that society. So it’s a novel that’s full of people feeling deeply ambivalent. He feels ambivalent about his mother, about his memory, about the Party, about almost everybody that he meets, in which there’s the most intense loathing and disgust on the one hand, but also abject submission or passionate attachment on the other.

Caption: A continual present tense

So this is a world in which the Party wants to control everything, but above all they want to control time, so Winston’s life is full of memories, of fragments of memory, he’s always trying to recover things from the past. And once he meets Julia, he’s full of desire, of hope for another possibility, another kind of life, but the Party wants to destroy that and make him live as it makes everyone live, in a kind of perpetual present tense, in which there can be no thought of a possible alternative, either in the future or in the past.

So time is at the centre of political struggle in the book. So Winston spends a lot of time trying to find out what the world of the past was like, he likes objects from the past, like the beautiful book that he finds at the beginning, or the glass paperweight that seems to be like a fragment of a world that’s been lost. He even goes down to talk to the proles and he tries to find from an old man what the world was actually like before the Party dominated it. And of course, gradually as the novel goes on, he’s gradually reduced to the continuous present tense, his memory and his desire are both eliminated into what becomes then the image that in a way the novel leaves us with, of the boot stamping on a face forever, a continuous present tense of oppression and pain.

Caption: In pursuit of objective truth

So Orwell is very bothered in the book about fact and about truth, and trying to work out what could be factually true, and it comes to be a difference about whether two plus two makes four, or what he’s forced to believe, that two and two makes five. But in that concern with objectivity and truth, in fact the novel is full of strange states of consciousness, it’s full of dreams, it’s full of memories or partial memories, it’s full of strange states that Winston gets taken to when he’s tortured, of a simultaneous consciousness and unconsciousness of things. And that’s what, in a way what a dream is like, you’re aware of it but somehow you’re not sure of it, its status, is it real or not? And in fact some of the dreams turn out to be prophetic in this book.

What the Party wants to do, is to change the way that people think, so that it’s impossible to have a critical thought, so that they invent a whole language, which is called Newspeak, in which certain kinds of, particularly critical thinking, are impossible. And it’s full of these strange words, whose plan eventually is to destroy critical thought completely, so that people can’t conceive of a world outside of the one that they’re in. And gradually you see, as Winston dements almost, towards the end of the book, his ability to think critically becomes impossible. He gets completely colonised by modes of thought and modes of language that don’t allow him to envisage any possibility, other than the truth the Party tells him.

Caption: The novel’s reception

So this is a novel that from its title, 1984, marks itself historically, but it’s very interesting to see how much readings of it have changed over the years. So in the 1950s, for example, it was very much read as a Cold War text, a critique of the Soviet Union and praise in a way of a Capitalist free enterprise system. Now, I think that doesn’t work really as a reading. Oceania is in fact an American place, it’s mainly America plus the United Kingdom, which has now become Airstrip One. They use dollars, Britain is subordinate to the United States, which has become another one of these great terrifying global empires. So the readings of the book change radically I think over time; it looks different in the Vietnam War, it looks different after Guantanamo Bay, it looks different almost on any major political occasion.

But it also looks different because of the technological changes there have been. So in Orwell and his writing, there’s almost no television, there have been some early experiments in the 1930s, but the idea of a two way flat screen in your every room in the house in which you could communicate in both directions, well, that looked like fantasy then, but now looks much more realistic in the digital age. And the idea that you could keep revising things, the past could be eliminated and quickly revised, turned into something utterly different from what it was before, which is what Winston’s job is, now too seems a much more real possibility in the Internet age.

Caption: Sexuality and freedom

1984 is clearly a novel that’s deeply concerned with politics and the wider society, but also within in it there’s a very deeply important love story between Winston and Julia, but it’s a very strange one. And indeed the whole novel’s relationship to sexuality is often a perversely strange one. So that we know that Winston’s first marriage was an unhappy one, that his wife called having sex, “Our duty to the Party.” And his relationship with Julia too is very different, that she just sends him a note out of the blue saying, I love you. But his thoughts about her before then have been very violent ones, he wants to cosh her with a runner truncheon. He says to her when he first, when they first speak, that he wanted to rape her and then kill her. So sexuality and violence seem deeply linked in the book. In one way it’s a world of freedom, of escape, that’s what he loves about Julia, that what Winston loves about Julia is that she has a sexual freedom that he’s never seen elsewhere and that the Party doesn’t approve of. But still at the same time it often seems deeply misogynistic, his relationship to women in the book, and in the end it almost seems less important than his relationship with O’Brien. So it’s a very strange novel in terms of the way in which perversity and freedom and eroticism are complexly bound together.

But it’s not just Winston who has a strange relationship to sexuality, it’s also the Party does too, the Party wants to eliminate it, so that Julia for example is a member of the Junior Anti Sex League and wears the red sash. And it’s that the Party doesn’t want to eliminate love but it wants to eliminate eroticism, that somehow there’s something within sexuality that seems unbounded and free. And you can see in that, Orwell resembling a writer like D H Lawrence in the sense that somewhere in sexual freedom there can be something that can stand against any kind of totalitarian power. So Winston at one point says to Julia, “You’re only a rebel from the waist down,” so in one way he’s implying a limitation there, but also admiration for what can resist, something that goes very deep within the self that the Party wants to control.

Caption: Orwell’s notebook

Okay, so this is a rare survival. So, very few of George Orwell’s manuscripts survive. Some of the manuscripts of 1984 does, and then a few things like this. So this is a notebook from 1943, so the novel comes out in ’49, so you can see him already thinking about this book

So you can see that he’s beginning almost with general ideas, so he says, “The general layout as follows, part one, build up of, a, the system of organised lying in which society is founded.” He doesn’t begin with character, he doesn’t begin with plot but he begins with the abstract ideas. And then, b, the way in which this is done, falsification of records, etc. It might almost be a political tract or a pamphlet of the sort that he’s been writing so far. But then it moves to the much more subjective, the nightmare feeling caused by the disappearance of objective truth, and this is something that is so deep in the whole novel, where is it that you can find truth? Is it in memory, is it in records, and if they’re not reliable where else might it exist? Leadership, leader worship, etc., it says here, if you scroll in, leader worship. And then finally at the end of the list, the loneliness of the writer, his feeling of being the last man. So, the last man in Europe is one of the possible titles of the book and it comes from Mary Shelley, her book, The Last Man, Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein, and the sense that he’s uniquely different, the last person with a kind of humane memory of what the past was like.

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