“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”
So begins one of my favorite novels, 1984, by George Orwell. His writing style is one that I greatly admire, filled with such vivid detail, and one I try to emulate when possible.
1984 (written in 1948) is an dystopia (anti-utopia), in which three great nation-states, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia maintain a permanent state of war with each other. It is one of the most widely misquoted political novels, in the sense that various political groups bash their opponents, accusing them of trying to bring about 1984 in real life, while themselves advocating ideas that would do this. (This ironically fits in perfectly with the novel’s views on governments. Good one, guys.)
I am not writing today to “warn” us that we are fulfilling the novel. As societies grow larger and technology increases, there seems to be a natural tendency towards a police state, whether intentional or otherwise. An in depth discussion of this would take volumes.
Inter-spaced with background information, what I am writing about today is the love between the two main characters, Winston and Julia.
Winston Smith lives in Airstrip One (formerly England), and works in the Ministry of Truth (abbreviated as minitru), where he “corrects errors of the past” by rewriting documents and correcting photos to make them conform to the current views of the Party on history.
Life is extremely hard, with shortages of everything, explained away as a necessity of the war effort. After the end of WWII, the nations of the world were all conquered by the United States, Russia, and China to make, respectively, Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Oceania is at war with Eurasia, and always has been since the Revolution.
Winston has a lonely, unhappy life, filled with work and terror. Due to the war, the Ministry of Love (miniluv) and their Thought Police are on the constant look out for enemies and spies. In his frustration, he commits a grievous sin; he buys an old notebook from an antique shop and starts a diary.
The Party rules Oceania with the creed of INGSOC (English Socialism), and its slogans are WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. These confused ideas are typical of the Party “doublethink”, in which one is forced to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, and know them both to be true.
Winston writes about his frustrations with life. He also writes about a girl at work named Julia. She is a maintenance worker, and Winston hates her because he is sexually attracted to her. The Party has so confused human emotion, Winston alternately wants to rape or kill her, but is also terrified of her, thinking she might be an agent of the Thought Police.
One day, Julia slips a note in his hand. saying that she loves him. Winston is terrified and overjoyed at the same time. They talk during a political rally, and make arrangements to meet in the countryside, still untainted with watchful eyes and telescreens (two way television screens used to spy on you at various urban locations).
They meet one Sunday, and are free to talk for the first time. They have frenzied sex, years of frustration and terror having built it up. The Party only wants sex for the purpose of creating children. Sexual energy should be devoted to hatred of the enemy, and love of the leader of Oceania, Big Brother.
Julia confesses that she has had numerous affairs in the past. She likes Winston because of something she saw in his face. Their affair turns into real love, and they meet at different times and places. Finally, they rent the room over the antique shop and meet when they can.
For the first time in his life, Winston finds true happiness. In the cramped tiny room, located in one of the back alleys of the Proles (the lower classes), Winston and Julia are free to laugh, eat, and make love. They discuss getting permission to marry. Winston begins to wish to change the world for the sake of his new feelings, but Julia is happy to let things remain as they are.
During the middle of a speech denouncing the Eurasian enemy, the speaker changes to the hated Eastasian enemy after receiving a note. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, and the crowd destroys posters denouncing Eurasia, knowing that only traitors and spies could have set them up to fool people about their true friend, Eurasia. Winston is forced to work overtime correcting the past to conform to this new reality of the present, and they cannot meet much.
Winston has strong feelings that O’Brien, an Inner Party member from work, is a member of a counter-revolutionary group called the Brotherhood. He wants to meet him and discuss joining. Julia is against it, but goes for her love of Winston.
O’Brien admits that he is, and gives Winston a book explaining the true history of the Party and its slogans. The war is a permanent thing, with no intention of victory by any side. It kills off population and destroys the production of industry, while at the same time allowing all three governments to oppress their people.
Winston tries to get Julia interested in the book, but she is not political. She just wants to remain with Winston. Their love is her highest goal.
One horrible day in the small room of the antique shop, they discover that there is a secret telescreen, and the Thought Police have been watching them the entire time. They have been reading the diary. The antique dealer and O’Brien are revealed to be agents of the Thought Police.
Julia and Winston are taken to the Ministry of Love, and tortured and degraded in every way possible. O’Brien reveals that the Party does not rule because it thinks its ideas are correct; it rules only because it wants to rule. Winston still clings to his love of Julia, so he is taken to the infamous Room 101.
“You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’ ”
In Winston’s case, it is rats. Crazed rats in a cage will be affixed to his face, and will eat his flesh. O’Brien tells him that Winston already knows what he must do.
“The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then—no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment—one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.
‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’”
Winston and Julia are freed from the Ministry of Love, their previous rebellious nature burned away. Their meeting is very awkward.
“‘I betrayed you,’ she said baldly.
‘I betrayed you,’ he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘they threaten you with something something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, “Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to So-and-so.” And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer.
“All you care about is yourself.’
‘All you care about is yourself,’ he echoed.
‘And after that, you don’t feel the same towards the other person any longer.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘you don’t feel the same.’
There did not seem to be anything more to say. The wind plastered their thin overalls against their bodies. Almost at once it became embarrassing to sit there in silence: besides, it was too cold to keep still. She said something about catching her Tube and stood up to go.”
Their love is utterly destroyed, and they go their separate ways, to an unknown future. The novel ends with Winton’s joy at a great victory over Eastasia (Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia). The novel ends with Winston looking at a poster.
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
It is a sad novel. People have used it to state that this is “what would happen if the commies take over”, missing the point that the novel was written about us. There are lots of people today who want to impose their beliefs on others, and are willing to kill to achieve their goals. In the HBO special “Questioning Darwin”, a man said that if his holy text stated 2+2=5, he would believe it; ironically, this exact situation is forced on Winston in the novel. Google can tell you everything you search online, and the NSA can remind you who you called last week. And the 16th season of Big Brother USA ended on September 24, 2014.
The warning of Orwell was not the dangers of technology or crazy ideas. It is the Reduction of the Individual; the dehumanization that can take away the best aspects of ourselves, and reduce us to mere cogs in the machine.
Reach out to someone today; give them a helping hand, feed them if they are hungry, listen to what they need to say. Most importantly, show them that they matter, just being who they are.