Orwell’s “1984” and Other Dystopian Literature
I was wondering how to sum up “1984” in a way that would also translate the feeling I had as I read it.
Orwell’s dystopian universe can be likened to being in a large room where the floor is not level. You walk across it every day with many others. Every day you feel like you are walking either downhill or uphill. You can’t sit in a chair comfortably. The evidence that the floor is slanted is all around you. Vases won’t stay on tables–they keep sliding off. When you set a cup of coffee down, it spills over one side. Yet, you seem to be the only person who notices how off center everything is. Furthermore, no one believes as you do–but you can’t be sure. Talking about it, comparing opinions, is strictly forbidden. Even thinking about it is subversive and can result in terrible punishment. So, you try to ignore it. You try to continue with your day. You try to believe what everyone else believes–that the floor is completely level. But you know the truth about the floor. You can’t argue this with yourself. And no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t unknow what you know. The floor is not level!! It is slanted–and in fact, it slants to the right. So what do you do with that?
That is Orwell’s novel. What is wrong is right. Even is it was right yesterday, it is wrong today, and you must somehow forget that it was wrong yesterday, or that it ever existed as anything other than right. No wonder why Orwell’s beleaguered hero, Winston Smith, feels like he is losing his mind sometimes, and feels out of touch with what is real–or is uncertain of what is real. He is a man without a past that can exist outside his own mind. He has no frame of reference. Strange indeed that he somehow was born and became a man, yet has no parents–they have been erased–even their existence has been blotted out forever. He works next to a colleague for years, eats lunch with him, has careful conversations with this man, but when this man is erased, he must continue on as though this colleague never existed. How can he forget if “doublethink” does not work for him?
Like Huxley’s “Brave New World”, Orwell’s novel attacks the very part of the person that is intrinsically human: we all are, as Descartes said, “thinking things”. We cannot be any other way, and when we see what is not true, but are told to believe that what is untrue is true, our minds turn on us. We begin to think it through, to calculate, to reference our environment. If we see glaring evidence to the contrary, we cannot blindly accept something we know is wrong. It is unnatural for us. Yet, in “1984”, this is what Big Brother forces the people of Air Strip One to do every day, and many times during the day. History is constantly modified, and therefore, the present “truth” must change also. Both Huxley and Orwell rewrite human history, and while Huxley’s world does it once and for all future generations, Orwell’s world changes history daily, in an ever-confusing cycle of what is correct to think about. Very disturbing.