‘1984’ – Unthinkable?
Last month an adaptation of George Orwell’s famous novel, “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” appeared as a television play. The impact on audiences was generally agreed to have been startling—too startling, according to newspaper complaints about unsuitability and lack of “entertainment value.” The intention of the author, however, was not to horrify people, but to make them think and reflect, and certainly the play must have succeeded to a large extent in doing just that.
The story is set in London of the future, which has become Airstrip One in Oceania, one of three States into which the world is divided. These states are permanently at war with each other, though the actual fighting takes place in remote parts, in the jungle or the desert. The social structure in Oceania is a hierarchy consisting of the Proles, the Outer Party and the Inner Party. At the bottom are the Proles, people doing purely routine work, ignorant, stupefied by abysmal and degrading conditions. Not very different are the Outer Party members, without privileges, living and working like automata, named and numbered on their clothing, rationed—and ceaselessly spied on by the two-way tele-screen through which the Thought Police watch and rule.—By contrast, the Inner Party members are the privileged, the givers of orders, the only people with servants, with such luxuries as wine, and with freedom to switch off their tele-screens when they wish. Above all stands the figure of the leader, Big Brother. Whether he is a real person is immaterial—he is the “expression of the Party.”
Against this background the story unfolds of one humble member of the Outer Party. Winston (why Winston?) Smith, perhaps the last of the rebels. He is a pitiable, harassed, uncertain and confused rebel, working in the Ministry of Truth, where information is “adjusted” as the State requires. He watches a propaganda film showing the enemy leader, Goldstein; and while the others shout hate at Goldstein, he hesitantly thinks “I hate Big Brother.” He meets a member of the Inner Party who, he suspects, “works for” Goldstein, and offers his services as a conspirator. Questions are asked: Is he willing to lie to further the cause he believes in, to cheat, to murder—even to throw sulphuric acid in a baby’s face if it will somehow help? He is willing.
A romantic interest is introduced when Winston meets a girl whose job is to operate a novel-writing machine that churns out stereotyped rubbish for the Proles to read. Since love is forbidden and marriage is by order of the Party, the couple meet in secret, at first in the country and later in a room above an antique shop in the Prole sector. Eventually, the shopkeeper betrays them to the Thought Police. There is a scene (perhaps unnecessarily long and detailed) showing the brutal methods used to break down the last vestiges of their resistance, so that they unquestioningly accept that 2 + 2 = 5 if the Party says it is right.
The elements in the story that most compel attention are the subtle touches of detail that illustrate the sort of world that the author suggests is possible three decades hence. The worker in the Ministry of Truth helping to compile a dictionary of Newspeak (the new distorted basic language) proudly claims that it will abolish shades of meaning and narrow the range of thought, that it will abolish ideas through the destruction of words to express them. This appalling outlook is seen in an Inner Party official’s remark “We’re not interested in the stupid crimes you’ve committed—only in the thought.”
All the most detestable aspects of the world today are enlarged and caricatured; the slogans like “Ignorance Is Strength,” “War Is Peace”; the Ministry of Plenty announcing ration reductions as increases, the Ministry of Peace proclaiming “another great victor over our enemies,” the Ministry of Truth adjusting the facts of past history and “amending all records accordingly.”
The newspaper critics of this television play generally assumed that it was to be taken as a warning against totalitarianism as exemplified by Hitler’s Germany and in Russia today. When he wrote the book in 1949, Orwell doubtless drew inspiration from the Nazi regime and “Big Brother” Stalin. Yet the warning is not really against the tendencies and conditions in one “bad” part of the world sullying the “good.” It is against the actual and potential denial of human qualities that is implicit in the world set-up today. The theme is a powerful condemnation of the whole system of privileged and subject classes, of governmental control to preserve the system by crushing out any opposing idea. More than anything, perhaps, it is a warning of the effect of the mass-production of ideas on those who lose the desire to think for themselves, and who leave everything to “Big Brother.”