Non Fiction

1984: An Alternative Analysis of the Classic Dystopian Novel

George Orwell developed the theme of 1984 under a shroud of dystopian totalitarianism, when the novel is really a metaphorical satire of modern class structure.  The main character, Winston Smith, is a self-projection of the author as an isolated individual facing the menacing Big Brother’s totalitarian regime (Hopkinson par. 9).  When the book is taken at face-value, readers and critics conclude that the theme of 1984 is a warning against communist totalitarianism and the looming threat of dystopian totalitarianism in the future.  However, Orwell’s intended theme symbolically points out the inequitable class divisions in modern society, and only uses the setting of a futuristic dystopia to exaggerate his belief that the modern upper-class have complete control over the lower classes.

As early as the first two sentences, George Orwell gives a dank and isolating description of a dystopian world using simple but lurid syntax and diction “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.”(Orwell 1).  The “vile wind” may foreshadow the difficulties Winston will have to escape in the future, only to accept conformity in the end by letting the metaphorical “swirl of gritty dust” (conformity) overcome him in the end “… as the novel closes, Winston is alone, except for the internalized Big Brother.  In Between he travels a boomerang’s course, from the solitude which leads to self-awareness to that which marks the loss of his identity.”(Lonoff 35). The individualist spirit that overcomes Winston is one thing that the totalitarian state of Oceania fears most and in order to suppress that spirit, it must be wiped out.

The allegory that a reader would most quickly draw upon is of the government of Oceania in 1984, and Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship in World War Two(Fromm 315).  There are many parallels between Big Brother and Stalin, “….Resemblances, also, to the years of Stalinist terror in Russia. The grilling of Winston Smith by the Oceania authorities, the alternation between physical beatings and sympathetic conversations, the final terrifying appearance of O’Brien, master of power…”(Howe 96) A dooming presence of totalitarianism is not just the clearest element of the book, but a powerful tool of control.  The salient idea of 1984 is modern class warfare, and Orwell gives frightening glimpses of the Inner Party (the upper-class) using the totalitarian government for control over the Outer Party (middle-class) and proletariat (working-class).  Big Brother’s regime cruelly exerts control paralleling that of Stalin’s control of USSR-down to the point of homologous torture techniques, but there are more obvious signs.  The identical resemblance of Stalin and Big Brother’s face is a frightening juxtaposition of a warm guardian in a cold world ” …the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features.”(Orwell 1).  However, although Orwell draws many similar parallels between Stalin and Big Brother, there is a quintessential difference between the two, Stalin was a man who wanted control for his own power, while Big Brother is a tool of the Inner Party in order to maintain power.

There are many different tools that the Inner-Party uses besides Big Brother to keep the lower classes under control.  Newspeak, telescreens, thought police, Ministry of Love, double think, war, prostitution, alcohol, gambling, the lottery and propaganda are only some of the many tools used by the Inner party in order to keep control.  The propaganda of 1984 is an interesting aspect of the plethora of tools the Inner Party uses to maintain power.  “Vast strategic maneuver-perfect co-ordination-utter rout-half a million prisoners-complete demoralization-control of the whole of Africa-bring the war within measurable distance of its end-victory-greatest victory in human history…”(Orwell 296-297) This example of Oceanic propaganda is projected through a telescreen describing a victory that could be applied to the British in World War Two. Not surprisingly Orwell had experience writing this sort of rhetoric before “When all of London was fleeing for the country during the Blitz, Orwell ran the other direction and took a propaganda job in the city…”(Kafka par. 23) 1984 draws parallels between the western democracies of World War Two and Oceania, discrediting the banal Cold War theory that the novel is a warning of communist totalitarianism.  Orwell’s point is that the differences between capitalistic democracies and communist dictatorships are irrelevant because both are invariably a vehicle that the most powerful group uses to maintain power “He is actually talking about a development that is taking place in Western industrial countries also, only at a slower pace than it is taking place in Russia and China”(Fromm 320).  The propaganda is directly correlated with Orwell’s modern world, but Orwell’s ideas of a new language and system of thought are more frightening prophesies of futuristic ultimate suppression.

Newspeak is the new language that is developed by the inner-party to suppress any unorthodox thought.  “The version in use in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak dictionary…”(“Principles of” 298) The perfect form of Newspeak is 11th edition, which does not allow any unorthodox thought to exist.  Nearly no one really speaks Newspeak in 1984 but by the year 2050 it is supposed to override English in the state of Oceania (“Principles of” 298). Linguistics is an important factor of the Inner Party controlling the Outer Party and the proletariat.  SImplifying words and expressions to one meaning can eliminate thoughts that are dangerous to the Party(“Principles of” 299).  This concept of complete totalitarianism is another exaggeration used by Orwell in order to convince the reader of the control of the upper-class in modern society.  This controlling of thought and words through speech is one of many examples of a state of controlled insanity.  Newspeak is the easiest way that the Inner Party can communicate their insane views upon the lower classes as they literally would not be able to question any Party rules (Ranald Par. 1).  This can distantly relate to what Orwell saw as modern linguistics (slang, vernacular) and lack of education being used to keep the lower classes in their positions in the class structure in order for the upper-class to retain power.

The theme of 1984 is a warning of totalitarianism, but the power of the state (Big Brother) is only a veil that covers the true power of the upper-class in the so-called democracies of the western world.  The Inner Party is the driving force that utilizes all of the powers at their will in order to stay in control “the essential structure of society has never altered.”(Orwell 184).  Orwell applies this theory of class warfare and stagnation  by having Winston try to join “the brotherhood”, a secret terrorist organization that is only a ploy to get Winston caught.  When Winston is tortured and re-educated in the Ministry of Love, Orwell deconstructs the human being and throws away all hope that may have been left in the novel.  Orwell exaggerates all of the metaphors in his novel to coincide with the world of 1948 that he was living in.  Orwell was a socialist himself, and he was exhibiting the powers of the upper-class that kept the elite in their positions throughout human history.  Orwell explains in this novel that the Inner Party’s objective is to destroy the human and retain power for the elite few throughout the rest of time. Orwell sums up 1984 in a bleak statement from O’Brien while he is torturing Winston “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-forever.”(Orwell 267).

Alexander C. Kafka The Wintry Orwell Nov 30 2002 The American Prospect

Non Fiction

No Atonement For God

In Atonement, Ian McEwan intricately weaves various conceptual threads, including psychological realism, subjectivism, irony, and Christian philosophy, into a contrived metafictional web that literarily simulates the human mind.  McEwan begins this intricate web by using stream of consciousness and alternating points of view(most notably through Robbie, Briony, and Cecilia), in order to establish psychological realism.  The form of psychological realism McEwan employs evokes the theme of subjectivism, which is interwoven with Christian concepts of atonement that guide the reader to Atonement’s ultimate question, “…how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one …she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her”(McEwan 350).  Briony, therefore, mirrors mankind by attempting to install order in the chaotic world of Atonement.  But she eventually realizes that her attempts at playing God are completely contrary to the harmonious world she desires, which she then attempts to redeem by creating a good, fictional world.

She ruthlessly subordinates everything in the real world to her need to serve the demands of her own fictional world.  Raised on a diet of imaginative literature, she is too young to understand the dangers that can ensue from modeling one’s conduct on such an artificial world.  When she acts out her confusion between life, and the life of fiction, the consequences are tragic and irreversible.  Thus, she attempts to use fiction in order to correct the very errors that fiction helped her to commit. But the chasm that separates the world of the living from that of fictional invention ensures that, at best, her fictional reparation will act as an attempt at atoning for a past that she cannot reverse.(Finney)

Briony’s selfish desire for order is first discovered through her attempt to “…guide (her older brother Leon) away from his careless succession of girlfriends, toward the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Briony’s services as a bridesmaid”(McEwan 4). She does so by directing her cousins to act out her play, “The Trials of Arabella”, for him.  Briony’s description of her controlling need for fairy-tale harmony rapidly transmute into obsessive, methodical implications regarding her toy “cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice-suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen’s army awaiting orders”(McEwan 5).  Briony’s three paragraph, direct and indirect characterization of her younger-self, ultimately changes into a ironically prophetic contradiction, “Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing.  Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel”(McEwan 5).  These sentences first appear to be simple, direct characterizations, but actually allude to ironic contradictions  once Briony’s wrongdoing is revealed.

Her desire for a harmonious world causes the destruction of Robbie and Cecilia’s love, and forms the paths they take to their deaths.  Briony devastated their lives by causing the loss of each other, that only remained connected through abstract love: a recurring theme in McEwan’s novels(Jensen). It is also clear that (in the words of another critic), childhood Briony “…lacks introspection and broad vision… and she’s most concerned that life line up in the order she prefers”(Vidimos).  Thus, Briony’s childish fantasies that seek harmony, ironically cause utter chaos she cannot control any other way in her mind besides completing herself through atonement(by creating an alternate fairy-tale with a happy ending for Robbie and Cecilia).

McEwan primarily establishes Briony’s carefully orchestrated point of view, because it “…manages to make the state of mind that leads Briony to make her false accusations against Robbie plausible, if not sympathetic… her willful naivete and self-dramatizing imagination lead her to ignore the truth, the ways in which her ignorance about the grown-up world would result in a terrible crime…(that) she will later try to expiate through… gestures of atonement”(Kakutani).  The crime Briony commits is persuading herself and the authorities that she witnessed Robbie rape her cousin Lola,(connecting it with events she childishly misunderstood between him and Cecilia) consequently sending him to jail, and separating him from his love, Cecilia(McEwan 169-175).  McEwan’s use of psychological realism subsequently develops into the theme of subjectivism, which is ultimately accentuated by his revelation that Briony is the fictional author of the novel, attempting to atone for the crime she had committed(McEwan 330).  Briony writes with self-consciousness, hence, she characterizes her younger-self with immaturity and a destructive desire for control-both of which compel her to stand by what would be a seemingly arbitrary lie(if it wasn’t for Robbie’s sexually explicit letter to Cecilia).

Although Briony seeks atonement for her sin, she cannot change that, in reality, Robbie died at Dunkirk, and Cecilia was killed by Luftwaffe bombers(hence they never reunite), except for her writings(which she explicitly confesses), “…I’ve made a huge digression and doubled back to my starting place.  It is only in this last version which my lovers end well…”(McEwan 350).  Hence, elderly Briony incorporates a subtle Christian element into the narrative, which introduces a whole new theme to Atonement.  First and foremost, Robbie is an apparent Christ figure, most notably when he shepherds the twin cousins back when they run away(an allusion to The Parable of The Shepherd that is expanded upon in Part Two), only to be wrongly arrested on arrival(McEwan 171).  The Christian Satisfaction theory of atonement, that Jesus is sacrificied for God’s plan, parallels Briony’s sacrifice of the innocent Robbie in order to fulfill the harmony of her dellusional fantasy world(Robinson).  Yet when Briony matures and realizes her catastrophic sin, her role changes to “…the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness”(Robinson) in the Moral theory of atonement.

Consequently, McEwan threads Briony’s psychologically realistic use of literary devices into her self-conscious, subjecive, and tragically ironic account.  Briony then supplements her literary devices with underlying Christian theories of atonement, in order to create an even more psychologically realistic portrait of herself. Thus, Briony’s Atonement is knowingly “…a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief”(Kermonde). Briony’s Atonement is futile, but is necessitated by her moral obligation to repent for the sin she committed against Robbie the Christ-figure; hence, there is “No atonement for God, or novelists… It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all”(McEwan 351).  In Briony’s point of view, her life-long attempt at atonement, by writing Atonement, has  helped to redeem her, which alludes to the meaning of the novel: that atonement is the mind’s own self-satisfying and subjective product.