I’m about halfway through 1984 now, and really enjoying it (you can read my thoughts on reopening 1984 here, and some subsequent notes). I’m reminded of how well Orwell paints a different kind of society; some of the areas where he falls short, and some of the truly haunting scenes I’d forgotten.
One of the things Orwell does incredibly well is paint a picture of a very different, totalitarian society. What’s remarkable, I think, is it that it was so insightful, although he hadn’t lived in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. He writes about a society where everything is political, every act has some relationship to the state and the system. Even emotions aren’t separate, but are part of an individual’s interaction with the system:
In the old days, he thought, a man looked at a girl’s body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
At the same time, this overarching structure leads to a different kind of resistance; it’s not organised, and doesn’t envision a different world. It’s a smaller, more individual type of action:
Any kind of organised revolt against the Party, which was bound to be a failure, struck her as stupid. The clever thing was to break the rules and stay alive all the same. He wondered vaguely how many others like her there might be in the younger generation – people who had grown up in the world of the Revolution, knowing nothing else, accepting the party as something unalterable, like the sky, not rebelling against its authority but simply evading it, as a rabbit dodges a dog.
In part, the change is because there are fewer and fewer people who can remember a different system; they are gradually dying out, and their memories are lost:
Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question ‘Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?’ would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another … all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision … And when memory failed and written records were falsified – when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.
But for all his brilliance in creating some aspects of the world of 1984, there are some things Orwell does poorly. If I’m being honest, I think Julia comes across when she’s initially described a little as a manic pixie dream girl (and it seems I’m not the only one). There is no real reason given or implied that Julia loves Winston; it simply happens. This exchange below is reasonably representative of their interaction in the novel overall, although there is a little more depth later.
‘I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth.’
‘I couldn’t care less,’ said the girl.
Orwell’s strong point is writing society, and Winston. The other group that he fails at are people struggling with poverty. In the novel, they’re explicitly labelled as another class, and treated as simple minded.
They’re not described as individuals, generally, but as a group:
… people swarmed in astonishing numbers – girls in full bloom, with crudely lipsticked mouths, and youths who chased the girls, and swollen waddling women who showed you what the girls would be like in ten years’ time, and old bent creatures shuffling along on splayed feet, and ragged barefooted children who played in the puddles and then scattered at angry yells from their mothers.
They have magical powers, that enable them to detect incoming silent bombs:
The proles were nearly always right when they gave you a warning of this kind. They seemed to possess some kind of instinct which told them several seconds in advance when a rocket was coming, although the rockets supposedly travelled faster than sound.
It’s fascinating that someone like Orwell, who wrote Down and out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, still struggles so much to create real characters that are poorer and less fortunate than his protagonist.
A final thing that leapt out at me is the haunting scene where Winston steals chocolate. It’s haunting because it feels so real, and so plausible; a small child, in incredibly difficult situations, demanding more than his fair share of food from a tired mother and dying sister. The worst of humans, brought out by the worst situations.
Above all he remembered his continuous hunger, and the fierce sordid battle at mealtimes. He would ask his mother naggingly, over and over again, why there was not more food, he would shout and storm at her … or he would attempt a snivelling tone of pathos in efforts to get more than his share. His mother was quite ready to give him more than his share … but however much she gave him he invariably demanded more … He knew that he was starving the other two, but he could not help it … the clamorous hunger in his belly seemed to justify him …
One day a chocolate ration was issued … It was obvious that it ought to be divided into three equal parts. Suddenly, as though he were listening to somebody else, Winston heard himself demanding in a loud booming voice that he should be given the whole piece … His tiny sister, clinging to her mother with both hands, exactly like a baby monkey, sat looking over her shoulder at him with large, mournful eyes … Winston stood watching her for a moment. Then with a swift sudden spring he had snatched the piece of chocolate out of his sister’s hand and was fleeing for the door.
It’s haunting because it’s so plausible, that worst of human nature brought out by the worst situations.