Rereading (and finishing) 1984

I finished rereading 1984 last night (you can read some earlier notes here, here and here).

In the final pages, some of the more stylistic images and themes that Orwell uses jumped out at me. There’s a very stark moment when their privacy is invaded; as they stand in their secret room, a voice suddenly intrudes on their conversation, and they realise that they have never had a sanctuary, or privacy. There was a microphone and a speaker behind a picture all along.

Similarly, later, when Julia and Winston meet after the torture has broken both of them, they stand for a few moments in a clump of trees. While they parallel the earlier clump that offered them privacy when they spoke for the first time, these ones reflect their new situation, their realisation that they have never had privacy:

Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection fro the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm around her. 

There was no telescreen, but there must be hidden microphones: besides, they could be seen. 

In some ways, the whole book is a gradual retreat of privacy, of the struggle to maintain an independent interior self, and ultimately failing. It starts with Winston keeping a physical journal; and blossoms into an independent relationship, a private space that only he and Julia know about. From there, though, it is all retreat. First the physical space is taken away from them, then their bodies are destroyed, and then their very minds are made the property of the State. This is Orwell telling, presciently predicting, how it is that self-control in a very literal sense, vanishes.

Unrelated to that theme, there’s a nice line, where Orwell describes Winston’s relationship with O’Brien. ‘Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood’.

So. Having finished the book, it’s interesting to look back and see what I remember of it, and how that’s reinforced or changed on rereading. It’s an insightful piece, in that I think Orwell though intelligently about trends that were only just becoming apparent when he was writing, and he made some very good guesses about what a totalitarian state might look like, well before there was a detailed dissection of the gulag system, or before the iron curtain had come down.

He failed in other areas though; that was something I didn’t think of when I first read it. He fails, essentially, at describing anyone other than Winston. Julia is a prop that propels Winston through the story, but not a rounded person. Even after she’s been through horrific experiences, if they in any way parallel Winston’s, there’s still no sympathy from the author, or attempt to unpack her inner state, even though she is the second most central character. Instead, we learn that the main change that has happened to her is a physical one, that makes her unattractive. There’s no attempt to unpack anything internal:

He knew now what had changed in her. Her face was sallower, and there was a long scar, partly hidden by the hair, across her forehead and temple; but that was not the change. It was that her waist had grown thicker, and in a surprising way, had stiffened. 

I suppose we can give Orwell points for consistency, in that earlier he’d described part of her appeal based on her slender waist. From a narrative perspective, it’s such a missed opportunity to create a real and richer character, and it’s insultingly simple.

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