George Orwell and his controversial masterpiece 1984 has been at the heart of criticism, challenge and general opinion during the past century onwards. However, it has been also object of appraisal, study and literary merit. This ambivalence and instability reflects the slim line that our society draws out of its judgement and doublethink. Nowadays, books are still doomed to either disappearance or successful existence with regard to their impact on society. Unfortunately, there is a legion of justifications why a book might stand in the firing line (i.e. political, religious, cultural). Each book has different reasons to trigger social disruption and therefore they should be approached individually. Thus in order to single out some of these motives, this essay will try to shed light [and focus] on the polemical issue of book-challenging by zooming in on the novel 1984. This specific task will seek to cast doubt upon the reasons of its challenging. Hence, insights into its value for readers will be exposed so as to highlight why this novel is an excellent piece of work of noticeable literary merit and not a challenge-victim.
Meeting the challenge
1984 or The Last Man in Europe 1 as it was previously named by George Orwell was published in 1949 in England, a country rising from the ashes after the Second World War2. This book is set in 1984 3 in an imaginary London (that is part of a country called Oceania). It portrays a bleak future in which a totalitarian state ruled by a fictional figure (Big Brother) controls the country. 1984 endures a dystopian 4 universe whereby Winston Smith5 rebels individually against his government hunting for answers for his curious mind.
We must bear in mind that this book magnifies another of the paradoxes of our society. That is to say, 1984 is a book that talks about censorship and that was censured. It seems that its censorship 6 stems from the explicit sexual material and its pro-communism attitudes comprised in the book. However, apart from these readings, many other ‘twisted’ interpretations have been made [constantly] endangering the status of the novel. As Pittock (2007: 109) points out, “Nineteen Eighty-four is a hell without a countervailing heaven: the reign of Antichrist for ever, not as a preliminary to New Jerusalem. There are no angels, but only devils.”.
Certainly, these two elements (obscenity and pro-communism inclination) would be more than enough to bring about censorship if we consider the temporal context in which the book was written. Nevertheless and taking a wider perspective, most of the readers of 1984 have found the inclusion of such major themes doubtful or even non-existent. For instance, sexual scenes are rather limited 7 and almost absent in the entire book. Surely, the biggest sign of obscenity encompassed in the novel is pictured by Winston and Julia going to bed together. As Dollimore (1983: 51) states, “as Winston is making love to Julia, the revolutionary potential of sexuality is affirmed: ‘simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the party to pieces’.”. Orwell (rather than setting out an obscene atmosphere) chiefly exposes in this novel the frustrations and agonies as a result of human sexual privation and how the Party 8 cash in on this repression to enhance a desire of conflict and hatred. Furthermore, on suppressing human natural sexual desires (and thus leading to hysteria) the state of Oceania controls its militants and projects their [deprived] energy into a wish of war and solid patriotism9. The only sexual intercourse 10 allowed by the Party is consummated with the act of marriage. Hence, its purpose is narrowed down to have children that will become helpful members for the Party. Therefore, the aforementioned ‘obscenity’ is basically another of the techniques used by Orwell to exhibit the enormous power of a totalitarian state 11 and thus not a significant spicy motif.
On the other hand and with regard to the [imaginary] communist ideas stamped in this novel, Orwell far from preaching such political tenets, he is openly criticizing an authoritarian state (Rodden 2006: 187). As a means of proof, in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism12 is lampooned Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto 13 (2001), whose principles led to the Stalinism14 in Russia.
Actually, when more closely observed the godlike leader Big Brother (BB onwards) becomes a fair representation of Joseph Stalin. As it will be exposed below, this book rather than supporting authoritarian views foreshadows a possible future. Consequently, this is what yields [part of] the real origin of its censorship. That is, the fear of not wanting to accept that Orwell’s statements might come into being (Wegner 2002: 191).
Nevertheless, apart from these prime themes seen above this novel comprises a complex network of connections and references to fiction/reality that might prompt the outcome of censorship (as they surely did). These motifs, criticism, mockery and long-running themes constitute the real weight of the book. Moreover, Orwell presents them to the reader in an arduous spatial context 15 (the fictional London). Thus firstly, issues like the breakdown of the family are brought into 1984 to demonstrate the possible devastation of the sacred bond16 (the family) by totalitarian governments. In other words, as Berman (2005: 87) points out, “Nineteen Eighty-Four is also about association in all its forms: the sexual union, marriage, the formation of the family, the choice of friends, the consent of the community. Each of its episodes is in some exemplary way about the breakdown of human association”. Secondly, another ‘threatening’ recurrent topic of this novel is the modulation of the past and the rewriting of history. This is clearly magnified by Orwell’s (2000: 135) statement: “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.”. As far as we are concerned, these practices have been carried out in our society 17 by different governments over and over and especially, during the times of the Second World War. Obviously, the proletariat were only meant to believe whatever they were told since there was no possibility of knowing the truth. In 1984, Winton’s desire of knowing to know the truth results in his torture18. This is evidently one of the Orwell’s striking messages of awareness to the reader. In addition, the bringing of an unperson 19 into existence demonstrates the limitless capacity of a totalitarian state to not only modulate and erase historical data 20 both from archives and human minds but also its capacity to input information.
Another major stress in this novel is the exhibition of the flexibility of the human mind. Through the censorship of emotions, BB’s government immerse Oceania’s citizens into ignorance and false beliefs21. As Bounds (2009: 147) observes, “One of the great virtues of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it clarifies this aspect of totalitarianism by imagining a future in which the techniques of mind control have reached sinister new heights”. The destruction [and acceptance] of ideas mirrored by the characters of 1984 is a challenging example of the malleability of human minds for specific purposes. Consequently, Orwell sets out [and alerts us again] that totalitarian states might achieve this goal and Winston is a raw example of it.
Agreeing with Cohen (2005: 56) in that “The attack on language, and therefore on proper human discourse, is as central to Nineteen Eighty-Four”, this novel manages to exploit the strength [and importance] of language and evinces the relationship between the killing of language and thought. NEWSPEAK represents the corruption of language itself (Cohen 2005: 57). BB restrains and reduces to essentials the use of language with the aim of gaining jurisdiction over human minds. Thus thoughtcrime 22 becomes eventually impossible since there would not be enough words to perform it. Orwell’s work is openly criticizing a decline of the English language attributable to political and economic sources (Orwell 1946). This topic entails vast interest and is therefore used in 1984 to make readers realize about the richness of the English language and that we (as users of it) have to fight tooth and nail to preserve it. On the other hand, writing also is shown as a potential [ambiguous] element to divulge both the truth and produce falsity23. Nonetheless, writing is also therapeutic as we witness in this novel; it stands for a vehicle that opens the box of our inner feelings and let them flow particularly in a mentally-constrained society. Additionally, 1984 is a vivid representation of the significance of the written language especially in the making of history. That is, as long as written documents exist there will be history24.
1 The original title of the book was the The Last Man in Europe that clearly denotes the destruction of humanism.
2 The post-World War II period was a time to look ahead and get stronger, a time to recover and heal. Looking back meant suffering, pain, violence and unbearable feelings that nobody wanted to remember (Pond 2002).
3 Although set in the future, this novel demands knowledge about the past (Berman 2005: 84).
4 The anti-utopian universe encompassed in this book is presented as the alter ego of English and American novels like Utopia or Looking Backward.
5 Winston is the main character and also stands for the anti-hero of the novel. Moreover, Winston Smith represents a pure British character (baptized with the common British surname Smith).
6 This novel has been challenged in numerous occasions in different places such as Florida (eighties), USSR (nineties) and finally Amazon (2010) because of legal distribution rights.
7 The term “limited” refers to the non-existence of inappropriate vocabulary such as porn terminology or the depiction of obscene scenes with high sexual innuendoes.
8 The Party embodies the ruling political party in 1984.
9 After the end of the Second World War (when the novel was written), England was covered by a strong feeling of patriotism. Orwell himself abandoned his anti-war sympathy for one of revolutionary patriotism at that time (Newsinger 1999: 61).
10 Winston undergoes significant changes when he starts his relationship with Julia. He stops drinking gin, gains weight, etc., as a result of the release of the contained sexual desires.
11 Through the suppression of human innate desires the Party suppresses the power of reasoning.
12 This revolutionary book was written in the fiction of the novel by one of the ex-leaders of the Ingsoc Party (Goldstein). It mainly talks about a conspiracy and gives precise details [and clear instructions] on how to overthrow the Party from inside.
13 This book contains the political theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Basically, it is a manual that explains how to evolve from a capitalist society towards communism. Its famous opening "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels 2001) unveils its intentions.
14 The so-called Stalinism deals with the period of time in which Joseph Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953). This ideology has its roots in Karl Marx’s theories as Fitzpatrick (2000) points out in her work New Directions: “thanks to the Marxist ideology of the Bolshevik leaders, class was the official system of social classification in the Soviet Union”.
15 The fiction of the novel is majestically linked to the reality of the time. Mostly, it succeeds in establishing a bond with the [real] post-war England because it deals with controversial topics (i.e. horrors of war) that nobody wanted to look at. The wound of the war was still bleeding and it was about time to stitch it up.
16 Parsons (one of the characters) symbolizes the complete devastation of these liens du sang when he expresses his pride of having being denounced to the authorities by his own daughter.
17 The rewriting of history was a common practice during times in which the power of information was controlled a minority. A key example might be the ancient General History of Virginia (1624) by John Smith (considered a valuable historical chronicle) whereby Smith brought Pocahontas into the [rewritten] novel. Despite the fact that Pocahontas died in 1617 John Smith brought her back because she had become a myth, a legend, a native Indian who converted to the Christian faith (Cuenca 2007). He managed to legitimize himself as a hero [to show the power of the conqueror] by the inclusion of such character but in fact, he was rewriting history and changing the past (and therefore giving a fake account of the facts).
18 Orwell foregrounds in this novel the common practice of tortures in many war times. We should take into account that he participated in the Spanish Civil War and surely he witnessed most of these ill-treatments. Additionally, during the past decades, the [Hollywood] film industry has spread the idea of torture as a vehicle to achieve the truth. We might therefore see these practices basically in the action genre. Winston’s torture seems to represent a pattern that has been followed in a large number of movies.
19 Non-existent person or fictional character.
20 William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer are presented as examples of destruction of the past.
21 Oceania’s citizens believe that there is a constant war going on between the states of Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. The enemy can change overnight [and new alliances might appear] but nobody seems to realize what is really happening.
22 Any thought that goes against the Party’s beliefs. This word has been endorsed and incorporated within the English lexicon. Other words such as doublethink, newspeak, unperson are also Orwell’s contributions to the English language since they still preserve the same semantic meaning as the ones used in the novel.
23 The Ministry of TRUTH rewrites documentation with the aim of covering the truth.
24 This links directly with the cogito ergo sum of literature (I write, and then I exist). As far as the history of literature is concerned, the only way to be remembered is when we are written into beings (Cuenca 2007). Any example from the autobiographical genre will manifest the human necessity of being stamped with ink to become part of our history. Celebrities, political leaders (from the [Americans] Benjamin Franklyn to Barack Obama) and relevant figures have published their books with the aim of never falling into oblivion.
- Quote paper
- Anonymous, 2011, Censorship and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/180689