2. Winston Smith Is A Fallible Hero – A True ‘Everyman’
Winston Smith is Orwell’s everyman in 1984. He is completely ordinary, a member of the Outer Party with a job at the Ministry of Truth requiring him to rewrite history to suit the beliefs of the day.
Smith’s rebellion is short lived and the end predictable. When faced with his worst fear he betrays everything that he is in his soul to save his physical form and in his degradation finds once more the love for Big Brother. Before he gets to this stage, however, he is shown his reflection in the mirror and told that he is looking at the ‘last man’. As he submits to his degradation and re-education he ushers in the new era of humanity.
Following his release Smith runs into his former lover Julia. They both admit to having failed to stay true to their beliefs and to having betrayed each other but they are now little troubled by this realization. Should we judge Smith for his capitulation? His experience mirrors that of so many people who survived repressive regimes that it seems illogical to do so. Indeed who among us can truly say that we would not, when faced with the horrors of Room 101 do exactly as Winston Smith did.
1. The Use Of Language In 1984 Predicted Modern Linguistic Developments Such As Political Correctness
George Orwell was a gifted writer who uses language to transport the reader into the heart of his books. In 1984 Orwell invents ‘Newspeak’ a language designed by the leaders of Oceania to prevent free thought by limiting the vocabulary of the population; this limited vocabulary effectively erases undesirable political concepts such as personal liberty.
Vocabulary is reduced to the absolute basics. All synonyms are removed and superlatives are banned so, for example,’ good’ is an acceptable work but great and excellent are redundant and replaced with ‘plusgood’ and ‘doubleplusgood’, bad becomes ‘ungood’. Words to express certain ideological concepts were created, these descriptive words are often in complete contradiction to the reality they express so the Miniluv or Ministry of Love is responsible for the police and torture.
Many of the words are compounds of two incompatible ideas so ‘Blackwhite’ is described as the ‘ability to believe that black is white…to know that black is white and to forget that one has ever believed to the contrary’. This is similar to ‘doublethink’ or ‘holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’.
Newspeak and its attempts to control thought and expression predicted the by turns frightening and yet amusing rise of rampant political correctness. We now live in a society where schools worry about references to dinosaurs in text books in case it offends those who do not believe in evolution and where lawyers sue bars that have ‘Ladies’ Nights’ for gender discrimination. Attempts to change language for reasons of political correctness are almost always spearheaded by politicians manufacturing a potential grievance on behalf of a ‘community’
The reason 1984 retains its power, even in our high tech age, is that it comprises one of the most brutally thorough descriptions of the life we might face should we fail to defend ourselves against tyranny. Orwell himself had been seduced by the easy control over people that comes with potentially limitless power. He used this experience to inform his writing of the book and it is, to date, one of the most compelling literary descriptions of the love of power for power’s sake and the abuse of that power.
The book goes on to predict the potential results of submission to totalitarianism. While 1984 is an example of one possible outcome many of Orwell’s prophecies have come to pass. We live in a world dominated by superpowers who engage in proxy wars in disputed territories. These days our engagement with the ‘other’ may take the form of economic competition in Africa but it is no less real than the proxy conflicts of Vietnam and Korea. Newspeak has become part of our daily lives in the form of political correctness and we carry our smart ‘phones with us everywhere each one of which is capable of being tapped and data mined to give a complete view of our habits and routines.
Winston Smith always thought that any hope for change lies with the ‘proles’. Big Brother and his agents control them through the easy availability of pornography and other meaningless entertainment. These days many people return from their daily grind to digest a schedule of reality television and meaningless websites.
Nietzsche warns us that we should take care not to look into the abyss incase the abyss stares back at us. 1984 is a stark warning of what happens if we stare to long into the abyss of political and social apathy and that lesson is as valuable today as it was in 1949.