I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time as a freshman in high school in 1988. Inexplicably, it became one of my favorite books. It’s not a happy book. I guess it can be argued there is a happy ending if you’re an absolute sadist and there’s a love story…sort of. It shows what can happen if the government is given complete control by the middle (working) class.
I’ve always found it interesting that both major political parties in America claim the other is trying to turn this country into the dystopian nightmare portrayed in Orwell’s classic. The fact the government run by Big Brother is so vaguely evil and controlling as to be easily identified or mis-identified as either overly left wing or overly right wing makes it all the more brilliant.
I went to college late and, as a freshman in English 101 in the spring semester of 2001, I wrote an essay describing how Big Brother and the dreariness of the world around the protagonist, Winston Smith, creates a sense of hopelessness. As it’s Banned Book Week, I’ve decided to break it out here. Enjoy!
London, England, 1984. Winston Smith lives a life controlled, in every aspect, by his government. What he eats, what he does for a living, even what he thinks. Winston lives in a different London that the one some remember from 1984. It’s not the London with New Wave music, skinny ties and Magaret Thatcher. It’s the London controlled by Big Brother and the Party. This is George Orwell’s vision of what London would be in the year 1984 according to the essay, “Big Brother is Watching You” (the first chapter of his book, 1984, which was written in the late 1940’s).
In Big Brother, Orwell created a megalomaniacal genius. Big Brother was able to control his people by instilling within them a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Throughout the entire essay, Orwell made you feel the sense of being utterly lonely and depressed by creating an environment devoid of warmth, both physically and emotionally. “Outside…the world looked cold…though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything…” What Orwell was saying here was even though the day was seemingly a nice one, sunny, blue sky, that sort of thing, the appearance of the city itself created an environment lacking in warmth.
When people are surrounded by beautiful things, they are more inclined to do well in life. Modern workspaces, a nice home, friendly people…people in this environment tend to work harder and, if that environment is threatened, they tend to fight harder to keep it. Winston had none of this. Winston lived in the Victory Mansions. “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats…even at the best of times [the lift] was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours.” Does this sound like the kind of place which would motivate someone? Hardly.
Just reading the essay fills one with the sense of what it must be like to wake up everyday in a bleak world with no hope of getting better. By forcing his people to live in dreary slums and placing huge posters of himself at every turn with the words “Big Brother is Watching You,” Big Brother is creating an environment that would not be conducive to creativity, much less any thought of revolution. In this world, the only thoughts are those of that moment. There are no thoughts of the future, because nothing changes. There is nothing to look forward to. According to Big Brother, things have always been this way and things will always be this way. When Big Brother says his people are living in the best of times, they can only think, “If this is good, what must bad feel like?” So, they feel hopeless…if things are good now, there’s no reason for it to get better.
Another way Big Brother has created an emotional void within his people is by constant monitoring. By use of the posters and two-way telescreens, Big Brother has taken away any form of privacy from his people. The telescreens not only spew forth Party rhetoric 24 hours a day, but can also see and hear your every move, no matter whether you’re sleeping, bathing, eating…it knows everything. By doing this, Big Brother has taken away any form of privacy from his people. People like Winston must constantly guard their feeling and words and facial expressions. Anything odd or out of the ordinary could be picked up by the telescreens and construed as treason towards the Party. The Party could then have that person vaporized…meaning not only would they physically no longer exist, but every possible trace or record of their lives would be completely wiped out. That person would, according to the Party, never have existed in the first place.
Everything in Orwell’s vision seems bleak…the Victory Gin, which can deaden oneself to all their problems for a while, but it “[gives] off a sickly, oily smell…” The Victory Tobacco, which is also substandard as we see when Winston “incautiously held it upright, whereupon the tobacco fell out onto the floor.” Big Brother has given his subjects small items to take their minds off day-to-day troubles. But, by making these items barely tolerable and then informing them they should be clad to have them, Winston and those like him take what they can get, knowing they’ll never get anything better than what they already have. The resignation to accept whatever bones the Party throws to them further keeps them in a state of hopelessness. All this is in accordance to Big Brother’s wishes, because, once again, a group of people who have been treated this badly for so long are no longer a threat…they’re victims.
Reading Orwell’s work, one doesn’t tend to relate color to it. The sky may be blue, but it goes unnoticed. The blue overalls worn by Winston and his co-workers seem drab and colorless. Because of Orwell’s style, the reader tends to see the book in his or her minds as a black-and-white movie. He or she can feel what it must be like to live Winston’s life, to know what it must be like to not have any hope, to not have any dreams.
Winston doesn’t seem to think on this level, however, because there has never been any reason to dream. He has nothing to compare it to. This is the world he has always lived in.
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he suspects there must be something better out there, but again, with no real, concrete knowledge of this, he can only go on and live his life in the gray world Big Brother controls.