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“When Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1515, he started a literary genre with lasting appeal for writers who wanted not only to satirize existing evils but to postulate the state, a kind of Golden Age in the face of reality” (Hewitt 127). Unlike a Utopian novel in which the writer intends to portray the perfect human society, a novel of dystopia does the exact opposite: it illustrates the worst human society imaginable in an effort to convince readers to avoid any path that might lead toward such societal degradation. George Orwell’s 1984 is one such novel, a novel that “completely takes the images and ideas with which the utopian imagination had worked in the past and turns them upside down” (Fortunati 116). Orwell does so primarily through the use of setting, themes, and characters, all these literal elements making it clear that 1984 is a parody of the utopian principle.
The typical utopian city, ordered, harmonious, and perfect in all facets, in 1984 is represented by a decaying, ruined London where completely dilapidated buildings lack windows. Victoria Mansions, the residence of Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, is shabby and rundown. Elevators never work, plumbing is extremely unreliable, and the hallways “smell of boiled cabbage and old rag mats” (Orwell 5). The pavements are littered with rubble from bombs, and there are countless rat-infested holes in the houses. All of this is due to mismanagement by the Party, which is the supreme authority and power in the state of Oceania.
In a typical utopia, one of the main themes is a cordial relationship between society and the State, or “a balance between private will and the general good” (Hadomi 120), because of “complete identity between the aspirations of the individual and the interests of the collective” (120). In Oceania, the individuals are forced into submission, and any form of personal autonomy is ruthlessly suppressed. The Party controls every aspect of the citizens’ lives by constantly watching them through the telescreens installed in the apartments. This control often may result in punishment; therefore, “the constant watchful regard of Power in Oceania does not unite its people, but rather isolates and separates them” (Fortunati 117).
Moreover, in the standard utopian place, there is never “doubt or uncertainty of [the Party’s] workings” (117) and there is “no shadow of doubt or uncertainty of its motives and functions” (117). In 1984, which is “an admonitory satire, like all dystopias” (Beauchamp 75), the names of the ministries fully contradict their functions; the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth conducts propaganda and alters historical texts, and the Ministry of Love executes various punishments and torture. Therefore, social interaction in Oceania is based on the wroth aspects of the human nature, on the “incitement to hatred of the enemy abroad and within, whether real or imagined” (Hadomi 122). In 1984’s totalitarian society, “there ultimately exists no possibility of making a free choice between ethical realms” (123). Winston answers “yes” without any hesitation when he is asked if he is prepared to throw sulfuric acid in a child’s face in the interests of the common cause. This new dystopian “moral,” or rather the distortion of any moral and ethical principles characterizes all the strata of life in Oceania.
The dystopian way of life without any freedom, privacy, or morals makes Winston and Julia consider their past as an illusive dream, hate their present, and fear their future. Winston, older and more pensive in character than Julia, suffers from having no real things in this “real world.” Therefore, he lives through his own utopia, creating islands of privacy for himself (Orwell 11). Winston often retreats into “another place” in his imagination. When he and Julia first make love, he dreams about this non-existent place and “withdraws into the past through his memories of childhood or into the future through his dreams and visions of the Golden Country” (Hadomi 123).
Winston’s work is his “greatest pleasure in life” (Orwell 39) because it is there when he also deals with the past. The Party’s slogan “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (31) means that the past can be “corrected” to fit the Party’s interests and, finally, to be erased from the memory of people. Alex Zwerdling accentuates the illusiveness of the very concept of the past in 1984: “The boundary between reality and imagination is consistently blurred in the novel, and we are often left uncertain about whether something has happened” (Zwerdling 92).
In order to rectify the past, Winston has to deal with the Oldspeak, the language that had been spoken in Oceania before the Party started to abolish it for “its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning” (Orwell 46). Winston expresses his yearning for the past in his reminiscing of his childhood and in his talk with the old man in the pub.
Julia’s more pragmatic and resilient character reveals the harshness of the dystopian world. She hates her work and it utterly pleased with the fact that she had had multiple affairs with her many co-workers. Sex for her is the ultimate rebellion; Julia’s life is a constant struggle with the direct objective to violate every senseless rule that the Party has laid for its citizens. Julia “only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life. She was often ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her” (Tentler 51). This is reflected in the scene in which Julia gives Winston black-market chocolate during their first encounter with each other.
Both Winston and Julia understand that their rebellion against the Party will doom them. However, being aware of Winston’s prophecy “We are the dead” (Orwell 77), they still prefer to use their chance for struggle rather than being “alive” and conforming to the Party’s expectations. Julia and Winston go to O’Brien, the Party’s leader, in the belief that he is against the Party. They mistake O’Brien, the main Party leader, for a liberal opponent. O’Brien’s double identity is another proof of a dystopian distortion of reality. In utopia, any “disagreement among individuals or between individuals and the collective would be unthinkable” (Haldomi 120). In 1984, this disagreement is also impossible since there is a “state machinery capable of creating and destroying identities at will” (122). We shall squeeze you empty,” O’Brien says to Winston, “and then we shall fill you with ourselves” (Orwell 206).
Had Julia and Winston not made a fatal mistake about O’Brien, the end of 1984 would still be optimistic: there would be at least some hope for the future. However, if this novel were to end in this way, it could not be considered a dystopia. As in many other instances in the novel, it turns out that there is no “real” O’Brien—The Party’s opponent is nothing but an illusion. O’Brien makes the most explicit statement in 1984 concerning the inverted utopian values when he speaks to Winston about the Party’s plan for Oceanian civilization.
It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon. The old civilization claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement” (Orwell 220).
Orwell purposely intended for O’Brien to reflect future humanity, the “man uprooted from his past culture and history, man with no memory, stripped of his own individuals identity and his won past” (Fortunati 117).
Through the setting, themes, and characters, Orwell shows how absurd and unreal concepts can replace the basic components of human life: free will, creativity, privacy, and intimacy with loved ones. A thinking, miserable Winston becomes a parody of a human being. A vibrant, rebellious Julia disappears into non-existence. A cruel, powerful O’ Brien wins by creating a new man, a man that is no longer a human; in effect, the whole concept of society based on human values is not a reality anymore. Would could be more dystopian that this image?
Beauchamp, Gorman: “From Bingo to Big Brother: Orwell on Power and Sadism.”
The Future of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ed. Ejner Jensen. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984. 65-87
Fortunati, Vita. ‘”It Makes No Difference:”‘ A Utopian Simulation and Transparency.”
1984: Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Luigi Russo. Palermo: Aesthetica Edizioni, 1985. 116-120.
Hadomi, Leah: “Nineteen Eighty Four as Dystopia.” Wemyss and Ugrinsky 119-127.
Hewitt, Janice: “An Easy Leap from Utopia to Nineteen Eighty-Four.” George Orwell. Ed. Wemyss and Ugrinsky. London: Greenwood Press, 1987. 127-135.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: The New American Library, Inc, 1949.
Tentler, Leslie: “‘I’m Not Literary, Dear:”‘ George Orwell on Women and Family.” Jensen 47-65.
Zwerdling, Alex: “Orwell’s Psychopolitics.” Jensen 87-111.
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