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A Review of George Orwell's Novel the Philosophy of Determinism in 1984

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‘Determinism is perfectly compatible with the idea that we are essentially free’. How far does Orwell present individual actions as preordained by social factors in ‘1984’?

Determinism is the belief that ‘all events are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will’[1]. In Orwell’s ‘1984’, the protagonist’s actions are clearly influenced by social factors such as Winston’s membership of the Outer Party, his emotions, state propaganda and Newspeak. As Marx, the philosopher who created Marxism, proposed in ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ (1847), ‘Men are not free to choose their productive forces’[2], these forces are ‘acquired’[3].

The views and actions of the protagonist, Winston Smith, toward other social classes are essentially determined by his own social standing as a member of the Outer Party. In Chapter 1.7, Winston utilises negative vocabulary when he speaks about ‘proles’ in a positive manner. He contemplates that the proles are the only ‘force to destroy the party’; a positive reflection upon the might of the proletariat and their unconscious ability to make change within the repressive society of Oceania. However, in the same train of thought, Winston calls them ‘swarming…masses’ and compares the proles to a ‘horse shaking off flies’. The animalistic imagery conveyed by such language betrays Winston’s belief that he is free in his mind to rebel and oppose the party. He describes the proles through dehumanising metaphors, which infers to the reader that Smith looks down upon his fellow man, emphasising the extent to which his views on the lower social class are determined as a result of his own social background as a member of the Outer Party. Marx often refers to a “class struggle”[4] between the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie, who are represented by members of the Inner Party such as Winston. Winston unknowingly perpetuates determinism whilst also being subject to it as he reinforces the class divisions which subjugate and alienate the proles; he continues the Party’s policy of viewing the proles as ‘natural inferiors’ who must left to ‘work and breed’ like animals.

In ‘1984’, an individual’s emotions act as a deterministic force which control and influence one’s actions. The protagonist is influenced by his love for Julia, as before he was in love, he committed small and insignificant acts of rebellion. In Chapter 1.1, Winston committed ‘thought crime’ by writing in a diary, whereas when he began his affair with Julia, his subversive acts of rebellion become more and more dangerous. Love is used as a deterministic device which encourages Winston to choose to participate in acts of rebellion. Orwell states in Chapter 2.1, that after receiving the note from Julia, the ‘desire to stay alive had welled up inside’ Winston. This ‘desire to stay alive’ results purely as a consequence of emotion, meaning that whilst Winston may have freely chosen to rebel, love has influenced his free will and thus predetermined his action of rebellion. In addition to this, Winston professes his hatred to the state in front of O’Brien in Chapter 2.8 despite not truly knowing him and whether he is part of the Brotherhood; ‘We are enemies of the party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals’. This confession only acts to accentuate the degree of the effect that Winston’s love for Julia has had on his character. His speech places emphasis on the pronoun ‘we’, which conveys that Winston and Julia are collectively rebelling, their willingness to rebel is interdependent on the other. As soon as they are split apart and tortured, they no longer choose to participate in rebellion against the oppressive State and accept Big Brother and the Party. In Chapter 3.5, when threatened with torture using rats, Winston begs O’Brien to ‘do it to Julia! …. I don’t care what you do to her’. One may argue that, if anything, this proves that to some extent, Winston has some control over his life as he chooses to betray Julia in order to protect himself. Nevertheless, one could counter that Winston betrays Julia as a consequence of his torture which converts his emotions of love into that of love for Big Brother. As O’Brien informs Winston in Chapter 3.4, ‘it is not enough to obey [Big Brother]: you must love him’. Love inspires naivety and subversive behaviour within Winston proving that he is not truly in control of his own actions.

Winston’s actions are also pre-determined by the influence of the State through propaganda. The totalitarian figure head of the Party, ‘Big Brother’, is used as a propaganda device to control and instil obedience into the citizens of Oceania, influencing their actions and determining their decisions. Big Brother is used as a device to ensure the obedience and loyalty to the State by the masses, the most notable example of this being the maxim ‘Big Brother is watching you’. In Chapter 1.1, Big Brother’s ‘dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own’. This personification acts to reinforce that, whilst to the reader, it appears as though ‘Big Brother’ is simply a metaphorical figurehead, from the protagonist’s perspective, Big Brother is as human as he is. Time is also manipulated and re-structured by the Party. At the start of the novel, Winston engages in thought crime in Chapter 1.3, by refuting the party’s claim that they ‘had invented aeroplanes’, as ‘he remembered aeroplanes since his earliest childhood’. However, toward the end of the novel, his rebellious and subversive nature is repressed by O’Brien, as his memories conflict with the ‘official’ interpretation of history provided by the Oceanian government. Literary forms ‘are determined by political circumstance’ according to Marxism and are an ideological reflection of the real world. They examine and give an account of what it was like to live within the context of a specific ideology. The Marxist philosopher Althusser postulates that literature ‘has a particular relationship to ideology’, yet within ‘1984’, Orwell appears to be criticising the Communist totalitarian state of the USSR of the late 1940’s, especially when one considers that Big Brother is ‘modelled on Stalin’. [5] During Stalin’s totalitarian rule of the USSR, he too altered the narrative of past events to align with the interpretation of history which benefitted his image, in the same way as the party alters time and history throughout Chapter 1. For example, Leon Trotsky, a prominent member of the Left Opposition, was removed from all photographs with Lenin and Stalin after criticising the leadership of Stalin.[6] Some may criticise Orwell for not writing a more nuanced critique of the Communist state, including from the Marxist perspective as, according to Engels, “the more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better the work of art”[7]. However, Orwell’s portrayal of the Communist state only serves to emphasise the deterministic nature of society within 1984, as propaganda influences and alters one’s beliefs.

The authoritarian state in 1984 created the language, known as ‘Newspeak’, in order to ‘make all other modes of thought impossible’[8]. Hence, the Party controls the free will of the people by repressing rebellion and the opposition that is created by freedom of thought, diminishing one’s capability to think freely and, thus, criticise or form a contradictory opinion to that of the state. Through Newspeak, Orwell explores the concept of linguistic determinism, the belief that ‘our thinking (or worldview) is seen as being determined or shaped by language’[9]. As Karl Marx, writes in ‘The German Ideology’, ‘from the start the ‘spirit’ is afflicted with the curse of being burdened with matter’ (1846). It follows that, therefore, this ‘matter’ could also include language which stems from the society in which one is raised, such as ‘Newspeak’. The Inner Party utilises ‘Newspeak’ in all propaganda and thus, the language of the totalitarian state is ingrained into the subconscious of every man, woman and child in Oceania. How can one truly be ‘essentially free’ when their thoughts have been penetrated by the language of the State? The word ‘free’ is used in Newspeak but not in its “old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts”. Even though Winston was born before the Revolution, whilst he was growing up, he would have been indoctrinated with ‘Newspeak’ from a young age. He may have the freedom to think freely, but how freely can one think when their vocabulary has been limited in order to supress anti-government thoughts.

Even when Winston does rebel by committing thoughtcrime and utilising ‘Oldspeak’, he realises his effort is futile, because he cannot truly rebel against the State. In Chapter 1.2, He writes in his diary “thought crime does not entail death: thought crime is death.” If his actions are discovered, he can be vaporised and erased from history, whilst the proles and the members of the Party view him as a traitor against Big Brother. As Winston states in Chapter 1.5, “Until [the Proletariat] become conscious they will never rebel and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”. His statement is entirely paradoxical, thus emphasising the futility of his situation and the unlikelihood of rebellion. The proles will never truly be conscious and the members of the Inner Party are constantly monitored, thus, the lives of all of those who exist within Orwell’s ‘1984’ are entirely predetermined by the State.

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A review of George Orwell’s novel The philosophy of Determinism in 1984. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 27, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-review-of-george-orwells-novel-the-philosophy-of-determinism-in-1984/
“A review of George Orwell’s novel The philosophy of Determinism in 1984.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-review-of-george-orwells-novel-the-philosophy-of-determinism-in-1984/
A review of George Orwell’s novel The philosophy of Determinism in 1984. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-review-of-george-orwells-novel-the-philosophy-of-determinism-in-1984/> [Accessed 27 Nov. 2020].
A review of George Orwell’s novel The philosophy of Determinism in 1984 [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Dec 11 [cited 2020 Nov 27]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-review-of-george-orwells-novel-the-philosophy-of-determinism-in-1984/
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