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“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?” O’Brien asks. Winston’s answer: “By making him suffer” (214). These two characters inhabit George Orwell’s vision of a future totalitarian government that has evolved to its most terrifyingly efficient. In 1984, one organization, the Party, rules everything and everyone in Oceania, creating and destroying the past at will, inducing in its subjects a slavish submission. There is no escape from the Party or its godlike leader, Big Brother, who declaims his rhetoric from every telescreen. No one is ever alone; somebody always watches from the telescreens with a predatory eye. In the final part of the book, the powerful Party official O’Brien pronounces this definition of power to Winston, a man completely at his physical mercy.
In a novel where the governing Party is as much a character as any individual person, the intricacies of power certainly give each scene deeper implications. While asserting power by causing pain might be an arresting theme, the driving power in the novel derives from the linked notions of annihilation and reconstruction. Power is the ability to annihilate someone by destroying their personal emotions, and then to recreate them until the world is populated by copies of the one model of your choice. In 1984, the Party cuts away the very heart of the human, until without the personal, the only emotions that exist are decreed and owned by the Party. Each episode of the novel is a battle within Winston to resist the Party’s inexorable emotional stranglehold.
We never see Winston as a whole human being, completely capable of emotion. Mostly Winston is like the wasp that Orwell cut in half, which he describes in a book review. Only when Winston the wasp tries to “fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him…The thing that has been cut away is his soul…”(CELJ ii 30). For Winston, “The thing that has been cut away” is his personal emotions; what he does or believes that he feels is primarily political. The novel opens with Winston beginning diary—perhaps the most obvious symbol of the personal. He gets as far as the date, and then “A sense of complete helplessness had descended upon him…”(9). He has no idea what to write; he possesses nothing personal to write down in a diary. He goes on to think about for whom the diary is written. He thinks about his audience—possibly the future; clearly he cannot conceive of a diary written purely for himself out of personal reasons; it must be for some political purpose. Finally, his first rush of words recounts a movie he has seen: a political movie. He then proceeds to write “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (18) several times; in fact, everything he writes in his diary is political, from reflections on his future execution to musings on thoughtcrime and doublethink. The diary becomes an abject symbol of the emotion Winston is incapable of.
Winston cannot even experience love, the very pinnacle of human emotion. In his unconscious, he harbors pre-revolution memories of his now gone mother and sister. It is unsurprising, then, that he dreams of his lost mother and perhaps even grieves for her unconsciously. However, even in a confused dream he realizes that at the time he “was too young and selfish to love her in return” (27) and that now that she is gone there is no chance for him to love her. Today, without “privacy, love, and friendship” (27) there cannot be his mother’s “dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows” (28). Winston can perceive all of these emotional nuances, but his acute perception does not aid him in feeling those “deep or complex sorrows” arising from love. His fuzzy dream memories are personal, but the emotion in them belongs to a dead world. In continuation of his dream, he sees Julia a coworker and future lover, and he is filled with “admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. That too was a gesture belonging to the ancient time”(29). Such an intimate sexual fantasy is still reduced to an instinctual political rebellion. Winston can discern and even admire such a triumphantly human response to totalitarianism, but he himself cannot feel the same way. Such gestures and feelings belong “to the ancient time.”
Indeed, when Winston does sleep with the dreamed-of Julia, we only receive confirmation that even his most intimate act is sullied into something political. Sex is political. When Winston wakes up next to Julia and reflects upon the sex they have had, he understands that there are no pure personal emotions unsullied by the political.
In the old days, he thought, a man looked at a girl’s body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act. (204)
What would have been the most intimate and personal connection between two human beings has been transformed into some sort of political battle against the Party. Winston is incapable of action outside the political, he must “battle” to assert his power and win his little “victory” over the Party even through sex.
This pivotal sex scene portrays the means by which the Party controls its subjects and points towards the remaining components of power and the real conflict in the novel. The fact that Winston cannot have a life outside the political means that the Party has already partially won. Though Winston might believe that he has achieved some sort of victory over the Party by having illicit sex with a Party woman for non-reproductive purposes, even this victory is a hollow self-deception. The real victory would be to have meaningful, personal sex. Instead, the very fact that the Party has infiltrated itself into the deepest parts of the human psyche means that the Party has triumphed in co-opting all personal human passions and therefore all threats to itself. Winston’s idea of sex as a battle represents a defeat by the Party, even if the battle itself might have been a “victory.” Even though Winston tries to rebel against the Party’s annihilation, he cannot truly succeed; what remains for the novel is that he acknowledge his defeat and accept the Party’s replacement for his soul.
That struggle within Winston to recognize and accept his inevitable defeat is what 1984 is about. Since Winston might as well be totally annihilated, complete Party domination only requires him to think as the Party commands. Thus, the initial conflict between Winston and the Party reduces to Winston’s internal struggle between self-control and those slips of emotion and memory. We see here a sort of incongruity; instead of a chess game between two opponents, we have just one person playing against himself: Winston, wrestling with the memory demons within himself. This contradiction is illuminated by philosopher Hannah Arendt’s theories on totalitarianism. In “The Politics of Totalitarianism,” she describes the type of fully evolved totalitarian society that Orwell presages. According to her, the course of history “may decide that those who today eliminate races and individuals or members of dying classes and decadent peoples are tomorrow those who must be sacrificed. What totalitarian rule needs to guide the behavior of its subjects is a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim” (414). When applying this theory to 1984, we see Winston himself does have some aspects of both victim and executioner. The emotionally annihilated Winston would certainly be a victim. However, Arendt mentions that each subject must have within him an executioner as well, a side that participates in the Party eradication. Though Winston is a victim, in the end it is only a double-thinking crimestopping version of himself who has gained enough control to suppress his personal emotions; he too is his own executioner. Though at first he cries against O’Brien out in anguish “How can you stop people remembering things?…It is involuntary…How can you control memory? You have not controlled mine!” (199), by the end, the Party does not even need to actively control Winston’s mind; he does it for himself, constantly continuing the execution or annihilation. Ultimately, Winston is even able to ignore happy childhood memories. He simply “pushed the picture out of his mind. It was a false memory…They did not matter so long as one knew them for what they were”(238). Thus, not only does the Party annihilate and have power over Winston, Winston himself finally becomes an “executioner” of his own soul.
In the end, not only can Winston control his own memories and emotions, he even swallows the Party line—bait, hook and all. The image Orwell leaves us is that of a hollowed and gin-soaked Winston, gazing up into the telescreen image of Big Brother. “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother”(239). Winston is at peace; the sufferings are over. If power is established over a man “by making him suffer” (214), then surely Winston has escaped from the Party’s power and the suffering it has caused. Indeed, merging into the Party collective is Winston’s dubious reward to his new ability to conform to Party standards of thought, believe that two and two make five, and love Big Brother; Winston does not simply escape from Party’s power and personal suffering, he is submerged happily into the monolithic Party. This collective is what Arendt terms “the One” (412). According to Arendt, in totalitarian society many individual men become “the One who unfailingly will act as though he himself were part of the course of history or nature, a device has been found not only to liberate the historical and natural forces, but to accelerate them to a speed they never would reach if left to themselves” (412). Individuals thus gain the privilege of becoming “more powerful than the most powerful forces engendered by the actions and the will of men” (412). In 1984, then, it is just as Arendt outlines. The One Party will always be more powerful than any individual actions or will of a man. At least according to the Party line O’Brien explains to Winston, “power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual….Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal”(212). In a cruel double-thinking sort of irony, it is only by giving up any pretense to have emotions or act personally that Winston comes into that intoxicating power at the end. Only through submission and self-execution does Winston win his battle, find an end to suffering, and become all-powerful through joining the Party collective.
So in the end, the consequence for Oceania is that all victories belong to the Party, just as all emotions belong to the Party. Winston wins the battle to control his mind, but only to join and strengthen the Party. The Party’s power is not just about making men suffer; it is about annihilating them and recreating them in its own image, all the better to absorb them, grow even more powerful, and repeat the process. It is a never-ending cycle which has no purpose but to perpetuate itself so that the Party may exercise even more power. Winston enters the picture already with most of his soul cut away, already incapable of full emotion. By the end he has been rebuilt into the Party standard model. The consequence for society is that the only emotions left are by Party edict. Love Big Brother, not Julia, and in the end Winston does even that. The other feelings— hatred and fear —also belong to the Party. The Two Minutes Hate is the only tolerable expression of passion, and it is only allowed to be directed against whomever the Party has deemed an enemy at the moment: Eastasia, Eurasia, Goldstein, etc. Fear is fear of the Party. Even one’s most personal fears (in Winston’s case, fear of rats) are translated into fear of the Party. O’Brien makes the menacing pronouncement to Winston, “Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves” (206). The breadth of the statement seems to address all of mankind: If ever there was a fully healthy human being, there certainly will be no more. Preaching as the Party, O’Brien intones, “We control life…we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable”(216). Men become the clay out of which the Party molds exactly what it wants. The Party not only completes its mission in annihilating and restructuring Winston, but all of mankind to an infinite degree; even the concept of an powerful unalterable “human nature” is corrected, with the Party as lord of all power.
After all, the unbelievers might say, 1984 is just a story, no more. Such hellish nonsense cannot exist in our own world. However, these mechanisms of power and control are very real to our own experience. In Arendt’s real totalitarian world as in Orwell’s fictional one, there are no clear laws that “are designed to erect boundaries and establish channels of communication between men” (Arendt 411). In our possible future, no one can tell you what thought oversteps some hazy boundary or other. In Winston’s world it is the same; though he might revel in that collective power of the Party and become one of its executioners, as we’ve already seen, any glimmerings of an individual self must be prepared to be a sacrificed victim should the doctrine change or one’s thoughts overstep an undefined boundary. His diary is “not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws)” (1984 9). That is not to say that there is anarchy; though there is no rule of law, in Oceania there is rule by power. Oceania is governed by the one law in Arendt’s analysis: the “law” of the unstoppable tide of “the forces of nature or history” (Arendt 412). The same results that Arendt found in her independent analysis of modern totalitarianism apply to Oceania and vice versa. Oceania’s future is encapsulated in the image of “a boot stamping on the human face—for ever” (1984 215), and so might our future become. This compelling vision is one that Orwell has clearly brooded on, for it appears in his commentary on patriotism “England Your England,” which was published several years before 1984. As Orwell elaborates in that essay, the military march is “simply an affirmation of naked power” (CE 259). The human face—the ultimate painting of his soul, his emotions—is annihilated by the nakedly powerful stomp. This military boot is the tangible embodiment of “the totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power” (CE 260). Winston is the last man to join this goose-step military march into the terrifying future of Oceania, a future that might just well be our own.
Orwell, having seen that potential future, may have written 1984 to prevent that potential from becoming reality. It says to its readers: Be on your guard, for what happens in these pages may become your reality. However, when it was first published in 1949, critics such as Diana Trilling found the novel altogether too disturbing, attributing to it an almost violent “temper” to the book, a “fierceness of intention, which seems to violate the very principles Mr Orwell would wish to preserve in the world” (261). She would have expected a “beautifully civilized tone” in keeping with the “beautifully civilized” world Orwell would prefer to have. Instead, she finds that “The new book exacerbates the emotions almost beyond endurance” and inflicts a “enormous pressure…upon the reader” (261). However, this kind of extreme emotion which readers undergo upon reading Orwell’s horrific vision is exactly the kind of emotion that will preserve the individual in the world and safeguard against totalitarianism. Totalitarian governments like the Party cannot brook the existence of passions and loyalties not under its own control, for if those are turned against itself en masse, their power would evaporate. Moreover the Party cannot even tolerate benign or indifferent passions. All emotions must be about the Party and politics, because personal passions are passions that might otherwise be put to use for the Party; they represent a waste of energy and a detraction from the government’s full power potential. As Arendt puts it, “By pressing men against each other, total terror destroys the space between them”(411). There is no longer a distinction between different individuals via their different emotional makeup, because there is no space allowed for those emotions to thrive. If totalitarian power is annihilation of emotions, then the novel 1984 as an exacerbation of emotions achieves its goal as preventative tale. To wish as Trilling does for more of the “’relaxed will’ in…those of us who…are so acutely aware of the threats of power” is counterproductive. It is those who are aware of the threats of power who must preserve their personal emotions so that a “last” human being like Winston may never be annihilated or completely remolded by a totalitarian government.
Arendt, Hannah. “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” in Orwell’ Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982.
Trilling, Diana. Review of 1984 from The Nation. George Orwell: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Jeffrey Meyers. London: Routledge, 1975.
Orwell, George. “England Your England.” A Collection of Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bungay, Suffolk, UK: Penguin Books, 1970.
Orwell, George. “Notes on the Way.” The Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism. Eds. Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell. Middlesex UK: Penguin, 1968.
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