The Concept of Time in 1984

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2729 words

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Perception of time represents a major motif in modernist literature. Many works address the subjectivity of our experiences, including how we process and consider the passage of time. Due to the modernist and post-modernist emphasis on style and meaning over story, time becomes less and less an element of setting, and more a device that acts upon and interacts with the characters. As the idea of time changes, so does every conception about the past, present, and future. Knowledge of history is essential to human existence; it allows people to learn from mistakes and honor heroes and victories. Without the past, no one can comprehend the present, let alone imagine a future. Human existence depends on time for lessons, ideas, and ambition. Time provides us with objectivity; it tells us when something occurred. Perception of reality relies on time. Once time is modified beyond control chaos ensues, and existence itself becomes hopeless. Orwell's 1984 epitomizes this idea, as time and history are manipulated to emphasize the novel's themes of hopelessness and chaos in the dystopian society of Oceania. The Party's control of past, present and future, Winston's missing memories and search for the past through the object from Mr. Charrington's shop, and the uncertain temporal setting of the novel all contribute to the feeling of chaos and desperation by abolishing the reliability of time in the narrative.

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Throughout the novel, the Party has supreme control over history, both present and future. Their slogan, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past" first appears on page 30 and summarizes the full extent of their power over time. With the ability to control all aspects of time, the Party controls every event that has ever happened, and even those that may happen in the future. The Party uses this power to create a vision of the past that is truly frightening. "The claimed, of course, to have liberated the proles from bondage. Before the Revolution they had been hideously oppressed by the capitalists, they had been starved and flogged, women had been forced to work in the coal mines...children had been sold into the factories at the age of six" (62). Winston states several times that he has proof that the information is fabricated, which would prove the Party's control over history and time. By molding the past in a harsh and undesirable way, the Party maintains control over the present and future, because no one would want to revolt against the current system and take the chance that they might repeat the "past". These ideas of a horrible past before the Party are reiterated in Mrs. Parson's book, which Winston copies into his diary on page 64. The manufacturing of statistics and histories by the Party keeps time from representing the stable institution that it normally would in a novel. So much of the past is questionable that the present must also questioned. Time and history are dismantled, leaving Winston and the reader unclear about what actually has happened.

The Party's Ministry of Truth exists for the explicit purpose of changing history and the present to make the Party appear constantly infallible. Winston creates Comrade Ogilvy from his own mind, complete with a full biography and numerous honors for the other Party members to be proud of. Even people do not really exist in time, since the Party controls who every person has been. No event or person actually fills a place in time unless the Party allows for it, making time almost completely irrelevant as a measure of reality. Even Winston will not exist in history because, like Withers, he is charged with crimes against the Party, the "unperson" he erases from existence. "He did not exist; he had never existed" (40). This trick played on the reader, making the protagonist nonexistent by the end of the novel, is very cruel, as I could imagine another "Ogilvy" written for Winston immediately after his death. On page 52, Winston acknowledges that the Party has changed the history and the present in regards to chocolate rations: "It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week". Without Winston's insight, even the reader surrenders control over time to the Party. The narrative itself is influenced by the Party, so the time that has been spent reading the narrative is being manipulated as well as the past and present described in the plot.

The Party manipulates the reader's time with Goldstein's book, which takes up a sizable amount of the novel and takes time to read, but turns out to be fabricated. Winston and the reader go through thirty pages of text assuming that it holds some greater truth, but in fact the book is only a ruse created by the Party and given to Winston by O'Brien to help catch him. Consequently, Winston and the reader are fooled, and the present is distorted. In this moment, the idea of manipulated time occurs outside the narrative, whereas it has occurred inside it for the preceding story. At this point, even the reader is under the Party's control, making the feeling of hopelessness resonate further. With the extensive control of time, history and future, there seems to be no order to Oceania, except that which the Party chooses.

As the reader's single link to the past, Winston assumes the immense task of retrieving the past through his memories, and his effort to overthrow the Party. Winston's only real attachment to the past is through his dreams. He gains facts about history from the paperweight and picture at Charrington's and the church song, but all of these things either contribute to or foreshadow his imminent capture. The first time a dream emerges, he dreams of his mother, father, and sister. Winston recalls the way his mother looked, and makes a special point to include the thin soles of his father's shoes. Beyond these useless details, however, Winston remembers nothing of value, and actually deduces what could have happened to his parents: "The two of them must evidently have been swallowed up in one of the first great purges of the Fifties" (25). The diction "evidently" reveals that Winston is not sure about what actually happened to his parents. Even after the vividness of the dream, it appears that he cannot grasp the past. Winston also recalls seeing fighting in London during his childhood, but has no way to determine whom specifically was fighting: "To say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible" (29). Again, no concrete information about the past is presented, only speculation, which makes time unreliable as a gauge of reality.

During chapter 7 of section 2, Winston wakes up having dreamt his entire childhood and gained an understanding of his past. After this major revelation, however, nothing happens; Winston changes the subject and begins considering his love for Julia, who has discounted the memories entirely. Winston's greatest personal victory in the novel comes and goes in only four pages, which makes it appear not important at all. Also, Julia's reaction does not grant the memory much importance. "He told Julia the story of his mother's disappearance. Without opening her eyes she rolled over and settled herself into a more comfortable position" (145). The memory is trivialized by her reaction, demonstrating that there is no hope for a personal past. Even this closure on the subject of memory reaffirms the hopelessness of the novel, because it passes so quickly and does not help to reestablish an objective concept of time that is reliable.

In chapter eight, Winston ventures into the Prole District and talks to an old man in a pub in hopes of finding answers to his questions about the past. He shows great enthusiasm, and asks the old man if things were as bad before the Revolution as the Party says they were. The old man, however, happens to be yet another obstacle, and provides no good information. On page 79 he discusses top hats, but provides Winston with no helpful information. Even the old man, who may have been alive before the Party existed, is not a source of solid information about the past, because he cannot be objective. Without some objectivity, historical accounts are useless, and offer no solace Winston or to the reader. Again, time and history are incomplete, but instead appear to be controlled by the human mind, making it impossible to perceive a single truth. This occurrence leaves Winston shaken, but reaffirms the theme of hopelessness in the book. If no one, not even those who have directly lived through an event can remember it, then there is no way to uncover the past.

The antique store, a beacon of the past, reaffirms this tortuous perspective on time, because it is responsible for Winston's capture later in the novel. The paperweight and photo of St. Clement's both symbolize history, and are items that Winston can use to learn more about the time before the Party. The paperweight carries meaning as a simple consequence of its age. At the end of the book the paperweight is destroyed during Winston's capture, eliminating one element of the past and solidifying the Party's power over time and reality. The coral paperweight could have been planted by Charrington to test Winston, which may be yet another way in which time is manipulated to stop Winston. The photo of St. Clement's is the only photo in existence, aside from the evidence that Winston claims to have against the Party. This second piece of evidence, a photo that speaks of the old world, a world with religion and freedom, ultimately takes part in Winston's demise. The most concrete illustrations of the past turn out, in the end, to be tools of deception. "There was a snap as though the catch had been turned back, and a crash of breaking glass. The picture had fallen to the floor, uncovering the telescreen behind it" (197). Time and history are not objective, but are rather firmly under the control of the Party. Even such simple things as pictures and paperweights are used to manipulate the present by way of the past.

The church song that Winston learns from Julia is yet another illustration of a past that now only exists in memory. He gradually puts the song together, creating the past anew, but the final line foreshadows his death: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head!" (129). This final line seems like the last piece in a puzzle depicting the past, but it proves to be nothing more than a distraction, and proof that Winston will ultimately be eliminated by the Party. Despite these three signs of the past, Winston is still defeated because the Party controls every facet of time. The picture and coral are distinct remnants of the past, but both are corrupted and play a role in Winston's capture. Furthermore, both are literally broken, indicating that the past is nothing more than a tool that can be easily discarded. If the past can be influenced and destroyed, then there is no hope for change or order, and time as an objective measure of reality is ruined.

Though the title of the novel is 1984, the actual date of the events taking place is not clear and is, in fact, questioned several times. The first instance in which the date is questioned appears on page 6, "To begin with, he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984...but, it was never possible nowadays to pin down a date within a year or two". This sets up the theme of manipulated time by immediately forcing the reader to question the present, leaving him with only the past to rely on for accurate information. Big Brother has the ability to amend the date to suit its own purposes; consequently, time becomes infinitely uncertain. "The reporting of Big Brother's Order for the Day in the Times of December 3rd 1983 is extremely unsatisfactory and makes references to nonexistent persons. Rewrite it in full and submit your draft to higher authority before filing" (39). The events of the day and even the day itself can be changed to satisfy the Party's needs. Considering the efficiency of the Party throughout the novel, it seems odd that there would be a four month wait to perform these corrections. There is no mention of a New Year's celebration of any kind that would signify the transition from 1983 to 1984, but there are constant references to specific hours of the day in the novel. For example, Winston recalls his wife, Katherine, and considers how long they have been apart: "It must be nine, ten-nearly eleven years since they had parted" (58). Separating from his wife should be an important occurrence in Winston's life, but he can only approximate the actual date within three years. Winston also frequently uses the words "about" and "or" when discussing a period of time, revealing that no passage of time is certain in his mind, or in the world. When Winston and Julia meet O'Brien, he loses his sense of time during the conversation: "It appeared to Winston that a long time had passed before he answered" (153). After Winston's capture, time becomes even more ambiguous, and even the number of hours that have passed are in question. He asks what time of day it is and can get no answer, and finds that time passes much slower than usual. Also, on page 66, he thinks about the time when he possessed concrete evidence against the Party, and states that "it must have been" 1973, and that "it was about that time". There is an indecisive tone to his explanation that illuminates the indistinctness of time and history.

Even the proles have a difficult time recalling the recent past and present. On page 75, two men argue about the Lottery: neither is really sure when it happened, but remember the lottery numbers distinctly. Time is shown as unreliable and chaotic when Winston and Julia are unable to meet because her period comes early. "Tomorrow afternoon. I can't come. -Why not? -Oh, the usual reason. It's started early this time" (123). Even biology can be manipulated by time, and now it is stopping Winston and Julia's rebellion. Time also appears in a negative context in the instance of the "Five Minutes Hate", which reveals that time is dedicated to chaos and the destruction of hope. In the present day, time appears almost villainous, slowly breaking down and destroying Winston. Without some truth to the past and the present, the future is completely hopeless, and indeed, it turns out to be for Winston.

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Throughout 1984, Orwell presents time as an ambiguous, malleable, and very destructive entity. Time and history are perverted for the use of the Party, and memory is rendered useless as a tool for perceiving the world. Even relics of the past such as the coral paperweight and the picture of St. Clement's are used to hurt Winston, and are easily destroyed. The Party destroys the past, and is able to control the present. The present date is never concrete, and the passage of time is perceived in a number of different ways, making it either faster than it actually is, or slower and more ominous. Even the reader is distracted by time through Goldstein's book, which takes a substantial amount of time to read, but is simply a creation of the Party. Every instance when time is mentioned in 1984 ends in some loss of hope or a defeat, thereby reaffirming the purpose of the novel. Winston is never able to bring back the past, or even reenact it, despite all his work. All of the examples shown in this paper are merely highlights of the general motif of time as an antagonist to Winston, and as a tool of the Party. Winston loses in his fight against the Party, but also loses in his race against time. Once time itself turns against the world, there is no hope for anyone.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Concept of Time in 1984. (2018, Jun 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 3, 2023, from
“The Concept of Time in 1984.” GradesFixer, 03 Jun. 2018,
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