George Orwell’s 1984: Modern Literature and Dystopia

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A dystopian literature is characterised by the dysfunction of the society, human degradation, debasement, and misery; what W. B. Yeats aptly sums up in The Second Coming as “things fall apart”. This is exactly the ambit within which the literature of the modern period falls. Its characters appear debased and are projected as tortured and tormented. The society itself malfunctions.

George Orwell’s 1984, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and James Joyce’s Ulysses fall within the category of dystopian novels churned out of the modern period. In this post, I intend to use 1984 to exemplify this.

1984 is a novel critical of the side effects of modernism, the evils of totalitarianism and constant surveillance of movements and thoughts. Set in Oceania (one of the three super-powers), the novel typifies the dangers rife in a dystopian society. Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, is from London, Airstrip One and we see the malfunctioning of his society through his lens.

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The first pointer to this malfunction is in the stratification of this society into Inner Party, Outer Party and the Proles. The Inner Party members are the privileged ones although they are also conditioned to austere measures. The Outer Party members are next and they are subjected to the intake of loose cigarettes and poor food. Their thoughts are censored through the machinery of the Thought Police. The Proles on the other hand are let loose though they are incapable of any meaningful thoughts that can upset the balance of the state. They are manipulated and lied to over and over again.

O’Brien is in the Inner Party, Julia and Winston in the Outer Party and the proles are the masses on whose heads bombs from several air-raids fell.

In the Oceanian society, everything seems to be upside down. Everywhere you turn, there is a telescreen or microphone in surveillance. Therefore, there is no question of freedom in any form. Everything down to the individual’s use of his personal time is decided by the state.

In fact, every social order and value is distorted and time comes to a standstill. The government epitomised by Big Brother controls or claims to control the past, the present and the future through its constant (unacknowledged) distortion of records and expungement of dissidents or the would-be ones. It also erodes the sense of familial relationship. For example, marriage is only done for the sake of the Party for procreation, not for the sake of familial bond and sexual enjoyment. It is even hinted that artificial insemination (ARTSEM) is being worked on as an imminent replacement for the marriage institution. Children are also trained as Thought Police and Spies to tell on their parents and adults. It is no wonder that Parson’s daughter tells on him.

There is also the constant wars between Oceania and its neighbours (Eastasia and Eurasia) to look at. The war itself is pointless and only fostered to keep the proles engaged, ecstatic and in lack.

Oceania’s ministries are gross evidences of this dystopia. Paradoxes on their own. The Ministry of Peace mounts wars and uses its instruments of violence on its citizens and keeps them in check (the Outer Party and the Inner Party especially) through the Thought Police. The Ministry of Truth distorts facts, manipulates and lies to its citizens. The Ministry of Plenty puts in force austere measures, keeping the citizens in lack.

The slogans of the Party also lend credence to the dystopia in 1984: “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, and “knowledge is ignorance”.

There is also the urge to monopolise and reduce the thoughts of the citizens through the NEWSPEAK language adopted by the Party. From conversations between Syme and Winston, one is able to deduce the fact that the Party wants to control the thoughts of its people and make them think what it wants them to — robotic.

From the foregoing, it would not be wrong to say that George Orwell’s 1984 is a novel that mirrors a dystopian future society repleted with authoritarianism, deceptive INGSOC (English Socialism), state-induced wars (senseless, heartless and meaningless), debasement of humanity (as evident in the torturous sessions Winston had in Ministry of Peace and Room 101), the lone voice of truth, and the stillness of time. In this kind of society, Winston Smith’s professed truths are tagged lunacy of one. And sadly enough, there is no point of salvation and redemption in this society. The Proles, whom Winston hopes would bring the change, have been brainwashed and put in perpetual state-induced amnesia. Winston himself is tortured to the point that he “voluntarily” brings himself to love the Big Brother.

The irredeemability of Oceania and its other superpower neighbours pronounces more the concept of dystopia in the text and clearly contrasts with Winston’s opening address in his diary (teeming with hope for a period without the Big Brother’s totalitarianism). Indubitably, 1984 is a clear evidence that modern literature is dystopian.

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