The world that Orwell presents in Nineteen Eighty-four has often been called a nightmare vision of the future. Writing sixteen years into that future, we can see that not all of Orwell’s predictions have been fulfilled in their entirety! Yet, “1984 expresses man’s fears of isolation and disintegration, cruelty and dehumanisation…Orwell’s repetition of obsessive ideas is an apocalyptic lamentation for the fate of modern man.
His expression of the political experience of an entire generation gives 1984 a veritably mythic power and makes it one of the most influential books of the age, even for those who have never read it. ” The impact and power of the novel continue to influence the reader even if it seems that the spectre of the dehumanised collective has been vanquished. However, the purpose of this assignment is not to assess the accuracy of the prophecy but to examine the novel against the parameters of modernist fiction.
To do this, I think it would be helpful to begin with an extremely brief summary of the chief characteristics of the modernist novel, and of modernism in general. Bradbury outlines four great preoccupations of the modernist novel: • the complexities of its own form • the representation of inward states of consciousness • a sense of the nihilistic disorder behind the ordered surface of life and reality • a freeing of narrative art from the determination of an onerous plot.
There is, in the modernist novel, a questioning of the conventional linear narrative, logical and progressive order, the establishing of a stable surface of reality. Frequently, metaphor and metonymy occupy a more prominent position than was considered normal in prose fiction. While the modernist novelists do not seem to depart from the broad categories/genres that they inherited from their predecessors, they brought to their handling of these a formal compression, a radical criticism of society and a comprehensive challenge to tradition.
Not all of these characteristics are visible in the work of Orwell, or specifically in Nineteen Eighty-four. The narrative follows the normal linear structure, and both logical sequence and causal connections between the events are clearly visible. Plot in the traditional sense is definitely an important element in the novel. And while, there is an awareness of the inner workings of Winston’s psyche, there does not seem to be anything particularly innovative in the ways in which his thought processes and emotional states are represented.
What does, however, stamp it incontrovertibly a modernist work is the exploration of clearly modernist themes like loneliness, exclusion, the alienated individual in an inimical world, the effects of totalitarianism both on the individual and on relationships, the horrors of contemporary history, the inescapable burden of human responsibility, the existential problems of individual freedom and happiness. In his book, Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale mentions certain “modernist rubrics” listed by Ihab Hassan. 3] These provide a paradigmatic framework within which to view the novel, and especially the urbanism, the technologism and the dehumanisation that he mentions are clearly visible in Oceania. There are a number of dominant images and symbols that heighten the impact of the novel. Significant among these is the contrast between the bleakness of Winston’s flat and the graciousness and comfort of the room they rent from Mr. Charrington. Another very telling image is the one O’Brien conjures up of the future: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. ” (p. 15).
This seems to be an image of merciless sadism that symbolises the connection between brutality, power worship, nationalism and totalitarianism. Rats are a hideous and haunting symbol that recur in the novel. (This is, in fact, a recurrent image of horror in Orwell’s works. ) Perhaps, the most striking achievement of all, in this area, is the creation of the concepts of doublespeak and doublethink – a scathing indictment of the capacity for self-delusion that Orwell so vehemently denigrates. If we are to consider Nineteen Eighty-four as a modernist fable, we are mmediately reminded that while the genre of futuristic science fiction had already been introduced and, to some extent, developed in the nineteenth century, Orwell’s works do not fall into this category. Both Animal Farm and this book are projections into a bleak and dismal future that would be, Orwell insists, the natural consequence of the direction in which politics would appear to be heading, the inevitable betrayal of the Marxist dream. But where Animal Farm is clearly an allegorical fable, Nineteen Eighty-four is in many ways a very concrete and naturalistic portrayal of the future as a consequence of the present and the past.
Though set in the future, the novel’s mode is realistic rather than fantastical. Orwell himself writes, that Nineteen Eighty-four is a novel about the future – that is, it is in a sense a fantasy, but in the form of a naturalistic novel…. intended as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable, and which have already been partly realised in Communism and fascism…. Totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. 4] At the same time, the future projected by Orwell seems to be more a regression into the past, for the setting of the novel seems to combine the worst features of wartime London with some characteristics of even earlier ages – when prisoners were marched through the streets in leg-irons, public hangings provided both entertainment and instruction, the populace drowned discomforts, miseries and angst in raw gin. There is little invention or sophistication in the weapons or technology developed in Oceania.
The only area in which the future seems to reveal any degree of real development is the whole enterprise of controlling people’s behaviour, thoughts and attitudes. Orwell’s exploration of one of the recurrent themes of modernist fiction is clearly visible here. The elaborate machinery and processes devised by the totalitarian regime to rewrite history, the negation of fact and of time, both raise serious epistemological questions, that seem to be crystallised in Winston’s stubborn and hope-filled clinging on to the memory of the illegal photograph that for a few moments he had actually held in his hands.
We see here a valorisation of personal experience over “received” knowledge that is very typical of the modern sensibility. In a sense, Winston’s efforts are damned before he begins, and he knows it even in the moments when he allows himself to hope in the remote possibility of a future that might perhaps be different, might offer something more than the drabness and the terror to which they had accustomed themselves. In fact, one of the most frighteningly apocalyptic elements in Nineteen Eighty-four is not only the breakdown of reality at the end but the fact that there could have been no other end.
Even the ambivalent figure of O’Brien and his enigmatic almost paradoxical statement about meeting in the place where there is no darkness (another poignant symbol, which turns out to be the glaringly lit Ministry of Love where Winston’s spirit is finally broken) hold out at best a questionable hope. In the final section of the book, he admits ruefully that they got him a long time ago, and goes on to assert that “the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better. The discourses of O’Brien in this last section strip bare not just the methods but the motives and the intentions of the totalitarian regime that seks power for its own sake. Winston is not just defeated and destroyed but completely metamorphosed in the ministry of Love. As O’Brien promises him, “ ‘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. ’ ”(p. 206) Whether Orwell is recreating the ghastly atmosphere of fear and torture in Nazi Germany or in the most repressive part of the Stalinist regime, we see clearly the opposition between the charismatic leader and his inner corps of privileged lieutenants, and the collective mass of dehumanised persons who are no longer individuals.
Paradoxically, they are, as a result, intensely alone, alienated from each other by suspicion and distrust, and excluded from any sense of belonging, any real commitment to the Party/the State. This is the crux of the modernist anguish: contact and communication between persons is no longer possible in an inimical world. One element of Nineteen Eight-four presages a major concern of postmodernist fiction. In creating Newspeak, Orwell is raising serious questions about the very nature of truth and the relationship between language and thought/attitudes/behaviour.
Syme speaks enthusiastically about the possibilities of Newspeak: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. ” And then he goes on to say “Orthodoxy is unconsciousness. ” (pp. 45 – 46) Central epistemological issues are being addressed here – issues that will have a profound bearing on any discourse about our human existence.
In Nineteen Eight-four, Orwell has created a unforgettable nightmare that is only too real. Our human fears of isolation and disintegration, cruelty and dehumanisation are perfectly represented here, as are our painfully non-heroic natures. And yet, for all the complete annihilation of Winston’s spirit, we are left with a driving sense of urgency, a desperate need to combat the forces that threaten to destroy us. The defeat is ultimately transcended, not in the work itself, but in the response it evokes in the reader.