A literary commentary of Orwell’s 1984

After the Second World War, many dystopias were written in reaction to the horrors of the war and the dangers of dictatorships and totalitarianisms. George Orwell’s works were some of the first ones, or at least the most known, to denounce the excesses of this time. If this English author criticizes the USSR communist totalitarianism in Animal Farm, he depicts in his novel 1984, published in 1949, a totalitarian state ruled by Big Brother, a socialist dictator. In the fifth chapter, the main protagonist Winston Smith meets Syme, the chairman of the thought crime Department, while he is writing a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary. 

Extract (with numbered lines and my notes on it : recto / verso) :

‘How is the Dictionary getting on?’ said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

‘Slowly,’ said Syme. ‘I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.’ 

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting. 

‘The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said. ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’ 

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy. 

‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take « good », for instance. If you have a word like « good », what need is there for a word like « bad »? « Ungood » will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of « good », what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like « excellent » and « splendid » and all the rest of them? « Plusgood » covers the meaning, or « doubleplusgood » if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,’ he added as an afterthought. 

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm. 

‘You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,’ he said almost sadly. ‘Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in The Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’ 

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on: 

‘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. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,’ he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?’ 

‘Except-‘ began Winston doubtfully, and he stopped. 

It had been on the tip of his tongue to say ‘Except the proles,’ but he checked himself, not feeling fully certain that this remark was not in some way unorthodox. Syme, however, had divined what he was about to say. 

‘The proles are not human beings,’ he said carelessly. ‘By 2050 earlier, probably — all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron — they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like « freedom is slavery » when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’ 

One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.

If this extract shows us a classic science-fiction dystopia written to denounce the dangers of the writer’s time, it also shows us the political force of language and literature through the destruction and creation of language in the state of Oceania. We can then ask ourselves how George Orwell uses the genre of the dystopia to highlight the political force of literature through the question of the power of language

I. A classic science-fiction dystopia

Firstly, this extract is written as a classic science-fiction dystopia. Indeed, the author depicts a futurist and nightmarish world that echoes the real world in which he lives. 

a) The author projects his story in the future : indeed, 1984 is thirty-five years away from 1949, the year the novel was published. Moreover, he creates a fictionary world called Oceania, a state that does not exist. These characteristics are symptomatic of science-fiction novels, with the precise creation of gouvernemental institutions as, in the extract, « the Thoughtcrime department ». 

b) But this fiction is mostly a dystopia, that is to say the contrary of the utopia which consists in depicting an idealistic and perfect world. Indeed, Orwell describes a nightmarish world where the government seems scary and is trying to prevent its citizens from thinking. In fact, when the narrator hears the name of Big Brother, « a sort of vapid eagerness [flits] across [his] face » (l.29), and according to Syme, « Orthodoxy means not thinking » (l.65). Moreover, Winston thinks that « Syme will be vaporized [because] he is too intelligent [… and] the Party does not like such people » (l.66-68). This shows that he lives under an authoritarian government that can choose to kill any ‘subject’ at any time, which is nightmarish enough to see that it’s a dystopian novel.

c) This extract – and novel – also shows echoes with the real world, because a dystopia is often written in order to criticize or to anticipate the dangers of a time. In this case, the link can firstly be seen in the title because the year 1984 was chosen as a reverse number of the year 1948, which is when Orwell wrote his novel. In the extract itself, links can be made between the post- Second World War context, when people had seen the dangers of right-wing and left-wing dictatorships, and 1984 in Oceania. For example, the Party vaporizes (l.66) the people they find dangerous, a word that can remind us of the fate of Jews, Tzigans and others under Hitler’s government. 

But this classic dystopian scheme seems to serve another purpose, which is larger than the historical one. Indeed, the construction of a utopia within this dystopia raises the question of the role of language as both a positive and negative power. 

II. The ambivalence of language

Secondly, the role of language in Oceania is ambivalent but allows the writer to show the way a dictatorship works and takes place. Indeed, by building a utopia within the context of his own dystopia, the author shows that if language is an instrument of power, it can be a key to resistance and political action.

a) Orwell builds a paradoxical mise en abyme in this extract to highlight the omnipresence of the question of language in the construction of Big Brother’s dictatorship. In fact, the projections in the future are omnipresent in Syme’s speech, along with the lexical field of a dreamy world : « dreamy » (l.15), « beauty » (l.27). Three times in the extract, Syme mentions the year 2050 as the realization of his utopia (l.12, 51, 57). This utopia consists in the ‘atomization’ of language reduced to a minimal number of words, that is to say « the final version of Newspeak » (l.26). Language has a central role in this goal, which Syme highlights by saying : « The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect » (l.49). 

b) This importance of language leads us to its status as an instrument of political, but also of individual power. This individual power found in language is illustrated in Winston and Syme’s relationships with their own language. Indeed, Syme has the power : he speaks for 50 lines in a 68-line extract, he seems to speak continuously with expressions as « continued speaking » (l.13), « went on » (l.39), « he added » (l.28). Moreover, he can guess what Winston does not say : « [he] had divined what he was about to say » (l.56). Finally, his language is not limited : he « speaks too plainly » (l.67) and « carelessly » (l.57). On the contrary, Winston can’t or doesn’t want to speak : he doesn’t « trust […] himself to speak » (l.38), he speaks « doubtfully, and he stop[s] » (l.53). Indeed, he has to pay attention to his words to avoid any suspicion, and this carefulness makes him « check […] himself » (l.54) when he speaks and when he writes : Syme, guessing Winston’s thoughts, seems to understand that his writings are « translations » (l.33). We can draw a parallel between Smith and Syme’s relationship and the one between Big Brother and the people from Oceania. To have and maintain power over them, he uses language by destroying and recreating it. Language is then an instrument of strong power taking place in both individual and political contexts.

c) Nevertheless, if the power given by language is strong, it is not only a key to a successful dictatorship but also a key to resistance and thought. This is why language is also a danger for the government if it is not in their control. Indeed, Syme highlights the necessity to destroy a language that allows people to think concepts as their « freedom » (l.63). For example, when he speaks about the word ‘good’, he asks « what need is there for a word like ‘bad’ ? » (l.20), question that shows the precaution taken by the government to take people’s capability of criticizing them, to reduce their « range of consciousness » (l.46). Big Brother’s government tries to suppress the liberty of thinking of the individuals, liberty that can only be complete with a whole range of words having different meanings. 

Indeed, this authoritarianism fears the power of language, which is why its control and destruction are necessary to maintain its power. The author uses this question of language to highlight the political force of literature through a powerful narrator / reader relationship. 

III. The power of literature and dystopias

Thirdly and lastly, the author creates a strong link between the narrator and the reader, which highlights the power of literature, more specifically of his novel and of other dystopias in literature. 

a) A relation is built between the narrator and the reader. Indeed, the name of the narrator, Smith, is a very common name, giving the protagonist a universal dimension and allowing the reader to see in him anyone, including himself. This relationship is enforced by the position of Winston Smith on the outside of the totalitarian regime : in fact, he seems not to agree with Syme’s ideas and would rather « stick to Oldspeak » (l.34). This position is the same as the reader who is supposed to be repulsed by the actions of this regime. This is how Orwell puts the reader in the position of the ‘partisan’ of liberty. This way the reader seems to be politically engaged already, merely by reading 1984.

b) This is how George Orwell leads us to sense the political power of literature. Indeed, dystopias often present literature as the key to liberation and resistance. This is the case in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, where the reader of Shakespeare is the only one to see the horror of the totalitarian state. This extract also has many echoes with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, where Montag, a policeman whose job is to destroy books, discovers the power of literature and flees his country. Syme’s speech is very similar to Montag’s one at the beginning of the novel when he describes the beauty of fire and burning books : « It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words » (l.16). This role of literature is present at the end of the extract when Syme speaks about « Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron » (l.59). As a mise en abyme, Orwell highlights the power of literature, which itself highlights the power of his own book in the denunciation of every totalitarian regime and their danger. 

To conclude, George Orwell gives his dystopia a kind of ‘prophetic’ message by praising the importance of language and literature to prevent another dictatorship from taking place as easily as Hitler or Staline’s ones. The construction of a utopia at the heart of the dystopia shows us the limits of utopias and how dangerous wanting to build an entirely perfect world can be when human beings have different thoughts and opinions.



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