George Orwell’s Enlightening and Modern “1984”
George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel is rarely mentioned in the context of the Enlightenment and Modernity. This is why it should be.
It’s a wonderful time to be alive. Social consciousness is as high as it’s ever been, technology continues to redefine the possibilities of life, and the world is in a perpetual state of evolution and progress. We have the Enlightenment to thank. During the Age of Enlightenment that spanned from the late 1600’s to the late 1700’s, there was a significant development in science that trickled down to politics, as well as philosophy (Watling, p. 176), and it is this period in time that we can now point to as the origin of our current, enlightened world.
The Enlightenment is often recognized as the age of the book, as it was this period in time that saw books, a commodity that was previously accessible to few, become widespread (Watling, p. 179). As the quality of middle class life rose and publishing technologies advanced, literacy — particularly recreational literacy — became pervasive. As one might suspect, this led to a boom in the amount and variety of written texts, and a strong embracing of the “sentimental novel of morals and social lessons” (Watling, p. 180).
One of the earliest examples of this type of sentimental novel is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which was published in 1719. Robinson Crusoe, the titular character, embodied an “independence of spirit” (Watling, p. 182) and represented “the emerging bourgeois individual” (Watling, p. 182) that was in vogue during the eighteenth century. The above, and “the Enlightenment’s obsession with scientific reason and empirical rationality” (Watling, p. 182), made Robinson Crusoe one of the defining works of what would come to be referred to as Early Modernity.
Almost two hundred years later, in Late Modernity, English author George Orwell’s, now classic, dystopian novel, 1984, is published. This paper will argue that 1984 continues the Enlightenment’s “middle-class focus on self-interest and self-enrichment” (Watling, p. 183) through its focus on individualism and rationality, becoming a nexus of creativity, politics, and philosophy, and making it a work of modernism.
Rationality and Thoughtcrime
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.” (Orwell, p. 104)
Rationality was at the heart of the Enlightenment, and in a way, it is also at the heart of 1984. The novel has us follow Winston Smith, an everyday man who is a member of “The Party”, a totalitarian government led by a man only referred to as “Big Brother.” The story takes place, approximately (it’s never made clear), in the year 1984, in Oceania, a fictional superstate composed of the Americas and Great Britain (and others). In Oceania, the biggest crime one can commit is having a mere thought that deviates from the Party’s ideology — an ideology best symbolized by the Party slogan: “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (Orwell, p. 6).
The Party has also created the language of “Newspeak”, a “parody of Basic English” (Posner, p. 15) with the sole purpose of “narrow[ing] the range of thought” (Orwell, p. 68). Furthermore, there is the “Thought Police”, the instrument the Party uses to enforce their will and ideology. And if that was not enough to prevent thoughtcrime, there are the omnipresent telescreens that surveil the citizens. All of these measures are in place to ensure that citizens stay true to the Party. After all, “thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death” (Orwell, p. 36).
The Party does not only impose rationality upon the citizens of Oceania; they control and define rationality itself. What is considered rational is what Big Brother and the Party deem to be rational. “Two and two made five, and you have to believe it” (Orwell, p. 104), for that is what the Party considers to be rational, and to deviate from the Party would be to commit thoughtcrime, a crime that ensures only death. This brings us to the Party’s leader: Big Brother.
Religion and Big Brother
“Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful. Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration. Nobody has ever seen Big Brother. […] We may be reasonably sure that he will never die, and there is already considerable uncertainty as to when he was born. Big Brother is the guise in which the Party chooses to exhibit itself to the world. His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than towards an organization.” (Orwell, p. 271–272)
At no point in 1984 is religion mentioned. Yet, one cannot help but draw parallels to religion. Big Brother, the figurehead of the Party, never appears in the story, yet is always lurking in the background through the all-seeing telescreens and monstrous portraits of himself found around Oceania. He is omnipresent. Yet without physically materializing, Big Brother is a dominating figure. All that is good, and all that is bad but spun by the Party as good, is attributed to Big Brother. He sees everything — “Big Brother is watching you” is the caption of his posters — and controls everything — the supply of razor blades; the thoughts one can have. Big Brother is omnipotent and omnipresent. Nobody can confirm he ever existed. To the citizens of Oceania, Big Brother is their infallible leader, Big Brother is their God.
“In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them […]. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind.” (Orwell, p. 202)
If Big Brother is God, then the orthodoxy of the Party is the religion that surrounds him. The above quote, excerpted from Winston’s rumination of the Party’s ideology, can be said for all real religions. Of course, not all who identify with a religion lack a thorough understanding of it, but such individuals do exist, and understandably so, as one of the phrases often heard in the practice of various religions is to “give yourself up to a higher power”; the irrational aspect of faith is often part of the appeal.
1984’s commentary on sex makes it even clearer that the Party’s orthodoxy contains religious undertones. Sex, specifically chastity, serves as the Party’s control mechanism, keeping citizens flaccid. There exists “a direct, intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct” (Orwell, p. 172)? This is where the link to religion resides, “for if you ask yourself what other ‘party’ of ‘thought controllers’ disfavor sex among party members […], the answer is the Roman Catholic priesthood” (Posner, p. 19).
This discussion of religion is necessary and critical because faith, whether to Big Brother or any real religion, is inherently a discussion of rationality and its relationship with faith. “Faith”, besides being synonymous with “religion”, is defined as “belief that is not based on proof” (Dictionary.com). If Big Brother is the figurehead of the religion that is the Party’s orthodoxy, and religion is anything less than rational, then all who worship Big Brother can be considered irrational (except in the eyes of the Party). Thus, a departure from Big Brother, would be a departure from irrationality.
Satire and 1984
This brings us to a discussion of the novel itself. 1984 is a work of satire — “a genre of fiction that invites the reader’s attention to the flaws in his or her society” (Posner, p. 8). Because of this, an extra layer is added to any analysis of 1984, as many elements of the novel cannot just be taken on face-value and have to be taken for its opposite.
An example of this is the previous discussion of rationality in the novel. Removed from the story, “two plus two made five” is clearly false, and to believe it would be irrational. Within the story, however, it is taken seriously. Treating this as George Orwell advocating for irrationality would be a mistake. Instead, because 1984 is satirical, the opposite is true. Irrationality is exaggerated to a near-comical level to highlight a need for rationality.
This is not true for everything in the novel, however. Winston Smith, the protagonist, is not a satirical character, but a satirist character, a “denouncer of the flaws to which the author wishes to invite the reader’s attention” (Posner, p. 8–9). As 1984 progresses, we see him break free from the irrational, conformist, satirized society. This is significant because it makes clear that what George Orwell is advocating for is not what Big Brother and the Party stand for, but the opposing sentiment of “innate rationality over external authority” (Watling, p. 187), and our next subject: individualism.
Individualism, Winston, and Julia
If rationality is the heart of 1984, then individualism is its body, because in 1984, individualism is driven by rationality. In fact, individualism is rational. Immediately as the story begins, Winston begins to break free from the society he’s entrenched in, filling half a page of his new diary with the words: “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (Orwell, p. 24). He commits thoughtcrime, the first symptom of rebellion against the Party and Big Brother, isolating himself from the conforming automatons that submit to Big Brother’s dogma. In another entry, Winston writes:
“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother […] — greetings!” (Orwell, p. 36)
Soon after 1984 begins, Winston becomes captivated by a woman he encounters. The two of them, following a series of clandestine conversations, begin a relationship, and the woman, Julia, also represents individualism, as “she would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated” (Orwell, p. 174), like most citizens of Oceania would. The two become partners in love, but also partners is rebellion. The desire they had for one another was itself thoughtcrime, and, in a society where sex is barred, “the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion” (Orwell, p. 88).
Individualism Plus Rationality Make Freedom
Individualism, in 1984, is closely related to our previous subject of rationality, and their relationship is seen most clearly by another entry Winston makes in his journal:
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” (Orwell, p. 105)
Removed from the novel, “two plus two make four” is clearly a true statement, meaning believing it would be rational. Winston’s belief in this statement adds another layer, as the Party holds the belief that two plus two make five, and not four. This makes Winston’s desire to “say that two plus make four” an act of individualism. Thus, what Winston, 1984, and George Orwell — who are all one in the same, in this case — are trying to say, and what “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four” means, is that true freedom is having the freedom to act of one’s own accord to be rational.
In the field of Communications, texts are often mined for meaning and analyzed for their message. 1984’s message, then, is that the “suppression of freedom of thought, inquiry, and communication, are inimical to scientific and technological progress” (Posner, p. 15). Through depicting a dystopian, totalitarian government — embodied by the Party and represented by Big Brother — , and a man — Winston Smith, who represents what we should strive for — rebelling against it, George Orwell highlights the need for rational thought and encourages the ideology of individualism.
In the end, Winston and Julia’s rebellion fails. This is significant because their failure is what makes 1984 dystopian, and it is what makes 1984 a warning — “readers see Winston fail, but they also see how a whole society failed years before […] when the people of that society allowed the state to strip them systematically of their right to be sentimental and trivial” (Posner, p. 19). Satire itself, as a genre, became more popular during Modernity, as the aforementioned interest in sentimentality led to “the middle-class embrace of the sentimental novel of morals and social lessons” (Watling, p. 180).
1984 is still often discussed today, but those discussions are rarely within the context of modernism (Peat, p. 39), despite the fact that “individualism is the quintessential product of modernity” (Chae-Bong). Freedom, particularly the freedom to be a non-conforming, rational individual, is at the heart of 1984, a novel that embodies “the pursuit of freedom and liberty (usually from church and/or state oppression) [that] characterized the philosophies of the [Enlightenment]” (Watling, p. 186). With George Orwell’s novel, creativity, philosophy, and politics, all intersect, and it’s that quality, seen in its exploration of individualism, rationality, and freedom, that makes 1984 a work inspired by the Enlightenment and deserving of its place in Modernity.
If you liked this, you may also like:
The Themes of George Orwell’s “1984” Are Still Relevant In 2017
The classic dystopian novel was originally published in 1949.
Chae-Bong, Hahm. (2000). The Cultural Challenge to Individualism. Journal of Democracy, 11–1.
Peat, Alexandra. (2015). Traveling to Modernism’s Other Worlds: Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Journeys, 16–2.
Posner, Richard A. (2000). Orwell Versus Huxley: Economics, Technology, Privacy, and Satire. Philosophy and Literature, 24–1.
Orwell, George. (1949). 1984. HarperCollins.
Watling, Gabrielle. (2008). “The enlightenment”. Cultural History of Reading, Vol. 1: World Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.