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Comparing the Handmaids Tale and 1984

Essay by   •  November 19, 2010  •  Essay  •  4,204 Words (17 Pages)  •  3,079 Views

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War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength. The party slogan of Ingsoc illustrates the sense of contradiction which characterizes the novel 1984. That the book was taken by many as a condemnation of socialism would have troubled Orwell greatly, had he lived to see the aftermath of his work. 1984 was a warning against totalitarianism and state sponsored brutality driven by excess technology. Socialist idealism in 1984 had turned to a total loss of individual freedom in exchange for false security and obedience to a totalitarian government, a dysutopia. 1984 was more than a simple warning to the socialists of Orwell's time. There are many complex philosophical issues buried deep within Orwell's satire and fiction. It was an essay on personal freedom, identity, language and thought, technology, religion, and the social class system. 1984 is more than a work of fiction. It is a prediction and a warning, clothed in the guise of science fiction, not so much about what could happen as it is about the implications of what has already happened. Rather than simply discoursing his views on the social and political issues of his day, Orwell chose to narrate them into a work of fiction which is timeless in interpretation. This is the reason that 1984 remains a relevant work of social and philosophical commentary more than fifty years after its completion.

The fictional world of 1984 is best described as bleak. In the aftermath of the fall of capitalism and nuclear war, the world has been divided among three practically identical totalitarian nation-states. The novel takes place in London, which has become a part of Oceania, the nation state comprising the Americas and western Europe. A state of perpetual war and poverty is the rule in Oceania. However, this is merely a backdrop, far from the most terrifying aspect of life in 1984. Oceania is governed by a totalitarian bureaucracy, personified in the image of Big Brother, the all-knowing/ all-seeing godlike figure that represents the government. Big Brother is best described as a "totalitarian socialist dictator, a political demagogue and religious cult leader all rolled into one." So great is the power of Big Brother that the reader is unsure whether he actually exists or is simply a propaganda tool of the government. The party of Big Brother, Ingsoc (English Socialism), uses advanced technology to monitor and control every aspect of personal life in Oceania. Telescreens, two way television sets connected to the thought police, are present everywhere, ensuring that no individual action goes unnoticed. This state of constant surveillance demands complete conformity among the population. In Oceania, there are no laws, but non-conformity is punished by death. The thought police are an omnipresent force of the government, weeding out non-conformists and making them disappear on a regular basis. Even a slight inflection in the voice or a look of the eye can be construed as thoughtcrime. Propaganda, terror, and technology are the tools of the state, used to coerce and control the thoughts and actions of the populace. Reality is denied on a regular basis if it is non-consistent with party doctrine. The main character of the novel, Winston Smith, said that "freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4."(Orwell,69)In fact, if the party said that 2+2=5, the population would believe this to be truth. History is actually rewritten on a daily basis so as to appear consistent with party doctrine. The enemy of today becomes the enemy of yesterday, poverty becomes progress, war becomes peace, and slavery becomes freedom. This concept of denying reality in the face of obvious contradiction is known as doublespeak. It is central to the philosophy of Ingsoc, and is the greatest tool of the government's mind-control agenda.

Winston Smith, the tragic non-conformist main character works as a member of the party. His job is to rewrite newspaper records which are inconsistent with the current party doctrine. It is Winston's job to alter history. He is plagued by his own individualism and reason which causes him to question the socio-political order of Ingsoc. As the novel progresses, Winston meets and falls in love with a girl named Julia. In this relationship, his non-conformist beliefs are fostered and grow to full-scale rebellion. Winston learns to use sex as a political act of defiance against the party. In Oceania, love is denied and sexual emotion is channeled into patriotism and hatred of the enemies of Ingsoc. Winston seeks to join what he believes is a secret group of rebels against Big Brother. He obtains and reads a book by Emmanuel Goldstein, a notorious enemy of the state. Through this book, the reader learns the true nature of the party, and the socio-political order of Oceania. The conclusion of the book is classically pessimistic. In the end, it turns out that the rebellious "brotherhood" was non-existent. It was only an elaborate trap by the thought police to lure suspected non-conformists. Winston is taken to room 101 in the infamous Ministry Of Love. There he is tortured until his individual spirit is completely eradicated. He admits that 2+2=5, and he betrays his love for Julia. Winston is broken into submission and becomes another unthinking drone of the party, incapable of rational thought and interested only in serving his master. In the end, Winston loves Big Brother and Ingsoc.

There is no denying Orwell's power as a writer. His story is moving and tragic. It draws the audience into the world of 1984 until the reader becomes Winston Smith, sharing his paranoia, individualism, and his search for meaning and beauty in a world which denies their very existence. The question remains however, what does it all mean? Given the novel's bleak interpretation of the future of socialism, it is not surprising that Orwell has been celebrated by Western conservatives as the ultimate "critic of the Red Menace." The fact is however that Orwell was a socialist himself. This glaring contradiction of purpose confuses the reader as to Orwell's actual intent in writing the novel. It is only upon close inspection of detail that a coherent reconciliation of Orwell's socialism and his condemnation of Ingsoc become available to the reader. George Orwell was a dysutopian socialist. He believed in the principles of Marx, but doubted the promise of utopian society which was at the heart of socialist rhetoric. At the time of his work on the novel, Orwell had come to the conclusion that socialism was desirable, but deeply questioned if it was in fact possible. He firmly believed that capitalism was doomed to fail, and in its aftermath Orwell saw two options: socialism or barbarism. In Orwell's mind, the latter of these two choices was in fact more likely to occur. This, in essence, is the core belief which governs 1984.

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