Written by Kate Doughty. Edited by Kathryn Robinson.
George Orwell lived through and saw the effects of the Second World War as an established author, watching both privately and professionally the rise of Fascism and Communism. He did little to hide his distaste for totalitarianism and political authority, writing many papers on these subjects. In 1948 he began to work on perhaps his most famous novel, 1984, which was published the year before his death in 1950. Orwell wrote in an unusual and distinctly dystopian style, accounting for what he believed would happen if the oppressive regimes of the 1930s and 1940s were continued to expand. He notably believed Stalin’s dominion would last, although perhaps in a slightly modified form, and this is highlighted through the character of ‘Big Brother’, the fear-invoking figure eternally watching every individual.
1984 is set in post-world war Great Britain – now known as Airstrip One, a province of Oceania – which is in a state of perpetual war and constant government surveillance. Winston Smith speaks to the reader in his isolation: he has no one in the world left to trust due to the Regime. He works in the Outer Party in the Ministry of Truth – which we soon find out deals with anything but – as an historian of sorts, and Winston’s job is to follow orders from Party officials to re-write history as they wish it to have been. People no longer have to, or are permitted to, think for themselves; the creation of doublethink (where two entirely contradicting statements can both be true if that is what the Party decide) has ensured that for most, 2 + 2 can quite easily equal five.
One particularly significant theme that arises in the novel is the idea of History and truth. Orwell raises the legitimate question of whether the past is really there, or do we, as historians, have to construct it? Winston is conscious of the immense contradiction between his job and his attitude towards the Party – he recognises the betrayal of truth he is forced into – yet has no way of making a positive change or doing anything about it. From the first sentence of the novel it is clear that we must alter our perspectives as we enter 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. Even time as we know it is counted and recorded differently; here, we cannot trust the seemingly most basic way of measuring our world. Perhaps this is an indication that we have become oblivious to the things we should be questioning in society; taking for granted our access to apparently unlimited information.
Another consideration is about the nature of the past itself. Does it ever actually exist? How can we prove it? Winston’s argument to O’Brien, his tormentor and persecutor, is that if something is written down then it exists, yet this is completely contradictory to his own job. How can we know what is true, or trust anything we read, based on this? So, perhaps memory is enough for something to have existed – even without the ‘proof’. Yet our minds are so subjective and memories fade so rapidly that our resolve falters at the first moment of doubt. “Sorry, could you repeat that?” we ask, and the story always changes. Even the minutest rephrasing can completely shift our perspectives and alter the meaning, something that can cause a lot of problems. “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth” (1984, chapter 7). In 1984, the Party oppresses and removes freedom of speech, and even thought, from citizens through the thought police, officials who have the right to access and invade people’s homes at will and with no justification. Perhaps Orwell was making a parody of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ statement: “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. He distinctly illustrates that we must not let the Party, in whichever form it takes, win, or we will lose all the liberal values we have come to know and take for granted.
According to Carl Becker, “the facts of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them”; knowledge of the past – if such a thing truly exists – is so subjective that even two readings of the same text will not give the reader an identical impression of it, or evoke the same thought pattern. Winston remarks that “the only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories” (chapter 7), and perhaps this is true. Some evidence is inevitably ignored in every situation, yet it is almost impossible to distinguish the criteria used in the selective process. According to Orwell, where we again see his voice shining though the thoughts of his character, “anything that might throw light upon the past has been systematically altered”. Memories are never entirely accurate – proof has always been destroyed or manipulated beyond recognition. Only the present truly ‘exists’, in the purest sense, as it will never be possible to strip back the layers of interpretation to the event at hand once it has passed. How do we know, therefore, that the past is unchangeable? Perhaps for the very reasons given above it is not. If interpretation changes, and opinion changes, who is to say that history itself is not fundamentally changed at the same time? As students we are accustomed to being confronted by contradicting arguments; maybe this is the way the past can most accurately be presented. If it is intrinsically fluid and alterable, historians shape the events they are commenting on just as Winston does in Airstrip One.