When I re-read a novel (as here) for the umpteenth time, I always look carefully for things I have forgotten or overlooked the last time. It’s surprising what you miss – I wrote about this here a while back. The first thing that struck me about ‘1984’ is what a brilliant opening it has. Not just the extraordinary first line – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – but the opening chapter. Orwell packs so much into these few pages it positively fizzes – Big Brother, the anti-sex league, the two minute hate, the Ministry of Truth, doublethink and newspeak. It’s such a detailed and comprehensive evocative of the new world we are plunged into that it is shocking.
Orwell was the first writer who spoke to me personally through his works, and I absorbed all his novels, even those he wrote simply for financial reasons, and would have been happy to have seen pulped, as well as his journalism, letters, and anything else available. So making a dispassionate judgment about 1984 is impossible, and I am not even going to try. Orwell’s fierce intellect shines from every line – this has to be the most quotable novel ever written, particularly when you think that it was not written as a series of epigrams (unlike, say ‘Dorian Gray’) but as a dystopian horror story. The concepts that Orwell develops in this novel have become part of our popular and political culture – ‘Big Brother’ for example, as a short-hand phrase to describe the over-intrusion of the state into our private lives, (as well of course as a reality TV gameshow). 1984 is a passionate warning cry against the evils of totalitarianism.
But, and there is always a but, post-war ration starved Britain had already rejected the hopelessness of ‘1984’. In electing a Labour Government with a mandate for radical change, they had decided that they didn’t have to settle for the permanent rule of the party, and that things didn’t always have to be dreary and hard. The proles had rejected the lie of the ruling class that things can never get any better. Orwell seems to have completely missed that sense of optimism. Winston Smith believes that if there is hope, it is with the proles, the working class. But the proles of 1984 are so easily distracted by pulp fiction, machine produced porn, and a fake lottery that there is never any prospect of them organising and gaining a class consciousness which would allow them to “rise from slumber, in unquenchable number”. By 1949 the Attlee Government was clearly struggling – was that really the time to warn of the risks of a Soviet takeover of Western Europe?
I can’t find the faintest trace of hope in 1984. Some readers claim the post-script essay on the introduction and development of Newspeak suggests IngSoc did not last, but that seems clutching at straws. By the end of the main novel, Winston is broken, looking forward to the bullet in the back of his head as a mercy. There is no suggestion that the future holds anything but the stamping of a boot on a face, forever.
Eton-educated George, or should that be Eric, was always a stranger in the slightly smelly, uncomfortable world of the working class. His sense of alienation from the working class – even, one could argue, his submerged class hatred – is vivid in 1984. They are an utterly alien species, with goldfish like memories, no class consciousness, and representing nothing of value. Winston is amazed at their stoicism, as well as their ability to reproduce so prolifically – Orwell shares similar sentiments in, for example, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. If the proles are the only hope, then there is no hope. I appreciate I am criticising ‘1984’ for not being a socialist manifesto, when of course it was never intended as such. But it handed a potent weapon to the critics of socialism, and all Orwell’s subsequent comments about the intention of his writing had little impact on the perception that he was a trenchant critic of English Socialism. Which is a pity, because there are few writers in the twentieth century who wrote as interestingly or as well as Orwell on social issues.