Looking for George Orwell in Winston Smith

Last semester I had the opportunity to undertake a research paper on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. An in-depth study of Orwell’s biography revealed to me much of Orwell’s existence in the world he brought to life in his most significant novel. Nineteen Eighty- Four is born out of Orwell’s experiences as it is out of the struggles of his contemporary society. To eliminate a biographical  inquiry would be discounting a plethora of relevant literary outcomes, for instance the socio-political setting of England during the late 1940s. 

  1. Manifesting Fear as a Form of Control

Orwell’s biographers have revealed that the totalitarian world as seen in the novel, has in part been a product of the totalitarianism Orwell experienced in his preparatory school, St Cyprian’s School, in Eastbourne (Quinn 5).

In his essay, Such, Such Were the Joys, Orwell pens down in great detail the emotional and physical abuse he lived through during his years at his school. These experiences resonate with the forms of control used in the novel. For instance, in the essay he writes, “Your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than by fear, where you did not have to be perpetually on your guard against the people surrounding you.” By making revolting thoughts a “thoughtcrime” , INGSOC stifles the voices of citizens. Fear is forged by INGSOC in Oceania which ultimately creates the image of an apparently reliable state for the citizens. Under the rule of INGSOC, public executions are taken to be a source of entertainment, hating the ones who revolt against Big Brother is the beginning of their daily routine. This subconsciously establishes for the citizens that Big Brother is the only righteous leader and that he is protecting them from their fears, which he is paradoxically creating.

  1. Evolution of “Doublethink” 

In the novel Orwell devises a unique language called “Newspeak”. While introducing this language he takes the liberty to create words which benefit the control of INGSOC. In the novel, “doublethink” is described as, “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out…Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink” . Orwell explains that this word refers to the ability to believe in two contrasting ideas at the same time. Winston through much of the novel pretends to be ignorant about the party’s crimes when he is actually aware. 

The early traces of this idea are seen in his essay, where he reports, “I was therefore in the position of simultaneously knowing and not knowing…”. He writes this with references to the prohibition of homosexuality at his school. Orwell explains that young boys were punished for indulging in sexual practices and were later taught to forget about the incident through a lecture arranged by the school, washing away their narrative.

  1. Winston Smith and George Orwell

Orwell has vested in the engineering of Winston Smith, a resemblance of himself. The author’s health throughout his life was set on a deteriorating path, as young Eric Blair he suffered from health issues, which persisted his entire life. Orwell in the book portrays his reality, making Smith his canvas, in that his health also seems to be poor. This becomes evident with his physical description in the very first chapter of the book where Smith’s physical appearance is described as someone with a “frail figure”. 

In the year 1941, Orwell began working for the BBC Eastern Service as a propagandist. He soon accepted that all governments, to quote from his novel spread “untruths”, however there was a difference in between lies which were even morally “ungood” for the masses. His experiences from the Spanish Civil War inculcated in him an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration, which made him skeptical of the government and its policies. He recognised soon enough that the government has been spreading, the opposite of truth to maintain control over its citizens. Likewise, Smith works in the ‘Ministry of Truth’ department in the novel which looks after the newspapers, entertainment, advertisements and edits them to fit Big Brother’s narrative. They are manipulating the past in such a way that it eliminates aspects which do not align with Big Brother’s version of the truth. Orwell’s job at the BBC is mirrored in Smith’s, wherein both of their jobs involve spreading organised and systematic lies which benefit and befit the narrative of the state. 

Smith and Orwell both are corrupted by the state not with their morals but with their inability to revolt against the oppressive policies of the prevailing government. Orwell’s anger towards the institutionalisation of lies, is reflected in Smith’s complete refusal to conform by INGSOC’s policies. Their struggles result more from their frustration with themselves than they do from the tyranny inflicted upon them by the state. Their anger is a reaction to their inability to act upon their instinct to disagree with lies.

A contextual study of Nineteen Eighty- Four, provides an understanding of the novel in the light of the time of its creation, the author’s call for democratic socialism and the novel’s standing as dystopian fiction. It is quintessential to note that studying this novel through the lens of New Criticism would create a vacuum of all of Orwell’s foresights and cautions. Such an investigation results in a holistic critical analysis of the novel, exploring the tenets of its period, genre and the biography of the author.

References used for the article:
1. Quinn, Edward. Critical Companion to George Orwell (Critical Companion (Hardcover)) (Critical Companion Series) by Edward Quinn (2009–04-15)

2. Saunders, Loraine. The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from Burmese Days to Nineteen Eighty-Four

3. “Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial.” Choice Reviews Online

4. Tanabe, H. “George Orwell: Burmese Days.” Southeast Asia: History and Culture