Richard Lance Keeble writes about
Sebastian Faulks on Winston Smith:
‘a new kind of hero’
An interesting study of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston Smith appears in Sebastian Faulk’s Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel (BBC Books 2011). He writes (p. 72-73):
Everything is set up to make you think that Winston is drab, sick and powerless. And yet, the first thing he does – to begin a diary – is probably punishable by death. Without knowing it, he is brave. It is a balancing act of some skill to make the reader think that a hero is not heroic; to gull you into thinking that no one, least of all a loser like Winston, can fight the most oppressive monolith known to human imagination, and then – almost before you understand it’s happening – to show him doing just that.
According to Faulks, Orwell makes Winston’s act of defiance seem small and hopeless, making him credible as an Everyman hero. ‘Yet at the same time, the whole tragedy of the twentieth century – the gulags, the concentration camps, the millions of anonymous corpses – seems contained in the simple thoughts that Winston expresses’ (p. 74).
Language is one repository of freedom. The other one is love.
In some ways, it is surprising that Winston’s rebellion against Big Brother revolves so much around his love affair with Julia, the girl with the red sash. It seems a conventional, almost sentimental procedure in such an uncompromising dystopia. Yet Orwell is right in thinking – again, perhaps ahead of his time – that individual passion and affinities are deeply subversive things (p. 74).
Orwell’s depiction of the lives of the proles draws on H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and on Marx, according to Faulks. Yet Orwell extended Marx’s idea of lumpenproletariat from being a useless minority to making up the entire ‘working’ class (p. 77).
For Faulks, Winston Smith is above all a new kind of hero: one who loses. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he cannot triumph through individual strength over the dangers of his physical and mental landscape. ‘Winston’s heroism exists in the fact that he dares to write down his story, dares to think and dares to love, knowing all the time that this will lead to torture and to death’ (p. 79).
Sebastian Faulks (Photograph: Wikipedia)
Faulks says he first read Orwell at the age of fourteen when his essay ‘A Hanging’ struck him ‘with the force of revelation’ (p.71). He describes Orwell as ‘a peerless essayist’ whose work will endure for the way it ‘captures essential truths about the way political systems worked in the twentieth century’.
Richard Lance Keeble is chair of The Orwell Society