Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in London on June 8th, 1949. 2019 is the seventieth anniversary of its appearance, and members of the Orwell Society were asked for their thoughts.
We prompted our members with:
“It could be how you discovered the book, something in it that you’ve noticed, some feature that has entered the real world.
Does it show the strength of Orwell’s writing to notice that the word “flagstone” occurs more frequently than the word “flag”, and yet one seems to imagine flags flying everywhere in Airstrip One?
What was Airstrip Two originally called?”
As we receive responses they will appear here. All opinions are those of the contributors and not the Orwell Society.
May 26th 2019
[Due to post-war paper shortages Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared simultaneously in a green and a crimson dust-jacket. Either is equally valid as a “first edition”]
Looking fifty years ahead from 1934, to her school’s one-hundredth anniversary, Eileen (Orwell) wrote a poem titled ‘End of the Century, 1984’. Orwell’s thoughts about how the world might transform itself years later were not as optimistic as his wife’s. He hoped she was right, but he feared she was wrong.
Sylvia Topp is the author of the forthcoming biography, Eileen: The Making of Orwell (Unbound).
By a curious coincidence I heard Nineteen Eighty-Four on 23 November 1969, within days of the news of My Lai and the expulsion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Writers’ Union. There was no difficulty accepting Orwell’s book as a guide to the world.
The BBC radio adaptation, now available on YouTube, with Patrick Troughton as Winston, Sylvia Syms as Julia, had originally been broadcast in 1965. Presumably the repeat was held up during the three years (1966-68) Troughton starred as Doctor Who.
The My Lai massacre had happened more than eighteen months before the rebroadcast, in March 1968. “It was a Nazi-type thing”, said one of the Americans present, the GIs herded the villagers into ditches and killed them.
Some 500 Vietnamese civilians died.
Raymond Williams picked up on the connection in his short 1971 Fontana study of Orwell. The Facsimile of the novel foreshadows events even more uncannily: “A sudden helicopter descent on an ill-guarded village, and the raping of the younger women, followed by the massacre of all inhabitants”.
The military doctrine of ‘limited war’ and ‘special forces’, as Orwell predicted, proved no moral advance on the ground.
Lieutenant William Calley was sentenced to confinement to a US military base for his part in the killing – before being pardoned by President Nixon.
Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the writers’ union meant his books could no longer be published legally in the Soviet Union. They were not ‘constructive criticism’ and would not help ‘building socialism’. Many hollow victories later, Orwell’s novel remains relevant. Jean-Paul Sartre said the lesson of the twentieth century was beware dictators with moustaches.
We have yet to learn to beware of those without.
Richard Lance Keeble:
There were clearly many influences on George Orwell in the making of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet, given Orwell’s introduction to the world of spooks by his friend David Astor, is it not surprising then that his last great novel should describe a world of Big Brother, of child spies and telescreens – and where the state’s surveillance intrudes into the individual’s innermost private life? Orwell’s ambivalent attitude to just about everything was reflected in his responses to the secret state. On the one hand, he supported it and became friends with some of its operators. But he also saw the secret state’s growing powers and was horrified. So he dedicated all his energy (in what proved to be his final years) in his remote house on Jura to composing the crucial warning.
In his article Orwell, David Astor and the Making of Nineteen Eighty-Four Richard Lance Keeble explains how he reached this conclusion.
It was in a Southport Youth Theatre Workshop production, in 1980, that I first became acquainted with Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I appeared in a show called This Year, Next Year, Sometime which drew on futuristic and dystopian works for its premise. At one point, the cast split into three tribes representing Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. We repeatedly switched allegiances, circling the stage in packs, heavy-footed, stooped and resolute. Each team changed direction at the command of a disembodied voice. It informed us that those whom we had thought to be our enemies were now our friends, and vice versa. Orwell was in predictable company, as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World also influenced the show. Bringing it right up to date, I performed a monologue, borrowing lyrics from X-Ray Spex punk diatribe against consumerism and mind-control, ‘Plastic Bag’.
In the photo, taken in rehearsals for promotional use, I am on the right, second row from the back, in a camouflage boiler suit. We are all concentrating on looking mechanistic and subjugated. Utilitarian wear was obligatory for the actors. I wonder whether Nineteen Eighty-Four influenced the costume design, too?
I disagree with everything Ralph Lloyd-Jones has written recently in his letter to The Guardian. The experiences of my colleagues in the Orwell Society, contrary to Mr Lloyd-Jones’ opinion, show that an early introduction to George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four is appreciated ever after.
I first dipped into Nineteen Eighty-Four aged 13 after finding a copy on my parents’ bookshelf. As I remember, it was a 1970s Reader’s Digest freebie. At the time, it made little sense. “Big Brothers” were often the stuff of playground bluffs, deterrents and legends, and in most cases did not have corporeal form.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was no future-shock genre fictional novel, it was an amalgamated context created out of the historical events that Orwell found himself in between 1935 to 1948. The theme was the personification through Winston Smith, of the struggle for the survival of the individual, distinct from individual survival in the dictatorship. Orwell’s personal witness across those years was the rise of the dictators across Europe: Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Gottwald, to name but a few.
Orwell witnessed dictatorships of different ideologies, but ultimately have the same characteristics: terror police networks, the termination of civil liberties, one official party subsumed into the state, omnipotent leaders and permanently engaged in internal and external warfare.
Orwell’s approach is to place the individual self in the dictatorship. Winston risks his life in possessing a notebook. German historian Helmut Laubilcher wrote that “… In National Socialist Germany, people behaved like organisms in order to survive.” The loss of very conscience became necessary. A theory perhaps built on the Nineteen Eighty-Four narrative that “… In a dictatorship, the only freedom is the few cubic centimetres inside your skull”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a narrative tragedy of the demise of Winston Smith, personifying the fate of millions in the dictatorships of Europe.
A dystopian, but nevertheless realist tragedy novel which had many real corporeal forms, handed to us in 1949, as the Sovietisation of central & eastern Europe was completed, under the snivelling noses of the west.
As it continues to be for many, Nineteen Eighty-Four was assigned reading in high school in Canada for me. But it stood out for its strength of vision, complexity, and for the humanity of its main characters. And the craft was so amazing – the complete creation of an alternate world that was at once dystopian and yet so familiar and believable. And when I dared ask about the one thing that was not taught in school, “why did Orwell write this,” I discovered all of his other, more journalistic writing and the story of the man who lived through terror and turned his experiences into literature. So for me, Nineteen Eighty-Four was the gateway to a lifetime fascination with a prolific and gifted writer. For my personal journey with Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four was the beginning.
I am not quite sure exactly when I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four, It was sometime in 1964/5 when I was just about to start my ‘O’ levels. I do recall my English teacher, to whom I was bound by a strong mutual dislike, asking if anybody in the class had read Orwell and replying, yes, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Oh, she replied with a disdainful sniff, the usual ones, not deigning to observe that I was the only person to have responded. At the time I was obsessed with science fiction and avidly consumed every book the local library could put in my way and I suspect the vague aura of speculative fiction that hung around these two titles was what had drawn me in. I cannot say it changed my life then but the name Orwell stuck and over the next few years I did read the ‘unusual’ ones as well culminating in methodically making my way through the four volume penguin Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism in the mid 1970s.
It was actually Homage to Catalonia that first had a profound effect on me politically, I shrugged off a vague sense that the communists were in the great scheme of things, the good guys, and started to take an interest in alternative liberal-socialist and libertarian formulations. Then Nineteen Eighty-Four came back into the frame with its trenchant depiction of a future totalitarian society told in such a compelling way that many of the images and concepts became a naturalised part of my, and many others, world view. But for me the most compelling and frightening part of the book is not the fate of Winston and Julia, the brutal horror of the Ministry of Love cellars or even the idea of the two minute hate. No, it is Newspeak, the future language of Oceania designed to control thought and eventually make heresy impossible. As Newspeak lexicographer Syme explains “The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness”. This is why duckspeak , when applied to the orthodox speaker, is high praise indeed, the aim of newspeak being to facilitate a style of speaking where the words and slogans are supplied mechanically without the need to think. The “well known anti-fascist speaker” in Coming up for Air is a proto-newspeak user, one can imagine him later on taking the USSR’s change of side in his stride, moving effortlessly along on a torrent of automatically supplied slogans and obliterating the past (false) history without a backward glance. Although Orwell’s aim was surely satirical, the Newspeak project is grounded in the totalitarian state’s desire to control and police language and thus control the way people think.
Simone de Beauvoir in the Ethics of Ambiguity introduces the idea of the “serious man” the sort of person who accept without question the values that society gives as absolute fact and who instead of trying to figure out the truth of the world for themselves, make their decisions based on beliefs that were given with no substantive evidence, accepting dogma that they played no part in creating. In other words ideal citizens of Oceania or any totalitarian state. And when the state controls what can be printed and the records of what has passed where do alternative ideas and values find a space, and with whom can you discuss things when anybody could, and probably will, denounce you? Less we be too complacent in liberal western society remember there are plenty of people out there working to control what is permissible to be said, and what certain words should mean and how speech should be curtailed and through the abuse of social media unleashing the modern equivalent of the two minute hate on all transgressors and non-conformists. And in this atmosphere people are policing their own language lest they be guilty of thought crime.
Latest update: 22nd June 2019