‘“We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy, some kind of secret organisation working against the Party, and that you are involved in it. We want to join it and work for it. We are enemies of the Party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals. We are also adulterers. I tell you this because we want to put ourselves at your mercy. If you want to incriminate ourselves in any other way, we are ready.”’
I am trying to vary my reading between doctoral reading, modern novels, and classic literature. This prevents me from getting bogged down in grey literature, so that when I return to academic literature I am fresh and able to process it properly. It was a search for a book in the third of these categories which led me to 1984. The novel was one which had been on my to-be-read list for a long time, always supplanted at the time of book-choosing by texts that had been less adopted by the colloquial, so much so that I felt as though I was already familiar with the plot. For those who haven’t read it, there are spoilers ahead…
The first thing that struck me was the claustrophobia Orwell creates. Movement within the first scene at Winston’s flat is described in such forensic detail that we are a full forty pages in before the protagonist leaves his small, dingy flat. We feel the four walls pressing in on Winston as he levers himself into a corner of his flat to write out of view of the telescreen. We experience the soviet-era proximity of Winston’s neighbours, and his concern that his behaviour should be seen as anything less than fully endorsing the Party. The control Orwell portrays is suffocating, and it is this, along with other more traditional enemies, which provide our main antagonists.
Upon meeting many of the characters through Winston’s eyes, we are party to an immediate and necessary examination of their motives. Anyone could be an informer, anyone an ally. As little as a careless glance could be enough to condemn him, and we find ourselves nervous for him on the occasions where he inadvertently makes eye contact with another character. This dynamic lends depth to every encounter, and we find ourselves second-guessing the plot as Winston second-guesses his fellow Party members. It is never a comfortable read, but it is a compelling one.
This implied subterfuge inevitably colours the primary romantic relationship of the novel – that of Winston and Julia. Narrative tradition dictates that one will betray the other before the story ends, and I found myself examining each of them for any trace of antipathy towards the other, any sniff of someone more concerned with their own safety than that of their partner. Despite this cynicism, I was desperate for Julia and Winston to win out. It is this ability, to keep the reader hoping until the last, that marks any writer as having earned their coin. It is, alas, a doomed hope, and eventually Winston must break to the will of the party. And he is broken, a shell of a man, utterly bereft of the fire that we see at the start of the novel. Has it all been for nothing, then? Is hope extinguished? I am inclined to think not, and I was curiously uplifted at the finale. I was reminded of a quote from the 1968 film ‘The Lion in Winter’. When Richard stands to face his executioner, he is chastised by his fellow condemned:
Prisoner: ‘Why, you chivalric fool…as if the way one fell down mattered.’
Richard: ‘When the fall is all there is, it matters.’
It was the fact of having fought that mattered, not the inevitable failure. Winston’s intentions were good, and the reader is left with the (perhaps optimistic) hope that one day, someone from the resistance will slip through the net.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order