Note: During my first year as a PhD student, I took a class on utopian and dystopian literature in Britain. The class looked at authors such as Thomas More, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, P.G. Wodehouse, and others. For the course, we had to write brief responses (2-3 pages) to the novels and discussions. Recently, I came across some of these responses and thought I would share some of them here over the next couple of posts. I am not altering what I originally wrote, unless it provides more clarity. There may be some questions contained within the posts that I did not have answers for when I wrote them, so I will leave those questions where there are, hoping they will spark conversation about the topic. I wrote today’s post on November, 2009.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston explores himself and his environment through writing. Along with this, he encounters Goldstein’s fabricated book to help him understand the ideas he has swirling around in “the few cubic centimeters inside [his] skull” (27). Taken within the context of the novel, these two occurrences of writing, reading, and exploration serve specific purposes. However, how do we get these methods in Nineteen Eighty-Four? Why does Orwell use them?
Looking at Orwell’s novel, it could be argues that he has created the quintessential dystopian society and work. This creation, though, has its roots deeply planted in the works that preceded it, dating back to at least Zamyatin’s We (1924). That does not mean that earlier sources could be found, but for our purposes in class, I have set this as the starting point for my discussion. We, Last and First Men, Swastika Night, That Hideous Strength, and Nineteen Eighty-Four all contain a specific trope that weaves its way throughout the various dystopian societies. The trope of writing and reading as a means of revolt and action appear in each text and come to a peak within Orwell’s novel.
We know that Zamyatin’s We served as a source for Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the other novels become a little more problematic when it comes to viewing them as sources for Orwell’s novel or not. Lewis’ and Stapledon’s works create a singular path to Orwell. For That Hideous Strength, Orwell wrote a review in 1945. This review, of course, shows his familiarity with Lewis’ novel, but it also, as Jonathan Rose (“The Invisible Sources of Nineteen Eighty-Four”) points out, leads us to Stapledon. Lewis, in the preface to That Hideous Strength, cites Stapledon as an inspiration for the novel. Rose grabs hold of this and examines Stapledon’s Darkness and the Light in relation to Orwell’s work. He draws parallels between numerous aspects of the works. He does not, however, tackle the idea of writing and, specifically, communication that can be found in Last and First Men. As for Burdekin serving as a source fro Orwell, I cannot determine with certainty, but I can see similarities in the works in relation to writing and reading.
Before examining the correlations between the works, I want to explore Orwell’s own thoughts on writing that he presents in “Why I Write” (1947). Here, Orwell presents “four great motives fro writing”: “Sheer egoism,” “Aesthetic enthusiasm,” “Historical impulse,” and “Political purpose” (245). Each of these motives exists in a writer, according to Orwell, in varying degrees. In each of the novels presented, we can see these aspects in varying degrees, whether they relate to written or communicated texts. Later, Orwell states, “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing” (247). Winston, while he does not know why he writes in the very beginning, realizes he is writing
To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:
From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings! (28)
Here, Winston realizes his purpose in writing in his diary: to communicate with other individuals, informing them about the society he resides in (“historical impulse”) and to formulate a means of change (“political purpose”).
Winston’s thoughts about the time his writing will reach echoes D-503’s thoughts in We. D-503 states, “What I see is that I’ve once more forgotten that I’m not writing for myself but for you, you unknown ones that I love and pity, for you, who are still trudging somewhere in distant centuries, down below” (131). Like Winston, D-503 attempts to write about the surroundings he finds himself in, in order to inform future, or past, generations of the state. In both cases, it is interesting to note that the writers invoke the past, placing themselves not on a linear timeline but within a more spatial existence. This idea also plays into Stapledon’s Last and First Men.
Stapledon’s novel begins with an introduction that informs the reader of the novel’s true writer: a last man. The last man explains his motives stating that “We [the last men] can help you, and we need your help” (xvii). With this novel, the whole work serves as a complete written text (like We), not necessarily a text within a text that we see in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Swastika Night, and That Hideous Strength. The novel acts as a work created by “future” entities, situating itself within the same conversation as the previous two examples, questioning the reality of time and space. Along with this, the writer also serves Orwell’s “historical impulse” motive. He situates the work as a history, contemporary with the last man and preceding, that relates the situation and “store[s up facts] for the use of posterity” (245). Stapledon’s book serves this purpose, and we could also argue that it serves a “political purpose,” seeking change that may, or may not, according to the book’s laws, attainable.
Another interesting relationship between writing in Orwell’s novel and those of Zamyatin and Lewis occurs with the profession of each of the main characters. D-503 has been commissioned to write down a text that will be sent out into space with the Intergral. In That Hideous Strength, Mark writes articles for the N.I.C.E., the same way that Winston does for Ingsoc. Both characters use their writing to alter history, or at least the view of it. Orwell tackles this use of language in “Politics and The English Language.” The specific use of words, and the “scientific” choices, creates a mood that the citizens of these dystopias can digest and view as reality.
This response has not tackled all of the instances and correlations that can be drawn between these works in relation to writing, reading, and communication. I have not even traced the ideas I present to a complete conclusion and I have not introduced and Burdekein at all. The von Hess book in Swastika Night serves the historical and political motives that Orwell describes. Now that I have explored these tropes as they run through some of the works we have examined, I believe I may use this as part of my focus for the seminar paper. This motif draws upon history and its formation or deformation and carries itself throughout the genre.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 1961. Print.
– – -. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: Texts Sources Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. 2nd. Ed.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1982. Print.
Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Print.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.