It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
That first arresting sentence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four transports us immediately into a world that is real enough (the swirl of gritty dust, the acidic sickly gin, the smell of boiled cabbage) but is also alien and fantastic. Even now, in the age of the 24-hour clock, that number thirteen startles you, for no clock ever does physically strike thirteen, and its undercurrent of unluckiness adds to the sense of unease. It’s one of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read.
I have to confess that it was not the opening sentence that first gripped me. I never actually read it – because my first encounter with Nineteen Eighty-Four occurred when I was 10, too young a reader for the book that had been published, to an eruption of critical acclaim, by Secker & Warburg five years previously, in June 1949; but not too young a viewer to watch a young Peter Cushing play Winston Smith in the BBC’s dramatization of Orwell’s novel in 1954. That was the year in which a 12-inch black-and-white Bush TV set was wheeled in all its glory into our living-room, and so it was Orwell on the box that turned out to be my first experience of a classic work of world literature.
The year of the title, especially to a 10-year-old, seemed impossibly far off. It was science fiction. But Orwell’s genius lay in making fantasy seem real, and the images haunted me from that night on, the nightmares reaching a climax in memories of Room 101 and the terrifying spectacle of a mind broken on the wheel of its own worst fear: rats. I had an equivalent worst fear: crabs, and the terror of being eaten alive by them, stemming from my deep-sea-fisherman grandfather’s stories of the crabs that dined sweetly on shipwrecked sailors. So I identified easily with Winston’s rats, a direct importation into the novel of Orwell’s own pathological fear, and of the punishment actually inflicted at one time on deserters from Teutonic armies; a rat was placed on the victim’s stomach, trapped in a container, which was then heated to an unbearable degree, so that the rat’s only exit from the micro-inferno was to rip into the man’s stomach and eat its way out. Soul-blenching and sanguinary stuff. Critics who object that Orwell’s cage-mask with its starving rats is a stagey device (it is to be attached to Winston’s face, leaving eyes and cheeks accessible to the appetites of the ravenous rodents) would do well to remember this terrible form of punishment.
What is the novel – prophecy, propaganda, protest literature? I always taught my pupils that highly didactic one-sided writing cannot be great literature because in the greatest literature there is an authorial suspension of judgement and a textual ambivalence, a richness of meaning which outsoars the crudities of propaganda. Orwell is the one writer who broke the mould for me and produced a deeply instructive novel that is nonetheless a literary masterpiece.
He achieved this partly through the sheer vividness and realism of the writing. Far from being invented fantasy, much of it was painfully real to him. Winston’s dream of a Golden Country is rooted in the paradise lost of Orwell’s early childhood, the Edwardian Eden of Henley-on-Thames. Both author and protagonist combed junk shops for relics of the past, particularly glass paperweights with pictures enclosed, striking them with their fragile beauty, sealed off from the drab brutal reality of the world around them.
Orwell knew all about the brutality of controllers and tormentors from the bullies of his schooldays, just as he knew about large-scale authoritarianism from his time in India and Spain, and about the awfulness of power for power’s sake, whether fascist or communist, and epitomised in the image of a boot crashing into a helpless human face. This is not so much a Wellsian warning as a shock tactic intended to startle readers into an awareness of present, not future dangers. After all 1984 is really 1948, when Orwell was still writing his novel and the fall of fascism had been followed by the rise of communism, so that the book’s numerically inverted title projects the author’s present despair on to a future world of dystopian science fiction. In it the main character, Winston Smith, is ‘The Last Man in Europe’ (the novel’s originally intended title) to make a stand against state control: it is when his hopelessly doomed little rebellion is crushed that we are left feeling that humankind as we know it has been wiped out.
It’s practically foretold for him in the choice of his name, which is an oxymoron, the first name reminding you of a leader who faced and overcame overwhelming odds, the surname anti-climactic and ordinary. Smith works in the Ministry of Truth in ‘Airstrip One’ (Britain renamed), part of the superstate Oceania, and his job is to re-document history to suit the needs of the all-powerful ruling Party, which also employs Thought Police to spy on those guilty of thought-crime and anti-state activities. The head of this state is Big Brother who, like God, is never seen but whose pictures and propaganda are everywhere. He demands total obedience to the Party and the subjugation of the individual.
Winston secretly rebels, dreaming of a pastoral idyll (the Golden Country), visiting junk shops and indulging in fantasies: that one day the proles might rise up and defeat the Party; and that in the meantime he might arrange a secret affair with a girl called Julia to whom he is attracted, in spite of his suspicion that she too may be one of the Thought Police. Orwell ensures that we wonder about that too. But they begin their affair and conduct it in a room above one of the junk shops, where they also plot against the Party, encouraged by an apparent dissident called O’Brien, who belongs to a group of underground activists, known as the Brotherhood. Or so they are led to believe.
Naturally they are arrested, beaten and imprisoned, tortured and retrained, prior to execution. It is when Winston still shows affection for his lost Julia that O’Brien sends him to Room 101, where he is told what awaits him: the rats. This is the cracking point when he screams: ‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! . . .’ This is meant to shock and it does, and this is what the whole novel has led to. Everything we aspire to is doomed. Orwell makes you feel his own despair in your bones, as you do with Greek or Elizabethan heroes. Winston is a plaything of O’Brien’s – the mouse to the cat, Raskolnikov to Porphyry, Faustus to Mephistopheles.
It’s a bleak picture but not without beauty. For me one of the most powerful symbols of doomed hope occurs early in the novel. Winston has bought an ancient unused diary and prepares to write in it. The beautiful blank creamy pages are unsullied by a single syllable, like pristine snow. It is the author’s moment of truth. It is also a form of thought-crime, punishable by death. What Winston does in fact write starts with the trivial and ends in drivel. And yet the diary is a symbol of the ultimate challenge to us, its blank pages our opportunity to speak to posterity, the tabula rasa for potentially the greatest book in the world.
An equally powerful symbol is the room above the junk shop. In it is a print of St Clement Danes, which revives memories of the old nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and lemons,/Say the bells of St Clement’s’. It sounds charmingly innocent and nostalgic but there is a sinister ending to it: ‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed,/And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!’
The hidden threat is made real at the moment the lovers are addressed by a voice – ‘You are the dead’ – that echoes the words they have just spoken, perhaps the most chillingly heart-stopping moment in the book, and they realize that the print of the lovely vanished past has been used to conceal a telescreen, the terrible present lurking less than an inch away. In the same scene the paperweight is smashed. Innocence is illusory, beauty a broken dream. Only the Thought Police are real. And they burst into the room and the beating begins.
One other thing, on the subject of doomed beauty. When you think of the world’s great stories of ill-fated love – Tristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra – Nineteen Eighty-Four would be the last such classic to come to mind. But it not only contains a love story, it is a love story, and though the lovers may be a far cry from romantic star-crossed lovers, faithful unto death, they face their own malignant stars in the machinery of the totalitarian state which crushes them; but not before they have experienced the joy of sex as a liberation from that external control, and an assertion of their own vitality and mutual identity in the face of all the Party’s efforts to destroy love.
But the most awful aspect of Orwell’s love story is that the lovers are not only thwarted by the state – in the end they betray each other, to save their own skins. And it is at this point that we understand that this is not simply the story of one doomed love-affair, it is the story of the destruction of love itself. Even Philip Larkin famously offered an alternative to his pessimism with the line ‘What will survive of us is love’. Orwell’s message is bleak by comparison. Love will not survive us. What will survive is a terrible and terrifying travesty of love. The last line of the novel reinforces it: ‘He loved Big Brother.’
Now that 1984 has passed and Eastern European communism has gone, does that date the novel and dim its relevance? It’s clear to me that in 2020, seventy-odd years after it was first published, anyone looking at the map of the world will find all too many places where state control is alive and well. Far from being dated, Orwell’s message is as relevant as ever. This is not a book restricted to 1948 or 1984 or any other year: it is a book about the human condition. And wherever there are individual men and women who wish to think for themselves and honour their own beliefs, and be free to do so without fear, Orwell’s book will always make a timeless statement on their behalf. To think for yourself and not be brutalized or hanged or shot or beheaded for it – that is the eloquent plea of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a plea that needs to be heard now more than ever.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Christopher Rush 2021
About the contributor
Christopher Rush has always had a fondness for 1984, for that was the year in which he wrote his first book, A Twelvemonth and a Day, now listed as one of the 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time.