1984: Minitruths and Maxiluv
marked the centenary of George Orwell's birth, an anniversary
preluded by Christopher Hitchens' welcome eulogy, Why
Orwell Matters (2002), and consolidated by two new biographies
from Gordon Bowker and D.J.Taylor. Back in 1999, fifty
years after the publication of 1984, the Waterstone's
poll for the (pseudo) millenial novel put it in third
place in tandem with The Lighthouse, behind the winner
Ulysses and runners-up Proust and The Great Gatsby. As
is still too often forgotten - his 1991 biographer Michael
Sheldon well calls it his most misunderstood work - the
novel is satire, not prediction. As political satire,
it ranks second only to his own Animal Farm. The "profound
and terrifying" (Lionel Trilling's New Yorker verdict)
impression left on the reader will not be dimmed by nit-picking.
Still, to work fully, satire (like farce) depends upon
coherent detail and inner logic. Writers on Orwell, even
admiring ones, tend to disparage his novels, an attitude
encouraged by Orwell himself who, while composing 1984,
wrote (10 May 1948) to Julian Symons, "I am not a
real novelist anyway." All this, plus a re-viewing
of Michael Radford's generally excellent film version
with Richard Burton in his last role as O'Brien - the
1954 BBC effort with Peter Cushing, Yvonne Mitchell, and
Andre Morell, which I remember seeing, now seems forgotten,
while Michael Anderson's 1956 abomination, despite the
presence of Michael Redgrave, ending with a defiant Winston
Smith (Edmond O'Brien) shouting "Down With Big Brother",
deserves to be - led me back to the book itself and some
Is there anything new to say? The Sunday Telegraph (18
May 2003) recently came up with a pseudo-novelty, the
'revelation' that Orwell thought he had killed a fellow
pupil at Eton through voodoo. The source given is a letter
by his school friend, the great Byzantine historian Sir
Steven Runicman. In fact, a version of this story was
given by Shelden (pp.65-6), who takes it from the 1956
Orwell biography by Christopher Hollis.
How Orwell would have laughed at this! But Runciman, with
whom Orwell kept in post-school touch, might have a more
real relevance to 1984. Namely, its opening sentence with
the clocks famously striking thirteen. It may not be easy
to visualise a 24-hour clock dial, much less the one later
mentioned on Winston's wrist-watch. Yet Jacopo Dondi's
pioneering 1344 Padua clock had such a one; cf. Jean Gimpel,
The Medieval Machine (Penguin, 1976, pp.160-1). Orwell
might have known of this via Runciman. At all events,
he would have been horrified by the philistine remark
of Labour Education Minister Charles Clarke (quoted in
the Spectator, 17 May 2003) that mediaeval historians
are mere "ornaments", undeserving of state support
(Mini-Ed, indeed!). Orwell would have preferred Oxford
don K.B.McFarlane's (Alan Bennett's tutor) contention
that mediaeval studies are "just a branch of the
At school, Orwell was a prize-winning classicist. There
are some visible elements of this that go generally unremarked
in 1984. The old codger in the pub who tells Winston that
one advantage of age is "no truck with women, and
that's a great thing" is actually repeating a well
known observation by Sophocles. O'Brien's Party-approved
astronomy has a lot in common with both the relativist
Protagoras' "Man is the Measure of All Things"
and the beliefs of both the pre-Socratic Anaxagoras and
the Greek atomists (a major influence on Karl Marx whose
doctoral dissertation was devoted to them) that the sun
and stars were just bits of fiery stone, no nearer or
further away than they seemed to be and no bigger than
the human hand which could blot out their sight by covering
the eyes. For good measure, O'Brien adds the doctrine
of Aristotle and others that the sun revolves around the
earth, an item uncannily anticipated in Winston's thoughts
much earlier in the book -"At one time, it had been
a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round
We all know, or thought we did, that the title 1984 simply
reverses the digits of 1948, the year of its completion.
However, Sally Coniam in the Times Literary Supplement
(31 December, p.14), exhumed a poem entitled 'End of the
Century 1984' published in 1934 in her school magazine
by Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, and concluded
that "surely nothing before has so directly suggested
the influence of his clever first wife as this poem."
Shelden was attracted to this notion, Bernard Crick (one
of Orwell's other most distinguished biographers) and
Peter Davison (editor of the 20-volume complete Orwell)
less so. At least, the idea of an uxorious Orwell does
something to dispell the nonsense still pedalled (e,g,
in Philip Hensher's Spectator review of Bowker and Taylor)
about his supposed misogyny: "women are repeatedly
humiliated in small ways throughout his work, and from
time to time he gives full rein to a fantasy of ugly violence,"
a striking example of the 'biographical fallacy'. The
"ugly fantasy" is illustrated by Winston's early
thoughts about Julia when he suspects she is a Thought
Police agent: "He would tie her naked to a stake
and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian."
The only thing worth a word here is actually Winston's
surprising remembrance of the Sebastian story itself.
The fantasy suits Smith, not his creator: "Winston
disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and
Despite Coniam and media-manufactured images of 'the dreaded
year', 1984 remains a simple reversed 1948, with no other
significance. When his American publishers, Harcourt Brace,
jibbed, an unconcerned Orwell said they might call it
whatever they liked. He himself had been talked out of
his own original title by his British publisher, Fredric
Warburg. When he began drafting the novel in 1946, it
was to be called The Last Man in Europe. There is a remnant
of this in the Ministry of Love torture scenes where O'Brien
sarcastically says to Winston "You are the last man."
But how could Winston Smith be the last man in Europe?
He lives on Airstrip One (Britain), third most populous
province in Oceania. According to 'The Book', The Theory
and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, supposedly
written by the arch-traitort Emmanuel Goldstein but actually
the work of O'Brien and the Inner Party, Oceania comprises
the Americas, the Atllantic Islands including the British
Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa.
The whole of continental Europe is subsumed into Eurasia.
London is still London (and Colchester, the only other
island city mentioned, is still Colchester), but Britain
is now Airstrip One. Why? Apart from France and Germany,
whose new designations are not given, all other countries
and cities have kept their old names Probably the reason
was to help the subsequent joke of Nelson's Column being
replaced by a statue of Big Brother commemorating his
vanquishing of Eurasian aeroplanes in the Battle of Airstrip
One. The parody of World War II iconography is obvious,
the logic less so, since the War is Peace chapter of Goldstein's
book states categorically that "no invasion of enemy
territory is ever undertaken." And was the statuary
changed every time Oceania switched alliances between
Eastasia and Eurasia? Julia may have been right to suspect
that the rocket bombs falling daily upon London were actually
fired by the govenrment "just to keep people frightened"
- nowadays, that would be an Internet conspiracy theory.
Here, she is brighter than Winston, to whom this idea
"had literally never occurred." Was The Last
Couple in Europe ever contemplated as a title? Probably
not. It is remarkable that Julia should never have heard
of The Brotherhood, since we have earlier been told that
everybody else has, while her notion that the war was
not really happening leaves unexplained the parading and
executions of captives since "foreigners, whether
from Eurasia or Eastasia, were a kind of strange animal.
One literally never saw them except in the guise of prisoners."
Perhaps they were fakes, a trick allegedly pulled throughout
history from Caligula and Domitian to Idi Amin. Something
else left unexplained is how the atom bombs dropped on
Colchester and an unspecified rural spot in1953, also
the hundreds that fell all over Europe and North America,
had apparently no radio-active effect at all.
Outside Goldstein's book, America is virtually never mentioned,
apart from the tell-tale Times photograph of the former
leaders Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford attending "some
Party function in New York." Canadians, by contrast,
might be flattered that this treacherous trio flew on
their perfidious mission to Eurasia from a secret airfield
in their country, less so by the Party's version of capitalist
times in Britain when recalcitrant workers might be "shipped
off to Canada, like cattle." The rest of Oceania
is completely marginal.
According to Goldstein's book, the basis for Oceania was
laid by the British Empire's absorption into the United
States. As Orwell frequently mentions in his journalism,
his notion of the three superstates was inspired by the
post-1945 carve-up of the world. America is evidently
the biggest country in Oceania. As Shelden puts it, "this
does not necessarily mean that Big Brother himself is
American - simply that his empire is dominated by his
largest possession, and its standards have been imposed
on smaller places. But Big Brother is neither a capitalist
nor a communist."
Well, Big Brother could be Uncle Sam rather than Uncle
Joe, though his heavy black moustache points more to Stalin.
Clement Attlee is not a contender. Orwell insisted "My
novel is NOT intende as an attack on Socialism or on the
British Labour Party of which I am a supporter,"
an affidavit wasted on Hensher for whom the book "can
only posibly be read as a vicious satire on the depivations
of Attlee's England." Airstrip One's currency is
now the dollar, not the rouble, but it also has the metric
system, which to this day America refuses to adopt. Are
the Americans the unspecified "buggers" who
dropped the atom bomb on Colchester (why this small provincial
town?)? If so, why is Oceania governed by the principles
of Ingsoc rather than Yanksoc? Whatever its national origin,
the imposition of this ideology with its attendant textbook
emphasis on the evils of capitalism surely puts Big Brother
firmly into what used to be called the socialist camp.
Big Brother's empire has no capital, yet when Julia talks
of the "government of Oceania," Winston does
not correct her. How does this vast state extending from
Britain to New Zealand work? Especially when it is said
that the Party's faking of big lottery winners is facilitated
"by the absence of any real inter-comunication between
one part of Oceania and another." Not that this prevents
"spontaneous demonstrations all over Oceania this
morning when workers marched out of factories..."
- how would London know this, and have time zones been
We are told in the opening pages that "Nothing was
illegal, since there were no longer any laws." This
comes straight after the information that the Ministry
of Love maintains Law and Order, and before the remark
"There was no law, not even an unwritten one, against
visiting the Chestnut Tree Cafe." Later on, Party-produced
pornography is purveyed to proletarian youths "under
the impression that they were buying something illegal."
In general practice, there is nothing to distinguish between
laws and the frequently mentioned "rules", e.g.
the one against consorting with prostitutes which carries
a penalty of five years in a labour camp.
Talking of sex, we all know the old line which claims
it is good for the complexion. This seems to have worked
for Winston, whose running leg sore cleared up after he
began sleeping with Julia.
According to 'The Book', nothing is efficient in Oceania
save the Thought Police, a cue for the famous telescreens,
remarkable devices in a society otherwise so tehcnically
primitive, in whose Newspeak there is no word for Science.
These transmitting-receiving communicators are a giant
advance on Dick Tracy's two-way wrist-radio with which
Orwell, well versed in American comics, will have been
familiar. Winston says they are "Quite delicate enough"
to detect any irregular heartbeat. Supposedly, they watch
people all the time: the Physical Education instructress
on them can pick Winston out by name and number from the
entire thirty-to-forty segment of the population, as can
the screen watcher in a crowded cell in the Ministry of
Love. Overall, in Oceania, the Inner Party has six million
members, about 2% of the total population; 85% are proles;
the rest belong to the Outer Party, to which Winston probably
should not have been admitted, since both his parents
had been purged back in the 1950s. An impressive feat
of 24-hour electronic invigilation. Perhaps this is why
the "great majority" of proles do not have telescreens
in their homes, even though the Thought Police had agents
"moving always among them." Winston is surprised
by the absence of a telescreen from Mr Charrington's antique
shop in the prole district, but blithely accepts the explanation
"I never had one of those things. Too expensive,"
even though this implied notion of choice is utterly alien
to an Outer Party member. And how did the proles pick
up and take a fancy to the new Hate Week song, disseminated
by "endless plugging" on the telescreens most
of them hadn't got?
Regarding Mr Charrington, later revealed to be a Thought
Police spy, was Orwell having a bit of quiet inner semantic
fun here? Some years ago, a newspaper item revealed that
84 Charing Cross was used for wartime security work. As
our earlier classical allusions showed, the novel is rich
and varied in its linguistic and literary nuances. Many
previous writers have connected the Ministry of Truth
with Orwell's wartime experiences of BBC bureaucracy and
censorship. One further matter has escaped attention,
namely the 1948 (of all years!) BBC Variety Programmes
Policy Guide for Writers & Producers, with its absolute
ban on: Jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality
of any kind; also on suggestive references to honeymoon
couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitutes, ladies'
underwear (e.g. "winter drawers on"), animal
habits (e.g. "rabbits"), commercial travellers.
This makes an ironic counterpoint to the Ministry's Porno
Section where Julia works.
At a higher level, after the marathon rewriting of history
in Hate Week, to cover up the latest sudden switch of
alliance from Eastasia to Eurasia, "A deep and as
it were secret sigh went through the Department. A mighty
deed, which never could be mentioned, had been achieved."
Phraseology and sentiment are strikingly similar to those
of Himmler's speech of 4 October 1943 (in volume 4 of
the Nuremberg documents on Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression)
apropos The Final Solution: "This is a page of glory
in our history which has never been written and is never
to be written."
Winston realises that renting Mr Charrington's spare room
to pursue his affair with Julia was a fatal folly. Not
to mention leaving his incriminating diary with the words
DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER open for all to see - "An incredibly
stupid thing." All too typical, though. He knows
that the Newspeak lexiographer Syme is ill-advised to
frequent the Chestnut Tree Cafe, disreputable haunt of
the old discredited Party leaders. So, why had he been
sitting there in mid-afternoon back in 1966, in the midst
of its telescreens, at the next table to the arch-traitors
Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford? Little wonder that, after
his arrest, he learns from O'Brien that the Thought Police
had had him under surveillance for seven years, although
no key incident for 1977 appears in the novel - Winston
dwells only on 1973, when he saw the Times photograph
that proved the trio's confessions were false. Dates,
though, are not Winston's strong point: at one moment
he reflects that Big Brother was unheard of till the middle
Sixties, the period of the great purges when "the
story really began;" yet his own parents had been
"swallowed up in one of the first great purges of
the Fifties." Given such imprecisions, it is no great
shock that, having twice reflected that the Thought Police
always came for you in the middle of the night, he and
Julia are actually arrested by them at 20.30 of a summer
evening while it is still light.
If Syme was vaporised for being "too clever",
how has O'Brien himself survived so long? Everything Syme
predicts to Winston about language and thought is repeated
at greater length by O'Brien in the interrogation scenes.
Mind you, O'Brien is a difficult character to weigh up.
He is introduced as "a member of the Inner Party
and holder of some post so important and remote that Winston
had only a dim idea of its nature" - Winston had
seen him "perhaps a dozen times in as many years."
Not formally named as a Party Leader, O'brien leads a
versatilely busy life: he helped to write the fake Goldstein
book, he was an interrogator not only of Winston and Julia
but of victims ranging from the Jones-Aaranson-Rutherford
trio to Syme, as well as these annual visits as agent
provocateur to the Ministry of Truth.
In the Ministry of Love, Winston does not understand the
first reference to Room 101; neither does a co-prisoner,
his fellow-worker, the poet Ampleforth. Yet when she is
ordered there, a female cellmate "seemed to shrivel
and turn a different colour," while its mention drives
another prisoner hysterical with terror. According to
O'Brien, "Everyone knows what is in Room 101:"
how anyone could, before being in it, is not explained.
Winston is not the last man in Europe or wherever. Julia
was "in some ways far more acute than Winston, and
far less susceptible to Party propaganda" - as she
says, "One knows the truth is all lies anyway."
Moreover, "She took it for granted that everyone,
or nearly everyone, secretly hate the Party and would
break the rules if he thought it safe to do so."
This certainly applied to her many previous lovers, while
(as seen) everyone in the Party knew the lottery prizes
It is not clear why the Thought Police release some and
not others. This conundrum is acknowledged ("Sometimes
people were released and allowed to remain at liberty
for a much as a year or two years") but not explained.
Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford are tried, convicted,
set free, re-arrested, re-tried, and shot. Most, like
Syme and Withers, are simply vaporised and become 'unpersons.'
Julia is quite literally (to use a favourite Orwell adverb)
a burnt-out case in terms of her rebelliousness and sexuality:
how many other such - neither persons nor unpersons -
were walking the streets of Oceania? As Winston wonders,
how could Goldstein continue to attract so many followers?
Even if all were innocent, the phenomenon implies a mass
ability to disbelieve. Winston himself is not only released
but given a sinecure sub-sub-committee position with four
others "all very similar to himself" at the
Ministry of Truth relating to the Eleventh edition of
the Newspeak Dictionary - what happened to the Tenth,
still months away from publication just before his arrest?
- dealing with the question of putting commas inside or
The famous finale is also problematic. At face value,
the 'cured' Winston loves Big Brother: "Forty years
it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden
beneath the dark moustache," albeit earlier he could
not recall hearing of Big Brother before sometime in the
Sixties, not to mention the fact that he is himself only
thirty-nine. But, a couple of pages before, in his last,
chance meeting with Julia, both understand very well what
has been done to them: their love has been destroyed by
consciousness of mutual betrayal, not diverted to Big
Various other things jar. Is it really credible, at any
level of satire, that Julia, while aware of oranges, does
not know what a lemon was? Or that neither she nor Winston
had ever seen or tasted wine? O'Brien remarks "Very
little of it gets to the Outer Party;" the constituent
states of Oceania are full of wine-producing countries.
There are also slack repetitions, e.g. we hear twice at
some length in almost identical language about the interdict
on proles drinking gin and the kaleidoscopes and versificators
that mechanically produce their songs and pornography.
I dare say some of this is attributable to the conditions
of the novel's final production. As described by Shelden,
as late as November 1948 the manuscript was still too
disorganised to send to the printers, so the desperately
ill Orwell re-typed the whole thing himself in three weeks.
On the other hand, he was subsequently unwilling to accept
any alterations to the text of the American edition; and
one wonders (we are not told) if none of this was noticed
or queried by the sub-editors and proof-readers at Secker
These are all amiable puzzlements. I should like to think
that Orwell, for whom my admiration is almost boundless,
would welcome them for debate. Perhaps I am simply insufficient
at Doublethink. There is no need to redo Shelden's excellent
account of Orwell's sources, especially Cyril Connolly's
little-remembered short story Year Nine. On the documentary
side, it may be noted that when O'Brien threatens Winston
with the caged rats, he observes that it was a common
torture in imperial China, whereas we now know (E. Nolte,
Der Europaische Burgerkrieg 1917-45, Berlin 1987, pp.
115,564n24) that it was a method practised by the Cheka.
The demented confessions extracted by the Thought Police
find a black farcical antecedent in the one produced at
the Moscow Trials of 1937 admitting to "placing broken
glass in workers' butter" - V.Z.Rogovin, 1937: Stalin's
Year of Terror, London 1988). When he has Winston reflect
on how Party histories of the Revolution were pushing
Big Brother's role ever further back into the past, Orwell
anticipates North Korea where Kim Il Sung's supposed leading
of anti-Japanese guerillas has been officially dated to
1926 - when he was just 14.
It seems wryly appropriate that at least one famous Orwellian
scene should be plagiarised in a recent novel, The Concert
(English tr. 1994) by the wildly-overpraised Albanian
writer and fake dissident Ismael Kadare, whose native
land was for half a century under the surrealist, quasi-1984
regime of Enver Hoxha - the Ministry of Plenty's favourite
slogan "Our New and Happy Life" was actually
ubiquitous in communist Albania. Kadare describes a Chinese
committee engaged in the invention of Lei Feng, that famous
(in real life) paradigm of all virtues of the communist
'New Man'. This copies Winston's fabrication of the cynosure
of Party virtues, Comrade Ogilvy - is the name a tribute
to his fellow St Cyprian's pupil, advertising mogul David
Ogilvy? When his job is done, Winston reflects that "It
is curious that you could create dead men but not living
ones," loudly echoed by Kadare's punchline "They'd
just given birth to a dead man."
On the big issue, Winston was right: "If there is
hope, it lies in the proles." How Orwell would have
enjoyed watching the Berlin Wall come down and the general
collapse of what passed as communism. Albania, again,
can be invoked. I have seen two editions of Hoxha's book
Conversations with Stalin. The first (1979) contains a
sentence lavishly praising his senior colleague and fellow
wartime resistance leader, Mehmet Shehu. The second, rushed
out after Shehu's mysterious death and denouncement for
simultaneously spying for at least six countries (how
did he keep all these treasons straight?), omits the sentence
- he is now an unperson. Despite holding all the military,
police, and secret police (Sigurimi) aces in 1990, the
Party and all it works were (in Winston's hopeful words)
blown to pieces by a few peaceful demonstrations of workers
and students. Quite simply, the Party had lost its voodoo
Canadian novelist-critic Margaret Atwood, in her collection
Moving Targets (Toronto 2004, pps. 331-337, reproducing
her talk 'Orwell and Me', given June 13, 2003, on BBC
Radio 3 and published in 'The Guardian' (June 16), writes:
"The essay on Newspeak is written in standard English,
in the third person, and in the past tense, which can
only mean that the regime has fallen and that language
and individuality have survived. For whoever has written
the essay on Newspeak, the world of 1984 is over. Thus,
it's my view that Orwell has much more faith in the resilience
of the human spirit than he's usually been given credit
Atwood's point had (apparently unknown to her) been anticipated
by David Smith & Michael Mosher, Orwell for Beginners
(London 1984), p. 178: "The Party tries hard to seem
invincible and permanent. However, in the Newspeak Appendix
Orwell indicates that this appearance is unjustified -
Newspeak, the Appendix says, was the bizarre product of
a failed dictatorship, which gave rise to a better society
This unusual interpretation is well worth discussing.
How else might we take the Newspeak Appendix? What do
other Orwellians think?
Minitruths and Maxiluv
by Barry Baldwin