I read George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), number 8 on the BBC book list, last summer for the first time. This surprised a student of mine, one of the only students I have encountered over the years who was actually majoring in English. I teach English 1010, Introduction to College Writing, and my students usually consist of people who dislike writing and reading. Those who major in English tend to have taken AP English in high school or test out of my class. Anyway, this particular student always brought a book to class with her, and we had great fun discussing her other classes and papers together after class. But when I mentioned that I had just read Orwell’s classic for the first time, she gaped. I can’t even exaggerate how long her mouth was open or how visceral her reaction was to my admission. I supposed I should have read it sooner. But I didn’t.
I always knew what the fuss was about. It’s a dystopian novel in which Big Brother watches everybody and everything. Rule breaking is not allowed, and one will be caught if trying to change things. The premise is actually quite frightening, and Orwell’s vision of an all-seeing government is often used today to argue for privacy laws and rights. With technology as it is (cell phones, security cameras, satellites, social networking, and search engines), all of us are being constantly monitored. (No, I’m not paranoid.) This reality doesn’t bother me, but maybe it should.
Despite the creepy premise of the novel, the real theme is that of human connection. In this environment of big government and control, Winston Smith longs to connect with somebody. He wants to be called by his name instead of “comrade.” He wants to touch other people and interact with them in genuine ways. To counter this sterile environment, he takes up with Julia and they find happiness together. On the surface, this connection seems to be about sex, but it isn’t. It’s about trust and love and belonging and happiness. As John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” Yet, that’s what the totalitarian society is trying to create. Isolation doesn’t work for us; we’re social animals.
I recently heard this idea best vocalized in Brené Brown’s TED talk. She is a sociologist and researcher, but her work is qualitative, which means she collects and evaluates stories as part of her research. Her TED talk focused on the idea of being wholehearted, and what people who claimed to be living this way did to achieve it. Her results were fascinating, and what stuck with me most is that people most secure accept vulnerability in themselves. They connect more fully with others because of this. They aren’t constantly worried about their appearances or mistakes, but they accept those as part of being human. This in turn allows them to connect and to be well adjusted.
This theme is explored in 1984. Everybody is disconnected because of fear. Everybody is vulnerable, but this human trait cannot be embraced because it is artificially imposed and there are severe and real consequences from Big Brother if betrayed. One will be made more vulnerable by connecting with others. In fact, one will disappear. Existence is erased, and if the missing person is asked after, nobody will acknowledge that they even existed. I think this plays to our deepest fears. Nobody wants to be a nobody. To have one’s entire life negated is the ultimate punishment.
I contend that we often do this to each other, no matter how painful. I’m thinking of the silent treatment. I’ve suffered at the hands of a few people because of this passive-aggressive style of anger. Years after an alleged incident or offense, I am still being punished by silence. I am being ignored, unacknowledged, and silently told that I do not matter. Why do we do this to each other? Probably because it is the most effective way to communicate the fact that we are disconnected and that we have been deemed unimportant, enough so that we have been “forgotten” or that we are not worthy of acknowledgement.
Orwell’s novel is an entertaining read, and obviously there is a lot of room for philosophic ideas and human themes. However, it is not my favorite piece of his writing. My favorite is “Shooting an Elephant.” The personal essay is a true story of Orwell’s time as a sub-divisional police officer in Burma, and what happens is exactly what the title suggests. He shoots an elephant. He does so out of peer pressure and to avoid looking like a fool. Again, he addresses humanity’s most common themes, that of acceptance, belonging, connection, and appearances. This essay is full of conversation-worthy ideas, which is why I often use it in my English 1010 classes. Students tend to enjoy it, and they also tend to have a lot to say about it. They can connect with Orwell’s weaknesses because they too are human.
Overall, I admire Orwell. He’s brilliant. His books are easy to read, but full of depth, excitement, and humanity. 1984 portrays all of this, but it also plays to our deepest fears, that we are insignificant and that we cannot connect with each other. Although the main character ends up connecting with many others in the novel, his most important connection is a romantic one. This relationship represents the need that we all have to be loved unconditionally. Sadly, though, the main character’s fate is sealed by his search for this inherently human feeling. He does not overthrow the oppressors nor save others from the terrible community in which they live. Instead, he is caught, punished, separated, and seemingly killed, but some argue that this execution should be interpreted as his reintegration into the Party and a false memory, not his actual death.
This is my kind of book! It’s depressing.