I first read Orwell’s 1984 when I was 12 or 13, in 8th grade, around the 9/11 terrorist attack, and I read it again, in high school, but I hadn’t read it since until this year because of the intense emotional memories I have associated with it. As a young teenager reading the novel, I missed a lot of the subtlety and was simply struck with the horror of a system that was so completely in control of people that it could torture and brainwash them into not just obedience to, but complete assent with and even love of that system. Having grown up in a privileged and comfortable environment, it was difficult for me to comprehend that there could be a society so completely without hope, or that there could be people and governments in the world who inflicted suffering intentionally for their own twisted pleasure – I don’t think the possibility had ever occurred to me before.
Reading the book again now, however, it came to me that the book is (in a backwards, dystopian way, of course) about the nature of humanity and the priceless value of human dignity. Even in the most absolutely totalitarian state fathomable, in a society where all the biological and spiritual impulses of the person are quelled or redirected into emotional and political reactions, humanity bubbles up in quiet wondering, solitary dissatisfaction, fearful reconsiderations. One of the most hopeful moments of the book, to me, was one in which Winston simply observes another human being, noticing all the things that are most beautiful and universal about her, drawing to the forefront her dignity and unique humanity:
“Tirelessly the woman marched to and fro, corking and uncorking herself, singing and falling silent, and pegging out more diapers, and more and yet more. He wondered whether she took in washing for a living or was merely the slave of twenty or thirty grandchildren. […] As he looked at the woman in her characteristic attitude, her thick arms reaching up for the line, her powerful mare like buttocks protruded, it struck him for the first time that she was beautiful. It had never before occurred to him that the body of a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing, then hardened, roughened by work till it was coarse in the grain like an overripe turnip, could be beautiful. But it was so, and after all, he thought, why not? The solid, contourless body, like a block of granite, and the rasping red skin, bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?
“[…] He wondered how many children she had given birth to. It might easily be fifteen. She had had her momentary flowering, a year, perhaps, of wild rose beauty and then she had suddenly swollen like a fertilized fruit and grown hard and red and coarse, and then her life had been laundering, scrubbing, darning, cooking, sweeping, polishing, mending, scrubbing, laundering, first for children, then for grandchildren, over thirty unbroken years. At the end of it she was still singing.”
Of course for Winston it is all just a temporary interlude, this quest for truth, beauty, and individuality. When every action is observed, it is difficult to step out of line and escape for long – and Winston has no idea of where to look for help, or what actions to take, except to follow the confused and tangled pathway of his beaten-down heart and neglected spirit. It is inevitable that he should be caught, and broken, and converted, no matter how he tries to resist. And while they are torturing him, they share with him one of their secrets – the truth, to be honest, of the opposite aspect of humanity from what Winston saw in the poor washer woman. For humanity has ever been a two-sided coin: created in perfection, fallen into all kinds of cruelties and apathies.
“‘Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
“‘[…] How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’
“Winston though. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.
“‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.'”
It isn’t hard, these days, to think of all kinds of situations in which those words ring true. It is the expression of our worst impulses as parents, teachers, or employers. It is present every time innocent or ignorant people are tortured for information, or held without trial, by countries that claim to be just. It runs insidiously through the background of every attempt to rationalize policies that are needlessly harsh, or that sacrifice human dignity to efficiency and social order.
In the end, of course, Winston dies loving Big Brother. Thirteen year old me was shell-shocked by that for a long time. I have an inkling of an understanding, now, how hopelessness can finally drive a person so far down that they sabotage their own being to escape its torment. But when we live in a society that still claims to value justice and mercy, it is our crucial purpose to hold fast to Winston’s initial realization that there is beauty in everyday family ties, in the resilience of the human person enduring in love. It falls to us to close our eyes and ears to the seduction of power, and (as much as lies in our power) to prevent our society and government from falling prey to those sirens. For us, in the real world, where hope still lives, the loss of all that is good and true and beautiful about humanity is not yet inevitable.