Most people who have read Nineteen eighty-four cite its importance as political. I don’t disagree with that, but it’s the literary side that interests me more. Orwell wrote that “good prose is like a window pane”, meaning that the words must not obscure the image, that the style must not get in the way. There is a clarity about Orwell’s depiction of the totalitarian nightmare that crushes Winston Smith, and the book is all the more powerful for it.
So much about this book has entered common parlance – Big Brother, the Thought Police, doublethink and newspeak – that we sometimes forget that it all started here.
But this novel is not a political treatise; it is literature. Let me tease this out with a couple of examples of Orwell’s use of imagery.
Boots: Winston Smith works in the Records Department and his job is to change records (documents, newspapers, photographs) to correspond with subsequent events so that the Party’s predictions always come true. In the course of changing the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast for the number of boots that were manufactured, Winston muses about whether 62 million pairs is really any better than 57 million pairs when:
Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.
Some two hundred pages later, as part of the long and harrowing process of the Party’s destruction of Winston, his torturer, O’Brien, says, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever”. It is as if the power of this latter image is underscored by Winston’s certain recollection of the former image.
Gestures and curves: Early in the book, Winston describes a war film that the Party showed in which a helicopter bombs a lifeboat. One of the occupants, who “might have been a jewess”, he noted, tries to shield a three-year old boy against a hail of bullets with nothing more than her arm. In a dream a few pages later Winston sees a girl approaching him in a field, tearing off her clothes and flinging them aside. “With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm”. Much later, just before his arrest by the Thought Police, Winston has a dream that seems to take place inside a paperweight, under its dome flooded with light. This is followed by Winston recalling another protective gesture, one his mother used to protect his dying sister, poignantly just after Winston had taken chocolate from her.
These figurative devices are counterpoints to the political brutality that finally engulfs Winston. His destruction, and the horror of the totalitarianism that is responsible for it, is made all the more dramatic by Orwell’s use of these particular images.
Yes, this is a landmark book. It is also a memorable read.