1. Winston Smith is 39.
And, rereading 1984 for perhaps the fifth time, so am I.
I notice now how conscious he is of being middle-aged. Orwell tells us early on that Winston has a varicose vein above his left ankle and has to take his time walking up seven flights of stairs. He has difficulty touching his toes when instructed to do so by the instructress on the telescreen.
Understandably, given the food shortages on Airstrip One–there was still food rationing in Britain too as Orwell wrote the book, in the late 1940s–Winston is not in particularly good shape. He is an older 39-year-old than I am now. He suffers through a coughing fit every morning after he wakes up. He knows that the struggle ahead of him will be a bodily struggle.
“It stuck him that in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body. Even now, in spite of the gin, the dull ache in his belly made consecutive thought impossible. And it is the same, he perceived, in all seemingly heroic or tragic situations. On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralyzed by fight or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.”
Orwell is a very physical writer, and as he wrote 1984, he was dying. He had suffered all his life from weak lungs. Now he was in his mid-forties, and tuberculosis was killing him. When I first read the book–I was probably about twelve–I could not have appreciated how much courage it took to write. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” Orwell reported elsewhere, “like a long bout of some painful illness.”
His later works, from Coming Up For Air onwards, are all infused with a sense that the present is suffocating, with nostalgia for the days of being able to breathe properly. Big Brother is Stalin, but he is also Death.
2. Julia is 26. She and Winston are separated by 13 years.
At twelve, this age gap didn’t mean anything to me. Now it alarms me. 1984 is not usually read as a novel about marriage, yet it is full of passages evocative of that institution.
“…to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.”
Or there’s that other Newspeak word facecrime for wearing an improper expression on your face. Then there are the attempts to imagine freedom.
“It seemed to him that he knew exactly what it felt like to sit in a room like this, in an arm-chair beside an open fire with your feet in the fender and a kettle on the hob; utterly alone, utterly secure, with nobody watching you, no voice pursuing you, no sound except the singing of the kettle and the friendly ticking of the clock.”
Admittedly, these irritations also evoke other institutions that restrict one’s individuality – restriction that must be especially irksome to someone as highly individual as Orwell. It has been noted that the atmosphere of 1984 reflects conditions at Orwell’s preparatory school, or in Imperial Burma, or at BBC Radio while Orwell was working for them in the 1940s.
In Barcelona in 1937, Orwell was a first-hand witness to the Stalinist takeover of a government. Passages in Homage to Catalonia describe, without quite evoking, the world of 1984.
“It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time — the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumors that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men… It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town.”
By chance, Orwell joined a militia whose membership Stalin had already decided to have liquidated. While Orwell and his wife Eileen narrowly escaped with their lives, that nightmare atmosphere stayed with him. For the rest of his life, he got better and better at conveying it.
Yet on this reading, perhaps as a consequence of being recently divorced myself, I took 1984, perversely or not, at face value, as the story of an affair.
We never meet Winston’s wife Katharine, but then we never meet Big Brother either. Both are agonizingly omnipresent, as invisibly menacing symbols of orthodoxy. Winston’s conflicted feelings about being an adulterer persistently mirror his feelings about being a dissident. “Desire is thoughtcrime,” he thinks at one point, and the problems Winston and Julia face, the sheer difficulty of secretly arranging trysts in places where they will not be observed, the challenge of remaining poker-faced while leading a double life, even the doomed quality of their relationship, stemming from their knowledge deep down that they have no future together, are the same problems faced by adulterers living in any political system.
Adulterers, too, must engage in the constant fabrication of history – which is also Winston’s day job. At the very least, these parallels have a lot to do with how Orwell renders a totalitarian world emotionally believable.
3. Winston’s first crime is to start writing a diary, his second to have a love affair. This passage refers to his and Julia’s first sexual coupling.
“Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.”
This seems more like a mid-life crisis than a counter-revolution. Why should a love affair be so central to a novel of totalitarianism? Granted, Stalin was something of a Puritan, but what Communist organization ever went to quite the same lengths as the Party in 1984 to prevent sexual satisfaction?
“All marriages between Party members had to be approved by a committee appointed for the purpose, and–though the principle was never clearly stated–permission was always refused if the couple concerned gave the impression of being physically attracted to one another.”
Lack of freedom is a pervasive theme throughout Orwell’s work. The hero of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, like Winston Smith, is forced to conduct his love-making in the countryside, the tyrant who drives him to these extremes being his respectable landlady. In the same book, there is a foreshadowing of the Junior Anti-Sex League in a reference to a small-town organization known as as the Seaside Vigilance Committee, an institution devoted to breaking up indecorously amorous behavior on the beaches. The Party in 1984 is an amalgamation of everything Orwell feels threatened by, as foreshadowed in this burst of paranoia from Coming Up For Air.
“And all the soul-savers and Nosey Parkers, the people whom you’ve never seen but who rule your destiny all the same, the Home Secretary, Scotland Yard, the Temperance League, the Bank of England, Lord Beaverbrook, Hitler and Stalin on a tandem bicycle, the bench of Bishops, Mussolini, the Pope – they were all of them after me.”
Orwell roots his critique of totalitarianism in the defense of personal freedom, in supporting the claims of desire against those of high-minded busybodies. The Junior Anti-Sex League makes most sense as one of those do-gooder Dissenter organizations, like the Seaside Vigilance Committee, that still flourished in Orwell’s time. Many of these combated real evils, but Orwell was hyper-sensitive to the connection between Puritanism and tyranny, so evident in our own time. A passage in Orwell’s “The Art of Donald McGill” presages Winston Smith.
“When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic. Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash. It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.”
In his essays, Orwell defends many forms of what was officially considered obscenity–dirty postcards, the banned novels of his friend Henry Miller–as essentially healthy. In his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” he praises the anti-puritanism of the English public, part of the reason for his feeling that they have more humanity than the self-righteous classes, that “hope lies with the proles.”
Orwell’s posthumous aura of sainthood can obscure us from his earthier qualities. True, he took a bullet through the throat while fighting in Spain, but the proximate cause of this wound was his insistence on smoking a cigarette at dawn every day, standing where his silhouette was clearly visible to the Fascists. A man willing to stick his neck out for a principle, he was also a man who stood by his private pleasures, another trait depicted in “The Lion and the Unicorn” as a distinguishing trait of the English.
But it’s not just that Orwell renders the experience of a dissident more immediate by grounding the experience in that, more familiar to his readers, of sexual non-freedom.
There are times when Katharine seems to be Winston’s real enemy.
He confesses to Julia that he once contemplated pushing Katharine over a cliff, while he was on a nature ramble with her. And just as Jesus says that a man who looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart – the original definition of thoughtcrime – so the Thought Police too believe that the thought contains the deed. Under torture, Winston will confess, among other false confessions, to murdering Katherine.
4. Eileen was already dead when Orwell wrote 1984. She died on an operating table in 1945.
One can say of Orwell’s first marriage, perhaps of any marriage, what Orwell said of the Spanish Civil War — that a true account of it will never be written, that that there just aren’t enough reliable sources. Perhaps his most revealing summary of the marriage appears in a letter he wrote in 1946, to Anne Popham, a woman who had just declined a marriage proposal from him.
“I was sometimes unfaithful to Eileen, and I also treated her very badly, and I think she treated me badly too at times, but it was a real marriage in the sense that we had been through awful struggles together and she understood all about my work.”
Disturbingly, I find that this definition of a “real marriage” makes perfect sense to me.
The paucity of evidence about the Orwell’s marriage may be considered a tribute to both parties’ love of privacy, and the determination with which Orwell in particular sought to defend it. What we do know about Eileen suggests that she was nothing at all like the ultra-orthodox, anti-sexual Katharine. But even a bohemian leftish marriage involves a great loss of privacy and individual freedom. And then, after any marriage, there’s guilt to deal with, because even the best marriage falls so far short of the ideal. There’s always much to be forgiven. One’s loved ones are like the Fearless Leader–their picture must always be hanging there–and so Eileen’s picture was on the wall as Orwell wrote 1984. It was she, not Big Brother, who was really watching him when he wrote sentences like this.
“He confessed that he had murdered his wife, although he knew, and his questioners must have known, that his wife was still alive.”
Survivor guilt is almost the dominant emotion in 1984. It comes through most horrifyingly in Winston’s memories of the death of his mother and his sister, the ghastly episode where he steals chocolate from them, prior to their being disappeared – a scene which colors the whole novel.
It’s a book in which the urge to repent battles a sense of despair. From the start, Winston seems ripe for conversion to something. And he only has one option.
As for Julia, “the dark-haired girl from the Fiction Department,” Orwell’s contemporaries saw as a fantasized version of the woman who became Orwell’s second wife, Sonia. When he first met her, she worked at Cyril Connolly’s “Horizon.” In his diaries, Malcolm Muggeridge called Orwell’s deathbed marriage to Sonia “the coming to life of the love affair in 1984.”
The novel Orwell planned to write next was a trilogy that was more about relationships, less about politics. Had he lived to write it, we might read 1984 differently. The adjective “Orwellian” might conjure up a wider range of Orwell’s obsessions than it now actually does, having connotations for example of nature rambles and sex in the open air, of nostalgia for the Edwardian era and small, private pleasures and betrayals, in spite of which we struggle onwards.
5. 1984 is so effective as a book about Stalinism, it’s easily overlooked that it’s about other things too. It’s about Orwell’s attempt to predict how great power politics will work following the invention of the atom bomb, or as he puts it in “You and the Atomic Bomb,” “the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once UNCONQUERABLE and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.”
The dystopia in the book, with London undergoing a seemingly-endless blitz, is recognizably the world its first readers actually lived in, an England that throughout Orwell’s lifetime became poorer and uglier. Julia’s job, the mechanized churning out of fiction for the proles, is more of a commentary on the Western World than on the Soviet Union under Stalin. Winston’s job, as a falsifier of history, is also part of Orwell’s vision of the future of the writer under capitalism, as presented for example in “The Prevention of Literature.”
“Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hackwork, the encroachment of official bodies like the M.O.I. and the British Council, which help the writer to keep alive but also waste his time and dictate his opinions, and the continuous war atmosphere of the past ten years, whose distorting effects no one has been able to escape. Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth.”
This passage has the power even today to send shivers down a writer’s spine.
My world has turned out to be more like Winston’s world than I expected it would when I was twelve. And at thirty-nine, you’re less likely to believe you can change things much.
As a dissident, Winston Smith is an abysmal failure, choosing the worst possible confidants at every turn. Like the heroes of most of Orwell’s other novels, he is a drab, furtive man, pallid and unshaven, whose time is running out, whose rebellion is doomed in advance to failure. I am conscious now of how pathetic he is, and of how much I resemble him.
The next time I read 1984, he will be younger than me.
Suppose that by then I am forty-eight to fifty – older than Orwell ever lived to be — the same age as O’Brien, the novel’s Grand Inquisitor?
On this last reading I detected hints that O’Brien himself was once in much the same position as Winston, that this explains his uncanny ability to read Winston’s mind, the knack that makes him such an effective agent provocateur and interrogator. “Your mind appeals to me,” O’Brien tells Winston. “It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”
Part of me fears that by the time I next read the book, my mid-life crisis will be over… that the character I will identify most strongly with will be O’Brien… that I too will love Big Brother…
The Ministry of Information was one source for 1984‘s Ministry of Truth. Operating from the white tower of London University’s Senate House, it was in charge of censoring the wartime broadcasts that Orwell made for the BBC. It was on the recommendation of an M.O.I. official, now known to have been a Soviet agent, that the publisher Johnathan Cape decided against publishing Animal Farm.
See also: Characters of 1984.