Orwell 1984 as a Political Satire
Table of Contents
George Orwell’s 1984 was evidently intended as a satire. The main target of satire in this novel is totalitarianism as, in Orwell’s opinion, it would take shape in the future. Nineteen Eighty-Four is an anti-Utopian novel, and it pokes fun at the bright visions of the future which some writers are inclined to see. Orwell was greatly dismayed by the excesses committed by dictators like Stalin and Hitler in Soviet Russia and in Nazi Germany in his times, and it seemed to him that, if totalitarianism were to spread to the whole of the world or if it were to acquire a still greater hold wherever it was already established, there would be a total loss of freedom in the world and a complete extinction of the human personality. He, therefore, wrote this novel exposing the evils of a totalitarian government which aims at a complete suppression of the human individuality and brings about a thorough-going regimentation of human life.
A satire on Communism as well as on the West
1984 may be interpreted as a satire on Communism, but it is much too universal a novel to be merely satirical of Communism. Orwell does employ some satirical references to Communist figures and policies. Big Brother and Emmanuel Goldstein are intentionally suggestive of Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky, but in these cases Orwell is simply using Stalin as a symbol of strong, ruthless leadership and Trotsky as a symbol of scapegoatish opposition in order to give greater credibility to his own characters.
The oligarchical collectivist society of Oceania did not come about as a result of Communist revolution. It is reported that at the end of World War II, Orwell mistakenly feared that Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt (wartime leaders of the three strongest victorious powers, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States) were plotting the permanent division of the world. Thus, it is unlikely that Orwell intended 1984 as a satire against Communism was only one of the dangerous trends in his society that Orwell feared and attacked in his novel.
A deficiency of wit and humour in this Satire
A satire may be defined as a humorous exposure of some evil or evils. The satirist attacks his target firmly and unrelentingly, but his weapons of attack are wit, irony, humour, etc. Thus a satirist amuses us by the manner in which he attacks an evil and exposes it to ridicule. His object in doing so is, of course, to rid society of the evil which is the target of his attack or to induce people to shun an evil which he depicts in a ridiculous light. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell has, as its target, totalitarianism and its attendant evils, and the author’s attack is certainly most effective.
However, as a satire, this novel suffers from a serious defect, namely a deficiency of wit and humour. Orwell’s treatment of his subject is too serious to allow him to laugh heartily at the excesses of totalitarianism or to make us laugh at them heartily. His treatment of the subject is much too grim to be entertaining In other words, the satire here is, on the whole frightening rather than amusing. This does not, however, mean that the novel is altogether lacking in its power to amuse the reader.
Irony and satire at the very outset
Orwell deals with the institutions and doctrines of totalitarianism in such a manner as to make us see them in a preposterous light. Every aspect of the totalitarian regime of Oceania is indirectly subjected to criticism and condemnation by the author, so that we too develop an attitude of utter contempt and scorn toward it. At the very outset, for instance, we have the posters depicting “the enormous face, more than a metre wide”, of Big Brother with the caption: “Big Brother Is Watching You”, the helicopters of the Thought Police hovering close to the windows of residential houses and then dating away, the telescreens which receive and transmit simultaneously, and the Party slogans (War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength).
Then there are the four Ministries the names of which are the reverse of the functions which they perform the Ministry of Truth whose function is to spread lies; the Ministry of Peace whose function is to conduct wars, the Ministry of Love which is concerned with punishing and destroying the suspects; and the Ministry of Plenty which ensures perpetual shortages. There is irony in all these names. Such names as Victory gin and Victory cigarettes are also amusing because of their irony. And we also have a reference to the Two Minutes Hate, a daily programme, the object of which is to arouse in the spectators a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces with a hammer, and so on. All this is quite amusing because of the irony behind the whole of this account. Already, because of the author’s satirical treatment of the various aspects of totalitarianism, we have begun to hold those responsible for it in contempt.
The absurdity of Doublethink and Newspeak
The main principles of Ingsoc, we are told, are Newspeak, Doublethink, the mutability of the past, and a denial of objectivity. The manner in which these various principles are explained to us by the author is ironical and intended to make us see the utter absurdity of each of them. Doublethink, for instance, is explained as the capacity to know and not to know, to hold simultaneously two opinions which are contradictory and to believe in both of them, to forget whatever it is necessary to forget and then to recall it when it is needed, and then promptly to forget it again. This is evidently absurd, and the absurdity becomes bigger when the author says: “Even to understand the word Doublethink involved the use of Doublethink.”
Then there is the new official language called “Newspeak” which, in course of time: will replace Standard English. Syme, the philologist who is working upon a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston that the object is to destroy words. Newspeak, he says is the only language in the world whose Vocabulary gets smaller every year. The aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.
The absurdity of reconstructing the past
The doctrine of the mutability of the past which means a continual reconstruction of past events is also presented to us in the same absurd light. Since the Party is in full control of all past records and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it. This is certainly nonsensical because, as Winston says, the past is fixed and unalterable. The utter irrationality of the Party in this respect, therefore, amuses us greatly, though it hurts us even more. The whole account of the procedure by which the records of the past are being modified and altered is very amusing because of the irony behind it Winston himself is working in the Records Department which is engaged upon this endless procedure.
The party’s treatment of dissidents ridiculed
The Party’s way of dealing with so-called traitors is also satirically presented to us. Any citizen who becomes a suspect in the eyes of the Thought Police simply disappears in a mysterious way. That is how Winston’s father and mother disappeared. That is how Syme disappears. That is how the three man-Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford-eventually disappeared. As Winston puts it a man who is alive and visible today, is wiped out tomorrow and completely forgotten: “You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the word.” Such an individual becomes an “unperson”, and any reference to him afterwards is a criminal act. There is irony in all this, and Orwell is ridiculing the government of Oceania.
The absurdity of Party propaganda
Orwell also ridicules the kind of propaganda which is being carried on by the government of Oceania. The telescreens pour out the information that, as compared to last year, there is more food, more clothes, more houses, more furniture, more fuel, more books, more of everything. Actually there has never been quite enough to eat, and never quite enough to wear; furniture has always been broken, trains always crowded, houses always crumbling, tealeaves something rare, genuine coffee available only to the members of the Inner Party, cigarettes insufficient-in short, nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin. The gulf between the ideal set up by the Party and the reality is so wide as not only to amuse us but to depress us. The ideal is something huge and glittering while the reality is dingy cities and under-fed people. Winston sees “a vision of London, vast and ruinous, of a million dustbins.”
The people and their children satirized
The people of Oceania are devoid of any dignity. They are described as “little dumpy men, growing stout very early in life, with short legs…” This certainly is an unflattering description of the people in this totalitarian State. We are also amused by the way in the children are being brought up here. From the very beginning, children are taught the art of spying with the result that in a few years they begin to spy upon the activities of their own parents and to denounce them to the Thought Police in case they see anything fishy. The children are also trained to become utterly callous and to take pleasure in the spectacle of the hanging of criminals. The whole account of the strange behaviour of the two children of Mr. and Mrs. Parsons is amusing at the same time it makes us very uncomfortable and even nervous.
A satire on the Party’s attitude towards sex
A satire on the Party’s attitude towards sex is the most biting, and the most entertaining too. The Party does not permit sexual relations between its members. The aim of the Party is partly to prevent men and women from forming mutual loyalties hut mainly to remove all pleasure from the sexual act. All marriages between Party members have to be approved by a committee. Sexual intercourse even between a husband and a wife has to be treated not as a pleasurable experience but as a duty to be performed in order to be get children who, on growing u will serve the Party. In course of time, all children are to be begotten by artificial insemination. But the climax of this satire comes when we learn from the lips of O’Brien that the Party intends to abolish orgasm and the Party neurologists are already at work in this connection. The manner in which the sexual frigidity of Winston’s wife Katharine is described is also part of this satire. If Winston touched her in order to make love to her, she seemed to wince and stiffen. She would lie in bed with closed eyes, neither resisting nor cooperating but merely submitting. This is the kind of woman the Party approves of. All this is certainly amusing, though here also we do begin to feel uneasy and uncomfortable.
O’Brien and Mr. Charrington, also targets of satire
Finally, O’Brien and Mr. Charrington have been presented to us in a ridiculous light. No despot and no fanatic and was ever-painted in such black colours as O’Brien in this novel. The only flaw in the portrayal of this man is that it is devoid of all humour and humour is essential to true satire. This man talks like a machine and aims at converting others into machines. Three of his utterances are most noteworthy. In one of these he says to Winston: “Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty.” The second is his theory of power which, he says, has as its motive nothing but itself: “The object of power is power.” And the third is his picture of the future : “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-for ever.” This portrayal has rightly been called “serious caricature”
Mr. Charrington, masquerading as a junkshop owner when he is really an official of the Thought Police, is a sly rogue who is able to extract from Winston all the latter’s secret feelings. He appears to be an old man in his sixties, but is found to be a middle-aged man when he casts off his disguise and appears in his true color. There are certainly touches of irony and humour in the portrayal of this police detective.
1984, Orwell’s last work and undoubtedly his greatest, is an authentic epitome of his denunciation of totalitarianism as a final and ineluctable requirement of the ethical imagination. The superiority of 1984 over other political satires become evident when we compare it with other works of the same brand, for example Looking Backward 2000.1887 by Edward Ballamy, Time Machine and The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells, We by Zamyatin, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton, The Twenty-Fifth Hour by C. V. Gheorghin and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Of course, their similarities are rather obvious. In each of them, the satirist seems to have called up a vision of a world that may crystallize sometime in the future.