1984 as a Dystopian Novel

1984 as a Dystopian Novel

1984 as a Dystopian Novel

1984 is a nightmare Utopia-in-reverse or dystopia, a world reduced to three nations, constantly at war. The form of the Wellsian Utopia is completely serviceable to Orwell’s purposes, and by using it on a base he is able to make a sustained aesthetic statement in a way he had not been able to do during the thirties when he had experimented with other forms of fiction. 1984 follows the standard pattern of the Wellsian scientific romance. It begins by presenting a human being who finds himself in a world that is to him and to the reader strange and inhuman. In Wells this world is remote either geographically or in time and the hero is transported thither either by mischance, as in The Island of Dr. Moreau, or by some strange and improbable contraption, as in The Time Machine, or by some peculiar psychic mechanism, as in The Sleeper Awakes.

Winston Smith, it is true, is not conveyed to the world of 1984; he has grown to manhood in that society and is a native there. Nevertheless, though in that world, Winston Smith, we asked to believe, is not of it. Like Wells’ heroes, Winston Smith is a representative of his author’s and his reader’s world. And in the opening chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as in those of Wells’s books, the reader comes, through the hero, to experience shock, horror and bewilderment at the remote world that it portrayed. And with the hero, he comes more and more to desire some explanation of the situation with which he had been confronted. In the scientific romance it is customary for this desire to be satisfied about halfway through when the suspense is relieved and the hero at last encounters some figure with power and information who explains the mystifying world to him. In this regard Winston’s long conversations in the torture chamber with the Inner Party member O’Brien serves the same narrative purpose as, for instance, Prendrick’s conversations with Dr. Moreau. The second section of a scientific romance, in which the hero is made fully cognizant of the barbarousness around him, is usually followed by a third in which the story line is resumed. The narrative climax comes with the hero’s usually unsuccessful attempt to resist, to escape, or at least to preserve his humanity in the face of the horrors around him.

An Anti-Utopia

George Orwell’s 1984 is, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of the two great twentieth-century anti-utopian novels. Utopia is the name used by Sir Thomas More for the imaginary republic in his sixteenth-century Latin romance. The name puns on the Greek ou topia meaning “no place”, and cu topia, or “good place”. Utopia has thus come to the generic name for literature that creates a non-existent ideal government. Utopias are generally impractical places where all the inhabitants are virtuous individuals, although this is not always the case. Plato’s Republic, Bacon’s The New Atlantis, and Bellamy’s Looking Backward are utopias. An anti-utopia is simply the reverse of a conventional utopia. Gulliver‘s Travels, the brilliant eighteenth century work by Jonathan Swift, is probably the most famous of all anti-utopian novels. The aim of the anti-utopian novel is the same as that of the utopian novel: both have as their objective the improvement of society. The anti-utopian, however, instead of presenting an ideal society toward which all men should strive, generally presents a lightly defined, completely hideous society. The anti-utopian novel warns that if the tendencies of the real world, exaggerated in the world of fiction, are not corrected before it is too late, the hideous world suggested will become a reality. Orwell’s anti-utopia has had a profound influence on our times. Despite the name of the book, 1984 is not a prediction of what the world will be like in 1984; it is, instead, a warning that unless the course in which the world drifts is changed, man will lose his most human attributes.

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Why did scientific romance appeal to Orwell?

Understandably, this particular species of prose fiction was attractive to Orwell. For it makes possible, in a way that the form of fiction which we think of as the novel does not, a synthesis of Orwell’s usually irreconcilable purposes as a writer; the making of didactic proposals for individual and social renewal, and the creation of literary art. As an art form the scientific romance is perfectly amenable to two distinctively modern preoccupations: the collapse of civilization and the process whereby man is de humanized. And if we can agree with Bernard Bergonzi’s thesis in The Early H. G. Wells, we will be able to recognize as achieved works of art Wells’s treatment of these themes in some of his scientific romances. A further example of the aesthetic possibilities of the form, and one of which Orwell was aware, is Fyodor Zamyatin’s We, which is a work of great subtlety and delicacy. Nevertheless, despite this proven potential as art the scientific romance has been used traditionally and most frequently as a form of Tendenzliteratur, as a vehicle for writers who have wished to educate even to indoctrinate their readers. Given this purpose, the vision of the future that characterises the form serves to demonstrate, and usually in a horrifying way, the sort of society that will sooner or later come into being if certain tendencies in the present are not halted. Furthermore, when it is used for purposes of propaganda the form is very likely to contain an element of satire. Its warning about the future can entail not only criticism but also mockery of the present, and the horrors to come may be there not only as prophecy, but as a way of teasing the reader out of his complacency. Such propagandist Satire is present in Wells’s The Sea Raiders, The Empire of the Ants and in many of his later romances. And of course the satire element is even more prominent in the other famous example of the form which Orwell had read, Aldous Huxley’s Bras Net World.

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