Orwell’s “1984” from Theoretical Views (An Essay)
June 28, 2015
Understanding Orwell’s 1984 Through Marxist and Deconstruction Theories
In the study of literature, there are various theories that allow works to be evaluated and better understood because of the application of those theoretical perspectives. Through literary theories and their analyses, one is able to come to a deeper understanding of literature in the way that it relates to the world around it (Southern New Hampshire University). Two of the primary theoretical schools of thought are that of Marxism and the Postmodernist’s Deconstructionism. These theories can be applied to works of literature in order to better understand the characters and plot of the story, but also to better understand the author’s mindset and thus the world in which the author was writing. Therefore, through theoretical analyses, readers can comprehend themselves on a deeper level. George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is particularly impactful when looked at from Marxism and Deconstruction mindsets. Aspects of the novel’s plot, language, and characters will be analyzed from these two perspectives. It will ultimately be determined that both theories enhance the reading of 1984 and the reader can glean different lessons from the novel by applying both theories. While Marxism applies to the overall political concept, Deconstruction lends to the reader’s understanding of what it is like to live in the world of the story. Thus, one comes to understand that both theories contribute to the novel but a careful analysis will demonstrate that Deconstruction provides more insight into how the novel relates directly to the lives of readers.
Marxism associates itself with class differences, economic and otherwise, and ultimately “attempts to reveal the ways in which our socioeconomic system is the ultimate source of our experience” (Purdue OWL). That is to say, the political ideologies of a literary work are directly related to the world in which the author was writing or the message that the readers are intended to learn through the piece. Previous scholarship on Marxism has demonstrated how “literature reflects those social institutions out of which it emerges” and often relates to the “author’s own class or analysis of class relations, however piercing or shallow that analysis may be” (Delahoyde).In order to be truly applying Marxism, a reader or critic must ask himself a few questions such as determining the currency or most valuable aspect of the story’s society, as well as explicating the social structure of the world of the novel and thus illuminating the political agenda that the author is trying to put forth.
Deconstruction is a branch of the Postmodern movement and is typically defined by the phrase “the center cannot hold” (Purdue OWL). Contrary to the political and economic agenda of Marxist criticism, Deconstruction works on a more philosophical level. It seems as though the world is divided into binary oppositions such as living/dead, black/white, wrong/right, and so on. Deconstruction seeks to not only point out the flaws in binary thinking but to, overall, bring those concepts crashing to the ground by shaking them at their core. Deconstruction hits readers on a personal level and challenges their thinking by forcing them to consider that perhaps there is no singular, absolute truth and the world may be much more complex than they originally thought. In fact, the man behind the theory, Jacques Derrida, described Deconstruction as wanting to “erase the boundaries between binary oppositions — and to do so in such a way that the hierarchy implied by the opposition is thrown into question” (“Definition of Deconstruction”). Another way to think of Deconstruction is that there is a space between the binaries and “this divided space (/) is really not an unbridgeable demarcation, but is rather a zone of undecidability, a space open to free-play and crossings, a gray zone, not a black and white one” (Giles 129–130). Ultimately, both theories examine literature to find truth within the work, to determine meaning that goes beyond what readers already know and believe, and to perhaps make a difference in the world through the literary work or at the very least to point out flaws.
After gaining a better understanding of what each of the theories stand for, one can now apply them to a selected work of literature. An excellent literary piece that provides plentiful material for analysis is George Orwell’s 1984. The novel has been considered a classic work of literature because “1984 has come and gone, but George Orwell’s prophetic, nightmarish vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever” (Fromm). It has been the subject of a variety of critical analyses by scholars and critics as they try to derive meaning from a work that can be interpreted in numerous ways. Orwell presents a “hopeless” (Fromm) future, one in which mankind succumbs to a totalitarian governmental regime and ultimately loses the essence of what makes them human.
In his afterword to the Signet version of the novel, Erich Fromm discusses the evolution of novels in relation to the economic and political events of the time. He refers to Orwell’s writing as a Negative Utopia, or a Dystopia, that sought to answer a question that seemed to be the end all-be all: “can human nature be changed in such a way that man will forget his longing for freedom, for dignity, for integrity, for love — that is to say, can man forget that he is human” (Fromm 318). Fromm continues to say that Orwell does not approach this question from a psychological aspect, which would be “the simple position” (318). It must also be noted that although feminist critics could make applications to the novel, it would only be in relation to the characters or aspects of the story rather than the overall meaning of the work, so it is not the theoretical lens of choice nor the one applied directly by Orwell. It is almost as if Orwell himself chose both Marxist and Deconstruction aspects in his writing of the novel, combining to what Fromm refers to as “Orwellian” (318). First, the Marxist perspective can be explicated upon to determine how the world of 1984 carries on. Then, Deconstruction will allow for a deeper interpretation of what the world of 1984 truly means to the characters but also to readers.
Douglas Kellner pondered the political qualities of 1984 and argued that Orwell’s writing “project[s] an image of totalitarian societies which conceptualizes his experiences of fascism and Stalinism and his fears that the trends toward this type of totalitarianism would harden, intensify, and spread throughout the world.” Kellner is clearly taking a Marxist perspective, as this statement describes how the literature is a direct political and economic reflection of the experiences of the author and, thus, the world in which the author lived when he wrote, or at the very least the world that the author feared was on the horizon. As a whole, 1984 seems to be stating that “Politics is solely a constant struggle for power and the only change brought about is the replacement of one ruling class with another” (Sava 53). This ideal is solidified by the class structure of the Party members within 1984 and ultimately by the power-plays of the Party, which is to be impressed upon all citizens of Oceania. The Party’s control over the mindset of the people is demonstrated in the way that Oceania is constantly at war with one of the other political powers and the Party’s agenda is then forced upon the people — noted in the beginning of the novel by Winston as he says, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia” (Orwell 34) despite his personal knowledge that they had actually been allies with Eurasia a few years prior. Later on, when things change suddenly, the power of the Party is exerted once again: “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia” (Orwell 182).
Winston addresses the Marxist ideal of separating social classes, with the upper-level Inner Party members and the mid-level Party members, what Marx considered to be the Bourgeois, and the lower-level Proletariat. The lower class in the world of 1984 is indeed referred to as Proletariat, or proles for short. According to Marx, when a group is oppressed by another group, there will be a revolution and that revolution will be led by the working class. Winston reflects on this concept directly, as he is writing in his diary: “If there is hope…it lies in the proles” (Orwell 69). Winston further contemplates that hope for the future is found in the proles “because only there, in those swarming disregarded masses, eighty-five per cent of the population of Oceania, could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated” (Orwell 69). Therefore, Winston concludes, if change is to occur it is up to the proles:
[For members of the Party,] Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflection of the voice; at the most, an occasional whispered word. But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning. Surely sooner or later it must occur to them to do it (Orwell 69).
This is a straight-forward reference to Marx’s assertion that the “proletariat will grow more restive and more skeptical” (Southern New Hampshire University) of their government and will ultimately revolt against them. If this were to happen, the government would be overthrown and the political establishment will be forced to change. However, Winston doubts that this will ever happen because the proles have yet to awaken the rebellious side within them. Since they are the lower class citizens, they are not required to be as loyal to the Party as others. In fact, “It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings” (Orwell 71). This is how the Party keeps the proles under control and prevents an uprising. This is also why an uprising will likely never happen and things will never change — Winston sees that and it is a fact that he laments. The belief that revolution will never take place is only cemented later on as Winston reads Goldstein’s book of the Brotherhood, which expounds upon the ideals of revolutionists and depicts the great struggle they are up against in trying to take down Big Brother and the Party. Goldstein addresses the Party’s concept of war actually being peaceful in a chapter of his book — thus, a book within the book — and makes the following claims:
The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor. War is a way of shattering to pieces…materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent….…The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact (Orwell 191, 199).
The role of Marxism in 1984 is prevalent throughout the novel, evident in the way the government controls its people. Orwell paints a grim picture of the future and shows readers what could become of the world. The Party slogan emphasizes the power of the government:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH (Orwell 4).
From a Marxist perspective, it is clear to see that the world of 1984 has spiraled out of control. This resonates with readers as something to fear, and they realize that it not only means being controlled by a higher authority but it also represents losing a part of one’s self and becoming just another part of an all too powerful system.
Through a Marxist analysis, readers are able to understand the world of 1984. Now, providing a Deconstructive analysis will allow readers to truly step into that world and comprehend the characters and, in turn, themselves. To begin a Deconstructive critique one need only look at the beginning of the novel, at the Party slogan referenced earlier. This puts binary oppositions in the reader’s face from the start and immediately gets the readers out of their comfort zones by stating antonyms as synonyms. Binaries continue to be challenged as Winston explains the four types of ministries:
The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts; the Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order; and the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs (Orwell 4).
A few lines later, it is stated that the “Ministry of Love was the really frightening one” (Orwell 4), as it is a bland building with no windows and is encircled by barbed-wire and guarded by machine guns (Orwell 4). This instantly makes readers take a step back and think about what Orwell is saying here: nothing is what it seems or what it should be.
Readers start out believing that everything in life is either this or that. However, according to Big Brother and the Party, two things cannot exist simultaenously — one must first be destroyed, forgotten and erased, before the other thing can begin to exist, and the existence of the second thing overwrites the fact that the first one ever existed. This is particularly exemplified by Winston’s job at the records department, where he works dilligently to ensure that historical records reflect what the Party wants them to reflect, be that the truth or something fabricated. In actuality, it has become impossible to tell the difference between truth and lies. This is deconstructive of anything that the readers are familiar with, as there is a belief that there are absolute truths in the world that cannot be tampered with and that truth is something inherent.
The most influential deconstructionist passage, though, is when Winston is attempting to describe the concept of “doublethink,” represented in the following paragraph:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality whil laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was possible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed (Orwell 35).
Here it becomes apparent that two things have stopped being two things — the boundary between binaries has been crossed to the point where things that were once opposing are now considered to be one in the same. Something can be both black and white; one can turn right while simultaneously turning left; a person can exist while they are not in existence as demonstrated later on when Winston creates “a certain Comrade Ogilvy” (Orwell 46). This work of literature most certainly demonstrates the deconstructionist concept of a work unraveling itself, of contradictory ideals, and the world of Oceania is most definitely an unstable one and may cause readers to question the stability of their own reality. Winston later states that “to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink” (Orwell 35). This coincides with deconstruction, implying that interpretation of the text can only go so far since it would take living in the novel’s world in order for one to truly understand it.
Expanding on the concept of Deconstruction, one must refer back to the aforementioned segment where Winston noted that the proles would lead the revolution. This entails how the Marxist lens overlaps with Deconstructionism, because he is discussing how the proles must ultimately be the ones to rise up against the totallitarian regime but he also acknowledges the reason why that is unlikely to ever actually take place: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled the cannot become conscious” (Orwell 70). Thus, according to Winston, and Orwell it seems, people are locked in a vicious cycle of being controlled by a dominating group while simultaneously holding the key to their own deliverance. This means that the political aspects of 1984 have bearings on the world as readers know it, but it also demonstrates the deconstruction that occurs as what readers know to be true is challenged, as it appears as though the concept of doublethink is needed in order for one to even begin to understand Orwell’s true intentions in writing the novel.
In summation, Orwell presents a totalitarian society that seems to be a Marxist nightmare come to fruition and applying a Marxist lens allows readers to interpret what Orwell was trying to warn against. In addition, a Deconstructionist viewpoint of the novel points out binary oppositions that exist within the world and challenges readers to see beyond their original mindset, ultimately leading them down a path to deeper understanding of one’s self. Readers are able to understand the political and economic foundations of 1984 through Marxism, but it is Deconstruction that allows them to step into Winston’s shoes and live inside that world. Through Winston’s great revelations of seemingly opposite concepts, such as his statement to Julia that “We are the dead” (Orwell 135), readers come to understand the great gift they have in being truly alive and relatively free to live their lives in any way they choose. This may make them question whether or not they have been truly living up to this point, allowing them to learn from Winston’s mistakes. Later on, as readers see Winston succumb to the Party’s will and ultimately die unto himself, they may be shocked into the understanding that they are rather lucky and that they must live while they can, they must hold onto that part of themselves that makes them them. Perhaps that is what Orwell was truly warning against, the fear that humanness is a quality that can be stolen right from under one’s nose or, worse, that it will simply be given away.
“Definition of Deconstruction.” Critical Approaches. Virtual Lit. <http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/critical_define/crit_decons.html>
“Marxist and Deconstructionist Theories.” Module Three: A Little Deeper Now. Southern New Hampshire University: LIT 500 Module Three. Lecture.
Delahoyde, Michael. “Marxism.” Introduction to Literature. <http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/marxist.crit.html>
Fromm, Erich. In George Orwell, 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classics. 1977.
Giles, Todd. “Using Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ to Teach Deconstruction in the Introduction to Fiction Classroom.” 128–135. <http://criticaltheoriesandwriting.wikispaces.com/file/view/teaching+melville+to+introduce+deconstruction.pdf>
Kellner, Douglas. “From 1984 to one-dimensional man: Critical reflections on Orwell and Marcuse.” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 10 (1990): 223–52. <https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/essays/from1984toonedimensional.pdf>
Orwell, George. 1984. New York, NY: Signet Classics. 1977.
Purdue OWL. “Postmodern Criticism.” Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. Web. 3 June 2015. < https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/08/>
Sava, Toma. “Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Deconstructing Dystopia.” Journal of Humanistic and Social Studies 2 (2012): 51–57.
“1984” is a novel about totalitarianism and the fate of a single man who tried to escape from an overwhelming political regime. The book was written by the British writer and journalist George Orwell in 1948 and had the Soviet Union as a prototype of the social structure described in it.
Events in the book take place in London, a capital of Airstrip One, which is a province of the state of Oceania. The year is 1984, and the world is engaged in an endless omnipresent war. The political regime called Ingsoc (a misspelled abbreviation for English Socialism) constantly seeks out ways to control the minds and private lives of its citizens. The regime is run by the Party, headed by a half mythical Big Brother. The main protagonist of the novel is Winston Smith, an editor in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda. He has doubts about imposed dogmas that are shared by the majority, and at heart, he hates the Party and the Big Brother.
Winston buys a thick notebook where he writes down his thoughts about the reality that surrounds him. In his world, each step of the individual is controlled by the Thought Police, whose main function is to punish people who think differently from what is contained in the official propaganda. Everyone reports on each other, and even children are taught and encouraged to denounce their parents. Winston knows he commits a crime when he denies the Party’s slogan: “War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Ignorance is Strength,” but still he writes in his diary: “Down with the Big Brother.”
At work, Winston recalls recent “Two Minutes Hate” periods of time, when all Party members must gather in special rooms where they watch a short film about Emmanuel Goldstein, the former leader of the Party, who betrayed it and organized the underground movement called the Brotherhood. People are obliged to express hatred towards Goldstein’s image on the screen. During one of these periods, Winston fixates on O’Brien—a member of the most powerful Inner Party. For some reason, Winston imagines that O’Brien could be one of the leaders of the Brotherhood. He wants to talk to him, and he even has a dream in which O’Brien’s voice says: “We shall meet at the place where there is no darkness.”
After the Two Minutes Hate, he received a note from a girl named Julia that reads “I love you.” Julia is a member of the Anti-Sex League, so at first, Winston treats her with mistrust, and he even considers her to be a member of the Thought Police. However, she manages to prove to him that she hates the Party too and they start a love affair. It brings Winston to the thought that they are both doomed, because free romantic relationships between a man and a woman are prohibited. Julia is more optimistic about their situation, because she simply lives in the present moment and does not think about the future. They meet in an old second-hand shop in the Prols’ district—a place where people who have not yet joined the Party life. They seem to be more free and light-hearted than the rest of Airstrip’s One population.
Eventually, Winston and Julia get arrested. They are held separately, tortured, and interrogated. Winston is beaten by jailers and he is forced to confess to various crimes, legitimate and fictional. But still, the physical pain is nothing for him compared to the shock that he experiences when he meets O’Brien and finds that he is a loyal servant of the Big Brother. O’Brien uses a special device that causes incredible pain to “re-educate” Winston, make him love the Big Brother and adopt all the Party’s false dogmas. Winston resists and he declares that despite the fact that, under torture, he has betrayed everything he valued and believed in, there is one person that he is still devoted to: Julia. But here, Orwell depicts the Party’s endless possibilities to monitor the thoughts of each citizen in Oceania. The Party knows exactly what Winston fears most, though it is a secret for Winston himself. O’Brien puts a swarm of rats in front of his victim’s face and, driven to panic and horror, Winston finally cries: “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off and strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”
The novel ends with a description of how Winston is sitting in a cafe, drinking gin. Sometimes he meets Julia occasionally, but they dislike each other now because they know that both of them are traitors. Winston looks at the screen, where an announcer gladly informs everyone that Oceania has won the recent war, and he understands that he now loves the Big Brother. The system managed to break and completely remake Winston.
Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin Books Limited, 2005. Print.
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