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Orwell's 1984 and the Psychological Horror of Totalitarianism
Most designs which have been used as book covers for it over the years have some reference to an eye or to being watched. The state of Oceania where the story takes place is an authoritarian surveillance state, but in this article, we will dig deeper to the themes of the book. We will go past these surface level facts about the setting of the book to see that the true antagonist is not the government. The struggle is within, and the inner thoughts of Winston, the protagonist, make this ever clearer throughout the story. 1984 is about the power that lies in controlling the mind-state of people.
Humans have lived in authoritarian states. They've been enslaved and subjugated, tortured and killed, and most of all, exploited, for purposes of maintaining power. People have lived under scrutiny and felt like they were imprisoned in a certain way of life. They still had a certain level of freedom to make everyday decisions and feel how they wanted. These are not the true horrors of 1984.
Anyone could be a member of the thought police or an aspiring spy who grew up idolizing other kids who turned their own parents in for thought crimes. Winston is constantly monitoring his own facial expressions and movements to not appear out of place to the cameras. If you do anything which indicates an appreciation for art, if you have a nervous tic, if you say something unpatriotic in your sleep, that could be it for you. The next day your name will be struck from the records, and the following day, everyone will have forgotten your existence.
Throughout the book, almost no tension comes from the police themselves or from real, physical threats. In fact, Orwell seems to want to impress on readers the simple beauty that can be found in living a normal, happy life. Winston's torture and pain comes from his moments of loneliness, when all he can do is think, "Am I wrong? Am I insane? Does the truth even matter?"
"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.
The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end."
The people of Oceania and, presumably, the other two nations of the world of 1984, are deeply disempowered. Proles are kept busy with difficult, pointless jobs which long ago should've been replaced by robots. Weapons are constantly manufactured to continue to wage war against Eurasia and East Asia during their ever-shifting boundaries and national relationships.
When new land and labor power are captured by one of the nations, their productive force is turned to even more warfare to capture even more land. Technological improvement can't be allowed to free up the time and minds of everyday people, or they would realize the pointlessness of current power structures and rightfully tear them down.
“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
Winston's job, for example, is to go through old newspapers and speeches, striking out individuals who've been disappeared by The Party, fixing statistics to be more flattering to Big Brother, and making other such alterations. He knows, therefor, that statistics published in papers are false. He knows that the war Oceania is fighting has been going on for only four years, but not a single piece of media anywhere in the world would say anything to contradict the idea that the war has been going on forever.
Each day, members of The Party are bombarded with two minutes of pure rage, called "The Hate", where random statistics and stories of the horrors the enemy is supposedly inflicting are quickly rattled off with pictures of Goldstein, the almost mythical enemy of The Party and supposed leader of a rebellion group. Bombs are almost constantly dropping in different places, killing random proles (proletarians) and keeping the people afraid.
Individuals who display some understanding of the society always get killed eventually. At one point, Winston interacts with a very intelligent man named Syme who is involved in designing Oceania's official language, newspeak. He is extremely devoted to EngSoc, the official ideology of the state, and he can describe in great detail why it's great and compelling, that it liberates the soul and so on. Winston knows that despite Syme's devotion, he will have to die eventually, because he knows why The Party does what it does, and he's too open about it.
Winston identifies another party member exercising what he calls "duck speak", where you prattle on and on, loudly expressing some belief. You don't think, you just speak. The Party seeks to build orthodoxy, not knowledgeable devotion.
“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”
The past can't be trusted, so nobody has anything meaningful to compare their lives to. Words lose their meaning, so you don't have any way to describe conditions to others. Even if you could, where might you start?
Anyone looking at you funny could fancy your dress, or they could be a spy sent to ensure your loyalty hadn't lapsed. Either is undesirable, for a focus on something like dress may be considered suspicious. There is no positive outcome you can foresee in interacting with other people in this world. Meanwhile, you yourself could advance in the ranks if you were to report a neighbor to the Thought Police.
People are made desperate and given two choices: continue in desparation, or have absolute loyalty in the hopes of rising. When you know everyone else made the same choice, it becomes like a society-wide prisoner's dilemma. Nobody knows who will rat the other out first, but they know that the best possible outcome for them is to be the first to speak, so often they will.
Our brains aren't meant to be rational. They evolved to break down a situation, quickly identify threats, and deal with them to maximize survival. Politics and theoretical threats that we face in modern society are so far from what we're built for.
We have cognitive biases and tendencies our brains naturally develop which are meant to help us. Pattern recognition is supposed to be helpful: when the bush rustles, or you see eyes poking through its leaves, it can save your life to know whether that is a tiger.
But what happens when a police officer uses pattern recognition to decide what kinds of people to police harder? Well, the biases can lead to bad outcomes.
As humans, we can train ourselves to be more rational. Introspection is incredibly important, as we can look back through the way our brains arrived at a conclusion and either change our minds with new uncovered evidence, or harden the ideas against certain angles of criticism. This is a constant ongoing process, not an end-goal.
“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”
In 1984, The Party aren't just looking for attacks or outbursts against the state. They hunt anyone who might believe something that could lead them to committing a crime. Acknowledging that The Party has changed the past in any way, for example, would be considered a thought crime.
Newspeak limits communication between people.
How often have you heard new information or been given some insight from someone which not only gave you a new opinion, but opened up a whole avenue of thought to you that had previously not existed? Language and communication can be an incredibly powerful thing.
For example, homosexuality was demonized and forced to hide in the dark for centuries by our cultures. Only when the LGBT community began to form and give these people a voice to speak for themselves did big changes become possible. They were no longer the weird kid who tried to go unnoticed in church lest they get a lecture on sexual purity, or worse, are completely disowned by their family. Instead, they were gay, and they were proud. They had a flag to raise high and people to stand beside.
In contrast, The Party seeks to limit the mind.
You physically limit their ability to try new things and mentally limit, through propaganda and a lack of available information, their ability to know that these new ideas even exist. This is the way to maintain control.
Abstract issues are treated as simple and black-and-white, to be altered by The Party and ignored by everyone except precisely when they are asked to recall it for some political reason.
Take the word "freedom". If I drop a pencil in the air, it will fall, and you could say the pencil is "free" of my hand. The smoke is made of particles free of the fire. We would not usually use the term in this way, though. Freedom refers to an abstract concept with many interpretations. It has a lot of implications when someone might write about freedom.
Imagine a world, now, where the term freedom no longer has this abstract meaning, but only refers to the absence of a thing. How would you describe, to those people living in this world, what authoritarianism is? What is 'slavery' without freedom?
The more you whittle away at the language and the acceptable range of thought people exist in, it will naturally follow that they will have fewer options to consider. The appendix of 1984 describes Newspeak's goals as ultimately limiting language to the point that you couldn't even express discontentment with the way things are, because they so obfuscated under layers of lies and a simplified word system capable of only the simplest communication.
Winston is trapped inside his own mind.
Watched all the time, corrupted by mountains of lies and doublethink, exploited to the point of deprivation, Winston is helpless from the beginning.
A major struggle throughout 1984 is Winston's against the world of falsehoods around him. He wants to know about the past, to have something resembling hope to hold onto, but the lies are built upon lies which are yet built on more lies. When everyone who knows anything of the lie is unable to communicate and takes this to their grave, when no record anywhere will say anything else, is The Party's truth the only truth left?
In the book's final moments, Orwell delivers a truly crushing blow as Winston, having been broken under torture, gazes upon a poster of Big Brother and accepts the world for what it is.
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself.
He loved Big Brother."
Perhaps this is the most terrible fear of all. After all, death is natural and comes for everyone. What is truly scary is that you might be killed in spirit, a walking ghost, contrary to anything you presently consider yourself to be. It's scary to think that the person you would become likely won't mind the transformation.