Orwell’s Motifs Of Time and History
The American writer William Faulkner said The past is never dead. It’s not even past. 1984, by George Orwell, projects a dystopia where everything is under control of the government, known as the Party.
Winston Smith, a man who works for the Party in the Ministry of Truth, begins to see through the Party’s corrupted rule of control and becomes discontent with the infinite time loop instilled by the Party. Winston sees how the past is constantly being rewritten and erased by the Party, and how the future is stalled beyond the looped oscillation of his current period. Relics of a time before the Partythe glass paperweight and Mr. Charrington’s rhymeas well as the Party’s control of time create a desire in Winston to discover a lost past and possible future beyond the manipulation of the Party.
The Party features a totalitarian system of government, comprised of Ingsoc, Big Brother and the Thought Police, often boasting BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. Telescreens scrutinize the actions of every person, the Party regulates the memory and information of all the people, and any ideas or thoughts against the Party are considered thoughtcrime. Newspeak is one way this regulation is enforced. Talking to Winston in the canteen, Syme says Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it (Orwell 72). As Syme points out, Newspeak limits and simplifies the use of words, including words that could be directed in hostility at or in opposition to the Party. Doublethink, in Oldspeak known as reality control, is the method in which people are to prevent themselves from committing thoughtcrime. Being a part of Newspeak, the term sounds relatively simple and straightforward, but there are several depths of doublethink instilled in the people to maintain the Party’s control.
Doublethink is the main principle exercised by the Party to keep everyone’s thoughts in check, but it is also used to negate past events. When thinking about doublethink, Winston reflects that it is the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed (Orwell 50). This complex and paradoxical concept of denial is to be applied to anything and everything. When looking over the Party’s government, Winston realizes:
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink. For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely. In no other way could the ancient cycle be broken. (Orwell 290)
All of this manipulation is the Party’s way of ensuring that if someone begins to deny or question the memory or information from Party, they are to force themselves to believe that the Party is always right, and forget that they ever thought about it. As a result, one can never really be aware of time’s progression, because the Party dictates what time it is and the people cannot believe differently. Winston evaluates It means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest (Orwell 284).
Winston believes that Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. However when interrogating Winston, O’Brien makes the point Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, has it not?, leading Winston to summarize That was doublethink (Orwell 452, 455). In David Dawn’s Truth and Freedom in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he evaluates 1984’s treatment of truth and how it’s linked to the pursuit of freedom. When analyzing the Party’s honesty, Dawn writes The Party…sponsors Doublethink…But this seems to violate the basic grammar of belief. For something to be believed it must be deemed true…and for something to be true, it must at least make sense. Yet much of what the party endorses is totally senseless (Dawn 6). Doublethink is a significant factor, but is not the only efforts made by the Party to expunge trails of history.
Exemplifying dictatorial control, the Party took its own measures to eradicate all records and documents of the past. In most buildings, but especially in offices where employees and members of the Party work, there are ‘memory holes’. These are used when one knew that any document was due for destruction (Orwell 53). They are a clear reference to doublethink, bearing the noun ‘memory’ in their name and indicating that such information would not be forgotten, but then for that information to be devoured by flames. During Winston’s interrogation, O’Brien holds up a picture of three people from a news article that Winston had destroyed 11 years ago. When Winston exclaims that the article and picture exist, O’Brien objects, dropping it into a memory hole and stating Ashes, not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed. I do not remember it (Orwell 538). Actions such as these are testaments to Winston’s observations about the past, as he thought If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death (Orwell 49). With the help of memory holes and doublethink, the Party created a continuous time period, designing a past the Party desired with people’s memories being revised and all records undergoing amendments. Talking to Julia in the room, Winston realizes:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been re-painted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. (Orwell 206)
Despite the Party’s regulation of history, Winston gathers hope that he will unearth the past that they have relentlessly nullified. Winston quickly becomes dissatisfied with the endless present mentioned earlier, and endeavors to uncover the lost past but also looks to see if a future is possible. At first, Winston concludes, The past was dead, the future was unimaginable (Orwell 38), seeing how history is halted and the existing time period is nonstop. Wondering if there would ever be a future, he begins to write a diary to a different time, but ponders How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to [me], or it would be different from it, and [my] predicament would be meaningless (Orwell 14).
To acquire some answers to his questions and thoughts, Winston talks to an older man in a bar, asking him questions about the past. Winston tells the old man You can remember what it was like in the old days, before the Revolution. People of my age don’t really know anything about those times. We can only read about them in books, and what it says in the books may not be true (Orwell 121). Winston finds that the old man is not accurately answering his inquiries, but desperate to move beyond the Party’s dictated time and learn more about a time different than his, Winston asks the huge and simple question, Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?’ (Orwell 125). Winston is left empty-handed with no further information, but he manages to finish the note in his diary, writing To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink greetings! (Orwell 61). The old man provided no aid or new knowledge to Winston, but there are some concepts that accented his search enhanced his desire to discover unknown times.
The rhyme introduced to Winston carried several connections to the lost past that increased Winston’s desire to investigate times beyond the Party’s manipulation. Winston meets an old man who owns a shop, Mr. Charrington. In search of the past, Winston is interested in a lot of the antiques found in Mr. Charrington’s shop, including a rhyme from Mr. Charrington’s childhood that goes Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements’s! Mr. Charrington clarifies, It was just the names of churches. All the London churches were in itall the principal ones, that is (Orwell 179). Winston is immediately fascinated by the rhyme, finally finding some history that was untouched by the Party. Mr. Charrington eventually remembers the second line of the rhyme, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s.
All these mentions of ancient churches piques Winston’s interest, as he wondered vaguely to what century the church belonged to (Orwell 179). Provided only small fragments of the puzzle by Mr. Charrington, Winston continues to delve into the history of the relic and its contents. Winston is unable to stop thinking about the rhyme: pieces of the lost past he’s searching for, and weighs in, It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten (Orwell 179). Malcolm Pittock writes about 1984’s inhuman civilization in his essay, The hell of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Pittock accurately analyzes, It is Mr. Charrington who introduces Winston to ‘Oranges and Lemons’…which stimulates Winston to imagine the bells of a lost London (Pittock 6). The rhyme’s ties to the past were not the only factors that encouraged Winston’s quest.
The drip of historical fragments also enlarged Winston’s aspiration to learn more about previous times. Winston continues to acquire more bits of the rhyme, hearing the next line from Julia When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey. The rhyme also leads him to more and more fragments of lost history. Winston finally meets with O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party. In this reunion, Winston is eager to hear that O’Brien is part of the Brotherhood, a secret rebel group against the Party, and uses this opportunity to find out more about the past. Winston asks O’Brien about Mr. Charrington’s rhyme, and when O’Brien completes the rhyme Winston exclaims, You knew the last line! (Orwell 330).
What makes the rhyme so important to Winston is that it opens up a new timeline that Winston is determined to study, as the rhyme had ties to places and periods he had never before seen. Winston considers it belonged to the vanished, romantic past, the olden time as he liked to call it (Orwell 316). Despite his efforts, however, Winston quest is cut short. In the room Mr. Charrington rented to him, Winston is apprehended. Just before the Thought Police storms in, Mr Charrington, also a member of the Thought Police, articulates through a telescreen the last line of the same rhyme that inspired Winston, saying And by the way, while we are on the subject, Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head! (Orwell 408). Mr. Charrington’s rhyme was not the only antique that fed Winston’s search for the past.
The depiction portrayed by the glass paperweight that Winston acquires further enhances his desire to find the lost past. Winston’s strong opposition to the Party and its government supported his search for the history that the Party has erased. When Winston first sees the paperweight in Mr. Charrington’s shop, he observes, It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other side, making almost a hemisphere (Orwell 174). Of all the adjectives he could use, Winston describes the paperweight as a hemisphere not just because of its physical appearance, but also because it illustrates to him another part of the world that the Party has excluded from records.
The essay, George Orwell’s Opaque Glass in ‘1984’, written by John Lyons, goes over the significance of glass in the novel. Lyons similarly assesses, [the paperweight] represents a little chunk of history the Party has failed to corrupt (Lyons 7). Knowing how the Party has sealed away the Past, Winston is aware that any attempt to retrieve it would be crime, but that thought further motivates him to do so. Orwell narrates, It was as when Winston had gazed into the heart of the paperweight, with the feeling that it would be possible to get inside that glassy world, and that once inside it time could be arrested (Orwell 355). Winston still wants to probe the history of the paperweight and enter the past despite being aware that the Party has deemed such relics contraband. What the paperweight represented to Winston was not the only aspect that promoted Winston’s pursuit of the lost past.
The glass paperweight’s depth and intensity fuels Winston’s ambition of recovering the history buried by the Party. Winston, upon spotting the paperweight, is immediately fascinated by its physical characteristics, and also by what he saw in it. Orwell writes What appealed to [Winston] about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. The soft, rain watery glass was not like any glass that he had every seen (Orwell 130).
Winston does not recognize the physicality of the paperweight, as he has never before identified a piece of the past similar to the paperweight. Lyons summarizes, The surest from of the past [Winston] comes across is the glass paperweight he finds in Charrington’s shop, and Pittock calculates, It is the paperweight, especially old and beautiful, that symbolizes not just the past but the difference of the past, and by implication a past that was not only different but better and inviolable (Lyons 7, Pittock 5). Winston is excited by this relic he has attained, finding in the paperweight a significant portion of the past. However, with the Party’s surveillance of all the people, he feels the weight of of this unauthorized history, at one point questioning whether it was worth it to proceed with his endeavor. Orwell narrates that the paperweight was very heavy in [Winston’s] pocket, but fortunately it did not make much of a bulge, the lump of glass in his pocket banged against his thigh at each step, and he was half minded to take it out and throw it away (Orwell 214, 226).
The paperweight and its history bring several epiphanies to Winston, as he often evaluates the extent of the past it integrated. In the room Winston rents from Mr. Charrington, where his affairs between he and Julia take place, Winston looks into the paperweight, and finds:
The inexhaustibly interesting thing was not the fragment of coral but the interior of the glass itself. There was such a depth of it, and yet it was almost as transparent as air. It was as though the surface of the glass had been the arch of the sky, enclosing a tiny world with its atmosphere complete. He had the feeling that he could get inside it, and that in fact he was inside it, along with the mahogany bed and the gateleg table and the clock and the steel engraving and the paperweight itself. The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia’s life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal. (Orwell 326)
At this point, Winston feels as he has surpassed the Party, finally entering into the history he was searching for, a history before the Party supervised the every action of each person. Nonetheless, likewise to the other ancient artifact, Mr. Charrington’s rhyme, Winston’s search for the past is terminated. After the Thought Police storm in to Winston’s room, an officer destroys Winston’s glass paperweight. Winston observes, Someone had picked up the glass paperweight from the table and smashed it to pieces on the hearthstone. The fragment of coral, a tiny crinkle of pink like a sugar rosebud from a cake, rolled across the mat. How small, thought Winston, how small it always was! (Orwell 505). Another epiphany of the paperweight, Winston becomes aware of the true size of the paperweight as he watches the core coral particle roll. Lyons concludes that the paperweight is a distorting lens so that [Winston’s] sense of the past is as incomplete and as false as his sense of the present (Lyons 8). Winston perceives that the past in the paperweight contained lots of depth, but the true size of his current reality was incomparable to the smaller scale of the past he longs for.
Time and history are significant motifs in 1984, and both are controlled by the Party’s dictatorship over the people. Although the Party makes efforts to delete all and any records that were contrary to their regulated history, there are still fragments of the past rooted in times before the Party’s manipulation. Winston is motivated by these relics, as they inspire him to delve into those roots and learn about what life was like before the Party’s absolute rule. While unable to remain there as he truly wished, Winston temporarily enters the past he searched for, briefly liberated from the grasp of the Party. Therefore, despite Winston’s numerous reflections and shortly living free, as Faulkner stated, the past is never dead the past can never be erased.
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