Proletariat vs protagonist: Winston Smith’s class conflict in 1984

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

The title year of George Orwell’s most famous novel is nineteen years past, but the dystopian vision it draws has retained its ability to grip readers with a haunting sense of foreboding about the future. At the heart of many of the issues touched on in 1984 is a subject of contemporary debate: the conflict of the individual versus the state. In the totalitarian world that Orwell paints, the position of the state as all-powerful only heightens the importance of the individual as counter-balance. In 1984, the characters that Orwell portrays are all the more important because the only possible rebellion is personal rebellion, so there are no heroic plots, only heroic people. Orwell’s anti-hero protagonist Winston Smith notes that “[r]ebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflection of the voice; at the most, an occasional whispered word” (60). The personal has become political, and so increased tenfold the importance of character in the novel .

While character is of paramount importance, the novel is also an expression of Orwell’s own political ideas. The novel contains a long digression in the form of an illicit book that Winston reads, ostensibly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, a mythic “resistance” leader. Orwell seems to use the episode to expound further on the details of the ultra-fascist government depicted and sketch out how it came to be (although the book turns out to have been written by the very men whom it criticizes, perhaps more for the sake of plausibility of plot than anything else). Orwell writes that “Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. […] [N]o advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimeter nearer” (166-67). This seems to be a more articulate expression of Orwell’s Socialist view of class conflict and his fear of Fascism in the midst of an entire novel that is a vaguer warning of the same. Thus, we can plausibly interpret the character of Winston Smith, our protagonist, within this framework of class conflict and motivations that Orwell has laid out. While certainly an individual, Winston is also an example of the middle class that Orwell delineates in Goldstein’s book.

The society Orwell created in 1984 is neatly three-tiered, with a high, a middle, and a low class. The lower class is composed of the Proles, the illiterate and abused masses who lead a somewhat medieval existence. The upper two classes contain members of the so-called Party which, in turn, is divided into member of the Outer and Inner Party, with the latter being far more powerful. Winston is a member of the Outer Party, and so a clear member of the middle class.

Winston’s core motivation in the novel is not entirely clear from his character alone, but becomes more comprehensible if we understand him to be acting within the confines of Orwell’s theory of class conflict. For most of the book, Winston is driven to undermine the Party by a hatred of Big brother and the Party itself, yet other than a nostalgia for the past, the reader does not know precisely why he does this. In Goldstein’s book, Orwell writes that “[t]he aims of these three groups [classes] are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim […] is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal” (166). Thus, Winston’s desire to act against the Party comes from his desire to supercede its power over him and to gain such power for himself. Such a desire is, at most, subconscious and expressed subtly. In class disputes, a typically coveted form of power is economic power. Orwell shows that Winston possesses very little economic power over his own life, as when he “wrenched his body out of bed – naked, for a member of the Outer Party received only three thousand clothing coupons annually, and a suit of pajamas was six hundred” (29). Orwell juxtaposes the mention of Winston’s status as a member of the Outer Party with the mention of a small but uncomfortable physical detail and specific numbers to reflect the sort of discomfort that pervades Winston’s existence as a member of the middle class. Less tangibly, Orwell also sees the pursuit of power for its own sake as a legitimate motivation in class conflicts. O’Brien, Winston’s teacher/torturer, tells him, “The Party seeks power for its own sake” (217). Winston too seeks to seize power from those higher than him. On the first occasion when he wrote in his diary, “[h]e discovered that while he sat helplessly musing he had also been writing, […] printing in large neat capitals – DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (19). Orwell shows that the expression of this thought was almost subconscious, flowing from Winston’s hand without realization, but with strength. Winston is short of even the most basic personal freedoms and economic powers. He longs not only to gain these powers but to tear down those above him, seeing this as the only path to gain the tangible and intangible things that he lacks. In this, he is an excellent example of the middle class motivations that Orwell outlines.

Another powerful motivator for Winston is his nostalgia for the past; however, his nostalgia informs his desire for more power. He is obsessed with the past not only because it is difficult to prove or discern but also because he cannot be sure whether his desire is valid. He was a small child when Party rule began, and thus cannot remember anything enough to disprove the Party’s claims. Winston reads in a Party history that before the Party came to power, “[t]he capitalists owned everything in the world, and everyone else was their slave” (63). This idea is troubling to Winston because if it is true, then it means that Party leaders have simply replaced “the capitalists” in their function, and in the past that Winston vaguely yearns for, he would have no more power than he has in the present day. He even questions an old prole man at some risk to himself about the past in general and the ruling class in specific, but is unable to get a clear answer. This is impossibly frustrating to him because he cannot be sure if, in another time, he would be in the same position of middle-class servility as before.

Winston’s methods also are typical of the middle-class psychology that Orwell has laid out. Through Goldstein, Orwell writes that “throughout history a struggle which is the same in its main outlines recurs over and over again. For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but […] [t]hey are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side” (166). Winston, even before reading the book, has already made a similar realization. He concludes, “If there was hope, it must lie 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” (60). Orwell uses condescending language to characterize the proles, describing them as “swarming” and conjuring an image of insects. Such language reinforces the class distinctions present: Winston sees the proles only as tools, not as individuals. His resistance is typical of the class that he inhabits.

Winston’s ideology also evinces his status as a middle-class rebel. Orwell writes that the middle class recruits the lower class “by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice” and adds that “[t]he Middle, so long as it was struggling for power, had always made use of such terms as freedom, justice, and fraternity” (166-67). Although this is much how the Inner Party behaves with members of the Outer Party, “no attempt was made to indoctrinate [the proles] with the ideology of the Party” (62). This territory is thus left open for Winston to pioneer. Although he cannot of course actually attempt to indoctrinate the proles, his resistance is distinctly ideological, especially in contrast to that of his lover, Julia. He believes in freedom, although he cannot have it, and certainly would use it as part of his rhetoric. When Winston is not obsessed by the mutability of the past, he thinks often about the idea of freedom, writing in his diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows” (69). The idea of equality also attracts him as essential: “[w]here there is equality there can be sanity,” he thinks (181). He is similarly intrigued by the idea of the Brotherhood, a mythic resistance movement of which Goldstein is ostensibly the leader. In Winston’s methods and ideas, he is no different than those seeking power in the middle class long before his time; what sets him apart is that his plans and thoughts can never come to fruition.

Winston’s personal character is of great importance in the book, but that he can be interpreted through Orwell’s rather vaguely defined class psychology places Winston’s character within a greater historical tradition of middle-class rebels. Orwell shows that class divisions and inequality will continue well into the future, but concludes the book with the defeat of Winston’s spirit and ability to fight. The High have trounced the Middle, and one of the most terrifying aspects of 1984 is the way Orwell shows that the High have reached a point where they should be able to preserve their status indefinitely, thus rendering meaningless Winston’s struggle. He uses Goldstein’s book to explicate these circumstances and Winston’s character to dramatize them and drive them home. Thus the novel is a warning not only against those countries which are governed by corrupt ideologies, but against the ruling class of all societies. Orwell has envisioned a world in which it is essentially of no use to fight against the dictates of one’s society, because even if the urge persists, both the means and the end are impossible to reach.

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