The Spectre of Totalitarianism in 1984
In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell uses several literary techniques to develop the theme that totalitarianism is destructive. He does so by using extensive imagery, focusing on the deterioration of the Victory Mansions, the canteen where the Party members eat lunch and the general discomfort of the citizen’s lives to show the reader how totalitarianism has destroyed the quality of life in Oceania. Orwell also uses the characterization of the general population to demonstrate how the totalitarian government has destroyed their sense of individuality and common sense. Finally, Orwell uses the characterization of the main character, Winston Smith, to show that a totalitarian government can destroy one’s morals, beliefs, and self-worth. These three techniques are employed throughout the novel to warn us of what could happen if a totalitarian government was to take over.
The quality of life in Oceania has been greatly impacted by the ruling totalitarian government. The Party purposely keeps the standard of living dangerously low so that the people of Oceania feel like they do not have the power to stand up to the Party and make a change. The Party knows that one can’t help but be “sickened at the discomfort and dirt and scarcity, the interminable winters, the stickiness of one’s socks, the lift that never worked, the cold water, the gritty soap, the cigarettes that came to pieces [and] the food with its strange evil tastes” (63), but they do nothing to change it. If the citizens of Oceania were able to enjoy luxuries, they would feel stronger and more able to rebel against the government. By tactfully keeping the citizens of Oceania struggling in order to have the bare necessities, the Party keeps the civil peace by having an obedient population.
The Victory Mansions are another example of the poor quality of life that the totalitarian government imposes. When Winston steps through the glass doors, he reflects how “the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats… [and that] it was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours” (3). This shows that not only is the government denying the people satisfactory goods such as clean garments; they are also depriving them of electricity. Not having electricity during the day means that there can be no hot water, no use of kitchen appliances, and no way of reaching the top floors of the Victory Mansions easily. Such simple things are being kept from the people so that their quality of life remains undeniably low, ensuring that they will continue to obey the Party.
Finally, Orwell uses imagery to describe the workers’ canteen to demonstrate how totalitarianism is destructive. The canteen is “a low-ceilinged, crowded room, its walls grimy from the contact of innumerable bodies; battered metal tables and chairs, placed so close together that you sat with elbows touching; bent spoons, dented trays coarse white mugs; all surfaces greasy, grime in every crack; and a sourish, composite smell of bad gin and bad coffee and metallic stew and dirty clothes” (62). Being forced to eat in such a vile environment proves that the Party does not at all prioritize the comfort or well-being of the Outer Party members. Winston wonders to himself “why [one should] feel it to be intolerable unless one had some kind of ancestral memory that things had once been different,” (63) which proves that the quality of life in Oceania had not always been so poor, and that the totalitarian government had made it this way by imposing rations on necessities, nearly banning luxuries, and not caring about the wellbeing of the people. The description of the canteen indicates just how low the quality of life is for the workers, and shows how totalitarianism has come to destroy any bit of contentment that could have come with their midday meal. The use of imagery describing the lack of the bare necessities in Oceania, the Victory Mansions, and the canteen where the Outer Party members dine serves to efficiently demonstrate how totalitarianism is destructive to quality of life.
In addition to imagery, Orwell uses the characterization of the general population of Oceania to prove that totalitarianism is destructive to individuality and common sense. The people of this country have been subjected to countless propaganda, persuading them to fully believe that Big Brother has brought them a better life, thoughtcrime is unthinkable and unacceptable, and to be frightened that anti-Party movements or thoughts will not be tolerated. These messages have been subconsciously driven deep into the minds of the citizens of Oceania, so much that they have lost the ability to think for themselves, and blindly believe all that Big Brother tells them. The first evident glimpse of such brain-washed behaviour is during the Two Minutes Hate, when a little sandy-haired woman flings herself forward over a chair, and “with a tremulous murmur that sounded like ‘My Saviour!’ she extended her arms towards the screen,” (18) which is immediately followed by “the entire group of people [breaking] into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of ‘B-B! …. B-B! ….’”(19) The Two Minutes Hate is a form of propaganda which is aimed at the citizens of Oceania while they are in groups, allowing them to take on group mentality. This makes them feel stronger and more powerful when really, they are more vulnerable. The entire group is mesmerized, falling easily into the slow chant of Big Brother’s name, losing their individuality.
Secondly, we see how totalitarianism is destructive to the common sense of the people of Oceania when “it appeared that [were] demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate rations to twenty grammes a week.  Only yesterday, [Winston] reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.” (61) Winston observes the crowd and doesn’t understand how they can so blindly believe every word that they are told about Big Brother. As though they do not remember what they had been told yesterday about the chocolate ration being lowered, they easily accept and believe that Big Brother has raised it for them out of the goodness of his heart. Common sense has failed the people of Oceania, and has been overtaken by their adoration for the leader of the totalitarian government that rules over them. Another example of how totalitarianism can destroy one’s individuality or common sense is Parsons’ break down when Winston runs into him in the Ministry of Love. When asked what he’s in for, “[Parsons says] “Thoughtcrime!” almost blubbering. The tone of his voice implie[s] at once a complete admission of his guilt and a sort of incredulous horror that such a word could be applied to himself.” (244)
Parsons is convinced that even though one may not intend to commit thoughtcrime, if they do, it is punishable. He is terrified of what the Party will do to him, and feels truly responsible for committing a crime. When Winston asks him if he is really guilty of committing thoughtcrime, “[Parsons cries] ‘Of course I’m guilty!’ with a servile glance at the telescreen. ‘You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?’ His froglike face grew calmer, and even took on a slightly sanctimonious expression. ‘Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing, old man.’ he said sententiously. ‘It’s insidious. It can get hold of you without you even knowing it.’” (245) At this point, Parsons shows just how loyal a follower he is, never doubting the Party’s judgement and he is almost thankful that they arrested him. He believes that thoughtcrime is an atrocity and cannot believe that he was a thoughtcriminal all along. He is proud of his children for turning him in, and is willing to change. Parsons no longer has the common sense to realise that he has committed no real crime, and that he is being punished for expressing his thoughts. Through analyzing the behaviour of the people during the Two Minutes Hate, the reaction that the people have over the chocolate ration having been ‘raised’ to twenty grammes per week, and finally, Mr. Parsons reaction to being arrested for thoughtcrime, it is evident that totalitarianism is destructive to one’s common sense and individuality.
Orwell also uses the characterization of Winston Smith to prove that totalitarianism is destructive. Near the beginning of the novel, Winston is a man who thinks that he understands exactly how the government is trying to control the people of Oceania, and he despises how easily the people believe the lies and propaganda. One day, whilst thinking about the constant warfare between Oceania and the two other powers of the world, Winston concludes that Oceania is currently at war with Eurasia and therefore, according to altered historical documents, Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. In reality, “ as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia.” (36) This proves that Winston still has memories of the past and he uses them to remind himself of the real past, and not the one that has been conjured up by the Party in order to keep Big Brother satisfied. At this point, Winston hates both Big Brother and the Party. He refuses to believe what they tell him, and he tries to hold on to his individuality and his memories so that he can keep himself grounded.
Eventually, Winston is arrested by the Thought Police and brought to the Ministry of Love. At first he tried to resist their punishments, but “when his nerves were in rags after hours of questioning, even this appeal could reduce him to snivelling tears… he became simply a mouth that uttered, a hand that signed, whatever was demanded of him. His sole concern was to find out what they wanted him to confess and to confess it quickly, before the bullying started anew (254).” This point in the novel is where the effects of totalitarianism begin to destroy Winston as a person. A totalitarian government does not stand for individuality, and frowns upon anyone who tries to oppose them. Since Winston has rebelled many times against the Party, by writing in his diary and by falling in love with Julia, he has become an enemy of the Party who must be rehabilitated and forced to love Big Brother whether he wants to or not. Winston is starved and beaten, tortured with electric shock and threatened with his worst fear in order to have him submit to what the Party wants, absolutely destroying his morals and beliefs. But in the end, for Winston, “It was all right, everything was all right, [and] his struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”(311) This final sentence was absolute confirmation that totalitarianism has destroyed Winston as a person. He never wanted to love Big Brother, or believe that which the Party wanted him to believe. However, in the end, Winston could not take any more physical or mental abuse, and had no other choice but to do what he was forced to do; love Big Brother, even if that meant that his morals and personal beliefs would be destroyed by it.
Orwell’s extensive use of imagery, along with the characterization of the brain-washed general population of Oceania, and the characterization of Winston Smith worked together to prove that totalitarianism is destructive not only physically, but also to one’s individuality, common sense, and personal beliefs. Power can be a great thing, but when power falls into the hands of a dictator such as Big Brother, that power could destroy us before we know it.
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