Unforgiven: Consequences of Winston Smith’s Search for Reality in 1984
In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith cannot escape the state’s domination. Yet his inability is not only because of government power. Rather, even if he did have an opportunity to leave Oceania, his actions indicate that he would not have the personal convictions and character to do so. Both his lack of courage and Oceania’s lack of a clear “good” render it difficult for Winston to succeed over Big Brother–and why, instead, he succumbs.
Of course, Winston does rebel against the state. It is particularly interesting to note that Winston works at Ministry of Truth as a revisionist writer of historical fact and that the first act of rebellion he commits involves the act of writing. Driven by a sense of isolation from society, Winston acts the ultimate act of remoteness: writing a diary. Not only is this a solitary act, however, but it is also a relatively safe one. For Winston, the consequences of openly expressing heretical ideas is too risky; he wishes to work out the contradictions and problems of his society, but he wants to do so in some measure of security.
Yet writing down his thoughts is still a dangerous act. Although Winston’s initiation into rebellion may at first seem tepid, in fact it is quite subversive: Simply the act of committing criticisms to paper gives a torture sentence. Thus, although he may tell himself it is safe, intuitively, Winston senses that danger. Thus, from that moment, Winston must weigh two considerations: the thrill and necessity of his rebellion, and his fear of being caught.
The tension that drives Winston’s actions through the rest of the story stems from this duality. A similar theme of contradiction is emphasized through the place of Winston’s work, the Ministry of Truth. The title is, of course, ironic: It symbolizes the lack of courage shared by all the members of his society. After all, when one is never certain of even factual historical occurrences, it is rather easy to forgive people for unwillingness to express convictions. The genius of the state is in creating a condition of perpetual insecurity of the type that forces Winston into the unenviable state of catatonia. So ingrained and vital is this false reality in Oceania that even Julia contributes to the uncertainty, confessing, “You thought I was a good party member, pure in word and deed. Banners, processions, slogans, games, community hikes all that stuff. And you thought that if I had a quarter of a chance I’d denounce you as a thought criminal and get you killed off” (101). Even Winston, who is part of the process that refashions and tailors history to keep it constantly “updated,” can distinguish between conscious memories and propaganda. He recognizes, for example, that “The party had invented airplanes” is propaganda, not truth (127).
The state’s blurring (and blotting out) of reality make Winston fearful, resulting in his deep self-hate and muted hostility–which are, ironically, transformed into a dispassionate love for Big Brother. Forced into treachery, Winston is rejected by O’Brien had the party. O’Brien enlightens Winston by informing him that is simply a blip on the radar. As in any authoritarian political power structure, Winston’s daring to rebel against what the leaders consider a perfectly balanced utopia cannot be tolerated. The threat of torture by the minions of Big Brother is a punishment, of course, but it is also an instrument of coercion. “You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves” (200). O’Brien is the personification of authoritarian rule, symbolizing the very essence of a coercive and repressive system that uses brainwashing techniques to control citizens’ thoughts and actions.
Winston Smith cannot possibly be redeemed, because only universal truth can make redemption possible. Yet in a society like Oceania, universal truth cannot be defined–at least not as anything other than what the state mandates. Thus, it is the indefinite nature of Oceania that rises to challenge Winston Smith’s ability to hold fast to his convictions. As Syme explains, “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words… You haven’t a real appreciation for Newspeak, Winston… 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” (46). In a constantly changing paradigm of truth where all universals are diminished and destroyed, there is no chance of redemption or salvation. Those aspects that redeem one day may be used to crucify you the next. Redemption is impossible on Oceania.
Yet even so, Winston cannot be excused. By giving in, by crying out his wish that they torture Julia instead of him, Winston sheds the last remaining vestige of his dignity and humanity. What separates Winston from a compadre in the battle against the authoritarian state is not the extremity of his situation, but rather the fact that he gives in to oppression. Although Winston begins by questioning the truth and tactics of Big Brother, the fact that he has come to love Big Brother by the story’s end is a testament to his very inability to express the truth that lay at the core of his being in the novel’s opening pages.
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