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The most honest writer alive

The original New Statesman review of <em>Nineteen Eighty-Four</em>

Nineteen Eighty-Four goes through the reader like an east wind, cracking the skin, opening the sores; hope has died in Mr Orwell’s wintry mind, and only pain is known. I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put down. The faults of Orwell as a writer – monotony, nagging, the lonely schoolboy shambling down the one dispiriting track – are transformed now he rises to a large subject.

The story is simple. In 1984 Winston Smith, a civil servant and Party member in the English Totalitarian State (now known as Airstrip One), conceives political doubts, drifts into tacit rebellion, is detected after a short and touching period of happiness with a girl member of the Party and is horribly “rehabilitated”. Henceforth he will be spiritually, emotionally, intellectually infantile, passive and obedient, as though he had undergone a spiritual leucotomy. He is “saved” for the life not worth living. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the punishment is lifeless life: “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.”

A generation from now the world is composed of three States, Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia, in perpetual war. From time to time these States change sides, and the mass of people have little idea who are their allies or their enemies. These wars are mainly fought far from the great cities and their objects are to use up the excessive productiveness of the machine, and yet to get control of rare raw materials or cheap native labour. It also enables the new governing class, who are modelled on the Stalinists, to keep down the standard of living and nullify the intelligence of the masses whom they no longer pretend to have liberated. The collective oligarchy can operate securely only on a war footing.

It is with this moral corruption of absolute power that Mr Orwell’s novel is concerned. London lies decaying, but high above the streets tower the four main ministries of Ingsoc: the Ministry of Truth, for the issuing of lies, that is to say, official news and culture; the Ministry of Plenty, for the purpose of managing scarcity; the Ministry of Peace for conducting war; and the dubious Ministry of Love, where political prisoners are executed or “rehabilitated” by the new Inquisition.

In the homes of Party members a tele-screen is fitted, from which canned propaganda continually pours, and on which the pictures of Big Brother, the leader, and the enemy and anti-Christ, Goldstein, often appear. Also by this device the Thought Police, on endless watch for Thought Crime, can observe the people night and day. What precisely Thought Crime is no one knows; but in general it is the tendency to conceive a private life secret from the State. A frown, a smile, a sigh may betray the citizen, who has forgotten, for the moment, the art of “reality control” or, in Newspeak, the official language, “doublethink”. Winston Smith tries to define “doublethink” in his illicit diary: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies . . . to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it . . . Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

Newspeak, the new Basic English blessed by scientists and the Party, is the natural offspring of doublethink. “You think, I dare say,” says Syme, the Party philologist, “that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words, scores of them.” And he goes on, “It is a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” The aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought [ . . . ] which could pollute the minds of Party Members. The time will come when the official slogans: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, will not be required, “simply because there will be no thought as we understand it now”.

Mr Orwell’s book is a satirical pamphlet. Some critics have said that his prophecy is not probable. Neither was Swift’s Modest Proposal nor Wells’s Island of Dr Moreau. Probability is not a necessary condition of satire, which, in pretending to draw the future, scourges the present. The purges in Russia and its satellites, the seediness of London in the worst days of the war, the pockets of 19th-century life in decaying England, the bad flats, bad food, the whining streak of domestic sluttishness which have sickened English satirists since Smollett, all these have given Mr Orwell his material.

The duty of the satirist is to go one worse than reality; and it might be objected that Mr Orwell is too literal, that he is too oppressed by what he sees, to exceed it. In one or two incidents where he does exceed, notably in the torture scenes, he is merely melodramatic: he introduces those rather grotesque machines which used to appear in terror stories for boys. But mental terrorism is his real subject.

Until our time, irony and unnatural laughter were thought to be the duty of the satirist: in Candide the more atrocious the fact – and a large number of Voltaire’s facts were true – the gayer the laugh. More strikingly than in any other genre, it is indispensable for satire to sound “untrue”. The laughter of Voltaire, the hatred of Swift were assertions of vitality and the instinct to live in us, which continually struggles not only against evil but against the daily environment. For Mr Orwell, the most honest writer alive, hypocrisy is too dreadful for laughter: it feeds his despair.

Though the indignation of Nineteen Eighty-Four is singeing, the book does suffer from a division of purpose. Is it an account of present hysteria, is it a satire on propaganda, or a world that sees itself entirely in inhuman terms? Is Mr Orwell saying, not that there is no hope, but that there is no hope for man in the political conception of man?

This is an edited extract from the review which ran in the New Statesman dated 18 June 1949

Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900-1997) was a critic, short story writer and novelist. He was literary editor at the New Statesman from 1926 to 1965.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother