The totalitarian surveillance state imagined in George Orwell‘s “1984” is often cited to describe government encroachments on privacy, which is why the recent National Security Agency leaks led to a spike in sales of the dystopian novel on Amazon.com.
When you look at Orwell’s other novels, however, it becomes clear that his central fear went far beyond government spying. The British author, who was born on June 25, 1903, also wrote pessimistic novels about imperialism, capitalism, commercialism, and war.
All of his novels (except for “Animal Farm,” which is a specific historical allegory) revolve around a thwarted desire to escape the constraints of modern society.
The theme of escape in Orwell’s writing has been noted by Dominic Cavendish, who describes “an Orwellian preoccupation with imprisonment and escape, his urge to examine human beings in the most straitened circumstances and consider their often thwarted urges for freedom.”
“Burmese Days,” published in 1934, tells the story of a British bachelor in 1920s Burma who couldn’t cut it in England and feels like an outsider among other expatriates. Protagonist John Flory is “the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature,” writes Emma Larkin.
Flory finds hope in the arrival in a young woman whom he briefly considers his soulmate. At the moment when he starts to propose to her, however, a literal earthquake interrupts them, following which his life is ruined by a confluence of negative forces including a corrupt Burmese magistrate, jealous Burmese mistress, and restrictive British society.
“A Clergyman’s Daughter,” published in 1935, tells the story of young Dorothy Hare, who gets abused, gets amnesia, ends up in the gutter, before getting retrieved by the bachelor who abused her. This book, which Orwell later disowned, features haunting portrayals of gender relations as well as “the nightmare in which one may be dropped out of respectable life, no matter how debt-laden and forlorn.”
“Keep The Aspidistra Flying,” published in 1936, tells the story of a man who quits a promising job as a copywriter for an advertising company to focus on his poetry while working a low-paying job. Protagonist Gordon Comstock falls lower while trying to escape an “overarching dependence” on money. In the end he doesn’t, conforming to society and taking back his job in advertising.
Orwell’s last book before the war, “Coming Up For Air,” published in 1939, offers perhaps his most complete criticism of contemporary society.
Protagonist George Bowling is a middle-aged insurance salesman who, after winning a modest sum of money on a horse race, is inspired to return to his childhood home in Lower Binfield, while telling his wife that he is going on a business trip. Here are his motivations as described by Cavendish:
He wants to escape from a number of things that would make sense to the man in the street: 1) He wants to escape from his wife and family commitments 2) He wants to get away from the rat-race and the anxious financial concerns of the Thirties that afflict all working-men, not only married ones. 3) He wants to flee suburbia and what it represents, a kind of “mental squalor”, as he puts it and 4) He wants to get away from thoughts of Hitler and the world war he knows is just around the corner.
Bowling’s trip brings only disappointment, however, culminating in a greater sense of captivity than ever. He is unsettled to find his idyllic town overrun by “fake-picturesque” housing developments. He is shocked when people don’t remember him nor his family. He fears that his wife has launched an elaborate campaign to fake illness to catch him in a lie. Finally he is struck by a literal deus ex machina as a British plane accidentally drops a bomb on Lower Binfield.
As Bowling drives home to submit to his mundane life, he sees the future with lucid pessimism, in a passage that predicts both World War 2 and “1984“:
War is coming. 1941, they say. And there’ll be plenty of broken crockery, and little houses ripped open like packing-cases, and the guts of the chartered accountant’s clerk plastered over the piano that he’s buying on the never-never. But what does that kind of thing matter, anyway? I’ll tell you what my stay in Lower Binfield had taught me, and it was this. IT’S ALL GOING TO HAPPEN. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it–at any rate, I knew it then. There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.
“Coming Up For Air” was followed in 1945 by “Animal Farm” (an animal allegory for the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which is hard to compare to the other books) and in 1949 by “1984.”
Written on an isolated Scottish island while Orwell suffered from tuberculosis, which would kill him in 1950, the dystopian masterpiece imagines a world where everyone and everything, even history, are controlled by the Party. The book is impressive in its creation of an entire language, history, and government, as well as concepts like doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak.
“1984” also follows the theme of thwarted escape. It all starts when protagonist Winston Smith buys an old notebook and surreptitiously writes in it, thereby planting the seeds of antiestablishment thoughts. Smith, while taking care to avoid the surveillance state, starts an affair with a young Party member named Julia. The two of them rent a room in a “prole” part of town and think they have found a way to escape occasionally to a simpler, better life. In fact, the Thought Police have been tracking them the whole time, and the couple are captured and brutally tortured for the entire back third of the novel, until they betray each other and become totally brainwashed.
Although “1984” is Orwell’s most terrifying novel, its portrayal of a totalitarian surveillance state remains a work of science fiction. His other novels, however, show how in contemporary society people everywhere are becoming trapped in the relentless march of progress, capitalism, commercialism, communism, and other negative aspects of modern society. Orwell warned us about all of it.
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