Advanced Higher English Dissertation

Advanced Higher English Dissertation

A Story by Mathew Nicolson
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An exploration of the conflict between the individual and a totalitarian state through analysis of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

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   The totalitarian dictatorships of the first half of the twentieth century gave rise to a new genre of novels featuring bleak, oppressive future societies " sometimes referred to as ‘dystopias’.  The dictatorships of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany were the most significant sources of inspiration for these novels.  The nature of a totalitarian dictatorship is characterised by a ruling oligarchy controlling each and every aspect of the lives of its citizens in order to both maintain power and enforce its ideology and beliefs upon its population.  This must always be at the expense of individuality, for totalitarianism relies on complete control and obedience of the people; one hostile thought threatens the entire system.  Consequently, the dictatorships implemented a variety of methods to reduce individuality, which served to provide further inspiration for authors of the time.  Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote of totalitarianism:

 

Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality... here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden.  In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets even smaller and poorer.”[1]

 

Kundera makes the point that totalitarian states are founded on the principle of creating a paradise, or 'utopia', but always become perverted by their rulers.

   Three novels in particular which took inspiration from the ideas of totalitarianism were We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  Zamyatin was a Russian author disillusioned with the Bolshevik vision of communism and in We, first published in 1924[2], he predicted the oppressive extent to which his country would sway under Stalinism.  Nineteen Eighty-Four can also be seen as a satire of the Soviet Union, though Orwell’s intention was not to exaggerate the horrors of totalitarianism in his time but to give a warning of what they could one day become.  Huxley, in contrast, did not predicate Brave New World on any specific totalitarian regime " though he certainly reflected many of their methods " but instead on Western consumerism and the consequences he believed this would have for society.

   In each of the three worlds created in these novels there is a character that loosely fits the role of the protagonist, who considers himself an outsider in society.  These characters give an insight into the potential of maintaining individuality within a totalitarian state.

   In We, D-503 initiates his records as a loyal citizen of the One State, adopting a conversational tone and litters the early entries with rhetorical questions which challenge the reader to question his statements and logic.  However, throughout the novel he begins to develop a ‘soul’ after falling in love with I-330.  He experiences ‘irrational’ emotions such as love, confusion and unhappiness.  D-503’s character development follows a cyclical pattern after he undergoes an operation to remove his imagination.  By the final lines of the novel, during a rebellion that he once supported, his mindset is clear:

 

“In the western quarters there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, animals, and, unfortunately, quite a lot of Numbers who have betrayed reason... And I hope we’ll win.  More - I’m certain we’ll win.  Because reason has to win.” (We, pg 225)

  

By the time the One State has finished with him, D-503’s faith in its ideology has been fully restored.

   Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four follows a similar route.  Like D-503, his first action in the novel is to begin a journal.  However, they differ in that where D-503’s is, at first, officially approved, Winston’s is from the outset forbidden.  Their writing styles also contrast; D-503’s is well crafted and uses intricate imagery to get across his points, whereas Winston struggles to accomplish basic grammar.  He embarks on an illegal love affair with Julia and is eventually caught by the Thought Police and taken to the Ministry of Love for reformation.  After a traumatic process focusing around torture and terror, Winston exits a conditioned member of society.  Like We, the final words of the novel illustrate the change the protagonist has experienced:

 

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, pg 311)

 

Nineteen Eighty-Four also ends with a declaration of victory.  Considering we take O’Brien’s statement for granted that Winston is “the last man,” and that even he has succumbed to The Party’s will, it is certain that no person in Oceania can survive as an individual.  The characters of Nineteen Eighty-Four, principally Winston, have been criticised for being ‘two-dimensional’ and existing only to prove a political point.[3]  This is not a flaw of the novel; it is another facet of the impact of totalitarianism on the individual, and shows that merely having freedom of thought makes a character ‘three-dimensional’ in this world.

   Brave New World diverts from this narrative structure by introducing the protagonist half way through the story.  Unlike D-503 and Winston, John is an ‘outsider’ and refuses to accept a hedonistic lifestyle.  He is taken to the World Controller of Western Europe, Mustapha Mond, who acts as a mouthpiece for the regime’s beliefs which John is unable to provide a sufficient argument against.  This is the same role as O’Brien and The Benefactor; breaking the protagonist’s values with irrefutable logic.  After retreating to a lighthouse and failing to find solitude, John hangs himself.  This is not the suicide of a man sending a message of defiance to the Controllers; it is apparent that John died in a distraught and confused fit of self-loathing.  Though more indirectly, the totalitarian state has won as much of a victory over John as over Winston and D-503.  Only in We does the protagonist have an impact upon a resistance movement, which he ironically becomes opposed to and which it's hinted will ultimately fail.

   It is worth considering the state’s motivations for imposing totalitarian rule upon the people.  Winston states in his diary:

 

            "I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, pg 83)

 

In both Brave New World and We the justification is given that, to achieve happiness, freedom is a necessary sacrifice.  This argument is more convincing in Brave New World as the leaders do not appear to greatly profit from the arrangement.  Mustapha Mond is almost portrayed to be a likeable character.  For example, he says to Helmholtz:

 

“I like your spirit, Mr Watson.  I like it very much indeed.  As much as I officially disapprove of it.” (pg 202)

 

This strongly hints that his personal beliefs are no different to Helmholtz’s, and that he works to maintain the order of society because he genuinely believes in the utilitarian principles the state advocates.  The same argument is posed by the oligarchy in We, but here it is less convincing.  The power The Benefactor possesses, the leader-worship he commands and the state’s violent repression of dissent leaves no doubt that the oligarchy seeks only to control peoples’ lives and maintain absolute power.  However, the reasons for this are sketchy; in his review of We, Orwell criticises the novel for not explaining the state's motivations in enough detail.[4].  The repression in Nineteen Eighty-Four goes beyond that of We; torture and psychological conditioning are the tools of The Party.  O’Brien openly admits:

 

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.  We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.  Not wealth of luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, pg 275)

 

   For all the doublespeak and lies, this is an honest account of The Party’s motivations, and in this respect Nineteen Eighty-Four goes further than the other novels in providing an explanation for the state's actions.

   Another way in which the totalitarian state keeps control of the individual’s thoughts is through propaganda and the creation of a ‘cult of personality’.  This is the role of Big Brother, The Benefactor and, to an extent, Henry Ford in Brave New World.  This is most evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Life in Oceania is to be continually bombarded with Party rhetoric and propaganda, such as the slogans “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”  These paradoxes detail the extent to which a citizen of Oceania must subvert their opinions on what should be common-sense facts, but in Oceania are in doubt.  Party workers must endure a daily ‘Two Minute Hate,” in which dogma contrary to Ingsoc is broadcast, along with images of Big Brother’s enemy Goldstein.  The Hate is successful in creating deep emotions of hatred towards Goldstein and has the effect of deflecting any discontent the populace may have with The Party.  Perhaps the most significant medium for propaganda is the telescreen, fitted into every Party member's home as well as throughout the ministries.  The citizens accept the ‘news’ as fact, regardless of their own experiences and memories.  Here is the first indication that the individual’s memories are being rewritten by the state.

   There is a similar level of propaganda in We.  In the very first record, D-503 quotes an article from the State Gazette in which Numbers are encouraged to create cultural content for the INTEGRAL to show the "beauty and grandeur of OneState."  The word choice suggests that these are the most valued attributes of the OneState - a balance between logical artistry and strength - and therefore gives an insight into the state doctrine.  'Unanimous elections' create the illusion of popularity and legitimacy for the Benefactor, despite his re-election being the only possible outcome.  Propaganda is based on the principles of logic, rendering the doctrines impossible to question and the Benefactor's rule undeniable.  As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, propaganda is highly successful in drawing people to the state's beliefs.

   The regime of Brave New World acts differently.  In this world the technology of eugenics has been developed to create the perfect human being for each caste, mentally and physically.  One aspect of this process creates negative links between the children and elements of society the ruling oligarchy consider unsavoury, such as a love of books and nature.  The children are tortured using alarms and electric shocks in the sight of books and plants, so they grow to fear them.  This, along with sleep-teaching, eliminates the need for propaganda, as every adult citizen has been bred to believe in the state doctrine.  In this respect, Brave New World presents a far more effective suppression of individuality than Nineteen Eighty-Four and We.  These oligarchies appear weak in comparison, requiring a continual effort to keep the population under control and thinking the right thoughts.

   A secondary aspect of propaganda is the re-writing of history.  This occurs in a limited form in We and Brave New World, such as holding Ford/Freud (believed to be the same person) in holy regard as a founder of civilisation, but the idea is most effectively developed in Nineteen Eighty Four.  Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, and his job entails writing ‘traitors’ out of history, spinning reductions in rations as improvements by providing forged historical evidence, and so on.  O'Brien, during Winston's 'treatment', makes the argument that if both the records and memory of the past can be erased, then it never existed.  If the Party can control the past by controlling the mind, then it's not a stretch to argue that the Party can control reality.  O'Brien states:

 

            "We control matter because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull... There is nothing we could not do.  Invisibility, levitation - anything.  I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, pg 277).

 

To the reader this statement is an absurdity, reinforced by the ridiculous image of O'Brien floating like a soap bubble.  Yet from the perspective of a fully indoctrinated citizen, it is completely true.  Winston is soon convinced that 2+2=5, despite his previous insistence otherwise, because this is what the Party wished him to think.  The Party controls Winston's reality.

   In all three novels, a society not under the direct control of the totalitarian state exists.  This provides an antithesis to the state's doctrine and fabricated reality.  In Nineteen Eighty-Four, these are 'the proles'.  This uneducated, lower class population does not need to fear the telescreen, and they appear to have some freedom of thought.  Winston realises this, writing: "if there is hope, it lies in the proles."  One of the few examples of artistic expression free from propaganda is when Winston hears the prole woman singing from Charrginton’s flat, which symbolises her relative freedom in comparison to his. 

   The alternative society in Brave New World is also permitted by the oligarchy.  Here it takes the form of savage reservations, where the inhabitants live a lifestyle composed of traditional elements such as families and monogamies.  Lenina’s first comment about an Indian is that ‘he smells’, and later, the sight of naked Indians covered in tribal paint and animal furs are a stark contrast to the sterility and hygiene of the ‘civilised’ world.  It is difficult to comment on which society is the most free; where the ‘civilised’ is controlled by design and conditioning, the ‘uncivilised’ is controlled by culture and tradition.  This is explored through a series of flashbacks describing John’s childhood, which describe his struggle to form an identity in a society where he did not belong.  It is obvious that to John, initially, the reservation is not preferable to the ‘Other World’:

 

“The happiest times were when she told him about the Other Place… And she would tell him about the lovely music that came out of a box, and all the nice games you could play, and the delicious things to eat and drink…” (Brave New World, pg 110)

 

Even when John does discover the ‘Other World’ and realises he hates it bitterly, he does not return to the reservation.  Like the urban areas inhabited by proles, it is not an escape from the totalitarian government.  Despite this, art still exists in a diminished form.  A copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare finds its way into John’s hands in the reservation; something which could not happen in the ‘civilised’ world where all works of ‘High Art’ are banned.  This signifies that individuality, expressed through art, can survive in the reservations.

   The external society in We diverges in concept from those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in that it does not exist with the permission of the totalitarian government.  The MEPHI resistance movement exists outside the Green Wall, living primitively, having rejected the OneState’s principles of collectivism and industrialism.  Out of the three external societies, MEPHI is the only one aware of its position and the only to engage in active rebellion against the totalitarian state.  Again there is the contrast between civilisation and primitivism, which is common within Zamyatin's works[5]; the outsiders do not wear 'yunies' and the men are unshaven.  This opposite show of unity may mean there is no more freedom across the Green Wall than in the OneState, though presenting the human body in its natural form does remove the state's ability to enforce nationalism through clothing and consequently removes a tool of uniformity.  The OneState is less successful at suppressing individuality outside its immediate control than the World State in Brave New World and The Party if Nineteen Eighty Four. 

   To varying degrees, language has been deliberately modified in each world.  This is most subtle in Brave New World, where proverbs are instilled into the population's minds during sleep-teaching, such as 'ending is better than mending,' which encourages people to buy new products rather than repair old ones, thus propping up the consumerist economy.  Considering the frequent use of proverbs and idioms in society today, often with little thought towards the images presented, this is a realistic way of controlling thought, if only to a limited extent.  In We, D-503 uses mathematical terms to describe and make sense of the world around him.  This may be down to D-503's role as a chief engineer on the INTEGRAL, though even the poet R-13 agrees that life is better without 'those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys', showing a cultural disregard for innovative language.  Once again it is Nineteen Eighty-Four which takes the idea furthest.  Oceania has developed a language called Newspeak, which is a central concept in the novel and Orwell dedicates an appendix to it  - The Principles of Newspeak.  The aim of Newspeak is to revolutionise language in order to control thought.  Prior to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell made the case that language and thought are interlinked, and that "if thought corrupts language, then language can also corrupt thought."[6]  Newspeak controls thought by limiting the vocabulary to only necessary words.  This limits the range of expressions which can be spoken, and therefore thought.  By controlling the process of thought due to having controlled language, the state has achieved a significant advantage over the individual, and this is perhaps why the government of Nineteen Eighty-Four is more successful in its oppression than that of We.

   A theme which is explored in all three novels is interpersonal relationships.  The nature of friendship is similar, but the societies differ in terms of romantic and familial relationships.  In Nineteen Eighty-Four, strong romantic relationships are discouraged as they are a distraction from love of Big Brother and The Party.  The idea behind this is that by suppressing natural human sexuality, people will convert their energy into adoration of Big Brother, or hatred of Goldstein, or whatever format The Party chooses.  Julia explains:

 

            "When you make love you're using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and             don't give a damn for anything. They can't bear you to feel like that. They want             you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and             cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, pg 139)

 

The metaphor of 'sex gone sour' indicates that The Party wishes the love of Big Brother to be almost sexual in intensity, and is an example of how human instincts are being used to the advantage of The Party.  It is significant that Winston's conditioning is only complete when he betrays Julia in Room 101.  Love is the largest obstacle for The Party, which survives on hatred and fear, and once this love is overcome the individual can be subjugated.

   D-503 has a love affair with I-330, as Winston does with Julia, though within a different social structure.  In the OneState numbers are free to create bonds with one another but the idea of monogamous relationships do not exist.  D-503 and R-13 both share O-90 as a sexual partner but no jealousy exists, and neither love her as more than a friend.  This is in order to maximise happiness, and therefore order, by removing the elation and anguish that love brings.  However D-503 does fall in love with I-330, and it is no coincidence that this is when his 'soul' begins to form.  Zamyatin clearly shares Orwell's view that love is an expression of individuality.  The totalitarian state in We is also able to remove this love as part of the operation to inhibit the imagination, which it does so on D-503.  Like Winston he too betrays his lover, and is the cause of her torture and execution.  He is present as this happens and, from his own account, shows no signs of pity or remorse.  Once again it would seem removing feelings of love is an essential process in enforcing the state's will upon individuals.

   The society of Brave New World is very similar to that of We with respect to romantic relationships.  The mantra "everyone belongs to everyone else," is often repeated and long-term monogamous relationships are considered unseemly.  Fanny's advice to Lenina about getting involved with more men was intended to verge on humorous for 20th century readers, yet is also shocking because the conversation is played in absolute seriousness.  While this may seem innocent at first, Mond later explains the true motivations - that, like its counterparts in We and Brave New World, the ruling oligarchy is keen to avoid deep feelings of love because they cause 'instability' - the tragedies of Shakespeare are used to 'prove' this - so they have removed the most natural of human instincts through a mixture of eugenics and conditioning.  To create a social order which ensures stability, the nature of romantic relationships has been transformed by the state beyond recognition.

   Families are also a significant feature of social structures, which the totalitarian states manipulate to their own advantage.  The oligarchy of Brave New World has eliminated the family unit in favour of hatching babies in factories.  The idea of families are considered 'smutty,' and, during a tour of the hatchery, students shudder at the idea while nearby children engage in 'erotic play'.  This subversion of traditional morality is designed to shock the reader into harbouring a disgust for the society, thus making Huxley's messages more effective.  In We, and also to an extent Brave New World, the reason appears to be that the family is an alternative focus of loyalty for citizens and reduces their loyalty to the state.  Contrary to expectations, The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four does not utilise this idea; in Oceania families still exist.  This may be due to a lack of technological progress, and that the removal of families would be The Party's eventual aim.  Richard A. Ponser, however, argues that a society without families would be unrealistic and that most historical examples of totalitarian states have supported the concept of strong, loyal families[7].  The Party does succeed in using the family structure for its own benefit; children in Oceania are indoctrinated by the state to spy on their parents for 'symptoms of unorthodoxy', which is more effective than even telescreens in enforcing conformity.  Families are a vital aspect in a person's formation, and the state's interference in this process is another attack on individuality.

   In order to have personal relationships, a level of privacy is required.  It is no surprise that this is denied to citizens in all three novels.  In We, buildings are literally built from glass.  D-503, before he is seduced by I-330 and loses faith in the OneState's ideology, writes:

 

            "To the right and left through the glass walls I see something like my own self, my             own room, my own clothes, my own movements, and all repeated a thousand times." (We, pg 33-34)

 

Repetition of the phrase "my own..." and the reference to 'a thousand times' creates the image of a person stuck between two mirrors, which considering each 'self' is a separate person, shows the extent to which privacy has been abolished.  There is a similar lack of privacy in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the telescreen watching every action people make.  However these seem less effective than glass walls, as Winston is able to exploit the structure of his apartment by hiding in a spot not viewed by the telescreen, and there is not the possibility of citizens reporting one another.  Despite this, The Party is more stable than The Benefactor's regime, hinting that privacy does not necessarily result in freedom.  In Brave New World no extensive surveillance operation is mentioned to be in operation, but spending more time alone than necessary would be considered abnormal behaviour and investigated.  As in Oceania, when not at work citizens are expected to be involved with recreational or voluntary activities.  This is a more subtle method of keeping an eye on the doings of the state's citizens.

   What may be the most substantial cause for the state's hold on power is that, in We and Brave New World at least, most of its citizens are happy with their lives and their rulers.  This is the case to a limited extent in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with many indoctrinated into loving Big Brother, but fear and repression are The Party's main means of keeping power.  Huxley, in a letter to Orwell shortly after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, gives the following criticism:

 

            "Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely             seems doubtful.  My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World."[8]

  

He is arguing that the oppression, surveillance and torture are not only a waste of resources for The Party, but also unnecessary.  In Brave New World a society is presented in which the ruling oligarchy has almost complete power over the people and their thoughts, a society where a form of thought police is not even necessary.  This control has been achieved not by oppression, but by eugenics and providing sources of pleasure for the population.  Aristotle stated that oppression of the people was one of the main causes of revolution within oligarchies[9], and this may be why the society of Brave New World seems the most likely to endure of the three.  The oligarchy of We attempts a mixture of oppression and indoctrinated happiness.  The fact that a rebellion is raging through the OneState by the novel's end indicates that the techniques are less successful when attempted together. Contrary to Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the impression is created that many people are feigning happiness, the majority of citizens in these societies are genuinely happy and do not believe themselves to be oppressed.  This above all else arguably gives the oligarchies a mandate to rule.  Brave New World and We are less clear-cut as 'dystopias' than Nineteen Eighty-Four, and to some the societies may even appear appealing.

   In all three novels, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, the totalitarian state achieves a victory over the individual.  These victories vary from complete in Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four to potentially pyrrhic in WeNineteen Eighty-Four is often labelled as the definitive example of a totalitarian dictatorship in literature, with words such as 'Orwellian' and 'doublespeak' having entered into the modern political vocabulary.  Due to containing the most convincing totalitarian state, mirroring many similar states in reality, it would appear the obvious contender as the most successful state in their conflicts with the individual, however, upon consideration, Brave New World in fact portrays the greatest triumph over individuality. The innovative and unusual nature of control not only suppresses individuality but prevents it existing in the first place.  And also, in this modern age of neo-liberalism, Brave New World is perhaps the most realistic novel.  We, being the first of the three to be published, does not go as far as either Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four in detailing the suppression of individuality by the state, but did lay the foundations on which most 'dystopian' literature would build. 


[1] Kundera, Milan., 1979, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, reprint edition, Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

[2] We was the first book to be banned within the Soviet Union and consequentially  received its first publication in England.  It wasn’t until 1988 that the original Russian text could be published within the Soviet Union.

[3] Pimlott, Ben., Introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four, in Orwell, George., 2000, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Modern Classics.

[4] Orwell, George., 1946, Review of “WE” by E. I. Zamyatin, London: Tribune.

[5] Brown, E.J., Brave New world, 1984, and We: an essay on Anti-Utopia in Kern, Gary (ed)., 1988 Zamyatin's We: A Collection of Critical Essays, Ann Arbor: Ardis.

[6] Orwell, George., 1946, Politics and the English Language in Orwell, George., 2003, Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, Penguin Modern Classics.

[7] Ponser, Richard A., Orwell versus Huxley: Economics, Technology, Privacy and Satire in Gleason, Abbott (ed)., 2005, On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

[8] Huxley, Aldous., 1949, Letter to George Orwell, in Smith, Grover (ed)., 1969, Letters of Aldous Huxley, Harper and Row.

[9] Aristotle, n.d, Politics: A Treatise on Government, Book 5, Chapter VI, translated by A. M. William Ellis,. 1912, New York: J M Dent & Sons.


© 2013 Mathew Nicolson



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