George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Nineteen Eighty-Four as a Novel

December 2, 2011 · Leave a Comment

In Part Three of the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt struggled to understand the event of totalitarianism, which to her was almost incomprehensible. In this work, Arendt, a Jewish woman born in 1906 who escaped from Nazi occupied Europe in 1941, examined the tyrannical governments of Hitler and Stalin. Comparing Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia, Arendt emphasized the mechanisms by which these governments systematically dehumanized their subjects in order to fulfill “their double claim to total domination and global rule” (Arendt 87).

Around the same time as Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, George Orwell wrote and published Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a person who lives under the rule of the principles of Ingsoc in Oceania. Like Arendt’s work, this novel is often read as a commentary on totalitarian rule; however, the fact that it is a novel differentiates it from works like that of Arendt.

In his essay The Interposed Body: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Claude Lefort addresses the way in which reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as a political commentary rather than as a novel incapacitates the reader in a certain way. Lefort states, “So far as I know, the story hardly seems to have attracted the critic’s attention. One would think that it is a simple setup conceived merely to facilitate the exercise of the proof”—with the proof being a comment on totalitarian rule (Lefort 3). Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four only as a picture of totalitarianism rather than as a novel causes the reader to miss certain subtleties that Orwell uses to construct a totalitarian universe.

Lefort argues that Nineteen Eighty-Four, read as a novel, functions in a certain way that it cannot function as simply a political commentary. Pointing out the way in which Orwell uses literary tools to construct a multidimensional totalitarian world and to create dynamic and complex characters, Lefort notes a certain artistry that is often overlooked. While many intellectuals simplify the story in Nineteen Eighty-Four and mold it to illustrate a political commentary, Lefort explains that “…in order to say what he was endeavoring to say, in order to put into words and to share his experience of the totalitarian inverse, it really was a novel that Orwell wanted to compose, a literary investigation that he undertook” (Lefort 2).

The literary investigation Orwell launches in Nineteen Eighty- Four is complex and intricately executed. A close look at Winston, the protagonist of the novel, illustrates the nuanced construction of Orwell’s totalitarian world. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Winston hates Ingsoc. For example, within the first few pages of the book, when he sits down to write in his diary “he discovered that while he sat helplessly mussing he had also been writing, as though by automatic action. And it was no longer the same cramped awkward handwriting as before. His pen had slid voluptuously over the smooth paper printing in large neat capitals—DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER…” (Orwell 18). Looking at this passage, it is interesting to note that Orwell has Winston write these thoughts “as though by automatic action.” As Lefort points out “Orwell does not grant Winston consciousness of what he knows; he keeps him in a state of half-ignorance…” (Lefort 7).

Pointing out additional instances in the novel when Winston is portrayed as half-conscious, Lefort examines how Orwell uses the recurring dreams and themes in the diary entries to place Winston relative to the totalitarian society in which he lives. For example, in a passage in which Winston recounts a dream, phrases such as “he could not remember what happened but he knew in his dream…” and “he was never fully certain…” (Orwell 30) are used to establish a feeling of half-knowing and half-blindness. Lefort explains that Orwell “concocts a plot whose meaning is given bit by bit… in such a way that his reader feels at the same time as his character the strange familiarity of events that mark out his life since he [Winston] began his diary” (Lefort 10). Thus, the way Orwell constructs the novel puts the reader in a half- conscious state as well.

This state of half-knowing makes Winston an enemy of the state. In his state of half-awareness, Winston seeks to understand the past and, as Lefort notes, “pursues self-knowledge and knowledge of the regime” (Lefort 17). Unlike Julia who does not seem to care about the past and who does not seek the why of totalitarian rule, Winston wants to understand this why.  As he writes in his diary, “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY” (Orwell 80). Winston understands the mechanisms of Ingsoc— how the past is falsified, how law works, how people are kept in order—but he wants to know why.

However, Winston’s role as the anti-totalitarian is not as simple as it may at first appear. For example, as it says in the novel:

Winston’s greatest pleasure in life was in his work. Most of it was a tedious routine, but included in it there were also jobs so difficult and intricate that you could lose yourself in the depths of the mathematical problem—delicate pieces of forgery in which you had nothing to guide you except your knowledge of the principles of Ingsoc and your estimate of what the Party wanted you to say. Winston was good at this kind of thing…(Orwell 45)

What does it mean that Winston is enjoying this act of deception that he supposedly hates? How can the reader understand this? How can we understand Orwell’s construction of a totalitarian universe in terms of a character like Winston? Arguably, Winston cannot only be understood in light of his anti-government attitudes. There are so many parts to his character—his preoccupation with the past, his sexual desires in the present, and his fear for the future – that are delicately woven into the novel and that should not be overlooked in critiques of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Lefort points out that Winston’s ultimate destruction—his final submission to Ingsoc—is when he interposes Julia’s body between himself and the rats he faces in Room 101. By throwing Julia to the rats, Winston has replaced Julia and, as a consequence, he has replaced his humanity with Big Brother. Lefort explains that Winston’s humanity—his ability to love, feel pleasure, dream—is inextricably bound to Julia and, therefore, is destroyed when he interposes her body. In the final line of the book Orwell writes, “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved big brother” (Orwell 297). By interposing Julia, he looses his self-consciousness and becomes a blind subject of Big Brother.

Looking at Nineteen Eighty-Four as a novel rather than a political commentary raises a lot of really interesting and complicated questions. Because there is memory, loss, and sexual desire in Orwell’s work it is different than a commentary on totalitarianism such as the one that Arendt gives. However, although Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the world of radical evil that Arendt struggles to understand, there are certain undeniable similarities between the world Arendt describes and the government of Oceania. For example, compare the following quotes from Arendt’s work and Orwell’s work respectively:

  • “The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous (making it impossible to find out whether a prisoner is dead or alive) robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. In a sense they took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed” (Arendt 150)
  • “…unperson. He did not exist; he had never existed” (Orwell 46)
  • “Through the creation of conditions under which conscience ceases to be adequate and to do good becomes utterly impossible, the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total…[contorts] them with the hopeless dilemma whether to send their friends to their death…” (Arendt 150)
  • “…He had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment—one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically over and over: ‘Do it to Julia!…Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones, Not me! Julia! Not me!” (Orwell 286)
  • “Once the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity” (Arendt 151)
  • “They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable” (Orwell 167)

Both Arendt and Orwell seem to address the idea that the ultimate control a totalitarian government can exercise on its subjects is to eradicate the individual, i.e. to dehumanize the subject.

Arendt explores how the Nazis dehumanized people using concentration camps. She holds that the idea of human rights comes from the French Revolution and that these rights are bound to nationality. The notion of human rights comes from the idea of one being a citizen; thus, the moment a person is denationalized they lose any human rights. When the Nazis put people in concentration camps it showed that they no longer had rights and, therefore, were no longer human. The “categories” in the concentration camps became stateless figures with no rights and were consequently turned into figures of bare life. For Arendt, the only place that this bare life can exist is within the camp and, as such, the paradigm of totalitarianism becomes the concentration camp.

As illustrated above, the people of Oceania are also dehumanized by the Party. However, unlike in Nazi Germany where the point of dehumanization was to exterminate an entire population, in Nineteen Eighty-Four the purpose of dehumanizing the subject is to attain eternal power. It is interesting to note that at one point in the novel O’Brien explains to Winston that “the German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives…We are not like that. We know that noone ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means it is an end…The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power” (Orwell 263). So it seems that in the novel, Ingsoc is described as an even more perfect, powerful, and authoritarian government than Nazi Germany. Ingsoc has found a way to dehumanize its subjects in order to maintain power eternally; the dehumanization in the novel is seemingly conducive to eternal power.  There are no concentration camps in the novel, but arguably, the Party has transformed all of society into a concentration camp of sorts.


Some questions to consider:

  1. How do we understand Nineteen Eighty-Four as both a novel and a political commentary?
  2. How does this work function?
  3. How can the story be told? Can we trust the narrator?
  4. How does the novel work culturally?
  5. How does the novel reflect Orwell’s anxieties about the future?


Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1968.

Lefort, Claude. “The Interposed Body.” Writing, the Political Test. Durham, NC: Duke             University Press, 2000.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eight-Four. New York: A Signet Classic, 1949.


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