In which I analyse what it means to be human in the context of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984.
1984 is one of those rare books that not only keeps its relevance despite the passage of time, but actually increases in relevance. It becomes more and more frightening with every passing year. Obviously, the concept of “Big Brother” being able to keep tabs on every move you make is something that is on a lot of people’s minds today, but that wasn’t actually what struck me as I read it for the third time these last couple of days. In this post and the next, I’ll be talking about what did.
“If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile…you’ve beaten them.”
About halfway through the book, Winston and Julia have a conversation about what happens when they get caught. Winston says that they mustn’t betray one another. Julia assumes he means they mustn’t confess, which, she argues, they can’t help but do. Everyone does. But that’s not what he means.
“I don’t mean confessing. Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you—that would be the real betrayal.”
She thought it over. “They can’t do that,” she said finally. “It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can make you say anything—anything—but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.”
Already, Winston has known himself to be as good as dead from the moment he first opened his diary. It has just been a matter of time, and everything we’ve seen up to this point has convinced us that this powerful party is going to win. But suddenly, this conversation happens, and we get a little hope. Up until this point, the goal was to stay alive as long as possible, and the end was inevitable. Now, the goal has changed, and the end is suddenly uncertain. We knew without doubt that they could—and would—kill Winston. But we don’t know if they can take away his humanity. Suddenly, there is suspense again; we don’t know what will happen in the end. It certainly looks a little brighter, and we begin to hope that perhaps, when he does die, it will be meaningful, in some small way.
But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. 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.
But What Does It Mean to Be Human?
That’s a question that is difficult to answer from the standpoint of this book. In this society, people can be wiped completely out of existence, so that they never existed, should the Party decide to do so. All memory of them vanishes with them. If nothing remains of you when you are gone—if there is no evidence to prove that you existed and were human, then how can you be human?
As part of Winston’s job, which involves bringing newspapers up to date to reflect the current reality accepted by the party, he invents a man named Comrade Ogilvy for Big Brother to praise in a speech.
Comrade Ogilvy, unimagined an hour ago, was now a fact. It struck him as curious that you could create dead men but not living ones. Comrade Ogilvy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and on the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar.
Think about that. Winston dreamed this man up out of his own brain and presented him as fact in a speech that never happened. But once Winston has gone and no one is around to say or know that Comrade Ogilvy existed, he will exist on the same merits as do any historical figures: documentary evidence. Is he just as real as anyone else, then? How can human life have any meaning in a society where humans can be dreamed into and wiped out of existence at the drop of a hat?
The memory of Winston’s mother serves as a symbol for the human emotions that Winston is trying to hold onto. Early in the book, Winston recalls that his mother’s death was tragic.
Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.
Later, Winston remembers the last time he saw his mother, and his thoughts return to this vein.
…she had possessed a kind of nobility, simply because the standards that she obeyed were private ones. Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from the outside. It would not have occurred to her that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love.
So this is part of what it means to be human. It means to have private standards, to love, to be loyal. To give love even when you have nothing else to give.
“The proles are human beings…We are not human.”
Throughout the novel, Winston believes that any hope for the future lies with the “proles,” the common masses who aren’t as controlled by the Party as Party members like Winston and Julia are. And this is why.
The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere actions, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world.
This is really important when you stop and reflect on it. The Party has robbed people of any vestige of control in their lives; they are completely powerless. Every aspect of life that can be controlled by the party is controlled by the party. They can scrutinize every action. Even people’s thoughts come out eventually, in a facial tic or in sleep talking.
But the one thing they cannot control is people’s emotions. So what have they done? They’ve convinced people that those emotions don’t matter, and they’ve twisted all natural human relationships. They have taken the thing they can’t control and made it meaningless, thereby neutralising it.
And in a world where people who go against the party in the slightest way simply vanish and never existed to begin with, one’s actions really don’t seem to matter much. Nothing you do can have impact when all memory of you can be wiped from existence in an instant. And yet, maybe that isn’t the important thing. It wasn’t the important thing to the people just a couple of generations before Winston.
They were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself.
The reason Winston believes there is still hope in the proles is that they still live this way. They have gone on being loyal to one another, held onto their emotions, and above all, remained human.
The Guardian of the Human Spirit
Now, back to the first thing we talked about. Winston’s goal is to stay human. When he is arrested and brought to the Ministry of Love, he plans to do that. The question is, of course, whether that will be possible.
The Chinless Man
When Winston and a bunch of other prisoners sit in a brightly lit room awaiting whatever will happen to them next, a man who is suffering extreme starvation is brought in. He is completely emaciated, and Winston realises that he is going to starve to death. Everyone else seems to realise this too. One of the other prisoners is a man with fat, pouchy cheeks and no chin. He can’t seem to avoid looking at the starving man, and eventually, he gets up and walks toward him. He pulls a piece of bread out of his pocket and holds it out to him.
Of course, there are immediate consequences for this. The chinless man is beaten, the bread falls to the ground, uneaten. When the guards come a little later to take the starving man to the dreaded room 101, he denounces the chinless man and begs them to take him instead, so clearly he doesn’t feel much obligation or gratitude.
Thus, the offering of bread was completely ineffectual…and therefore, completely human. Remember that quote from earlier? An ineffectual action is not meaningless. Believing that is part of being human. The chinless man, by selflessly offering his bread to a stranger who needed it, gives us as readers a glimmer of hope that humanity can survive, even in the Ministry of Love.
“We shall squeeze you empty, and we shall fill you with ourselves.”
When Winston is being interrogated by O’Brien, it becomes clear that the aim of the party is to erase human feeling. Obviously, they are aware of the truth that Winston has realised: to stay human is to beat them. And they will not be beaten.
In fact, the goal of the party is to eventually wipe everything that is human out of society in general. O’Brien explains.
“There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science … If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Further, he says that the proles will never rise, and he almost taunts Winston for the belief that he is somehow the guardian of humanity—for believing in the human spirit.
Eventually, O’Brien succeeds in getting Winston to intellectually accept the teachings of the Party. But Winston does not stop loving Julia. And he does not stop hating the party. He comes up with a plan. He has given his mind over to the party, but the most secret part of his heart can still be his own. He will let his hatred for the Party remain there, to be released just before they execute him. O’Brien explained to him how they reform their prisoners before killing them so that they all die loyal to Big Brother, but Winston is determined to be the exception.
They would have blown his brain to pieces before they could reclaim it. The heretical thought would be unpunished, unrepented, out of their reach forever. They would have blown a hole in their own perfection. To die hating them, that was freedom.
Winston’s goal has changed from staying alive to staying human to keeping his hatred for the Party. If the party had no further tools at their disposal, he could have triumphed. But they still had room 101 up their sleeve.
Room 101 is a place where people are faced with their greatest fear, in the face of which they are helpless. In Winston’s case, it is rats, and his desire to avoid getting his face chewed by rats leads him to betray Julia by begging them to let it happen to her instead. That’s it. They’ve got him. He betrayed Julia, and he gave up his humanity.
It turns out that the Party can get inside of people’s heads after all. They succeed in making him love Big Brother and reject everything else that was once important to him: Julia, 2+2=4, and even his memories of his mother.
What We Learn
Obviously, 1984 does not end happily, and Winston is not able to beat the Party. In that fictional society, it was impossible to retain one’s humanity. However, it still teaches us a lot about what it really means to be human, and how, ultimately, it is up to us to hold on to our humanity. No matter what circumstance we find ourselves in, no matter how little control we have, we need to cling to our love, our loyalty, our belief that little, ineffectual actions can have meaning.
It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.
In Part 2, we will discuss the theme of whether sanity is statistical—that is, can you be sane even if your view of reality is in the minority? How about if you happen to be a minority of one? I can’t wait to discuss that with you guys, because it’s a very interesting question.