A paradox of fiction writing (and perhaps too of reading) is the power of the storytelling to make us more aware of our real worlds. As the painter studies a subject and seeks to understand each detail of light, color, and shape, so we, when we write, are looking into things’ hearts and seeking the truth of them, to distill into our stories. This is a paradox because of the explicit unreality of fiction, yet from realistic fiction to fantasy, it is the integrity of the vision, that is, the text’s ability to portray shards of the world lifted and rearranged in a rich, true light–it is this I think the best writing does for us.
In the second-year literature course I’m teaching now, I reviewed with students the last weeks three texts they had studied the year before with another teacher: Nineteen Eighty-four, The Penelopiad, and Miss Julie. Only the second of these I might have ever dreamed of teaching myself. Miss Julie is an awful, anti-feminist play. Nineteen Eighty-four has always felt so dead depressing to me–it’s one of the few books I really have longed to throw across a room.
It is this, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, against which I think I must retract, or at least temper my judgement. Orwell the man, or Eric Blair as his real name was, wrote the novel of suffering in great suffering himself. In the early post-WWII era, shortly after Orwell’s wife’s untimely death, when, mourning, a colleague offered the journalist the use of his remote house on the Scottish island of Jura, Orwell worked feverishly, against his agent’s and publisher’s deadlines, and he slowly wasted away of tuberculosis as he wrote. Orwell died shortly after the novel’s publication. You can read more about the writing of the novel here. The darkness of those years for Orwell is surely part of what we receive in the darkness of the text.
But it is far from about Orwell alone. His vision shows us truth of the external world. Nineteen Eighty-four consistently appears on and sometimes tops lists of the most important novels of the 20th Century. It is prophetic in its vision, from the slow attrition of the Cold War to modern-day governmental and corporate surveillance. Orwell’s insistence on challenging the core beliefs that keep us content–most centrally the true independence of our own minds and love and beliefs–that no matter what an oppressor might do to us, our minds will always be our own. Orwell rips this comforting belief away. It’s probably the core reason why I’ve detested the book. But what I can understand is, it is a signal from Orwell that I, that we must all, look deeper.
Orwell’s vision was not his alone. In fact, significant elements of the plot and themes of Nineteen Eighty-four were pilfered unceremoniously from Soviet writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s earlier novel We, years after Orwell published a book review of it. It is all, then, a kind of human conversation. Each one of us answers to the other. Every person’s ideas contribute to the whole’s , or they should, provided each person’s voice is listened to. I think of the Walt Whitman line, brought to me by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society:
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
I’m glad I’ve taken a look back at Nineteen Eighty-four. I’m sure I’ll never call myself a fan, but I can appreciate its relevance to the world, and take a lesson here or there from it for myself. This feels appropriate and good.