Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Underground Man as Big Brother: Dostoevsky's and Orwell's Anti-Utopia

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Underground Man as Big Brother: Dostoevsky's and Orwell's Anti-Utopia

Article excerpt

"I admit that two times two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are going to praise everything, two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing."

-- Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

"You are a slow learner, Winston," said O'Brien gently. "How can I help it" he blubbered. "How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four." "Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five ....."

-- Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Dostoevsky's Notes from underground and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four are perhaps the two most popular and seminal examples of anti-utopian literature ever written. Dostoevsky's novella has been called "probably the most important single source of the modern dystopia" (Morson 130). Its hero, the anonymous "underground man," has acquired the status of a literary archetype, a symbol of alienation in an oppressively normative world. Orwell's novel serves as a popular dystopian icon even for people who never read it, but for whom the adjective "Orwellian" designates anything perceived as ominous or threatening in modern civilization. Both Dostoevsky's and Orwell's text have been exposed to a confusing variety of divergent interpretations, ranging from dissections of the author's psychopathology to theological laments over the evils of human nature to existentialist declarations of faith in human dignity against the odds of an adverse world. While many of those readings can be stimulating in their own way, sometimes critics have tended to lose sight of the satirical and parodistic element in both works, which suggests a common origin of the two texts in the genre of political satire.(1)

Do these parallels allow us to postulate a direct connection between Dostoevsky and Orwell? Although we know that Orwell was familiar with Notes from Underground,(2) Dostoevsky does not loom large in his critical writings. The four-volume edition of Orwell's collected essays, journalism and letters contains only one reference to the Russian novelist. Dostoevsky's name comes up in a passage of the 1940 essay "Inside the Whale," where Orwell laments the tendency of the English intelligentsia to ignore "the places where things are actually happening," such as Soviet Russia: "The Russian Revolution, for instance, all but vanishes from the English consciousness between the death of Lenin and the Ukraine famine--about ten years. Throughout those years Russia means Tolstoy, Dostoievski and exiled counts driving taxi-cabs" (CEJL 1:508). In dismissing Dostoevsky as part of a cluster of cliches denoting an outdated Russia, it did not seem to occur to Orwell that Dostoevsky's writings could be mined for insights about the current Russian situation. In particular, he seemed to overlook the fact that his critique of Soviet Communism was foreshadowed by Dostoevsky's hostility toward the left-wing radicals of his own time.

If it has to remain doubtful whether a direct connection between Dostoevsky and Orwell can be established, an indirect connection exists beyond doubt through Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We. Zamyatin's dystopia forms, as it were, the connecting link in the genealogical tree leading from Dostoevsky to Orwell. As a Russian novelist, Zamyatin was of course well acquainted with Dostoevsky's oeuvre, and his book contains a whole network of allusions both to Notes from Underground and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov (see on this Morson 131-133). Orwell read Zamyatin's novel in French translation while he was working on Nineteen Eighty-Four, and devoted a sympathetic review to it (CEJL 4:72-75). Since then, it has become a critical commonplace to identify Zamyatin's We and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four together with Huxley's Brave New World (which was perhaps also inspired by Zamyatin) as the three classic dystopias of our century. Together with Dostoevsky's "urdystopia," they articulate the by now familiar angst over the obliteration of individual freedom and human personality in the machinery of a totalitarian system of thought control. …

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