Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Erotic Dream to Nightmare: Ominous Problems and Subliminal Suggestion in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Erotic Dream to Nightmare: Ominous Problems and Subliminal Suggestion in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

Article excerpt

By means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it?

--Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four contains what appear to be many glaring faults. They are so many and so obvious that they recall the worst coincidence-driven novels of Dickens. Like its early reviewers, however, academic interpreters have tended to ignore them, wishing, perhaps, to avoid impugning the technical competence of so powerful a work. It is a modern classic, after all, and possibly the most read novel of the twentieth century. But such selective perception amounts to widespread critical doublethink, and these faults, if that is what they are, ought to be addressed since they bear on our assessment of this novel as a work of art. If they are technical faults they aesthetically weaken it; if they are not faults, Orwell must intend the reader to notice and be troubled by them for aesthetic-interpretive purposes. I think that the latter is the case and that these apparent faults are all, in fact, integral to plot and therefore constitutive of theme but in a way that requires a significant shift in our interpretation of the novel. Giving the work and its author the benefit of the doubt, let us call these apparent faults problems. Of these there are two kinds: one involving games; the other, narrative improbabilities.

In the Britain of Orwell's novel before Ingsoc came to power, games were--as in real life--either competitive or games of chance, but now, in Oceania, they are neither. Chess was real when both players had a chance of winning, and it was best when competitors were approximately equal in skill. Now by law, only the white side can win (302). (White is also the side that always moves first--we shall see that this has special significance.) Before Ingsoc came to power, all players of "Snakes and Ladders" had an equal chance of winning; now the game does not exist. In the rhyming game "Oranges and Lemons" numerical odds once gave all participants an equal chance of evading capture and pretend execution; now they have no chance of escape. The difference between games as they were and as they are, or are no longer, is that now there is no equality of players, no determination of outcome by skill, and no chance.

What is the symbolic relevance of such games for the real lives of the main characters in the novel? Is there no chance of success or survival for Winston Smith and Julia? That is to say, would they have a chance if Winston did not go to the antique shop (actually a trap laid by the Thought Police) or if he and Julia did not entrust themselves to O'Brien during their visit to O'Brien's flat? Might Winston and Julia conduct their sexual affair with impunity, as Julia says she has her earlier affairs? Apparently they might, which is why most if not all published criticism assumes that, at least initially, Winston and Julia have a chance of eluding arrest. But what, then, is the meaning of the motif of games that are predetermined, chanceless, and can only symbolize hopelessness? Although no prior criticism of the novel has noted this, there is clear dissonance, even disjunction between such games and the possibility of eluding the Thought Police. Can the relation of games to real life in the novel amount solely to such difference? The implication that life is fairer or more reasonable than games can only diminish the satirical force of the novel, and what would be the point of that? Or else there is actually no dissonance, no disjunction, and the difference between "games" (no longer really games) and human life is only apparent. But before reaching any conclusion about the relation of games to the lives of characters, we must consider those lives and examine the second kind of problem, narrative improbabilities. …

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