Storm Warnings: Science Fiction Confronts the Future

By George E. Slusser; Colin Greenland et al. | Go to book overview

Variations on Newspeak: The Open Question of Nineteen Eighty-Four

T. A. Shippey

In a letter to the Times on 6 January 1984, Professor Bernard Crick, author of George Orwell: A Life and editor of the Clarendon Press annotated Nineteen Eighty-Four, attacked the Times fiercely for having maintained in a previous editorial that the "principal message" of George Orwell's novel was "about the use and abuse of language for political purposes." This was "body-snatching." he replied (meaning that Orwell, safely dead, was being appropriated to stand for opinions and institutions he would never have tolerated); it led also to "a comfortable, distancing reading of the text." Worst of all, it presented Orwell as a simple writer, ignored the true complexity of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and failed to observe the multiplicity of its "main satiric thrusts" (of which Crick identified seven). The final sentence of Crick's letter declared that "when anyone says it [ Nineteen Eighty-Four ] has a single or principal message they are wrong: and such assertions tell one more about the reader than about the book."

There is much in this reaction with which one can sympathize. One might well think that the Times had a certain vested interest in ignoring some of the objects of satire in Nineteen Eighty-Four, since it is one of them. Winston Smith spends much of his time in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth falsifying reports in the Times, which has clearly become totally identified with the government (rather than just very largely, as in Orwell's own day). It is also nearly always acceptable in the terms of modern critical discourse to speak up for a work of art's complexity, and to accuse rivals of oversimplifying. Finally no one is in favor of comfortable readings, the taste for the challenging or disturbing having become firmly established. Nevertheless, there is something ominous about Crick's

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