Utopia Reconsidered: Comments on 1984
George Orwell resembled Samuel Johnson in the many ways that Jeffrey Meyers has suggested but not in his attitude toward government. Living in an age when the balance of power between ruler and ruled was less disproportionate than it is now, Johnson was optimistic enough to believe that arbitrary and overweening power was bound to fail in the end: "I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny that will keep us safe under every form of government."1
Orwell did not share this opinion; long before 1984 was written, events in Europe had shown him that no "remedy in human nature" could prevail against the organized assaults of fascism and communism, bolstered as they were by armies and massive armament as well as by control of the press. But, though he paradoxically called himself a socialist, Orwell went farther than most in believing that the state had come to weigh so heavily on individuals that even the act of love could turn into a political gesture of submission or rebellion, and questions about the sum of two plus two could lead to the epistemological certainty, guaranteed and enforced by the power of the state, that the answer was five.
This belief did not, of course, emerge full blown in Burmese Days, his first novel. In it individual weakness is opposed to power in the relatively narrow context of imperialism; but as Orwell's experience and theoretical understanding widened, his conception of this struggle became less parochial. With 1984 the British empire becomes a superstate called Oceania, and the central issue is not so much the exploitation of the masses for profit as it is the nature and use of power as these have developed in the twentieth century. Pervading every aspect of this clearly defined subject is the bewildered feeling, so poignantly expressed in Animal Farm and 1984, that something in modern life has