The "Dark Power of Destiny" in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

By Carpentier, Martha C. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2014 | Go to article overview

The "Dark Power of Destiny" in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four


Carpentier, Martha C., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Applying a Lacanian approach to Orwell's narrative strategies in Nineteen Eighty-Four, this essay analyzes the protagonist's attempt to evade the Symbolic by resurrecting archaic memories of preoedipal union through a repetitive triadic play of signifiers. Engaging Freud and Deleuze, the essay views his masochistic behaviour as a challenge to patriarchy via identification with the feminized position.

A novel filled with dreams and deeply concerned with the disinterment of archaic memories, Nineteen Eighty-Four displays a narrative mastery of subjectivity that begs for psychoanalytic readings. Yet there have been only two psychoanalytic studies of Orwell's work: Gerald Fiderer's 1970 "Masochism as Literary Strategy: Orwell's Psychological Novels" and Richard I. Smyer's 1979 Primal Dream and Primal Crime. Fiderer's discussion, while insightful, suffers from the biographical reductionism to which classical Freudian literary criticism is prone; for instance, "All of Orwell's life and career was thus the preparation for writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the template upon which the wounds were laid down was the whipping he received at Crossgates" (8). Smyer's monograph shows greater awareness that "the unearthing of psychological meanings in the novels is not an end in itself but rather part of an attempt to determine the extent to which he was able to integrate various modes of reality into an artistic whole" (7). He argues that in the nineteen-forties Orwell moved away from sociopolitical concerns to "a more pronounced interest in the moral--even spiritual and religious--dimension of human existence" (118) and that Orwell's perception of the pervasiveness of evil in his own time, "the fact of a Europe suddenly transformed into a totalitarian slave empire," eventually turned his attention to "the darker regions" of the psyche "and even to a frightening encounter with his own irrationality" (122), which culminated in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Smyer's analysis of the novel, however, results in a rather bizarre application of Erich Fromm to his reading of Winston at the end as "cured" by O'Brien, who facilitates his "ego-extinguishing drive wombward," which Smyer interprets as "a radically religious act that, as O'Brien promises, will gain the initiate an impersonal immortality," an "oceanic oneness" after death as "Big Brother's hostility is now revealed to have been love" (15459). This reversal seems to strain the limits of the text; nevertheless, I agree with Smyer's view, still a marginal one in Orwell studies, that "in itself the existence of a symbolic style expressing private types of experience is neither more nor less significant than a realistically conveyed sociopolitical content. At issue is their organic relationship" (7).

Orwell scholarship in general, however, continues in the well-established materialist tradition of separating his fiction from his documentary writing, and grounding interpretation of his work in biography and the realpolitik of its conditions of production, for instance in the emphasis consistently given his influential pronouncement from "Why I Write": "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it" (319). John Rossi and John Rodden's recent introduction to the Cambridge Companion to George Orwell is typical in this regard and accurately reflects the general opinion of some sixty years of Orwell scholarship: "While he produced four novels between the years 1933 and 1939, it was clear that his real talent did not lie in traditional fiction. He seems instinctively to have understood that the documentary style he developed in his essays and semi-autobiographical monograph [...] was unsuitable to the novel format. Ultimately, what profoundly interested Orwell were political questions" (1). However, one could choose a different, but equally definitive, statement from "Why I Write," such as "I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood" (319), and derive an entirely different view of Orwell's narrative goals that does not privilege his documentary style over his fiction. …

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