Hope Begins in the Dark: Re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four
by James Benstead
26 June 2005


In a 1956 interview with the Paris Review William Faulkner spoke about his work as a Hollywood script writer. When the interviewer asked Faulkner if he would like to make another movie, Faulkner responded,

Yes, I would like to make one of George Orwell’s 1984. I have an idea for an ending which would prove the thesis I’m always hammering at: that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.i

Ostensibly there appears to be little in Nineteen Eighty-Four to suggest that ‘man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom’. Winston Smith’s will to freedom can be seen, instead, to directly bring about his destruction. Little hope seems to be offered that this destruction is anything other than complete, an effect implied in part by a shift in the tone of the free indirect discourse which has established the narrative viewpoint of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The questioning, reflective language Winston employs throughout most of the text is replaced by the ideological cant of the Party: ‘it was alright, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother’ ii.

There are, however, various features of Nineteen Eighty-Four which can be seen to sit uneasily alongside this reading of the text and, to some extent, to disrupt it. In this essay I will explore these features, and consider the ways in which Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen to support and perhaps encourage more hopeful interpretations and through doing so, present challenges to the dominant interpretation of the text.

Winston’s ultimate destruction by and submission to the Party is not, despite its dramatic finality, the point at which Nineteen Eighty-Four finishes. What can be considered to be the main text of Nineteen Eighty-Four is followed by an Appendix subtitled The Principles of Newspeak. Since it is called an Appendix this section of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen to purport to be auxiliary to the main text, explaining The Principles of Newspeak in a form which does not disrupt the flow of the narrative. However, the Appendix tells the reader very little about the structure of Newspeak which he could not learn directly from the main text of Nineteen Eighty-Four; moreover, much of the ‘new’ information contained in the Appendix could be directly inferred from the main text. The Appendix can, therefore, be seen to be fore grounded against the genre of Appendices and to subvert readerly preconceptions as to what an Appendix should do; this subversion is suggested, moreover, by the very inclusion of an Appendix in a novel, since appendices are ordinarily associated with academic or technical works.

A further subversion of readerly preconceptions, and a suggestion as to what these subversions may imply, can be perceived in the verb tenses used in the Appendix: ‘Newspeak was the official language of Oceania’ ii; ‘in the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication’ iv ; ‘it was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded [standard English] by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily’ v ; ‘Newspeak was founded on the English language as we now know it vi ; ‘In 1984... ...the danger theoretically existed that in using Newspeak words one might remember their original meaning. In practice it was not difficult for any person well grounded in doublethink (Orwell’s emphasis) to avoid doing this, but within a couple of generations even the possibility of such a lapse would have vanished vii ; ‘When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed’ viii (my emphasis except where indicated otherwise). Read literally these sections of the Appendix refer to an Oceania of the past and identify it as the Oceania presented in the main text. Furthermore, as the critic Frank Winter has observed, ‘this use of the tenses... ...pinpoints the use of Newspeak as something that was never fully achieved’ ix . Winter goes on to observe that ‘the Appendix tells us nothing about Newspeak that has not already been mentioned in the novel – except the chronology of its presumed obsolescence x . The elements of the Appendix which can be seen to subvert readerly preconceptions are therefore in one sense intertwined with information that is at odds with the idea that there is no hope for the individual in Nineteen Eighty-Four, since the Party has perhaps been unable to see through its project of limiting human thought through the limitation of language. At some point between 1984 and ‘the first or second decade of the twenty-first century’ xi , the project fails. Moreover, as Winter has noted, ‘Throughout [Nineteen Eighty-Four], Newspeak is identified with Ingsoc’ xii : as Winston observes, ‘“Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak”’ xiii . Any failure of Newspeak can therefore be seen to suggest that the Party is not infallible; moreover, if Newspeak were to fail then the Party would fail with it. In this way the Appendix can be seen to encourage a resistant reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a reading ‘against the grain’ which explores the Party’s claims to infallibility and searches for inconsistencies which challenge these claims.

The Party’s claims to infallibility and omnipotence are implicitly and explicitly present throughout the main text of Nineteen Eighty-Four in, for example, the concept of Thought Crime and its overseers, the Thought Police; by the work undertaken in the Ministry of Information to rewrite history; and by the vaporization of Syme. These claims are then crystallized in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism and during Winston’s dialogues with O’Brien in Part III. In the latter section of the text O’Brien polemicises the practical and metaphysical machinations of the Party in an attempt to destroy the various potentials of hope presented by the preceding text. For example, Winston and Julia’s martyrdom, signified in the text by the repetition of the phrase ‘we are the dead’, is exploded by O’Brien: ‘we do not allow the dead to rise up against us [...] we do not destroy the heretic [...] we convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him [...] we make the brain perfect before we blow it out’ xiv .

Winston’s relationship with Julia and its physical and psychological redemption of Winston is described in Part II of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Winston had dropped his habit of drinking gin at all hours. [...] He had grown fatter, his varicose ulcer had subsided [...] his fits of coughing in the early morning had stopped. The process of life had ceased to be intolerable. xv

This is also exploded by O’Brien in Part III when Winston finally betrays Julia and is defeated by the Party. O’Brien’s claims of the party’s temporally and spatially absolute power seem accurate.

Since it is the interrogation scenes in Part III of Nineteen Eighty-Four that can be seen to make the ultimate claims for the Party’s power, it could be argued that any reading which attempts to show the Party’s fallibility should pay particular attention to this section and especially to O’Brien’s dialogue with Winston. The critic Alan Kennedy suggests a deconstruction of this section of the text. Kennedy describes the political possibilities of deconstruction and connects the deconstructive concept of resistance with its political meaning xvi . In his deconstruction of O’Brien’s interrogation of Winston, Kennedy observes:

[in] the image he gives of the future: ‘a boot stamping on a human face – for ever’... ...it is very difficult for O’Brien to avoid the master/slave paradox... ...for the boot to feel power, it is dependent on the existence of the face. xvii

The Party’s power can therefore be seen to be dependent on those who feel it as a negative force; that is, those who would desire to resist it. Furthermore, Since desiring to resist the Party’s power is thoughtcrime, in Nineteen Eighty-Four desiring to resist can be equated with resisting. If the Party’s power is to continue to exist, those who desire to resist, and therefore do resist, must be eliminated; however, if every resistor were eliminated then the Party’s power would disappear. Hence, if it is to remain powerful, the Party must also create dissidence, if only to destroy it.

O’Brien states much of this himself:

The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated all over again [...] This drama that I have played out with you during seven years will be played out over and over again, generation after generation [...] Always we shall have the heretic here at our mercy. xviii

However, O’Brien gives the logic of the master/slave paradox a subtle twist:

Goldstein and his heresies will live for ever. Every day, at every moment, they will be defeated, discredited, ridiculed, spat upon – and yet they will always survive. xix

This is, according to Kennedy, true; however, ‘Goldstein and his heresies’ are, according to O’Brien, an invention of the Party. Through his emphasis on Goldstein as a representation of and figurehead for all dissidence O’Brien twists the deconstruction of the Party-dissident opposition from ‘the Party must create dissidents to continue existing’ to ‘the Party consciously and deliberately creates dissidents to continue existing’. Since O’Brien has already displayed his abilities at doublethink it is difficult to decide whether this manipulation is deliberately deployed by O’Brien as part of the process of his breaking Winston, or whether this is what he – and therefore the Party – truly believes. However, if O’Brien has deliberately deployed this manipulation, knowing it to be false, then, because of the degree of mental conformity required by the Party, he is guilty of thoughtcrime; there may therefore be evidence to suggest that what O’Brien states here is what he and the Party truly believe.

If this is the case then there is an inconsistency in the Party’s metaphysic in that it does not, and can not, recognise that only the Party’s existence is necessary for dissidents to be created. Any conscious action undertaken by the Party to create dissidents is, in this sense, superfluous.

Dissidents are created by the very nature of the Party-dissident opposition, by an inescapable aspect of existence. Winston’s resistance to O’Brien’s assertion as to the Party’s creation and destruction of dissidents is similar to this argument:

I know that you will fail. There is something in the universe – I don’t know, some spirit, some principle – that you will never overcome [...] The spirit of Man. xx

Winston is unable to specify further as to what he considers to be the ‘something in the universe’ that will destroy the Party. However, O’Brien is not able to completely defeat Winston’s argument. In his attempt to do so, O’Brien places Winston in the middle of three mirrors so that Winston is able to see fully the ‘bowed, grey-coloured, skeleton like thing’ xxi that is his emaciated body. As O’Brien does this, he says to Winston: “‘You are the last man’ [...] ‘You are the guardian of the human spirit’” xxii . After Winston has spent some time observing his own body, O’Brien continues: ‘“You are rotting away’ [...] “Now turn round and look into that mirror again. Do you see that thing facing you? That is the last man. If you are human, that is humanity”’’ xxiii . O’Brien is identifying Winston’s ‘spirit of Man’ with Winston’s physical persona; that is, with Winston ‘the last man’. There is little doubt that Winston is being defeated physically; however, as Winter remarks, ‘this does not invalidate the postulated “spirit of Man” as the antithesis of the Party’ xxiv . Moreover, O’Brien’s assertion that Winston is ‘the last man’ is strange when considered in the light of O’Brien’s explanation that ‘The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there’. If this is doublethink then doublethink can be seen not only to prevent dissidence but to prevent the Party seeing the true nature of dissidence: that the ‘spirit of Man’, although it may never defeat the Party, must be perpetuated; moreover, this perpetuation must be genuine: the Party cannot break the circular relationship between oppressor and dissident simply by creating dissidents, such as Goldstein, which it controls. Kennedy remarks that

it turns out that perhaps O’Brien, while he is a better metaphysician than Winston, is not in fact the best metaphysician [...] Which of course makes us think again that Orwell’s novel is not at all a prophecy or a warning, but a challenge: a challenge to our reading ability; a challenge to become a better metaphysician than O’Brien; a challenge to question O’Brien’s claim that all reality is in the mind, or that all reality is available in the form of knowledge. xxv

Nineteen Eighty-Four can be seen to be a text which differs from itself in that its pessimistic surface meaning contradicts and, to some extent, dominates other meanings the text can be seen to have. However, it is the pessimistic surface meaning which has been absorbed into popular culture as the ‘true’ meaning of the text. Nineteen Eighty-Four is widely used as a symbol for extreme political control and the destruction of individualism; the adjective ‘Orwellian’ has come to mean not only ‘of or characteristic of the writings of George Orwell’ xxvi , but particularly refers to ‘the totalitarian development of the State as depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm xxvii . Since its publication Nineteen Eighty-Four has developed to be both a text with a political meaning and a text with a meaning which is to some extent dependent on the political views of its readers and, moreover, on the political views of its writer.

Orwell’s politics, as expressed in his writing, can be seen to change throughout his literary career. Although always broadly of the left, Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War, recorded in Homage to Catalonia, caused him to become disillusioned with centralised, Moscow-led Communism. This disillusionment can be seen, in Orwell’s writing, to be compounded by the West’s changing views of Moscow during and immediately after the Second World War. In Towards European Unity and Prevention of Literature Orwell refers to ‘The Russian Myth’; that is, the popularity of the USSR and Soviet Communist practice and ideology in the West, especially among Western intellectuals.

Nineteen Eighty-Four and its direct predecessor in Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm, can be read as a reflection of both the West’s changing relationship with Communism in this period and Orwell’s position within this relationship. The journalist Peter Sedgwick has referred to Orwell’s ‘honesty and courage in an age of suffocating political illusion’ xxviii ; Orwell himself remarks that ‘In sentiment I am definitely “left”, but I believe that a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels’ xxix . To some extent, Orwell’s determination to remain ‘free of party labels’ can be seen to contribute to the subsequent dominance of the interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four which sees the text as pessimistic. Moreover, Orwell’s stated intention to remain ‘free of party labels’ did not prevent the interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four along party political lines or the use of the text for party political gain. Orwell’s publisher Fredric Warburg stated that:

The political system which prevails [in Nineteen Eighty-Four] is Ingsoc = English Socialism. This I take to be a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism and socialist parties generally [...Nineteen Eighty-Four] is worth a cool million votes to the conservative party. xxx

This perception was shared by much of the left-wing press, with Pravda xxxi , Marxist Quarterly xxxii and the American Communist journal Masses and Mainstream xxxiii all damning Nineteen Eighty-Four, perceiving it as an attack on Soviet Communism. This perception of the text was shared, moreover, by the political right, who used Nineteen Eighty-Four as anti-Communist propaganda during the Cold War. According to Malcolm Pittock, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four [...] was used along with Animal Farm as propaganda in the Western occupied zones of Germany’ xxxiv . Moreover, according to Frances Stonor Saunders, the CIA provided financial backing for the 1954 film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as the same year’s animated version of Animal Farm, viewing both as useful anti-Communist propaganda tools xxxv .

Despite this interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four along party political lines, Orwell maintained that:

[Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism [...] but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. [...] I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere. xxxvi

If, as Orwell claims, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a satire, then it can to some extent be read as a satire of James Burnham’s conception in the early 1940s of the political order which was to emerge at the end of the Second World War. Despite stating that ‘Burnham’s geographical picture of the new world has turned out to be correct’ xxxvii , Orwell was in disagreement with Burnham’s explanation of how this new world had come about, describing Burnham as a ‘neo-pessimist’ xxxviii . In his essay James Burnham xxxix Orwell clarifies his objections to Burnham’s explanation of the world. Firstly, Orwell criticises Burnham’s extrapolation of the future political organisation of the world from contemporary trends:

[Burnham’s] power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue [...] within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying [...] the instinct to bow before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible xl .

Orwell then goes on to criticise Burnham’s general attitude to the ‘dominant class of the moment’:

[Burnham’s justification of the methods employed by the Nazis] implies that literally anything can become right or wrong if the dominant class of the moment so wills it. It ignores the fact that certain rules of conduct have to be observed if human society is to hold together at all [...] it is too early to say in just what way the Russian regime will destroy itself [...] but at any rate the Russian regime will either democratize itself, or it will perish xli .

This seems to contradict the dominant, pessimistic reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four and perhaps suggests that Nineteen Eighty-Four can be read as a satire of Western intellectual approval of totalitarian methods of government, a satire which expresses Orwell’s concern for the ‘turning away from democracy and frank admiration for totalitarianism, which overtook the British intelligentsia in about 1940’ xlii . If Nineteen Eighty-Four is read as being consistent with Orwell’s earlier writings concerning this ‘frank admiration for totalitarianism’ then the unambiguous injustice of Oceanic society can be seen to be both an extrapolation of Burnham’s views and an invitation to the text’s readers to reject them. There has been much critical interest in the logical consistency of Orwell’s writing, especially concerning the ending of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and it could be argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four presents similar inconsistencies in that the complete destruction of Winston, and the absolute submission of the individual to the power of the Party this destruction can be taken to symbolise, is at odds with the literal reading of the Appendix xliii . However, it could also be argued that an interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four which to some extent sees the text as a satire, an interpretation suggested by Orwell’s attitudes to James Burnham, can be seen to reconcile these contradictions.

Despite the dominance of the reading which considers Nineteen Eighty-Four to be a pessimistic prophecy or warning concerning the possible future of political control, I have attempted to show how the metatextual nature of such sections of the text as the Appendix and the interrogation scenes in Part III can be seen to encourage a more hopeful interpretation. The sections of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism can be seen to suggest, furthermore, that Nineteen Eighty-Four can be read as a satire of the approval by Western intellectuals of totalitarianism. Orwell’s conception of the importance of the Appendix and The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism are perhaps suggested by his refusal to publish Nineteen Eighty-Four with the American Book of the Month Club if, as requested by the Club, these sections were cut:

I can’t possibly agree to the kind of alteration and abbreviation suggested. It would alter the whole colour of the book and leave out a good deal that is essential [...] it would also [...] make the story unintelligible. xliv

A resistant reading of some form can also be seen to be encouraged by the inclusion of the Appendix and The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism , since both sections can be seen to subvert readerly preconceptions concerning the genre of the novel.

The one unresolved motif of hope and redemption in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that of the ‘proles’ and their political freedom xlv , is perhaps the single clearest suggestion as to how Oceanic society may come to change; untainted by Newspeak and therefore not completely subjugated by Ingsoc, the‘proles’ may be Nineteen Eighty-Four’s lasting potential of hope.


Click here for the bibliography and notes.





Note: This essay is copyright © 2005 by James Benstead.