Slavery in Modern Clothing in Orwell’s 1984

In the totalitarian regime of Big Brother’s imaginary socialistic utopia in Oceania in 1984, Winston Smith lives a sordid dehumanized life devoid of all the traditional sources of happiness that have fulfilled human beings throughout the ages. Orwell portrays a politically correct social order that robs human beings of dignity, political rights under the law, freedom of thought and religion, a culture of the arts, and the right to marry and found a family. Political correctness is the closing of the human mind to common sense, self-evident truth, moral law, and the wisdom of tradition. It is subjection to propaganda and the dictates of ideology which invent doctrines like War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, and 2+2=5. In Winston’s world, man is a god who presumes an all-powerful control and defies God the Father and Mother Nature. In O’Brien’s words, “We make the laws of nature.”

Suffering a monotonous existence in an unjust society under a tyrannical government without God-given, inalienable rights, Winston Smith lives in a world devoid of joy, laughter, beauty, leisure, family, religion, and a life of the mind. He summarizes his wretched condition as a kind of living death: “It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty and insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness.” Subjected to the radical, atheistic ideas of Communism that have precipitated political, cultural, and moral chaos, Winston lives in a society that has deconstructed the past, attacked the family, reinvented reality, and rejected natural law. Through the indoctrination of the telescreen and the propaganda of the media, Winston lives an ignoble existence that has reduced man to a creature of the state. Winston’s daily life typifies his whole drab existence.

His ordinary life is dreary and oppressive for many reasons. First, Winston enjoys no privacy. Surrounded by the organs of public communication in all private and public places and threatened by spies in all his travels throughout Oceania, Winston never experiences a state of recollection, silence, or solitude to think, reflect, or contemplate. Fearful in all his waking moments and wary to keep his face “expressionless” as a safeguard against the Thought Police, he feels alone and unsuspected only when he is sleeping. Without confidants, friends, or bonds with family members, Winston dares not divulge his real feelings and honest thoughts. Only in a private diary hidden in his apartment does Winston dare to speak his mind and open his heart: “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER!”

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Second, Winston lives to work instead of working to live, and is a slave of the Party with no human dimension to his life like a home or normal family life, the enjoyment of the arts, or the simple pleasures of favorite pastimes. Instead of holidays, vacations, and free time, Winston endures the oppression of perpetual labor with no reprieve. Working sixty-hour weeks in the Ministry of Truth to revise history and to vilify the past as a time of the dark ages, Winston works to fabricate the brave new world of Big Brother’s social revolution as utopia. He spends his days in the cause of propaganda to deaden the intellectual life of the citizens and to achieve the goal of the Party: the brainwashing of the mind (“Orthodoxy was unconsciousness”). Even at the end of the official working day, Winston suffers obligatory attendance at communal recreations, public lectures, and group hikes. During Hate Week and the required daily Two Minutes Hate, he works overtime—ninety hours in five days. Feigning rage in public demonstrations with effigies, the clamor of slogans, and the spectacle of posters and photographs that demonize Goldstein, the imaginary enemy contrived by the Party as scapegoat to control and vent the suppressed emotions, Winston never experiences a respite from the Party’s exhausting agenda that depletes all human vitality and leaves no time for any pursuit besides service to the Party and common cause against an imaginary enemy.

Third, Winston never experiences pleasure or knows joy, not even the taste of good food, coffee, or wine, but is limited only to the inferior quality of Victory cigarettes, coffee and gin. Devoid of all happiness and pleasure, Winston pursues no favorite avocations nor enjoys leisure or recreation at the end of the day or week to revitalize his energy. Without the celebration of the Sabbath, religious holy days, birthdays, anniversaries, or hospitable social events, Winston lives a life without the accompaniment of the Muses which inspire the arts and lift the heart and mind to the contemplation of the transcendentals of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Remembering from the past the tolling of the bells playing “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement’s, / You owe ten farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s,” Winston recognizes the stark contrast between the London of his youth filled with poetry, music, and worship and the disappearance of every form of beautiful art and culture in his new surroundings: “It struck him as a curious fact that he had never heard a member of the Party singing alone or spontaneous.”

Without the presence or inspiration of beauty as a normal part of daily life to rejuvenate the spirit, the dreariness and dinginess of human existence only exacerbate the world-weariness that oppresses a human life without purpose or meaning. Familiar only with inferior products, cheap quality, and ugly surroundings, Winston also observes the unattractive appearance of women dressed in trousers or overalls who lack all style, elegance, taste, and femininity—women who never appear in beautiful female attire, stylized hair, cosmetics, or silk stockings. The Party diminishes and eliminates beauty to discourage attraction, romance, and marriage between men and women selected for their absolute allegiance to the Party with no family obligations. The Party’s definition of chastity, promoted by the junior Anti-Sex League, means loyalty to the Party, and the purpose of marriage is not a gift of love but the duty “to make a baby” out of duty to the party. The words “I love you” exchanged by Winston and Julia in their clandestine affair comprise political heresy: “All marriages between Party members had to be approved by a committee appointed for the purpose, and … permission was always refused if the couple concerned gave the impression of being physically attracted to one another.”

Only when Winston stealthily visits Mr. Charrington’s antique shop in the Prole district does he behold the consummate art of beautiful craftsmanship revealed in an antique clock, a mahogany bed, and a coral paperweight—artifacts from the past hidden from view to deaden the awareness of the higher ideals of older art: “Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always suspect.” The Party must prevent comparisons between the old and the new to desensitize the mind’s discrimination between great art and mediocre workmanship, between literature and propaganda, and between the highest standards that distinguish the art of living from the lowest common denominator of socialistic society: “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.” Without the integrity of great writers who render the perennial nature of things, the constancy of the human condition, the unchanging truths about good and evil, and the universality of human nature, the permanent truths and wisdom of the ages lack continuity and preservation—leading to a state of ignorance that facilitates the dissemination of radical ideas and abstract political theories which fill the void of the empty mind.

Thus Winston enjoys no life of the mind. Likewise, the Party that banishes all the classics of literature, then substitutes Newspeak for Oldspeak to reduce the range of a person’s consciousness and limit awareness only to the Party’s idea of political correctness, i.e., its version of orthodoxy: “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” Political correctness demands censorship and verbal manipulation which blunt moral sensibility. Instead of words like good and evil, pride and humility, wrath and meekness, and gluttony and temperance that allow for a breadth of understanding, Newspeak reduces language to narrow concepts and neutered words like good, ungood, or doubleplusgood that lack clarity and precision. As the words of Oldspeak disappear, Newspeak flattens reality and removes distinctions and nuances that reflect the entire nature of reality in both its unity and variety. As Winston learns from Syme, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Finally, Winston has no social or family life. Unmarried and forbidden to marry without the permission of the Party, he lives an alienated, isolated life that lacks romance, friendship, and the normal human bonds of association because they threaten the absolute, unqualified loyalty to the party the regime demands. He recalls memories from his childhood of a beloved mother banished to a forced labor camp, a younger sister removed to a colony of homeless children, and a father who mysteriously disappeared. Winston’s former marriage to Katherine, a victim of Big Brother’s brainwashing, expressed love as a joyless perfunctory duty to the Party “to make a baby” for the future of the Party. Always wishing he were married, Winston pursues a secretive, forbidden romance with Julia hoping to escape the notice of the spies and telescreens and retain some semblance of a human life only to be frustrated once again in the fulfillment of every natural human desire.

As 1984 illustrates, all the timeless truths of Western civilization explain the source of human happiness and the art of civilized living, not the ideologies of political correctness. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, all men by nature are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. In the words of St. Thomas, no man can live without pleasure. In the teachings of the Church, man is created in the image of God and does not exist as a slave of the state. In the words from Genesis, God enjoins man and woman to be fruitful and fill the earth, not to make idols of a political party. According to the Ten Commandments, man works in order to play, to rest on the Sabbath, and to enjoy leisure rather than exists to work as a drudge for the Party. In Aristotle’s famous words, all men by nature desire to know, to wonder, and to contemplate the highest things, but not to be enslaved by Thought Control. All these voids in Winston’s inhuman life cause the existential crisis in his life: to stay alive or stay human.

To stay alive Winston must conform to the expectations of a loyal party member and say black is white and 2+2=5. He must believe that the perfect quality of his life surpasses the miserable lot of his ancestors. He must agree that it is the Party which determines the historical past, and not his memory. He must pretend that he does not possess an inherent human nature, but embrace the idea that “men are infinitely malleable” and trust O’Brien who states “we create human nature.” To stay human, Winston writes in his diary “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER,” pursues romance with Julia, seeks the beautiful in the antique shop, and defies the unjust laws of Big Brother’s regime. The Party, of course, soon discovers Winston’s treason to the Party and exacts the ultimate penalty—not death, imprisonment, or the gulag, but reconstruction and “rehabilitation” by way of torture and psychological conditioning to cure him of his insanity and restore him to the status of an emasculated sycophant who utters the mantra of political correctness: “I love Big Brother.”

Editor’s note: The above column was written for Crisis by the late Mitchell Kalpakgian who is remembered in this tribute by Dr. William Fahey.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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