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How the Most Influential Novel Ever Written Has Been Misunderstood

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Nineteen Eighty-Four is a hopeful vision of the future. Yes, you read correctly.

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“You have no real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston.”
—Syme to Smith, Nineteen Eighty-Four

For 75 years, the number “1984” has represented a numerical nightmare. Those four digits have been brandished in screaming headlines, blaring soundbites, a BBC teleplay that resulted in heart attacks and even deaths of viewers (in December 1954), and the Washington hotline of the John Birch Society, the far-right American advocacy group. (“Call 202-659-­[pause]1-­9-­8-­4! NOW!” proclaimed the old JBS ads.)

Indeed, the world of Oceania in George Orwell’s famous novel is routinely described as diabolical, oppressive, and hopeless, and variously deemed a horror story, an elegy, a threnody, a shriek of terror, a wail of despair, a death cry. Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of both Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, referred to it in 1955—in the wake of the controversial BBC broadcasts and their “fatal” consequences—as the “Black Millennium,” when George Orwell turned a segment of time forever into charcoal dust. Literary and cultural critics have described 1984—or rather Nineteen Eighty-Four, to use the British title that Orwell himself preferred—as the vengeful death wish of a cynic, the tubercular projection of a dying man, the paranoid fantasy of a writer in despair, the Schadenfreude of a neurotic adult schoolboy who sent the entire world to room 101, and a totalitarian tract devised as a desperate invalid’s futile protest against the specter of totalitarianism, whether in the form of Hitler’s on the right or Stalin’s on the left.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is none of these.

Rather, it is instead an affirming flame, even an optimistic vision of a hope-filled time just over the horizon.

How and why have critics and readers so misunderstood Nineteen Eighty-Four?

To answer that question fully, we need to look at both textual and contextual issues, moving back and forth between intrinsic and extrinsic considerations. The contextual and extrinsic issues have to do with Orwell’s life and the world of the 1940s. We need to interrogate the casual assertion, congealed into hardened biographical myth in the popular consciousness, that a tubercular George Orwell, struggling with an agonizing disease and the tragic death of his wife and a Europe overshadowed by totalitarians of the right and left, labored under an ever-lengthening shadow, giving rise to a darkened vision and ultimately a bleak pessimism. He despaired of his own life and lost hope, too, in humanity’s future.

The textual and intrinsic reasons have to do with the awful progress of the novel into Part Three and the Ministry of Love—and the annihilation of Winston Smith as a thinking being (“The Last Man in Europe”), whose fully dehumanized end as a brainwashed zombie is summed up in the sentence “He loved Big Brother.”

That is the takeaway “nightmare” ending that has long disposed readers and critics to judge Nineteen Eighty-Fouras a dystopia of absolute negation. As Irving Howe wrote in his influential essay in the American Scholar, “History as Nightmare” (1956), which became the closing chapter of his classic study Politics and the Novel (1957):

1984 brings us to the end of the line. Beyond this—one feels or hopes—it is impossible to go.

By that sentence, Howe meant not only “impossible to go” in terms of human suffering and the destruction of identity but also aesthetically: the modern novel had reached its limit. Orwell had taken a long step beyond Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, Malraux’s Man’s Fate, and other visions of political tragedy and madness. Orwell’s nightmarish novel represented the end of History, a raven-black fantasia: beyond the totalitarian violence of and digitized dumbing-down evinced in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the fictional imagination could find no expression in art or literature that could be realized.

“The End” is not, however, the end. The ending of the main text does not actually close the novel. It includes an appendix, titled “The Principles of Newspeak.”

“So what?” we might well retort. Let us pause for a moment and return to our earlier question: How and why have critics and readers so misunderstood Nineteen Eighty-Four? Recognizing the fact of the existence of the Appendix—and pausing to scrutinize its nature and function—we become better equipped to answer that question clearly.

Newspeak: The “Forgotten Frame”?

Readers and critics alike have overlooked or misread the meaning and significance of the Appendix, probably misled by the title: “The Principles of Newspeak.” Like Winston, we too—to apply Syme’s words to our oversight as readers—“have had no real appreciation of Newspeak.” We, too, have been victims of Minitrue propaganda promoting this glorious Oceania regime, inattentive to (= failing to “appreciate”) the fact that it has already collapsed by the very first page of the novel.

No appreciation of Newspeak? By that I mean: no recognition that the Appendix functions as a framing device that places the main narrative in the silo of a receded past. Orwell has brilliantly and subtly “misled” us to see “The Principles of Newspeak” as nothing more than linguistic commentary on the construction and functioning of the regime’s artificial Esperanto-like language.

It is true that 98% of the space in the 12-page Appendix is devoted to a discussion of the language of Nineteen Eighty-Four and how it differs from Oldspeak, the phrase current during the Oceania regime for Standard English. Yet what has gone unnoticed is far more important: readers and critics have seized on the content of the Appendix but completely ignored the form, just as they have concentrated on the 95% of the Appendix devoted to the “A,” “B,” and “C” vocabularies of Oceania rather than inquire about the very first paragraph, which is the tip-off for understanding properly the vision of the novel.

In a nutshell, Nineteen Eighty-Four is written in standard English, or Oldspeak, and in the past tense at some indeterminate future beyond the year 1984. That is to say it looks back on the world of 1984 during which the Ninth and Tenth Editions of Newspeak were in usage. The unknown author(s) of the Appendix, looking back on the now-defunct regime of Oceania and apparently writing sometime after 1984 yet before 2050, when the Newspeak dictionary would be perfected, proceed from the fact that this day never came: the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary was never published.

That the Appendix is written in the past tense and in Oldspeak attests to the fact that the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four did not prevail. Standard English returned. Somehow the oppressive society of Big Brother and the Thought Police were overthrown or undermined. The circumstances are not specified; yet this linguistic apparatus is not meant to serve as a history of Oceania, or post-Oceania. So it is not at all surprising that the historical information is sparse and readers’ understanding of this history—insofar as it relies on this lone source—remains oblique.

Although we cannot specifically date the Appendix, it is clear that it occurred sometime between the year 1984 and 2050, by which time the Eleventh Edition of Newspeak was forecast to have been published and perfected, as signified by the expectation that the greatest works of English literature.

Both Dickens and the King James Bible were “in the process of translation.” The opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, for example, would be retranslated simply as crimethink. Yet not everything was so simple, and many of “these translations were a slow and difficult business,” so that “it was not expected that they would be finished before the first or second decade of the twenty-first century.”

Evidently, however, the Eleventh Edition never prevailed, and the Ninth and Tenth Editions are no longer in use. The Appendix is written in the past tense and without recourse to Newspeak except to describe it as a moment in history.

In other words, to repeat: the Appendix functions as a framing device, whereby Orwell is signaling to the reader that the future is hopeful, and indeed that the freedom to acknowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 survives. Already in the novel’s second printing, a key scene was altered (apparently at Orwell’s deathbed directive during the last week of his life, as Dennis Glover has argued): Winston now wrote in the dust of the Chestnut Hill Café table: 2 + 2 =. The “5” was replaced with a blank space. That suggested that a “4” is still possible. Truth, objective truth, is still possible.

By this change, Orwell is signaling that the totalitarian regime of Oceania, and indeed the superstate rivalries that exist with Eastasia and Eurasia, will not survive indefinitely. Within another seven decades, liberty and justice will prevail. If the main text ends on a note of despair, with Winston Smith and Julia brainwashed, and Winston lamely and mindlessly acknowledging that he loved Big Brother, the Appendix reaches outside that frame to show us that this is not the final word.

So how did it happen that Orwell’s guardedly hopeful vision of the future has gone unrecognized for so long? Above all, the title and content of the Appendix have misled readers to misconstrue it as merely a linguistic apparatus—i.e., bearing only on etymological, morphological, and semantic issues connected with Newspeak—and to miss its formal dimension and narrative function.

The Wider Context of Orwell’s Life

The significance of the Appendix may also be better understood in the context of a biographical point. Readers have often commented with admiration that Orwell exhibited extraordinary intellectual integrity and moral courage by his willingness to forgo $40,000 from Reader’s Digest in the summer of 1949 when they insisted on cutting the Appendix for reasons of length. The editors viewed the Appendix as dispensable, but Orwell told his agent, Leonard Moore, that it must be included or the deal was off.

Readers Digest did relent, and they published Nineteen Eighty-Four with the Appendix. Yet Orwell’s response, I now believe, was not merely a matter of intellectual integrity and moral courage. Rather, he regarded the Appendix as crucial to the hopeful message he wanted to send. Without the Appendix, the book did indeed end on blank negation, namely that Winston loved Big Brother. Even on his deathbed, Orwell cared so much about the book that he wanted the more hopeful message to get across, and he was willing to sacrifice $40,000, which is easily more than half a million dollars in today’s currency.

Yet all the leading critics, from Philip Roth and Diana Trilling and Lionel Trilling in New York to V.S. Pritchett and Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender and Bertrand Russell in London treated the Appendix as merely a linguistic add-on, a little afterthought, and misread the book completely. Literary critics in the 1950s and ’60s took their cue from these intellectuals and early reviewers, and did likewise. As the book became a radiological super-weapon in the cold war of words, college and high school teachers adopted the same practices, and portrayed the world of Oceania simply as a totalitarian vision of what a communist future would represent. By the same token, some socialist critics turned the tables by using the slogans and catch words of Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with its terrifying vision, to represent advanced capitalism, or “one hundred percent Americanism,” as Orwell termed it, fully realized in all its evils. For instance, as I discovered in the late 1980s during my visits to communist East Germany before reunification in 1990, President Ronald Reagan was referred to as “Big Brother” (and Margaret Thatcher as “Big Sister”) and the USA itself branded as “Amerika,” the land of doublethink. Throughout the existence of East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic (1949–89), similar usages prevailed according to the shifting partly lines dictated by the regime presiding over “really existing socialism.”

With all that said, we should now describe Nineteen Eighty-Four as “plusgood,” or even “doubleplusgood.” George Orwell has often been dismissed by critics with a modernist sensibility and Jamesian or Joycean aesthetics as a near realist, excessively politically minded, and obviously no literary artist—unsubtle and even crude. Writers ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Milan Kundera have sneered that he is a mere polemicist, and of course most Marxist critics have without exception condemned him as being a polemicist on the wrong side of socialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four brilliantly fulfills Orwell’s desire, expressed in his famous essay “Why I Write,” to “make political writing into an art.” Orwell imagines a compelling, indeed unforgettable dystopian nightmare only to invert and inflect its trajectory in the Appendix toward a vision of a resilient world that—to our surprise and relief!—has not finally succumbed to oppression and bureaucracy after all.  In so doing he realizes his aspiration in “Why I Write” to the full, and we his readers witness in turn a literary master and political visionary at the absolute peak of his artistic powers.

John Rodden

John Rodden has recently written about such topics as "1984 Tops Bestseller List in Putin's Russia," "Russia vs. Ukraine: The Battle for Nikolai Gogol," and "Putin, Ukraine, and the Culture War." He can be reached at [email protected].