By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
In the year 1948, when Orwell was writing his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, World War II was technically over. Yet, political pressure points abounded as we neared the long period of Cold War. If we think about the fear of that moment, the fear of all-out nuclear war, of a fragmented Europe, of full-blown totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, we can see where these visions of possible dark totalitarian dystopia comes from.
The Analysis of Totalitarianism
The anxiety that Orwell felt most acutely about was totalitarian rule. Obviously, in the late 1940s, Orwell was not the only one. At the time he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, a German-born political theorist named Hannah Arendt was putting together an enormous, three-volume study called The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she examines the history, politics, psychology, and economics of totalitarianism using Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany as her main subjects of inquiry.
In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien gives Winston a book, the one apparently written by Goldstein, the leader of the subversive group, the Brotherhood. That book within a book, is excerpted at length in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It touches upon many of the exact same points of analysis Arendt covers in her historical explorations of the mechanisms of totalitarian rule.
A totalitarian movement, for example, requires organized loneliness as a precondition, according to Arendt. The same thought resonates in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the book, Orwell certainly demonstrates systemic loneliness and isolation that are part of Winston, the protagonist’s, life until he meets Julia and enters into an illicit sexual relationship with her.
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Arendt and Orwell
Orwell goes on to intertwine in his plot many of Arendt’s astute observations about totalitarian regimes. The leader of a totalitarian movement, for Arendt, “assumes the ultimate victory of lie and fiction over truth and reality.” Totalitarian rulers “feel more threatened by their own than by foreign people.” Totalitarian power depends upon a situation in which “all men, without a single exception, are reliably dominated in every aspect of their life.”
For Orwell, in part, these observations also help answer a question asked by the plot in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Why doesn’t O’Brien, once he has detected Winston’s rebellion and extracted a confession, simply have Winston killed? It’s not like Winston will ever be a productive member of society again after his complete breakdown. Why is he then tortured in extreme? And why the empty rehabilitation of Winston into society? O’Brien actually brings up this question himself during a torture session.
The ‘Why’ of Totalitarian Power
As you lie there, you have often wondered—you have even asked me—why the Ministry of Love should expend so much time and trouble on you. And when you were free you were puzzled by what was essentially the same question. You could grasp the mechanics of the society you lived in, but not its underlying motives. Do you remember writing in your diary, ‘I understand how; I do not understand why’?
Well, O’Brien goes on to explain, the why is about power, absolute power. In one of the most heart wrenching scenes, O’Brien asks Winston why the Party wants power. Every time Winston gives an answer—to protect society, to protect the weak, for the good of the citizens, whatever—every answer is met by increased torture, until O’Brien finally spells it out:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
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The Play of Power and Domination
And, seemingly, O’Brien needs for each subversive person to understand and accept that. He needs what Arendt describes in her study of totalitarianism. Every man must be “reliably dominated in every aspect.” And there’s one more point Arendt makes that Orwell brings to life.
The trouble with totalitarian regimes is not that they play power politics in an especially ruthless way, but that behind their politics is hidden an entirely new and unprecedented concept of power, just as behind their Realpolitik lies an entirely new and unprecedented concept of reality.
The Visions of Zamyatin and Orwell
The Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin too matches Orwell’s visions of possible dark futures. Yet, unlike Orwell who sets his dystopia only 35 years in the future, Zamyatin sets his a thousand years on. Orwell and Zamyatin both, however, show sexuality as a major tool of subversion for a dystopic totalitarian state. Both include main characters who have completely prohibited sexual relationships with women tied to rebel groups.
Totalitarian Control and Sexuality
In both novels, these subversive couples are forcefully ended by the state. The scene in which the relationship between Winston and Julia is destroyed is one of the most heart-wrenching, powerful scenes in this enormously compelling novel.
Nonetheless, both Orwell and Zamyatin show us that a surprising amount of power lies in the issue of who controls sexuality. If the state has total control of who citizens love, of how they expend their erotic energies, then those citizens no longer have access to the human bonds that give individuals motivation to fight for their free will.
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Sexuality, the Way Out?
So, how is this dark totalitarian future to be avoided? Orwell’s novel doesn’t provide an answer to that question. Neither does Zamyatin’s We, although it offers a similar tendril of hope in its use of D-503’s journal as the frame for the whole novel.
We don’t see examples of couples whose rebellious sexuality allows them to create a true challenge to the state. Yet, in these works of dystopian literature, we do, however, see the seed of totalitarian regime’s end and sexuality as a way to defeat it.
Common Questions about Dystopia and the Mechanisms of Totalitarian Rule
Hannah Arendt’s three-volume study called The Origins of Totalitarianism examines the history, politics, psychology, and economics of totalitarianism using Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany as her main subjects of inquiry.
Totalitarian power, according to Arendt, depends upon a situation in which “all men, without a single exception, are reliably dominated in every aspect of their life.”
Both Orwell and Zamyatin feel so because if the totalitarian state has total control of who citizens love, of how they expend their erotic energies, then those citizens no longer have access to the human bonds that give individuals motivation to fight for their free will.