In the opening of George Orwell’s powerful novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, everyman Winston Smith describes his physical surroundings. The clock strikes a punctilious 13 as our protagonist drags himself up seven flights of stairs due to the poorly maintained elevator and electrical shortages.
The weather reflects his life; there is a “vile wind” and it is bitterly cold, but at the same time it is a “bright” day — even among the misery and squalor, there appears some glimmer of hope that we can hang on to.
Using Smith as the focus of a third-person narrator, Orwell manipulates our feelings and sense of hope throughout the novel. By placing us in the shoes of an Outer Party member, we feel the intimidation and drudgery of Winston’s life. Within the first few pages we see the imposing image of Big Brother, we smell the acrid odour of boiled cabbage (a traditional fare for the poor), and we hear the droning of the telescreen.
It is an effective means of creating the fear and loathing a Party member endures. For readers living in a modern liberal democracy, the level of oppressiveness is unfathomable. There is a tedious sameness that smothers Winston’s very being.
A point of difference, however, is that while we are incensed by the oppression and injustice of his world compared with ours, Winston has lost his point of reference for a previous life; he has “no memories of anything greatly different”. The tactics of total control by the Party have begun to take hold for those like Winston.
Yet, as the third-person narrator, we become aware that he is different. The very nature of his job in the Ministry of Truth ensures that he must maintain some logic. The capacity to comprehend, interpret and ultimately alter facts about the past puts Winston in a position of regularly exercising induction and rationale.
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