Signet Essay Contest 2013
The society of Oceania in 1984 is run by a government known only as the Party, whose maxims include such paradoxical statements as “Freedom is Slavery” and “War is Peace.” These inherent contradictions are possible by the mechanism of doublethink. Doublethink is, according to the book, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” (190). Party members such as the main character, Winston, use this technique to believe the lies of the Party while helping the Party to tell them. For example, Winston’s job in the Ministry of Truth is to make edits to documents, often newspapers, that correspond to what the Party wishes the people to believe. When the Party changes Oceania’s enemy from Eurasia to Eastasia, Winston’s entire department returns to work, changing all the documents to say Eastasia instead of Eurasia, at the same time as believing that no change has been made at all.
Like the Ministry of Truth, the other Ministries that govern Oceania are named contrary to their purpose. “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink,” says the book. “For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely” (192, Orwell’s emphasis). For this, it seems, is the reason for the mass deception practiced upon the people. In order for those in power to remain there, people must believe that they are better off than they were before, that they are better off than those in other countries, and that their government does not make mistakes. Accordingly, the records must be altered, and yet if those performing the alterations are still to believe all these things, there is nothing to be done but doublethink. The difference between Oceania and the societies that have gone before it, explains Winston’s coworker, O’Brien, is that the current government has no illusions about why it is there. “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end&The object of power is power” (235).
And yet, many of these seeming paradoxes are, in fact, in some way true. One of the main purposes of the war, it is revealed, is so that goods can be produced without raising the quality of life. Even if the efficiency of production increases, ordinary citizens need not expect to receive any of them, since they go toward the war effort. The Ministry of Plenty, then, is indeed concerned with plenty. The other purpose is to create a common cause against which the people can unite. Actual fighting is unnecessary, as long as the people believe it is occurring. “For in that case each would still be a self-contained universe, freed forever from the sobering influence of external danger. A peace that was truly permanent would be the same as a permanent war. This&is the inner meaning of the Party slogan: WAR IS PEACE” (177). Consequently, the Ministry of Peace is indistinguishable from a Ministry of War. Indeed, if the citizens believe there is war, there is. O’Brien points out that the past can only be found in records and in memories, and if both can be altered through the work in the Ministry of Truth and through doublethink, then the past and reality itself can be said to be alterable. The Ministry of Truth, then, creates truth. Finally, the aim of the Ministry of Love is not the same as most other bodies concerned with torture. It is not looking for information; it already has it. Indeed, the aim of the Ministry of Love is to erase dissenters completely, not by merely removing and punishing them, but by changing their minds and their very hearts to agree with and even love the Party and Big Brother. O’Brien says to Winston, “Shall I tell you why we have brought you [to the Ministry of Love]? To cure you!…We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about.” (225-6) And later: “We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you do surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him” (227). The aim of the Ministry of Love is, indeed, to convince dissenters to love Big Brother.
This is the final reason why Party members believe in and support the Party. The Ministry of Love tortures them until they do. Indeed, by the end of the book, Winston believes the maxims of the party, he is repentant, and he loves Big Brother.
It is not so difficult, after all, to understand why the people of 1984 believe the paradoxes of the Party. With doublethink, they are able to avoid realizing contradictions in statements which are at least partially true anyway, and the dissenters are not martyred, but converted.
Newspeak itself is created by bundling many meanings into a single word, and then deprecating the word so that the meanings are lost. Although there is no evidence that any governmental body creates any of today’s languages in quite so deliberate a fashion, something similar is happening to us.
Ours is a society of exaggeration. Long ago, not liking something became the same as disliking it. Bad things are awful, terrible, the worst. Good things are awesome, amazing, incredible, the best. Anything pretty must be gorgeous or beautiful, and pretty has ceased to be a real compliment. Love is extended to anything particularly liked, and hate is extended even further, to anything merely annoying. And expletives have taken the place of emphasis. Gone is the precision of language of Shakespeare. We already use Newspeak, and we have taken it a step farther; everything is doubleplusungood, and anything simpler has lost its meaning.
For information on the 2013-2014 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.