Saturday, January 24, 2009

Who is Winston Smith?

I was surprised by how engrossed I became in 1984. I knew the general idea of the book--authoritarian society, Big Brother, doublethink, yada, yada, yada--and I expected to be sympathetic with Orwell's overall argument. But I did not expect to be as palpably disturbed as I was by his vision .

Some of the middle stretches of the novel are a bit tedious, particularly those that have the main character, Winston Smith, reading a book that outlines the philosophical underpinnings of 1984's dystopian universe. It's backstory that I didn't find particularly necessary, perhaps because I didn't find myself asking the questions that the backstory was trying to answer. But the rest of the story is gripping and had me involved right through the tortuously long torture sequence that ends the narrative.

Orwell tells us very little about Smith. He's just a guy with a past that could be anyone's and I guess that's the point. Like all of us he has some tragedy, some regret, some longing for better times. He's not a genius but he's not unintelligent. And his commitment to truth and desire for human contact--the characteristics that ultimately lead to his undoing--are basic and largely unreflective; genuine but instinctive rather than the result of any philosophical argumentation. No matter. All of these get swallowed up or squeezed out by the forces around him, forces that are entirely beyond his control and serve to eliminate any trace of his individuality.

One of the advantages that fiction has over more formal philosophical writing is that it can more directly engage our emotions and thereby work its way more fully into our psyche. Whatever its other faults and virtues, 1984 has certainly worked its way into mine.

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