"Nineteen Eighty-Four" at 70 - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” at 70

This essay appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is one of the bestselling novels of all time, with sales of thirty million copies in at least five dozen languages. Just as anno 1984 was thirty-five years from 1949, we today stand thirty-five years beyond 1984. The relevance of Orwell’s novel, with all its protean associations, has proved enduring, transcending its Cold War context and acquiring ever-expanding applications as the drone-cum-digital age proceeds. Likewise, the controversial afterlife of its authorwho died in January 1950, just seven months after his book’s explosion on the cultural front like an intellectual H-bomb—shows every sign of continuing well beyond the biblical three score and ten. Not only has Orwell’s dystopia permanently blackened a segment of time; its vision and scarifying catchwords seem evergreen (or better, ever-ebony).

So it is hardly surprising that numerous English-language editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four have been published since the 1950s and are currently on the market. The vast majority of them, ever since the novel’s
initial publication in June 1949, have been issued without a preface or an introduction, apparently on the assumption that the novel is easily understandable and the reader requires no guidance. On the novel’s seventieth anniversary, might we interrogate that premise?

First we should examine how this casual assumption has manifested itself in editions that do include some form of commentary. Beginning in the 1950s, Orwell’s publishers commissioned well-known writers for “celebrity” editions of the novel. Erich Fromm, a German émigré psychologist (and later the bestselling author of books such as The Art of Loving), wrote an afterword for the first Signet edition, published in 1950. The Orwell centennial in 2003 witnessed a new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four that featured a foreword by the novelist Thomas Pynchon and an afterword by Fromm. Celebrities with no literary background or scholarly pedigree have also been enlisted. Walter Cronkite, the famous television newsman, introduced Harcourt Brace Jovanovich’s 1983 edition. On the other hand, there is the massive scholarly apparatus attached to the facsimile edition by Peter Davison. This contains Orwell’s corrections to the text in detail in a large quarto version, thus showing the reader the painstaking way in which the author revised his manuscript.

The common feature among all these other­wise welcome editions is that they provide little or no assistance as the reader struggles to understand and appreciate the book. But wait! Is that really necessary? Isn’t George Orwell the famed master of the “plain” style who wrote that “Good prose is like a windowpane”?

Indeed he is. Yet George Orwell is also the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. By that I mean that his achievements as a writer represent a paradox that is not so “plain” and simple to understand. The vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four of a nightmare state of social uniformity—whose official policy systematically aims to destroy language—was written by an author who insisted in his most famous essay (“Politics and the English Language”) that political reform starts by ensuring that language (“the verbal end”) draws precise distinctions and communicates truth. The writer who loved the richness and nuance of what the novel calls Oldspeak was also one who advocated simplicity even to the point of offering six easy writing “rules” that he expected “will cover most cases.” Orwell sought fresh, powerful figures of speech and precise expression (“to write less picturesquely and more exactly”). He wanted, as it were, the simplicity and economy of Newspeak without its distortions and semantic impoverishment. And he was both an engaged pamphleteer and an immaculate stylist. The great essayist and the architect of Newspeak knew well—and voiced with indelible power—Maupassant’s sacred dictum in his hommage to Flaubert: “Words have a soul.”

In light of this tension in Orwell’s work between “art” and “propaganda”—that is, between the transparent, plain stylist and the ingenious polemicist—we ought to reconsider the misfortune that all available editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four omit an introduction or include at best a superficial one. That was regrettable even in the 1950s, as the evolving cultural politics of the Cold War rendered the novel less and less accessible to its swelling audience, which had expanded far beyond intellectual circles to millions of school-age readers. And what about today? An historically informed introduction is even more urgently needed than it was during the early Cold War era. Because the world of the twenty-first century differs so dramatically from the 1940s, with the reference points and nomenclature of the postwar West having gone down the memory hole, the absence of material to guide readers is a notable shortcoming. Either the commentaries included in many editions by scholars or well-known writers are merely ornamental or they glide through one or two pet themes of the celebrity psychologist or political scientist writing the introduction. Or else, if the commentator is a truly famous figure like Cronkite, a series of loosely described comparisons between Orwell’s world and our own are delivered, never failing to characterize Orwell as a dark or bitter “prophet.”

* * *

The only historically substantive edition conceived at a level easily accessible to the general reader is Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism, edited by Irving Howe. Published in 1963, it has been out of print for decades. It numbers four hundred pages in a large paperback format, and its targeted audience was advanced college students. The volume consists largely of essays and criticism on the au courant Cold War topic of totalitarianism (by scholars such as Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, with featured excerpts from Hannah Arendt’s landmark 1951 study The Origins of Totalitarianism). With the exception of reprinted material by Howe himself, little direct attention is given to Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Needless to say, such an approach is hopelessly out of date in today’s geopolitical and cultural climate. And apart from all that, no textual annotations or general introduction to the novel are provided in Howe’s edition.

An expensive scholarly edition of the novel published by Clarendon Press in the U.K. in 1984 and edited by Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, is also long out of print. Priced at £35 (equivalent to about £113 or nearly $150 in 2019 currencies), it was chiefly purchased by libraries and professors, not students or the wider public. Heavily annotated and boasting a 136-page introduction, the edition is exhaustive—and exhausting!—in its pursuit of thoroughness. Richly informative, it nonetheless suffers from numerous misspellings, typographical errors, and small factual mistakes. Moreover, while Crick, a political scientist, is strong on the novel’s historical background, ideological critique, and social satire, he is weak on literary and stylistic matters.

No authoritative edition of the novel has been available to the public. Instead the vacuum has been filled by punditry and polemics about the book’s meaning—and by loose cannoneers firing off its catchphrases in all ideological directions. No wonder Orwell’s final masterpiece is usually honored (or dishonored) in the breach. Our fifteen-nanoseconds-of-fame sound bite culture witnesses Orwell’s coinages bannered in headlines, blared on the airwaves, and brandished by partisans and ideologues, while its serious political and social themes are ignored or misperceived. Any new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four must take these sober realities as its starting point and feature a judicious reading of the novel fully cognizant both of Orwell’s accomplishment and of the work’s controversial, confused reception history.

Having taught Nineteen Eighty-Four to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as having lectured about it in high school classes to hundreds more, I have witnessed how young people struggle to grasp its crucial elements of parody and numerous satiric referents. Moreover, having published several books about Orwell’s life and legacy—an “afterlife” of enormous influence largely attributable to the lasting significance of Nineteen Eighty-Four—I have many ideas about how a new edition should be conceived. So let me speak quite personally about this prospect.

But first, a practical obstacle: publishing rights. The major stumbling block—unless Orwell’s current publishers wish to proceed with a new special edition—is cost. Publishers such as Harcourt, Penguin, and Signet have no strong motivation to issue critical editions of Orwell’s novel, whose extra material would, of course, expand the length and raise the price of any print edition. As the Clarendon edition exemplifies, such a volume undertaken by an outside publisher paying for permission rights must inevitably be priced beyond the means of most readers.

One strategy might be to publish a new critical edition in those countries where the novel is already in the public domain. The problem is that those literary markets are small: Canada, South Africa, and Australia are the only English-language markets available. Yet a ray of hope does exist. According to U.K. copyright laws revised in 2013, a published work enters the public domain seventy years after its author’s death. If an enterprising publisher commissions an edition and plans a launch date in the near future—seventy years after Orwell’s death in late January 1950—a sufficiently sizable international market that includes the U.K. would make a profitable new edition plausible. (The novel does not enter the public domain in the U.S. until 2044.)

An Australian edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four has been available from an imprint of Schwartz Publishers in Melbourne since July 2017. Introduced by the novelist Dennis Glover, its release was timed to coincide with the release date that same month of his historical fiction work The Last Man of Europe (which was Orwell’s working title for Nineteen Eighty-Four). In his novel, Glover dramatizes Orwell’s struggle to complete his masterpiece as illness and death descend upon him. Schwartz obviously determined that its new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four was economically justifiable, probably because the success of Glover’s novel would send readers back to the original and because the arguments in Glover’s introduction are fresh and compelling. Glover’s introduction makes an interesting case, which The Last Man of Europe portrays in its closing pages, that Orwell proofed the second impression of the first edition as he lay on his deathbed in early January 1950 and that his eleventh-hour alterations serve in turn to alter our own interpretations of the ending and Orwell’s overall message.

Yet this introduction, too, possesses limited value, given its narrow focus. It restricts itself to Glover’s argument about certain issues in textual scholarship and includes no supplementary material for readers uninformed about the novel’s historical context and satiric references. Still, Schwartz’s Australian edition suggests that a new edition could be financially feasible. So let us assume that a public domain edition excluding the American market might prove enticing to an enterprising publisher. How could that edition best serve student and general readers today?

* * *

Here is a modest proposal. Ever since the inauguration of President Trump, Nineteen Eighty-Four has stood high on the fiction bestseller lists—a truly extraordinary achievement for a book originally published seven decades ago. Its continued bestseller status serves as a reminder that any reissued “utopian” edition should be—to use a present-day locution that Orwell’s keenly attuned ear would have found jarring—“reader-friendly.” The language of the novel is not difficult, but it is impossible to appreciate or even understand the book’s depths without comprehending its historical and political context. One may forget that the book is a satire on the early postwar world: all of Orwell’s famous coinages—“Big Brother,” “Newspeak,” and so on—have references linked to the 1930s and 1940s that the original British audience in 1949 would have recognized. So a critical edition should first and foremost attempt to recover this context, which is indispensable for grasping the main themes of the novel and the controversies that erupted after its publication and Orwell’s death.

Essentially I propose approaching Nineteen Eighty-Four with a full appreciation of its rich historical backdrop. I have discovered over the years, as I have taught the book to college students and discussed it in high school classes, that young people harbor, at best, only a vague idea of what transpired in the 1930s and 1940s, the periods from which Orwell chiefly drew in imagining the world of his novel. Students lack detailed knowledge of World War II and the European events that serve as the novel’s background, which is the essential prerequisite for appreciating the work.

This is not a small point. It is, however, such a simple one that downplaying it is an easy error. Like Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a satire, and even modest comprehension of its imaginative world demands knowledge of what the work is satirizing. Appreciating Orwell’s masterpiece, however, does not entail focusing exclusively on its historical reference points. A worthwhile new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four should also address biographical, psychological, and other pertinent contexts, both in the introduction and perhaps also in a series of appendices. Among the priorities should be a detailed overview of Orwell’s life and times and a nuanced presentation of the ideological issues that shaped his career, including a full discussion of the controversy surrounding Nineteen Eighty-Four, which began within days of its publication and already raged by the time of the author’s premature death seven months later at the age of forty-six. A commentary should also devote attention to the politics of Orwell’s reputation, notably the claims to his legacy staked by left and right alike.

What are a few examples of the kinds of satirical allusions and cultural references that are invariably lost to present-day readers, even literate ones? Orwell scholars such as Peter Davison, Jeffrey Meyers, and Bernard Crick have catalogued a wide variety. Consider, for instance:

  • Big Brother’s mustachioed visage is a composite of Stalin and Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.
  • The caption “Big Brother Is Watching You” recalls the famous recruiting poster of 1914 in which a finger-pointing Kitchener glares: “Your Country Needs YOU.”
  • Victory Square is an analogue to Trafalgar Square, and Big Brother replaces Nelson atop its column.
  • Newspeak, which aims to diminish the range of thought by reducing its linguistic resources, is a riff on C. K. Ogden’s Basic English.
  • The Ministry of Truth resembles the BBC’s Broadcast House during the war, where Orwell worked as the producer for the Indian section of the BBC’s Eastern Service on the first floor (down the hall from Room 101).
  • The Floating Fortress in Oceania refers both to the Flying Fortress of the American air forces during World War II and to the Floating Island in Gulliver’s Travels that breaks the will of recalcitrant individuals.
  • The division of the world into three rival superstates—Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia—is based on James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941), a sociological vision of the near-future, post–World War II era in which a technocratic elite of totalitarian ideologues rules the globe.
  • The brainwashed Winston’s defeatist admission that “2 + 2 = 5” alludes to the billboards erected in major Soviet cities during the 1930s that urged the citizenry to work harder and fulfill the prescribed norms of the first Five-Year Plan ahead of time (i.e., in four years, not five).
  • Winston’s despairing line “We are the dead,” which both the telescreen and Julia repeat when the couple are arrested by the Thought Police, echoes the recrimination voiced by a corpse in a poem popular during World War I, “In Flanders Fields.” Written by the Canadian poet John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” gave voice to the public outrage over the waste and futility of the Great War.
  • Like Communist Party members in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, Inner and Outer Party members in Oceania are called “comrade.”
  • Sexual intercourse in Oceania is for procreation only (“Our Duty to the Party”), which nods to the puritanical, state-controlled doctrines about sexuality propagandized in Stalin’s USSR.
  • As O’Brien tortures Winston in Room 101, he expresses with exhilaration his sadistic power hunger: “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” That famous line evokes Jack London’s The Iron Heel, especially its protagonist’s doomsday prophecy that “the Iron Heel will walk upon our faces.”

Certain examples of Orwell’s satirical allusions have biographical rather than historical relevance and sometimes are private jokes or insider gossip—yet are no less important to the satire. For instance, the BBC was a division of the Ministry of Information (MOI), known as “Miniform” in telex jargon (recalling, of course, “Minitru” and “Miniluv” in Nineteen Eighty-Four). The MOI’s head was Brendan Bracken, whom BBC insiders and in-the-know Londoners dubbed “B. B.” Orwell would joke with fellow BBC staffers and his wife Eileen, who worked in the MOI Censorship Department until 1944, that he had never seen “B. B.” and was skeptical of his existence (just as his readers are meant to doubt the reality of Big Brother).

These suggestions are, again, based on my experience of having taught Orwell’s novel to a wide range of student readers. I am well aware of the gaps in cultural literacy not only of freshmen and sophomore college students but even of PhD students, who are often sophisticated readers of good literature, yet lack basic historical knowledge of the recent past. My teaching experience gives me a very clear sense of what kinds of help are needed today by both students and mature, ostensibly well-informed adult readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four. If the editorial design for any republication of this dystopian classic is to assist its readership, it must draw on educators with experience like mine.

I would even suggest the formation of an interdisciplinary advisory board. Composed of secondary-school and university educators who represent the broad range of fields that the novel addresses (literature, history, sociology, political thought, cultural studies, etc.) and who possess some background as teachers or writers for the proposed target audiences, this panel could serve as a useful sounding board for the designated editor. It should not be an editorial collective (on the socialist-state model) that operates by committee consensus—and thus too often reduces its work to a lowest-common-denominator hodgepodge—but simply a group of scholar-teachers to whom the editor and publisher can turn for counsel and criticism.

Fundamentally, I am committed to providing “context,” not just “text.” I believe that good teachers of literature need to be good historians—and vice versa. That is especially the case when dealing with a writer such as Orwell, who was almost the polar opposite of an “art for art’s sake” writer, his concern for good prose style notwithstanding.

Present-day readers should also be guided to look closely at the reception of Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell’s contemporaries. This emphasis, which should form a central part of a pedagogically sensitive approach to writers such as Orwell, illuminates the work in numerous ways. For we can only understand Orwell in the present by seeing how earlier generations of readers—above all his contemporaries—understood him.

I believe that student readers especially benefit when they encounter a classic that is presented not just as a dry “school assignment” but as a work of art relevant to their lives. How does one do that with a book written long before they were born and by an author dead for seven decades? One looks at the “afterlife” of each, the author and the book. In the case of George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four, that means readers should be told in the editorial apparatus about the emergence of Orwell’s checkered, paradoxical reputation and posthumous fame, culminating in a brief history of Orwell’s “afterlife” into the new millennium. They should be informed about how Orwell’s vision and catchwords have shaped their social and cultural milieu—and promise to influence the shape of things to come.

Regardless of whether readers possess the literary skills to plumb Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece completely, they will need guidance. Along with situating the novel in the context of the times in which it was written, assisted by careful annotation of the text with concise footnotes, the story of the extraordinary impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four when it first appeared and of Orwell’s unique “afterlife” can make Nineteen Eighty-Four at seventy freshly available to audiences in the twenty-first century. ♦

John Rodden’s books include Scenes from an Afterlife: The Legacy of George Orwell and the forthcoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy.


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