By Margaret Atwood
16 June, 2003
I grew up with George Orwell.
I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. Thus, I was
able to read it at the age of nine. It was lying around the house, and
I mistook it for a book about talking animals, sort of like Wind in
the Willows. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book -
the child's version of politics then, just after the war, consisted
of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead. So I gobbled up the
adventures of Napoleon and Snowball, the smart, greedy, upwardly mobile
pigs, and Squealer the spin-doctor, and Boxer the noble but thick-witted
horse, and the easily led, slogan-chanting sheep, without making any
connection with historical events.
To say that I was horrified by this book is an understatement. The fate
of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs so mean and mendacious and
treacherous, the sheep so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice,
and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust.
I cried my eyes out when Boxer the horse had an accident and was carted
off to be made into dog food, instead of being given the quiet corner
of the pasture he'd been promised.
The whole experience was
deeply disturbing to me, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting
me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for since. In the
world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is bullshit
and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and
mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what's
really going on. The pigs browbeat the others with ideology, then twist
that ideology to suit their own purposes: their language games were
evident to me even at that age. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels
- Christianity, Socialism, Islam, Democracy, Two Legs Bad, Four Legs
Good, the works - that are definitive, but the acts done in their name.
I could see, too, how easily
those who have toppled an oppressive power take on its trappings and
habits. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right to warn us that democracy is
the hardest form of government to maintain; Orwell knew that to the
marrow of his bones, because he had seen it in action. How quickly the
precept "All Animals Are Equal" is changed into "All
Animals Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal Than Others". What oily
concern the pigs show for the welfare of the other animals, a concern
that disguises their contempt for those they are manipulating. With
what alacrity do they put on the once-despised uniforms of the tyrannous
humans they have overthrown, and learn to use their whips. How self-righteously
they justify their actions, helped by the verbal web-spinning of Squealer,
their nimble-tongued press agent, until all power is in their trotters,
pretence is no longer necessary, and they rule by naked force. A revolution
often means only that: a revolving, a turn of the wheel of fortune,
by which those who were at the bottom mount to the top, and assume the
choice positions, crushing the former power-holders beneath them. We
should beware of all those who plaster the landscape with large portraits
of themselves, like the evil pig, Napoleon.
Animal Farm is one of the
most spectacular Emperor-Has-No-Clothes books of the 20th century, and
it got George Orwell into trouble. People who run counter to the current
popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely
to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn't have all
that figured out at the age of nine, of course - not in any conscious
way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings,
and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.
Then along came Nineteen
Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. Thus, I read it in paperback
a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again,
and again: it was right up there among my favourite books, along with
Wuthering Heights. At the same time, I absorbed its two companions,
Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
I was keen on all three of them, but I understood Darkness At Noon to
be a tragedy about events that had already happened, and Brave New World
to be a satirical comedy, with events that were unlikely to unfold in
exactly that way. (Orgy-Porgy, indeed.) Nineteen Eighty-Four struck
me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me
- a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical
education under chilly conditions (this was a feature of my school)
- and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life
proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen-Eighty-Four
is best read when you are an adolescent: most adolescents feel like
that.) I sympathised particularly with Winston's desire to write his
forbidden thoughts down in a deliciously tempting, secret blank book:
I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it.
I could also see the dangers, because it's this scribbling of his -
along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a
teenager of the 50s - that gets Winston into such a mess.
Animal Farm charts the progress
of an idealistic movement of liberation towards a totalitarian dictatorship
headed by a despotic tyrant; Nineteen Eighty-Four describes what it's
like to live entirely within such a system. Its hero, Winston, has only
fragmentary memories of what life was like before the present dreadful
regime set in: he's an orphan, a child of the collectivity. His father
died in the war that has ushered in the repression, and his mother has
disappeared, leaving him with only the reproachful glance she gave him
as he betrayed her over a chocolate bar - a small betrayal that acts
both as the key to Winston's character and as a precursor to the many
other betrayals in the book.
The government of Airstrip
One, Winston's "country", is brutal. The constant surveillance,
the impossibility of speaking frankly to anyone, the looming, ominous
figure of Big Brother, the regime's need for enemies and wars - fictitious
though both may be - which are used to terrify the people and unite
them in hatred, the mind-numbing slogans, the distortions of language,
the destruction of what has really happened by stuffing any record of
it down the Memory Hole - these made a deep impression on me. Let me
re-state that: they frightened the stuffing out of me. Orwell was writing
a satire about Stalin's Soviet Union, a place about which I knew very
little at the age of 14, but he did it so well that I could imagine
such things happening anywhere.
There is no love interest
in Animal Farm, but there is in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston finds
a soulmate in Julia; outwardly a devoted Party fanatic, secretly a girl
who enjoys sex and makeup and other spots of decadence. But the two
lovers are discovered, and Winston is tortured for thought-crime - inner
disloyalty to the regime. He feels that if he can only remain faithful
in his heart to Julia, his soul will be saved - a romantic concept,
though one we are likely to endorse. But like all absolutist governments
and religions, the Party demands that every personal loyalty be sacrificed
to it, and replaced with an absolute loyalty to Big Brother. Confronted
with his worst fear in the dreaded Room 101, where a nasty device involving
a cage-full of starving rats can be fitted to the eyes, Winston breaks:
"Don't do it to me," he pleads, "do it to Julia."
(This sentence has become shorthand in our household for the avoidance
of onerous duties. Poor Julia - how hard we would make her life if she
actually existed. She'd have to be on a lot of panel discussions, for
After his betrayal of Julia,
Winston becomes a handful of malleable goo. He truly believes that two
and two make five, and that he loves Big Brother. Our last glimpse of
him is sitting drink-sodden at an outdoor cafe, knowing he's a dead
man walking and having learned that Julia has betrayed him, too, while
he listens to a popular refrain: "Under the spreading chestnut
tree/ I sold you and you sold me ..."
Orwell has been accused of
bitterness and pessimism - of leaving us with a vision of the future
in which the individual has no chance, and where the brutal, totalitarian
boot of the all-controlling Party will grind into the human face, for
ever. But this view of Orwell is contradicted by the last chapter in
the book, an essay on Newspeak - the doublethink language concocted
by the regime. By expurgating all words that might be troublesome -
"bad" is no longer permitted, but becomes "double-plus-ungood"
- and by making other words mean the opposite of what they used to mean
- the place where people get tortured is the Ministry of Love, the building
where the past is destroyed is the Ministry of Information - the rulers
of Airstrip One wish to make it literally impossible for people to think
straight. However, the essay on Newspeak is written in standard English,
in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that
the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived.
For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen
Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it's my view that Orwell had much more faith
in the resilience of the human spirit than he's usually been given credit
Orwell became a direct model
for me much later in my life - in the real 1984, the year in which I
began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale. By
that time I was 44, and I had learned enough about real despotisms -
through the reading of history, travel, and my membership of Amnesty
International - so that I didn't need to rely on Orwell alone.
The majority of dystopias
- Orwell's included - have been written by men, and the point of view
has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either
sexless automatons or rebels who have defied the sex rules of the regime.
They have acted as the temptresses of the male protagonists, however
welcome this temptation may be to the men themselves. Thus Julia; thus
the cami-knicker-wearing, orgy-porgy seducer of the Savage in Brave
New World; thus the subversive femme fatale of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924
seminal classic, We. I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point
of view - the world according to Julia, as it were. However, this does
not make The Handmaid's Tale a "feminist dystopia", except
insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered
"feminist" by those who think women ought not to have these
The 20th century could be
seen as a race between two versions of man-made hell - the jackbooted
state totalitarianism of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four, and the hedonistic
ersatz paradise of Brave New World, where absolutely everything is a
consumer good and human beings are engineered to be happy. With the
fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that Brave New
World had won - from henceforth, state control would be minimal, and
all we would have to do was go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow
in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in.
But with 9/11, all that changed.
Now it appears we face the prospect of two contradictory dystopias at
once - open markets, closed minds - because state surveillance is back
again with a vengeance. The torturer's dreaded Room 101 has been with
us for millennia. The dungeons of Rome, the Inquisition, the Star Chamber,
the Bastille, the proceedings of General Pinochet and of the junta in
Argentina - all have depended on secrecy and on the abuse of power.
Lots of countries have had their versions of it - their ways of silencing
troublesome dissent. Democracies have traditionally defined themselves
by, among other things - openness and the rule of law. But now it seems
that we in the west are tacitly legitimising the methods of the darker
human past, upgraded technologically and sanctified to our own uses,
of course. For the sake of freedom, freedom must be renounced. To move
us towards the improved world - the utopia we're promised - dystopia
must first hold sway.
It's a concept worthy of
doublethink. It's also, in its ordering of events, strangely Marxist.
First the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which lots of heads must
roll; then the pie-in-the-sky classless society, which oddly enough
never materialises. Instead, we just get pigs with whips.
I often ask myself: what
would George Orwell have to say about it?
Quite a lot.
· This is an edited
extract from Margaret Atwood's contribution to BBC Radio 3's Twenty
Minutes: The Orwell Essays series, broadcast tonight at 8.05pm. Roy
Hattersley's and John Carey's essays will be broadcast at the same time
on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Margaret Atwood's latest novel,
Oryx and Crake, is published by Bloomsbury.