June 8, 2019


"NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR" AT 70 (John Rodden, 5/28/19, Modern Age)

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).

Posted by at June 8, 2019 8:48 AM