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By Elly Williams
George Orwell's dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ raises complex questions about the
malleable nature of the human condition and warns of the dangers of political repression
under a totalitarian government. Shaped by the context of WWII Stalinism and Nazism,
Orwell portrays the dire consequence of ideological domination on the human experience.
The short story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ by Kurt Vonnegut mirrors the Orwellian representation
of political oppression through its representation of a futuristic world that rigidly enforces
conformity, denying individuals the intellectual capacity to exercise control over their lives.
As the storyteller, Orwell and Vonnegut challenge audiences by imploring us to think upon
the consequences of manipulation, the result of an atomised society, and how man becomes
utterly powerless when thought and experience are repressed
Both Orwell and Vonnegut elucidate the crucial question about how state-controlled media
affects the human psyche and challenges audiences to avoid political apathy. Orwell,
influenced by his own experience working for the BBC and Ministry of Information, uses the
“two minutes of hate” to illuminate the consequence of propaganda. This cult-like political
ritual sees Winston inevitably subsumed into the collective chaos, which flowed through him
“like an electric current”. The simile illustrates the unavoidable nature and the propensity to
lead to unrestrained violence. When denied human interactions and the normal outlets for
emotional release, these complex, pent-up feelings have the propensity to erupt in violence
and anger. In its bid to control, even this most personal aspect of human response, the party
mandated two minutes of hate orchestrates and directs these feelings in a psychological
powerplay. We see how Big Brother, and dictators such as Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally, can
use this outpouring to promote party fervour and galvanise the populace against a common
foe, thus redirecting frustrations away from it. The human desire to conform and the power of
groupthink travel as an electric current, the simile capturing how the collective experience of
the populace has become a tool in the oppressors' arsenal. Orwell’s alarming vision of the
way the political intrudes on the personal is further captured in Newspeak, an elaborate
strategy that further disempowers and destroys free thinking. The ultimate goal is to eliminate
dissenters and rebels by making “thoughtcrime literally impossible". It is seen here in Syme’s
claim “it’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words” the harrowing adulteration of our
ordinary human values, conveyed in the oxymoron ‘beautiful... destruction’. It portrays how
by limiting the vocabulary, the Party silences the revolt itself. This ubiquitous propaganda is
also redolent in Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ where he suggests that propaganda is
violent and all-consuming, even if its effects aren’t physical or even outwardly sinister. The
extent of their indoctrination is clear when George and Hazel watch a televised performance
by a troupe of mediocre ballerinas, and George thinks that all of them are handicapped so that
nobody watching at home would be made to “feel like something the cat drug in.” He also
claims “The minute people start cheating on laws… [society would] fall apart.” George sees
the handicaps as the government protecting his well-being rather than consolidating power
through not allowing citizens to imagine other possibilities for their lives. In these totalitarian
societies, where people are without an ability to reflect on the past and what is fundamentally
‘true’, there is no capacity for understanding to crave change or rebellion without the
guidepost for any other model. Therefore Orwell and Vonnegut prompt audiences to realise
that from the debasement of human connection arises the truths about the susceptibility of the
human condition to totalitarian abuses of power.
By Elly Williams
By Elly Williams
In these models of social deficiency where the past, the present and the future is mutable, the
diminished lives of the characters manifest the consequence of living under totalitarianism.
They have either lost the capacity for individual thought and experience or present anomalous
feelings and are isolated from society. Therefore, become allegories of our own lives and
how conformity continues to meld society in a way that we may not even be aware of.
Although in the story of ‘Harrison Bergeron’ all people are “finally equal” in “every which
way,” Vonnegut uses the tone of “finally” and “every” ironically, suggesting that the strongly
desired, ideal of equality has come with dire ramifications. The loss of individualism is
detrimental to society. Harrison Bergeron is the only character in the story who defies the
government’s handicap regulations. The state recognizes that Harrison’s individuality will
threaten the equilibrium of society, and the administration justifies his imprisonment and
eventual murder on the grounds that he is “extremely dangerous” and is “plotting to
overthrow the government.” The high modality language of insurrection arouses fear and
suspicion. By exploring the suppression of individualism in favour of equality under a
totalitarian government, Vonnegut reveals that governments that do not balance their pursuit
of social equality with a commitment to personal freedom and individualism can impede the
well-being of a state and its citizens. Orwell speaks to these issues in his own novel, raising
questions about how we are forced to wilfully submit our individuality and as a result, our
power. the complete ideological dominion seen in Stalin Sovietism and Nazi Germany
shaped Orwell's understanding of the isolation and disempowerment of the individual under
totalitarianism. Social institutions and cultural fabric are constructed to prevent collaboration
and therefore eliminate rebellion. Winston narrates the crippling effect of the omnipotent
government, ‘his own life lost its sharpness. O’Brien renders Winston absolutely powerless
in the image of his figure, ‘you are the last man’, and his ‘rotting’ skeletal figure. Winston, as
a symbol of humanity, is nothing — as what humanity will be under ideological domination,
the corporeal imagery of a skeleton rotting, is an image that is unsettling and harrowing for
readers, to become nothing but lifeless. Thus, the composers reveal the uncomfortable truth
about the malleability of the human instinct when we are devoid of genuine human
Ultimately, narratives are a fundamental instrument for thought and for reflection about the
world. Orwell and Vonnegut caution responders through their narratives which highlight the
consequences of a totalitarian government that corrupts all the human values we cherish in
our western society.
By Elly Williams