A Question of Symbols

One of the interesting things about Nineteen Eighty Four is that it is not really a literary novel. Its function is primarily political and ideological. It is entirely fair enough then, that Orwell’s characters and concepts have become part of ideological discourse, despite the frequent claims of the Left to “own” the ideas on the basis that Orwell was a socialist. Indeed, he famously wrote:

Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it.

(Why I Write)

Having said that, the novel is rich in literary tropes like subtext and metaphor, like connotation and rhetoric (O’ Brien’s speeches). But it’s surprisingly slight on symbolism.  A symbol represents something other than itself: that usually means the “itself” of the symbol isn’t so relevant to the author’s intentions: but as Nineteen Eighty Four is so strongly in favour of freedom and so fearful of its destruction, it seems unlikely that many elements of the novel could not matter in themselves.

This does not rule out symbolism, but it’s a possible reason why it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of the novel.

However, when you look into some of the specifics, symbolism begins to emerge from its depths.  The weather, for instance. It is usually bitter (as at the beginning and end of the book) but is sultry and warm while Winston is seeing Julia.  It’s a symbol of the presence of hope, and a symbol of sexuality.

The dreary, worn-out buildings of the story – which are all of them except the four Ministries – can be read as symbolic of the minds of the people in Oceanic society: stripped to the bone, unkempt, uncared for. Minds, or lives. The whole point of the novel is that the two are more or less the same.

The labryinths of the Ministry of Truth – based on the BBC, where Orwell worked during the war – are meant to reflect the problem of truth itself. The war presented truth with serious problems. Broadcasting had to be censored and manipulated, but in the service of good rather than evil – but was that kind of behaviour ever good, even if the cause was just? The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken (“B-B, B-B, B-B”) was the man ultimately in charge of all this…

These kinds of enquiries lead us away from symbolism itself and towards satire. Satire uses symbolism like a whore, but while a case can be made for the novel being a satire, we’re not going into this now.

Though this does bring us to the people. The characters in Nineteen Eighty Four were never meant to be people, in the realist sense. They owe plenty to Dickens’ habit of personifying emotions, ideas and morals, though. Julia is freedom, thoughtless and wild; Winston Smith is Everyman (his name is a mixture of Churchill and the commonest surname in Britain). He is the vehicle for the story, for the evil in the story. In the middle are Parsons, blind loyalism and Syme, sly intelligence (Syme = “slime”).

Then there is the Chestnut Tree Cafe. This bizarre place, “somehow ill-omened”, where dodgy types hang out and the released from interrogation seem to end up. The cracked, jeering, “yellow” note of the tune: it all sticks out of the novel like the proverbial thumb. It represents intellectual freedom, hence it is the hang-out of bright people like Syme. It reflects the fact that prisoners, once released, appear to be freer than others (though they will eventually be executed). It is barely realistic to the novel’s own logic that it exists at all, unless it is making the point that the regime loves being evil, loves manipulating and twisting people because it is all about power.

Can I draw your attention to the sidebar ad for Thoughtcrimes on Nineteen Eighty Four, a collection of my thoughts on the novel: (look right)



About Kevin Donnelly

I'm also known as Lawrence George, which is the name I write for Helium under. I think I ought to ditch my pseudonyms before I forget which one is me.
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