The Confession and Absolution

The end of Nineteen Eighty-Four has Winston thinking to himself:

He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

The rhetoric is almost ironically overblown, the repetition of structure perfect for the blasted and self-rocking mind trying to reassure itself that it loves and is loved. But Orwell cannot resist mocking his character by including the faintly comic description of the gin-scented tears: they trickled, not down his cheeks, or face, but his nose. For some reason it makes me imagine Winston as being somewhat snotty too. This sinister and comic ending to the story, with its hyperbole and quasi-Dickensian energy, does not fit the style of the novel at all well. It simply isn’t told as if it were a masquerade of grotesques – though, of course, it is exactly that. Winston and Julia are no more characters than many of the cartoons who populate Dickens (this isn’t meant to be an insult to Dickens by the way, but a way of stating that he writes about the energies of life, love, hate and death by giving them human-ish form).

So what is the point of this final paragraph?

Firstly, it is a direct and deliberate counterpoint to the Appendix. This is an example of florid Oldspeak, whose passion and invention (“self-willed exile”, “gin-scented tears”) are to be eliminated by Newspeak. It is by way of introducing the reader to the description of Newspeak that is to follow, and, perhaps, to plant the idea in the reader’s mind that self-expression, even in the depths of nothingness, will never be defeated. At this point Winston is filled with Big Brother and nothing else (fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement maybe). Yet the thoughts of Winston here are anything but the rigid concepts of Newspeak. You could argue that this is merely the narrator’s interpretation of Winston’s thoughts, which are not expressed in words, but the implication given by the second O antiphon here is that it is Winston himself experiencing these words in his mind. It is he regretting the “self” created exile, he feeling the “loving” of Ingsoc – these are his experiences, as O Brien told him he would have.

Beyond this, there is another interpretation of Winston’s feelings, that would have been instantly and controversially recognisable to a politically literate reader of 1949. In Animal Farm (1944) no character is allowed to escape confession long enough to begin the path of self-rebuilding that Winston experiences here. In that sense, it looks upon the issue of totalitarianism from the outside. Nineteen Eighty-Four looks far more from the inside, as revealed by the Soviet Show Trials of the late 1930s.

Look at Winston’s statement of love, regret and delight in his own self-annihilation above again. Then look at this:

But I am preparing myself mentally to depart from this vale of tears, and there is nothing in me toward all of you, toward the party and the cause, but a great and boundless love.

That’s from Bukharin’s last letter to Stalin, some months before his execution in March 1938.

Or this (quoted from his Wikipedia entry):

At a time when my soul is filled with nothing but love for the party and its leadership, when, having lived through hesitations and doubts, I can boldly say that I learned to highly trust the Central Committee’s every step and every decision you, Comrade Stalin, make,” Kamenev wrote. “I have been arrested for my ties to people that are strange and disgusting to me.

As O’Brien said to Winston during the torture, “our commandment is thou art“. Somehow the tough old Bolshevik street fighters Bukharin and Kamenev, through their genuine commitment to their ideology and their fear of having maybe actually done something to damage it, combined with their torture in the Lubyanka, fall about themselves to protest love of the dictator, even though they know they are to die.

Orwell is here reminding his readers of the show trials, particularly his leftist friends and the leftwing publishers who had turned Animal Farm down (such as Victor Gollancz). He is explicitly commenting that their confessions and “love” were the products of terror and torture, and, after all, the overblown rhetoric of this final paragraph is indeed a satire – and a controversial one at that, implicating as it does, the government of the USSR in the destruction of minds as well as bodies. He is making the same point he has made before: that our allies were not so much better than our enemies. A less controversial point in 1949, after the Berlin Airlift, than 1944, when Soviet armies were pounding their way through Eastern Europe, but one that was worth making to all those people who thought that Soviet Communism really was A New Civilisation.

A reminder that my thoughts on this novel, Thoughtcrimes on Nineteen Eighty Four, is available from Amazon’s Kindle Store, priced very reasonably at tuppence ha’penny.

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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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