The stories we tell and the stories we are told enable us to see ourselves and our surroundings through a new lens. Orwell utilizes storytelling in 1984, employing the thematic concerns of dehumanization, personal autonomy, and love to explore the dangers of conformity. Moreover, Orwell highlights the importance of resisting oppressive narratives in order to live our own human experiences which contradict societal expectations.
When our own story is at odds with the received narrative, this can reduce our capacity for self-expression. ‘The poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.’ The capitalization allows the reader to perceive it as an imperative alluding to its authoritative position. It is also a symbolic representation of the party as an omniscient figure, meaning people could not be seen performing any actions that went against the party. The development of cameras and telescreens for the purpose of surveillance reinforces the subjugation of citizens, forcing them to regulate not only how they behave but also how and what they feel, belief, and think. ‘It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen’, provides the enduring image of an autocratic regime that dehumanizes the individuals for self-benefit and maintenance of power. Orwell, working for the BBC during World War II, had become increasingly concerned with the way divergent views and criticisms of those in power were being suppressed. He draws on this experience in his characterization of his tormented protagonist, Winston, whose personal values conflict with Ingsoc’s dominant narrative. Winston fears his innermost doubts mark him as deviant. However, the desire to record his innermost thoughts and feelings is irrepressible. His writing takes on an ‘automatic action’, but at last his pen moves ‘voluptuously over the smooth paper.’ The tactile imagery and use of the adjective ‘voluptuous’ with its soft plosives and rounded vowel sounds, emphasizes the sensuous freedom that writing brings to Winston, in stark contrast to the emphatic, capitalized imperative tone of the defiant slogan he fills the page with: ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.’ These are the words that strike terror; thus Winston’s personal, human story, through which he expresses his deepest convictions, is shown to be fundamentally threatened by the institutional and linguistic might of a state which seeks to silence the individual.
When dominant narratives impinge on the individual’s ability to tell their own stories, personal autonomy is compromised. In 1984, Winston’s intoxicating dream of autonomy is ultimately shattered by the inevitable intrusion of the surveillance state. His tragic downfall, foreshadowed from the very first moment he picks up the journal in Charrington’s shop is crucial to Orwell’s message that our freedoms need protecting. It is thus at the very point in the narrative when Winston feels finally invulnerable in the arms of his lover, ‘fixed in a sort of eternity, that we suddenly understand the truth that Winston himself is unable to see: that his fantasies of love and rebellion are illusory. The dramatic irony that has set the tone of the narration reaches its apogee when a metallic voice echoes Winston’s, then Julia’s, own fatalistic utterance ‘you are the dead.’ Now contemplating certain torture, the helpless despair the couple feels is mirrored in the way the paperweight is ‘smashed to pieces.’ The coral, once a symbol of eternity is revealed to be no more than a ‘tiny pink crinkle like a sugar rosebud’. The internal rhyme and delicate simile capture just how small and insignificant Winston really is in the face of the decorative Party. In the shattering of Winston’s illusions, Orwell reveals both the folly of romantic delusions and the unbearable cost of losing them. This reinforces the critical importance of protecting personal freedoms. Thus the final line of 1984 is a desolate epitaph to the defeat of the individual and the triumph of mindless submission: ‘He loved Big Brother.’
The freedom to love, to be with someone, who can share our own story, is at the heart of the human experience. However, in a world in which social conformity to the received narrative is privileged over individual thought and expression, personal relationships also become problematic. In 1984, Orwell represents the clandestine relationship between Winston and Julia as both a sensual expression of physical desire and an inherently political act, uniting them against the oppressive, bureaucratic state. In an ironic inversion of the usual love story, Winston initially hates Julia ‘because of the atmosphere of hockey fields and cold baths and community hikes and general clean mindedness which she managed to carry about with her.’ The use of polysyndeton emphasizes Winston’s bitter appraisal towards the very thing that should mark Julia as a potential spy. Discovering that Julia has been breaking Party rules by having affairs, ‘hundreds of times, thrills Winston as Julia’s wanton sexuality reveals her to be a fellow rebel. He fantasizes as they lie underneath the hazel tree, not of romance, but of the way their love-making represents a repudiation of Party doctrine. ‘Their embrace’ he muses ‘had been a battle, the climax a victory.’ By using a war analogy, Orwell suggests that the freedom to love is something worth fighting for, and as such is a way of resisting narratives of orthodoxy.
When personal stories come into conflict with a more powerful dominant narrative, we risk losing the freedoms and truths we hold dear. By warning his audience about the dangers of submitting to oppressive ideologies, Orwell the storyteller, suggests that a romanticized view of the world is doomed because it fails to account for the sheer force of dominant narratives, and is therefore delusional.