I first read 1984,back in about 1983. Everybody was reading Orwell’s novel back then, as the fateful date crept up on us. On December 30, 1983, I was scheduled to appear on a TV panel to discuss the book. (Apparently they were rather hard up for people who had read the book and were in town over Christmas break.) A major snowstorm cast that appearance into oblivion. I can’t help wondering how my notoriety might have been different had the snow gone elsewhere.
After reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, Why Orwell Matters, I found myself drawn back to the most depressing novel I’ve ever encountered. As it turned out, the book concluded in the same manner as it had twenty-six years ago, with Winston Smith sitting in the bar and tearing up at the news as he realized “he loved Big Brother.”
What turned out differently to my mind was the apparent religious subtext. Knowing a fair bit about Orwell’s religion–or lack thereof–I must hasten to point out that I’m not arguing that he was writing some crypto-Christian text. Instead, I find the idea of irresistable grace lurking in the background. Think about it. Big Brother is apparently omniscient. Even when Winston sneaks out of town to rendezvous with the mysterious girl at the Ministry of Truth, the cameras and microphones are on him. When he skulks into the antique shop, he’s being set up. When did O’Brien and the Thought Police catch onto Winston’s lack of orthodoxy? At birth? During adolescence? We can’t know, but as the book draws to a close we realize that the Party knows Winston better than Winston does.
O’Brien explains that simply killing someone who is not supportive of the Party, a sinner if you will, will not suffice. The sinner must be broken and brought into willing submission to Big Brother. In their mind, the Ministry of Love is truly a ministry of love. The loyal Party member must develop the ability to hold contrary ideas in the mind. How much like religious belief does this seem?
A contrarian view of 1984 sees the rebellious, reluctant, fallen Winston Smith kicking against the goads. Only in his embrace of Big Brother does he achieve something approaching peace. Such a reading, of course, makes a mockery of Christian submission, yet the parallel remains.