We are delighted to invite you to join us for another week of discussions, October 24-31. The novel we have selected for this year is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. We are partnering with the “Frankenreads” project this year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the original publication of this ground-breaking text. Two hundred years on, it is still remarkable to contemplate this story written by a 19-year-old woman that opened up a new genre of writing, and an entire set of questions around the power of science and the possibilities of human creation, extending to the creation of life itself. We now find ourselves on the precipice of a revolution in artificial intelligence, moving into the realm of what some have called the “post-human” age. And yet, at the same time, we continue to wrestle with that most essential of questions; what does it mean to be human? What can Frankenstein help us understand, what questions can this text help us formulate, as we attempt to navigate these uncharted waters?
Just as with Orwell's 1984, our text for 2017, I have been struck by the ways that Frankenstein raises so many of the questions that are at the heart of the humanistic struggles of our own particular moment in history. It is deeply poignant, for example, to read the Creature's entreaties to Frankenstein to make him someone to love, who can love him in return. How much of our own struggle is embedded in that exchange! Why can't he exist without someone to share his life, to be his companion? And then, of course, there is the question of what Frankenstein owes to the Creature. But this question doesn't stop with Frankenstein. It raises questions for all parents, possibly even all adults. What do we owe our children? And who are our children? Are they just our biological children? Or are we responsible, as adults, for all children? As adults, have we not, in some measure, made the world they are born into, and therefore made their circumstances as well? Does that imply responsibility?
The Creature pleads, “I am malicious because I am miserable; am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” We decry misery in the world, and we also decry violence. If we could remove misery, could we remove violence? And how would we do that? To what extent do each of us find ourselves shunning some in the world and thereby adding to their misery, and thus to violence?
None of these, of course, are merely abstract questions. We live in a time when refugees, children and adults, are being turned away from borders, and, in some cases, shunned. Children are protesting gun violence and the dangers posed by climate change. And we continue to argue over the power, and the limits, of science to modify our world, often from the genetic code up.
These and many, many other questions await us as we read and discuss Frankenstein. We hope you will join us – set up your own group, or join one in your area or online - and become a part of the larger human conversation around this book. Please follow us on social media, add your comments, share your thoughts, and help us all find a way to talk to one another about the pressing and profound questions that shape us, that help us grow, and that, finally, are at the core of what it means to live together in a community of human beings.
I hope we can all talk soon.
Joanna Bache Tobin, Ph.D.
The renewal of interest in George Orwell’s 1984 came soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration in January. I remember thinking the book seemed a bit wide of the mark as a touchstone for the U.S. of 2017. This was only a passing impression, not particularly thought through. I’d read the book before – in 1984, in fact, during a similar collective stocktaking. Back then, of course, it was hard to avoid reflecting on how the book might and might not speak to the moment. But even after rereading it recently, I am still left with the question: why Orwell, now?
Of course, there are some relatively clear answers to that question. Much of the novel’s lasting import has to do with its prescient naming of nefarious, information-age techniques of government, fairly nascent when it was published in 1949. So, the incident that apparently sparked much of the novel’s current interest - Kellyanne Conway’s revelation that along with Trump we’d inaugurated a new era of “alternative facts” - was apropos. Conway’s blithe eloquence prompted an extended admonition from Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times cataloguing all the ways Trump and his camp’s aspirational totalitarianism were quickly making Orwell’s literally out-dated novel into a latter day “must read.”
But to see in Orwell a prophet of our information age, it will help to first situate him within another age, now seemingly gone by: the Cold War. 1984 might even be called that era’s inaugural text; it was Orwell, after all, who gave the Cold War its name (in a letter to a friend). And the specter he raises of world-wide totalitarianism even predates Hannah Arendt’s landmark study of The Origins of Totalitarianism by a few years.
So, like many prophets, Orwell depicted a future that spoke directly to currents stirring in his own world. One remarkable feature of the novel in this light is that his fictional 1984 (the year, that is) postdates an historical juncture that the Cold War itself was – thankfully – successful in forestalling: a nuclear holocaust. In 1949, nuclear annihilation seemed to many an inevitability. But in proposing such an event as a premise to the rise of the Party, Orwell bypasses any direct depiction of that horror. What he does instead is describe a world that could survive it. To do so, he looked across the next thirty years, which in 1949 may well have seemed an eternity, and bids us envision a society that has survived a war arguably worse than the world war just passed. Not implausibly, humanity has by then erected a totalitarianism so complete that Max Weber might well have characterized it as the rationalized solution ne plus ultra to “the problem of meaning.”
Finding meaning is the crux of Winston Smith’s familiar heroic journey, which he understands as achieving the salvation of his love for Julia and of the lasting power of factual truth. His antagonist, the Party in the person of O’Brien, tells Winston directly that his struggle is futile:
“You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean from the stream of history.”
As O’Brien explains, the Party’s guiding imperative is to eradicate any sense that personal experience and knowledge, which is where Winston locates his humanity (and as Orwell’s presumed audience would understand it), has some irreducible value. Orwell suggests in the final pages that the Party succeeds, in Julia’s and Winston’s cases, by demonstrating to them both in the same moment that the only constancy is their animal will to survive, not their love or the truth. In other words, the Party has developed the political, cultural, economic and technological means to eradicate ‘man’s search for meaning’ (Viktor Frankl’s book of this title was published three years before Orwell’s) through an alliance of practical reason and force so pure that it wields control for no end other than its own perpetuation. As O’Brien scoffs to Winston, none of the Party’s immediate forebears - neither Nazis nor Communists – ever “had the courage to recognize their own motives,” namely, that “one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” In brief, “The object of power is power.”
But such totalizing totalitarianism - to coin the cruel pleonasm at the heart of Orwell’s story - is a far cry from the U.S. under Donald Trump. If Trump’s America has totalitarian tendencies, surely they are history’s farcical turn (under Vladimir Putin’s direction) now that the tragedies of Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Russia have left him the stage.
I don’t mean to suggest that dismissal or mockery are the only or even the best reactions to Trump’s sudden power. One of the most frightening realities left in place by the Cold War is the capacity of a single person to wreak a nuclear holocaust that Orwell sees as a proximate cause for the rise of the Party and its will to power. And short of an intentionally inflicted nuclear disaster, Trump, and Trumpism more precisely, are capable of and have already perpetrated all manner of thuggish profiteering and hate mongering. Witnessing the successive debacles of Republican attempts to dismantle the ACA, one might accuse elements in that Party of devotion to persecution for its own sake. And that motive only becomes more naked the more we see how few Party members are left to hold it half-heartedly at bay.
Indeed, however clownish Trump’s Stalinism has been, and however many pockets of resistance there may be left to the immediate devastation being visited on so many by his haphazard malevolence, there are features of Trump’s U.S. that bear close comparison to Big Brother’s Oceania and Stalin’s Russia both. In brief, it is the contrasts that are instructive, and particularly when it comes to the role of information in people’s lives.
Whatever similarities they bore as military-industrial complexes, life in the nations the Warsaw Pact and of the NATO alliance was strikingly different when it came to the social and cultural role of information. Both blocs maintained as much control over the flow of information as they could. But in terms of sheer volume and mobility, the West far outran Communist bloc countries, from the numbers of players in all forms of mass media to the relative freedom they enjoyed from direct oversight by governmental bodies. One might go so far as to say that, comparatively, it was a case of feast and famine on either side of the Iron Curtain, and not only in terms of information but in all the allied goods that either bloc could deploy.
More elegantly, however, the novelist Phillip Roth described the situation thus – in 1984 – on a trip through Czechoslovakia meeting fellow writers: “here [in Prague] nothing goes and everything matters; there [at home in the West] everything goes and nothing matters.”* Clearly, Winston Smith’s London approximates Soviet-era Prague much more than it does Philip Roth’s New York, whether in 1984 or today. In that sense, Orwell offers less than a full meal for anyone (especially in Michiko Kakutani’s readership) hungry to understand the current political and cultural moment. If there are pockets of Soviet style totalitarianism around the world, they do not pose the kind of global threat that Trump and his camp do.
But then what is the danger in Trumpism if not gulags and rooms 101? As Roth suggests, it is the dissipation of mattering – meaning – in a world in which everything goes. Roth’s characterization of the West in 1984 (the year) has been Trump’s mantra for just as long. Another interesting historical conjunction: Trump’s first Tower was finished and opened in 1984. So, yes, Orwell got things wrong as far as this side of the world was concerned, which is why I had that distinct impression that his novel is not exactly the one we need. Brave New World might well be a better candidate in this light.
But insofar as Orwell was concerned with the problem of meaning, we’ll do well to consider the contrasts of his 1984 with our 2017. Though Trump’s methods suggest a desire for total control of information in Soviet manner, his political moment in fact is being buoyed by a tide of information – bad and good – the likes of which humanity has never encountered. We aren’t faced so much with the bland impoverishment of Newspeak as with empty bits of truthiness pressed into super-sized portions of addictive memes. The Party needn’t cow or bludgeon anyone into conformity so much as drown them in a sheer excess of shameless repetition. There is plenty of fear in the U.S. and around the world, but a winning political strategy relies at least as much on simple confirmation bias, the implicit self-satisfaction within which we shelter from the maelstrom of information that renders facts almost as difficult to make out as the number of fingers O’Brien holds up to Winston hapless on the rack.
But as I’ve argued above, Orwell’s novel is not solely or ultimately about the control of information; again, it’s about how and out of what we make meaning, including love. Yes, facts today are more important than ever, but so is the kind of direct human connection Orwell wanted to portray between Winston and Julia (however much we need to question that portrayal, as Susan Henking has reminded us). What we need is the power to shape what information we can rely on into lasting embodiments of meaning. And again, we can turn to Orwell for a lesson. In my experience, his novel reads at times like nothing so much as a fictionalized political treatise. But in the end he is enough of a writer to have delivered us a compelling story about one of the deepest problems we face under any political circumstances. He is clearly concerned about factual truths. But he expressed his concern in a novel, i.e. an elaborate lie, in one manner of looking at it. In sum, as much as he is concerned about facts, he is also concerned with the kind of emotional truth a novel conveys, which is what all the recent readers of 1984 have been reaching for and what, I think, we ourselves will embody in our conversations about the novel: the certainty we share and renew with others that something must matter.
*Roth’s remarks can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/books/review/roth-in-his-own-words.html?mcubz=0
Those That Tell You What You Know Already: Reflections on Selecting, Teaching, and Discussing Orwell’s 1984
Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
AP Literature and Composition Exam, Form B (2009)
When my students sat down to respond to this prompt on the AP Literature exam in May 2009, 1984 was listed as one of the College Board’s recommended texts. But we had not read Orwell’s novel as a class. And while it is hard to imagine a more perfect fit between text and prompt, lacking the preparation provided by a group discussion, none of my 28 students chose 1984 as the subject of their essay.
Though 1984 had only appeared twice before on the exam — in 1994 and in 2005 — I chastised myself mightily for my failure to prepare my class. “I should have anticipated a socio-political question!” “How could I have overlooked dystopia and focused instead on bildungsroman?!” In retrospect, of course, my self-flagellation seems ridiculous. But such is the pressure of teaching AP Literature and judging one’s effectiveness by one’s students’ scores.
Once I forgave myself this transgression, I was — and continue to be — left with a lingering question: why did not a single one of my students decide to write about a text that I had omitted from our syllabus? Even those who had read it independently chose to write about novels we had read as a group. The only conclusion I have been able to reach echoes a truth I first encountered in bell hooks’ teaching to transgress more than 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education: the education most of us have received and are providing is not — and is never — politically neutral.
That is to say, my decision to include — or in this case to exclude — a text in my syllabus had a powerful impact on my students’ perception of its value, meaning, and importance. Instead, I chose Toni Morrison’s Beloved that year. And King Lear and The Handmaid’s Tale and The Things They Carried among others. Were those the right choices? I don’t know if there is any way to meaningfully answer that question. It is simply a truth. I chose those texts and, in so doing, inadvertently demonstrated my politics, my values, and my beliefs.
Or was it inadvertent? I made these inclusion/exclusion choices on my own without consulting my students. But that’s my job! As a teacher, I can’t teach everything. I must curate our resources. So what alternative did I have? I think the better choice would have been to be transparent about my selection process. And to emphasize that my decision to include or exclude a particular novel inevitably changed the nature of the class and of our discussions. And that those discussions would invariably be influenced by my personal perspective.
My inclusion/exclusion reflections also extended to my considering the kinds of questions I would have asked about the novel and the questions I ask about any novel we read as a group. While I certainly make efforts to present multiple perspectives, what is the impact of my focusing more on characters or themes? Literary elements or setting? Authorial intent or relevance to current events?
These are all foci I would address for any novel we read. But my raising a novel’s relevance to today would always be a loaded inquiry. How could any discussion of Beloved in the wake of Charlottesville or of King Lear following allegations of nepotism in the Trump Administration NOT be loaded? Yet what my reconsideration of 1984 has made most clear to me is that I cannot eliminate my politics. However, I can be as transparent as possible about how my point of view — and my experiences overall — must necessarily influence our dialogue. Especially when I recognize the fact that my students relied so heavily upon our discussions to write their essays.
Today, I am grateful for the opportunity Many Conversations is providing to return to 1984 and wrestle with the complexities of teaching the novel to students vs. facilitating a discussion about the novel with adults. My hope is that these adult conversations will evolve organically and that — absent the weight of an AP exam looming on the horizon! — participants will bring their own points of view and will share these and will hopefully push back when my questions appear disconnected from their interests.
I am positive that English teachers around the world are reading the headlines and looking at the countless bestseller lists which now echo the resurgence of interest in 1984. I imagine them dusting off old book room copies and proudly returning the novel to their required reading lists and whole group discussion lesson plans.
Personally, I think this is fantastic and welcome news. Otherwise, I would not have chosen to write this post or to moderate several of the upcoming 1984 discussions. In truth, I would have a hard time selecting a more fitting text to help us wrestle with the truths — and truthiness — the conflicts, and the challenges we face today. I simply hope these teachers will ask themselves, and their students, two questions I failed to ask: What brings YOU to this text today?
And perhaps even more importantly: What are you bringing to the text?
I hope you, too, will explore those questions thoughtfully as you read 1984 and then attend one of the hundreds of One Book, Many Conversations events next month. And I hope that during those discussions you take to heart Orwell’s ironic statement about the best books being “those that tell you what you know already.” Because we do Orwell a great disservice if we look to the novel and to discussions of the novel as a means of reinforcing what we know already. I hope that instead, we can relish the opportunity to explore the innumerable fresh, unfamiliar perspectives that any discussion of the text has the potential to provide. For I believe it is the explorations of the unfamiliar and of the uncomfortable that the text encourages which would be the ones Orwell would most cherish.
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Jonathan R. Werner is a Library & Instructional Technology Specialist at the Cape Elizabeth Library and Learning Commons in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He is a former English teacher and finds his Teacher-Librarian role offers endless opportunities for continuing to explore and discuss Middle Grade, Young Adult, and classic literature. He is the Immediate Past President of the ISTE Librarians Network and serves as an advisor to the DOE's Future Ready Librarians campaign. Learn more about his work on Twitter @maineschooltech
University of New England & the Center for Global Humanities Sponsor Slate of Conversations in Southern Maine
With the support of the Center for Global Humanities and considerable ‘leaning in’ by my colleagues on the faculty and the wonderful staff of our libraries, the University of New England community has taken the lead in bringing the “One Book, Many Conversations” initiative to life in Southern Maine. There are at present fifteen conversations scheduled, in almost as many locations. UNE faculty and staff will moderate conversations at a number institutions in the area (e.g., at MECA and at the Thomas Library in Cape Elizabeth), along with four conversations on our two campuses and two at locations in Biddeford (Dirigo Brewery, and Elements bookstore/coffee shop). These efforts express our shared commitment to the values of liberal learning: What does a UNE education offer that our students need, the nation needs, and the world needs at this time? The conversations occasioned by the initiative may not speak directly to these questions, but the energy that has gone into making the initiative possible does reflect, or express, a faith in the value of asking such questions, and of doing so through an engagement with the world’s great traditions of art, wisdom, and learning.
We hope that you will be able to join the conversation!
Matthew Anderson, Department of English, University of New England
(Click here for a downloaded version of the poster depicted below: https://www.une.edu/pdfs/1984.)
A chemistry professor is probably not the first person that would come to one’s mind when recruiting moderators to lead a Socratic seminar on Orwell’s 1984. This invitation from the organizers of One Book, Many Conversations was predicated upon the belief that reading great texts, engaging in open discourse, and practicing democracy are not activities that belong solely to those from academic disciplines labeled “humanities” or “liberal arts,” a perspective that I share. I also hope that by participating in OMBC, I will demonstrate that many scientists do not hold the opinion that STEM fields are superior or more important than the non-STEM. Such value judgments do nothing but detract from our important shared mission as educators: creating the next generation of citizens capable of literacy in a wide variety of fields and able to address the multifaceted challenges of our modern age.
When invited to write this blog post for OMBC, I decided to discuss a chemical frequently mentioned in the novel: gin. Orwell’s choice of gin was likely not due to his knowledge of chemistry but of history, an allusion to England’s infamous Gin Craze of the early 18th century. I was initially struck by his descriptions of Victory Gin, particularly references to the drink being “oily-tasting” and “horrible.” Upon closer reading, I discovered that many items associated with pleasurable consumption and nourishment, including foods such as sugar, coffee, and bread, are replaced with synthetic substitutes or are vastly inferior in quality. A diet that regularly includes fresh vegetables and fruit no longer exists except in memory. A central theme of the book, the disruption of natural human experiences, notably relationships between parents, spouses, and children, extends even to the molecular level of nutrition.
The power of gin is most striking. Oceania is, as Orwell writes, built upon a “creaking camaraderie oiled by gin.” In a nation characterized by frequent product shortages (razors, pots, etc.), “nothing is cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin.” The Party leverages gin for multiple purposes: as a status symbol to delineate between Party members and the proles, as a commodity to barter for the services of prole prostitutes, and as a limitless palliative for its “rehabilitated” enemies who frequent the Chestnut Tree Cafe.
Gin also casts a giant shadow over the life of the novel’s protagonist. In the beginning, Winston fortifies himself with liquid courage prior to writing in his secret notebook for the first time. He characterizes his gin consumption as occurring “at all hours.” The quantity of drink has deadened his sense of taste to the point where he cannot appreciate the wine he is served at O’Brien’s house. Significantly, during Winston’s salad days midway through the novel, he recovers from his gin addiction for a brief period. But in the end his existence is reduced to one of perpetual, state-sanctioned drunkenness. Gin becomes “his life, his death, his resurrection.”
Hopefully this discussion about gin and 1984 has piqued your interest to read about the questions about the chemistry of Victory Gin I generated while reading the book and the answers I was able to find for each one. (Note: all page numbers listed correspond to the Signet Classics edition.)
What is gin? Gin is a liquor, typically 80-100 proof (40-50% alcohol by volume), created by infusing ethanol with flavors from botanical ingredients, most commonly juniper berries.
Why does Victory Gin have a “sickly oily smell” (page 5) and why is it “oily-tasting” (page 50)? Gin can be classified according to the method used in the flavor-infusion step. The simplest procedure involves adding botanical ingredients directly to ethanol to yield compound gin. The other two varieties involve distillation after the botanical ingredients have been added: simple distillation produces pot-distilled gin, usually amber-colored, while column-distilled gin is obtained from using a fractionating column, an apparatus that allows a succession of simple distillations to occur before the final product, now a colorless liquor, is finally collected. Victory Gin is described as being colorless (page 5) which would suggest that it is a column-distilled gin. However its excessively oily nature would be more consistent with a compound gin. One could hypothesize that The Party may even take short-cuts such as making gin by simply taking ethanol and directly adding the essential oils from botanical ingredients of choice. In this process, not all of the compounds found in the essential oils would necessarily be miscible with ethanol and therefore could impart an oily quality to the gin.
What is Chinese rice spirit? Victory Gin is described as being similar to Chinese rice spirit (page 5), a liquor known to contain organic compounds called esters. Esters are molecules in foods that impart aroma. Chinese rice spirit contains primarily ethyl lactate and ethyl acetate.
How much gin does Winston drink? There are multiple references to his consumption of teacups (approximately 6 fluid oz) and mugs (8-16 fluid oz) full of gin. At the lunch canteen (page 48), a “large nip of gin,” ~190 mL, nearly a fifth of a liter, could be bought for 10 cents.
What is “gin flavored with cloves,” the specialty drink of the Chestnut Tree Cafe (page 76)? Typically gin is made with juniper berries as flavoring but, for some reason, juniper is never mentioned by name in 1984. One could hypothesize that the geographical areas that grow juniper are outside of Oceania. This would also be true of cloves which are currently grown primarily in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Clove oil contains a large amount of eugenol, a phenylpropanoid with anesthetic properties. Interestingly, clove gin would be ideal for hastening an alcoholic to his grave since both excessive alcohol consumption and eugenol cause liver damage.
- Can one shed tears of gin? Orwell describes one of Winston’s childhood memories involving an old man who “reeked of gin” to such a degree that one could imagine “[tears] welling from his eyes were pure gin” (page 33). In the last paragraph of the book, Winston’s tears at the end of the book are also “gin-scented” (page 297). While I was unable to find any studies examining the presence of alcohol in human tears, ethanol in the sweat of continuous drinkers has been detected and quantified.
Shirley Lin is Professor of Chemistry at the United States Naval Academy, and will be co-moderating a seminar on 1984 for One Book, Many Conversations.
Once, I tried to use 1984 as a self-imposed deadline. I thought I was allowing myself a reasonable time to complete my dissertation – which I began in 1980 – and the date seemed somehow meaningfully symbolic. At that point, 1984 represented the unimaginably distant future. (I missed that deadline.)
For some time thereafter, 1984 became simply a date in the increasingly distant past or, when I occasionally thought about the novel, Big Brother and surveillance society or, more distantly, Newspeak and doublethink.
Recently, I have joined the many others listing George Orwell’s 1984 alongside other dystopias to describe the present: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the Parable series by Octavia Butler, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. At first, I resisted re-encountering these books because today’s news seemed sufficiently dystopic for me. I started and stopped Lewis’s book, and began a project to re-read Octavia Butler but could not continue. The news was enough trauma, I thought. Reading as escape was serving me well whereas reading that reinforced trauma or even verged on the proto-politica; seemed . . . unreasonable.
I was taking what actions I could in the political arena and in civil society, but I was not going to read (or watch) dystopias.
This summer I gave in to watching the new, streaming version of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. I watched with my partner and in large measure because she wanted to do so. The costuming had already become part of political protest culture and I had read the book many years ago. I wavered between resistance and recognition. Suspension of disbelief seemed unnecessary or irrelevant. The series was entrancing and painful (and worth the watch).
Then, I began 1984, again in large measure because I was accommodating others, in this case the endeavor called “One Book, Many Conversations.” I read it in a few days, with a slow down during what felt like the boring parts. Only in retrospect do I see that, as is the case with the present, the repetition of the ideological had its effect: boredom combined with panic. A certain frightened lassitude. Though I have argued for years that our increasingly ahistorical framework is itself the enemy – on this re-read I was reminded that (as is viscerally evident in today’s America) some of the erasure of history is intentional and all of it is consequential. Unlike my first reading of 1984 when the Vietnam War was ongoing, I am now old enough to know that we have been at war for my entire lifetime, whether we call it war or not and whoever we are referring to when we use the word “we.” I know that it is more than a theoretical device to entangle notions of memory with notions of history.
As important as these reminders were, I saw something else in 1984 on this reading, something I had not remembered. I was fascinated to find that like the dystopias by Atwood and Butler that I had read much more recently than 1984, Orwell, too, places gender politics at the heart of his dystopia. I had forgotten this or, perhaps, the last time I read it, which might have been in high school, I did not recognize what I was reading as gender politics. While I have since discovered that these themes have been addressed by scholars and students (in response to assigned writing prompts) regularly in the past 30-40 years, as a reader with little context on Orwell and a deep commitment to both gender justice and work against sexism and homophobia, I was simultaneously pleased and deeply put off as I re-read Orwell with these themes in mind.
I began my reading by trying to keep track of the literal visibility of women. While the novel is written through the lens of Winston Smith and thus his particular masculinity, his encounters with women begin early in the novel and can be read as definitive of the trajectory of a (youngish, heterosexual, presumably white, male, party member) in a totalitarian world: women are encountered as co-workers, marital partners, mothers, prostitutes, lovers, strangers. They are the object of fantasy and projection and hope, as well as the site of loathing. While women vary by their relationship, for example, to the Party, they are defined by clothes and scent and understood in the workplace (for example) as less susceptible to the temptations of desire than men (and hence put in charge of creating pornography). Masculinity is defined, in part, as hatred of women, as ugliness and as submitting to power (on the one hand) or lusting for power for power’s sake (on the other hand).
In fact, if I were imagining a subtitle for 1984, it might be “the romance of totalitarianism.” Here, we have a novel that might be described as a dystopia of love and marriage, family and sex. While isolation is part of what enables totalitarianism, so too does the management of sex (labeled by some of Orwell’s characters “doing one’s duty to the party”), the family (including children well indoctrinated to scrutinize their parents), and furtive, ultimately unsuccessfully closeted, romance. Heterosexuality of a very particular kind – its embodiment and its betrayal – are the core of the tale. Women thus become wives, mothers, prostitutes, lovers – betrayers and betrayed -- of very particular kinds.
What distinguishes 1984 from The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable series? The centering of London rather than North America merits mention as does the centering of race by Butler which serves to remind us that Orwell does not. More obviously, for both Atwood and Butler religion is critically important as both source of misogynist dystopia and (on very rare occasion) the possibility of freedom. In this centering of religion, those that are most deeply problematic are varieties of Christianity that we know well today. As the two authors intentionally center religion, they also are intentional in their centering of women as human. Orwell, of course, does not. While the societies offered as exemplifications of risky possibilities toward which we are hurtling by Orwell, Atwood and Butler are each misogynist and point to political ramifications of governmental management of family and sex, Atwood and Butler exemplify what happens when the author is determined to challenge gender and class and race constructions as dystopic. Together, they remind us that under totalitarianism individuals and collectives are created to be afraid and to betray, to be isolated while together and to conform. Juxtaposing the three reminds us of what might be Orwell’s own anti-feminism and homophobia.
What connects 1984 as this type of gendered novel with the dystopias of Atwood and Butler and to today’s daily experiences in the United States? While there are many parallels, of particular importance are the ways in which women’s bodies (whether biologically female or transgendered) are under attack and managed as reproductive bodies, the assault on and government intervention in reproductive justice, the decline of privacy and its gendered aspects, the use of language and war to manage gender, threats to literacy and critical thinking that are pervasive, and concerns focused on the gendering of class.
Perhaps most critical is the way that all of this – all of the concern about gender from the relative conservatism of marriage equality to assaults on Planned Parenthood to the murders of women by husbands and boyfriends to the gendered racism of Nazi exhibitions across the country -- is dismissed by some as ancillary to today’s more important matters of totalitarian regime change. Like the drum beat of racism, the drum beat of sexism “should be” of little concern given other horrors we face. Confederate statues do not matter; dismissal of women’s pay inequity is irrelevant. On the right, the attacks are overt; on the more progressive side, more covert. Yet, all too often the sides come together in the operations of our society, seeing attention to racism and sexism as “PC” rather than as substantive concerns.
And yet, as is the case for the sexism in 1984 these are at the very heart of the current American disaster.
Yes, there is much more to Orwell’s world. And yes, it is worth reading today, in 1984. Please do.
President Emerita, Shimer College
We are excited to introduce our inaugural event in what we hope will be a continuing public conversation around texts that challenge us, inspire us, and provoke us to think about the foundational issues that confront us as citizens and individuals. We look forward to having people from around the US and internationally join in the conversation.
We will be updating our blog with posts from a diverse group of individuals and organizations that have partnered with us to make One Book, Many Conversations a reality. Two of these partners include:
The National Humanities Alliance, which has hosted our web platform. Check them out at www.nhalliance.org. If you are interested in getting more information about their advocacy work for the humanities you can sign up on our website in the footer below.
The Aspen Institute Seminars Program will be providing moderator training for those interested. Dates for training will be provided in the coming weeks. Check out the Aspen seminars program at www.aspensinstitute.org/seminars/
In our blog posts we will be exploring a vast range of insights and ideas around George Orwell's novel 1984 and the broader questions of the place of conversation in the life of a democracy, the intricacies of moderating a text-based discussion, and how this conversation reaches beyond the literary arena to touch the visual world of art and design.
We will also be updating our seminar list continually so please continue to check back on our website for all the latest information. And, of course, follow us on Twitter at @onebookmanyconv and on Facebook and Instagram.
If you want to attend a local seminar in your area, and don't see one, please feel free to sign up for an online seminar. Or, you always have the option of setting up a seminar in your area and registering it here. That's the beauty of a conversation: it belongs to all of us. If you have questions, you can always reach out to us at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for being a part of this. Let's talk.
Joanna Bache Tobin
Founder, One Book, Many Conversations