By David E.J.A.Bennett
Arthur Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, is considered perhaps the greatest socialist writer of the twentieth-century. His masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, depicts the struggles of the working classes under the brutal rule of a totalitarian government. His depictions of ‘Big Brother’ – who is always watching – has become synonymous with the modern obsession with CCTV; there is practically no point in any modern city that you are not being watched.
Our modern dystopia may not be as bleak as that which Orwell depicts in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as it is expertly masked by the flashing lights and moving colours of a capitalist wonderland in which anyone can have anything. But rest assured, under the sparkly surface, the wheels of Big Brother are definitely turning.
From this text alone, one may be inclined to think that George Orwell was the people’s champion; the working-class hero set to bring down, or bring light upon, the hegemonic nightmare of a totalitarian regime. And this is essentially true. However, Orwell was not as friendly to the working classes of the early twentieth-century as may first be assumed. In fact, at times, his writing on those working classes verges on disgust.
In Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four, he states; “… as the story is being told from the point of view of Winston Smith, who belongs to the Outer Party, the Proles are largely ignored, much as they are by the regime itself”. In ‘proles’, Pynchon is referring to the proletariat – the collective term for working class people (and the term for the lowest class of people in Ancient Rome). In any case, Orwell’s depiction of the proletariat in Nineteen Eighty-Four is almost entirely voiceless. They are there, but they are not active dialogically speaking.
This is with the exception of the ‘singing lady outside the room at the back of the antique shop’. Orwell is perhaps demonstrating with this representation of the working class, that their only societal function worth anything at all, is their ability to sing and entertain anyone who might need entertaining, with class being irrelevant. Arguably, it is perhaps the hardships of working class life which breeds the poetry and singing of songs, which the middle and upper classes find entertaining; and it is the poetry and singing of songs which is, arguably, the most potent escape from hardship. Thus, from one perspective, as well as being responsible for the hardship, the higher classes also take any good that may spring from hardship for themselves. This, one may tentatively suggest, is what Orwell is doing by depicting the working classes in his work: lest we forget, Orwell was an Etonian, and born into relative wealth and prestige.
In Orwell’s piece, The Road to Wigan Pier, he describes himself as being “lower-upper-middle class”, and this may be a rough description of Winston Smith’s social position in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Winston is bound to the relatively important role of literally rewriting history, and is thus part of the system, but is no more powerful than a solitary cog in a wheel, and completely expendable. For the story to be told from this point of view, which is arguably Orwell’s point of view in reality, it amounts to a working-class hero being anything other than working class. This appears to be a trend which has dotting history from as far back as 1381 and the so-called ‘Peasants Revolt’ in England; touted as a victory for the lower class over the establishment, the movement was instigated by Wat Tyler, who was very much middle class or above.
In chapter 10 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell produces an almost diametrically contradictory picture of a working-class woman. “Tirelessly the woman marched to and fro …”, Orwell writes, with “tirelessly” surely being a word to describe a subject with admiration. ‘Tirelessness’ is surely one of the most sought-after qualities for any working person. Yet, in the same passage, the same woman is described by Orwell a being:
“blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing, then hardening, roughed by work till it was coarse in the grain like an over-ripe turnip”.
This description appears to be one of disgust at the physical form of a hard-working mother. To metaphorically describe a human as a vegetable of any kind, let alone an “over-ripe turnip”, is possibly the very height of derogatory description.
However, when Winston looks at the woman in the novel, he finds her beautiful. Orwell portrays both a distinct disgust and an indisputable admiration for this working-class woman. Having distain for a thing that one finds beautiful, is perhaps a master stroke of poetry, or an explosion of incredulity, which seems to run throughout Orwell’s writing. He appears to have a certain hatred for the very thing he purports to fight for.
There is a key line in the passage just described, which perhaps describes the perspectives of writers, anthropologists and “upper-lower-middle class” attitudes in general to working class subjects:
“Together [Winston and Julia] gazed down with a sort if fascination at the sturdy figure below”.
It may or may not be an intentional positioning of Winston and Julia for Orwell to place them in a room from which they can look down at the woman, unnoticed from their vantage point, but it is certainly coincidental at least. For the pair to be looking down at the woman “with a sort of fascination” is perhaps a good analogy of Orwell’s Eton-educated, and generally advantaged position in life, which enabled him to watch and to write about the working classes.
When considering anthropological studies in general, to have the time and freedom and desire to watch and to write about other people for a living, is a distinct sign of privilege. A working-class person could not make an anthropological study of an “upper-lower-middle class” person by definition – they are too busy working. It is not that a literate working class person could not write such a study, but, rather, if they could find the time to do so, they would cease to be of the working class at all.
Orwell sheds more light on his perspective of working-class people, and their representation in this text, on page 251:
“the woman down there had no mind, she had only strong arms, a warm heart and a fertile belly”.
This, in essence, is Orwell saying the working classes are good for not much other than scrubbing floors, and reproducing, although they are nice people who look out for one and other, and they are worth fighting for. Although, when analysing Orwell’s oeuvre, it is perhaps a wonder if he was a staunch and active socialist, or a privileged Etonian who fancied taking sides with the socialist plight; with any plight being merely a vessel for his career as a writer.