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George Orwell’s 1984 Analysis

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The question of determinism versus free will in George Orwell’s 1984 is highly relevant, as Oceania’s populace is faced with a reality in which all their thoughts and actions are controlled by the ruling party. The citizens experience an existence in which they are threatened with bodily harm if they should deviate from the actions prescribed by the government.

Throughout most of the novel, such characters as Winston Smith and Julia (in contrast with the masses) give differing views of the how the question of free will versus determinism affects the life of individuals. Yet following Winston’s imprisonment, torture, and release the extent to which he is are in fact deprived of their free will and subject to the deterministic impulses of their environment becomes more evident as a natural result of the extenuating circumstances under which he lives. After this imprisonment, Winston’s beliefs concerning his leaders, himself, and his own history give a nebulous account of the amount of control he may be said to have over his own will and by extension his own life.

Winston Smith might be said to exercise their free will even in the face of all the thought and action control done by the Party. However, this kind of free will he exercises can be defined as one that is watered down by the determinism of his surroundings. This can be considered the kind of free will that chooses the determinism that surrounds it, and he chooses (unconsciously at first) to be Big Brother’s puppet. This can be detected primarily in Winston’s deep-rooted belief that he would eventually be discovered to be a thought criminal. Big Brother orchestrates this by the portrayal of the Party as invincible and an all-knowing one that would catch up to any who dared deviate. Winston’s actions are based on Big Brother’s inculcated ideas. Such ideas make him feel a certain lack of control over his future, so that he considered that nothing he did in the past, present or future would be able to alter his fate.

Such thoughts prompted him to leave his notebook open on the bed with the words “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” written in it (Orwell 18). He reasons that, “Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference. Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same”(19). It is also such thoughts that determine his actions of accepting the manifesto written by Emmanuel Goldstein and into the relationship with Julia. The belief that the non-performance such actions could do nothing to prevent him from being caught actually prompts him to commit the “crimes” that lead to his capture. Such a scenario describes determinism and cannot be fully attributed to free will.

The people of Oceania have indeed been deprived of their ability to make free and voluntary choices because of physical constraints and the extent to which they come under threat of physical harm. Winston becomes more a part of the masses once he has been released from imprisonment and has been thoroughly brainwashed into loving and accepting the will of the Party. Along with the Oceania masses, Winston now shows a deep sense of conformity during the period following his release from torture. In the earlier stages before his imprisonment, evidence of the Party’s threat of brutal harm can be found in the Winston’s memories. In one of the earlier chapters he remembers the loss of his mother and sisters, which occurred in “one of the first great purges of the fifties” (Orwell 29). This reference to purges hints at a tendency of the Party to carry out widespread tortures and killings as a method of eliminating things that they consider threatening to the society they rule.

Yet, while such ideas did not stop Winston from thinking and acting against Big Brother before his imprisonment, the real experience of pain and torture becomes effective in weakening the strength of his will. He becomes more like the masses of Oceania who note and fear the threat of surveillance cameras as a constant reminder that “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (2). Winston has experience firsthand this true depth of pain to which the slogan can take him, and this threat is one that convinces him now to act in concerted with the masses. His actions become ones that please the Party and reduces the possibility of further harm, and this underscores the idea that the “choices” he now makes are determined for him based on his fear of being physically harmed. He, therefore, cannot be considered any longer to possess free will to any significant extent.

The determinism and curtailing of free will experienced by Winston can be compared to the kind of choice experienced by persons currently alive in free countries, such as the United States. Post-imprisonment Winston and his fellow workers of Oceania are seen in startling agreement in their vocal activism against certain ideologies and people. While this is also the case in the contemporary United States (or even contemporary London), the homogeneity and concerted nature of the actions of the Oceania masses is in direct contrast with the diversity found within modern free states.

The most compelling evidence for their lack of free will is the way in which they all (including Winston) agree upon whom or what to despise and love. Much more political and ideological disagreement (demonstrated by their actions such as activism) exists in modern free states because people are not threatened with bodily harm should their actions deviate from those held or prescribed by the government. This demonstrates the will of the individual in America as opposed to the determination of the actions performed by Winston and his Oceania countrymen.

It might be considered that the actions Winston portray are not necessarily reflective of the thoughts he has—yet this changes dramatically at the end after his imprisonment. Upon scrutinizing the situation in Oceania, however, it is clear that Winston has been subjected to a level of control in which his thoughts are determined and he is stripped of the will to think independently. Winston’s says of some ideas that “he never named them, even in his thoughts, and so far as it was possible he never visualized them” (Orwell, 288). He shows himself, like the other citizens, unable even to think thoughts that are contrary to the ideas of the Party. The Thought Police exist as the major and immediate presence of the Party in the thought life of Oceania’s citizens.

The reminders of Big Brother are everywhere, and the insidious thought that anyone’s neighbor or even a random stranger could be a member of the Thought Police forces people to keep their minds on things that would be sanctioned by Big Brother. Winston recalls the power of Big Brother: “they could get inside you. ‘What happens to you here is for ever,’ O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out” (290). Such prospects are dismal for the persistence of free will because in Winston’s case, he no longer even desires to act freely. He has become such a person who directs his thoughts only toward “legal” ideas in an attempt to preserve his life and what small measure of personal “freedom” he has been accorded.

However, the actions of the Party and Thought Police go further in truncating the free will of the people of Oceania and toward effect the determination of their thoughts and actions. Loyalties are discouraged even among family members, as children are often ripped from the confidence of their families and made traitors and spies within their homes. Winston identifies a contrast between love within families and the strain that exists among such members under the influence of Big Brother. He recalls “a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason” (Orwell, 30).

In contrast, people’s thoughts are kept in line by those they love, who have become permanent conduits of their ideas to the attention of the Thought Police. After imprisonment, Winston realizes that even his will to protect Julia (whom he loved) had been effaced by the actions of the party. The indifference he now feels for her has been determined by the Party even against his will In addition to this form of determinism and control, the Party has also succeeded in turning loyalty and trust between friends into an understanding of the deep-rooted nature of betrayal. The love that Winston and Julia would like to show to each other has, under the influence of Big Brother, deteriorated to abhorrence. Such evidence proves that even in Winston’s strong mind, determinism has edged out free will and welcomed the control of Big Brother.

Another dimension of political thought exists in the perspective that Winston, as a citizen of Oceania, does exercise some amount of free will because they are encouraged to make decisions regarding their political sentiment based on historical activities and outcomes. Yet even what Winston knows to be false has, because of the effect of the torture upon him, become true to his mind. He is unable to express his desire for the defeat of Oceania, as he has become almost convinced of the legitimacy of its wars. He chooses to inculcate the idea that “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia” (Orwell, 287). As a result of such propaganda, the Party has succeeded in exerting a level of control over Winston’s memories of political history.

Winston’s post-torture reaction to his own memories give an idea of how this occurs: “He pushed the picture out of his mind. It was a false memory. He was troubled by false memories occasionally. They did not matter so long as one knew them for what they were. Some things had happened, others had not happened.” (296). Because the very historical facts that must shape the educated and inform their decisions are changed to suit the agenda of the Party, citizens are forced to perform actions that are contrary to those that would have been performed based on their own free choices. Winston becomes a part of this after his imprisonment. The free will he once had has been replaced by a farce. Even in the extent to which he appears to make any claims of Party allegiance on his own, he knows he manipulated and his actions and choices extrinsically determined.

After his imprisonment, Winston’s lot as a true citizen of Oceania is one of utter conformity to the ideas endorsed by his government. His realization that the strength of pain outweighs the strength of any person’s will or convictions is one that has forced him into knowing conformity to the ruling party. He understands what the prospect of pain can force people to do. He chooses to conform to the directions of the Party because he knows from experience that there exists a threshold of pain beyond which he really does (in his heart) conform. Therefore, he denies his memories on purpose and chooses to believe what Party propaganda.

This exists in contrast to the freedom experienced by citizens of the free world in that such persons have not been exposed to torture and have no fear in making decisions that are based on their own desires and convictions—regardless of the sympathies of the government. Winston chooses to conform out of necessity, where free citizens of countries like the United States would be free choose something else. However, Winston’s ounce of free will exists in knowing that his choice is based not on truth but on the avoidance of the excruciating nature of the pain that the Party has the power to place upon him.

Work Cited

Orwell, George. 1984: Signet Classic. New York: Penguin Group, 1961.

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