Remembering George Orwell several decades later as the man whose novels redefined dystopian fiction

BY RENN ELKINS ’20

Most people today are familiar with the iconic quote “Big Brother is watching.” Jan. 21st marked the 68th anniversary of literary legend George Orwell’s death. Orwell, best known for his chilling dystopian depiction of the future in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and his allegorical retelling of Russian communism’s rise in “Animal Farm,” is both admired and disdained by academics and activists alike. His novels and essays, still taught in schools, often dominate display windows at local bookstores — especially since the presidential election of Donald Trump. What is it about Orwell’s work that maintains such consistent posthumous popularity, spawning endless allusory works of literature, films, plays and even music? 

Orwell’s expressions of deep-rooted cultural paranoia and of a complete lack of privacy has become somewhat prophetic. From baby boomers concerned with the rapid development of the modern world to millennials thoroughly steeped in a cultural air of sardonic cynicism, concerned expressions pertaining to the preservation of the ever-shrinking private sphere are common. These deep-rooted fears manifest in many ways, the latest of which might be a meme currently sweeping social media, which references “the FBI agent monitoring my computer.” While humorous, this meme reflects a certain degree of truth. With the internet and cameras taking over every facet of day-to-day life, the possibility — if not the reality — of constant and invisible surveillance is all too present. In terms of mere technological advancement, we are closer to the reality of a Big Brother than we have ever been before. 

Still, there is a difference between potential and reality. Karisa Poedjirahardjo ’20 pointed out that “there may be cameras everywhere, but no one is watching them — there aren’t enough people to be constantly monitoring us.” Mollie Grubman ’20, on the other hand, said that “though not everyone is monitored, the Patriot Act does exist, and it disproportionately targets Muslims and Middle Easterners, even though we know that white men are responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks. That is a serious violation of privacy.” According to the Patriot Act, which was signed into law following the Sept. 11 attacks, the goal is to “deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world [and ]to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools.”

To combat this paranoia, many people place a piece of tape over the camera of their phone or laptop. However, is this an overly literal response? Blocking one’s face from “the FBI agent” of the internet does not automatically prevent the doling out of personal information on social media, nor does it make internet activities and electronic transactions less trackable. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” protagonists Winston and Julia seek refuge from Big Brother by bringing their love affair to the countryside, where there are no cameras to watch them. While romantic in nature, such an escape is harder to implement in real life; even in the novel, the lovers meet a gruesome ending. 

Despite his prophetic tendencies, Orwell is still confined to his time. While “Animal Farm” is still taught today, it is used to address a precise moment in history, rather than to frame out present-day actions. Likewise, the year Nineteen Eighty-Four has come and gone with its problems and fears. Orwellian rhetoric is voiced by both the left and the right, often without much regard for context—notably, the fact that he was writing amidst the rise of the mid-century Red Scare. While invoking Orwell may be used as a way to cautiously raise awareness, it is also constantly used as a scare tactic. 

The teaching of Orwell is easily, perhaps even inevitably, biased.  As socially critical-thinking college students, it is the responsibility of the Mount Holyoke community to continue assessing and critiquing the authors we read in our classes. Is it wise to continue referencing the precise politics of a man almost 70 years dead? Poedjirahardjo expressed that this may lead to disproportionate paranoia, but Grubman’s argument pointed out that this can’t be dismissed as entirely irrelevant, either. Either way, considering the widespread fear of a “Big Brother”-like state, it can be said almost without a doubt that “Nineteen Eighty-Four” quotations will continue to be plastered across Facebook walls — or future social media’s equivalent — for years to come.

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