well’s 1984The Repressive Governments of Zamiatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984
Outline: Thesis: Both Zamiatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 have governments that
repress actions and thoughts through the use of physical and psychological force.
II. We’s Government’s Use of Psychological Force
A. Number system
B. Sexual Registration
III. 1984’s Governments Use of Psychological Force
IV. Both Government’s Use of Physical Force
A. Torture of Winston
B. Operation On Fancy
Throughout time, people have wondered what happens when government
gains complete control not only over people’s actions, but over the thoughts
that precede them. Is it even possible to gain such omnipotence over human
nature that human beings will renounce all individuality? If such a society
could exist, would human nature truly be conquered, or just subdued sufficiently
that the will of the few could be contorted into the will of the general
population? The British author Eric Blair, better known by his pen name George
Orwell, and the Russian born Eugene Zamiatin both attempt to address these
questions in their respective books 1984 and We.
These novels depict, “. . . mechanized societies whose citizens are
deprived of freedom through physical and psychological conditioning.” (Bloom 17)
The amazing thing about these civilizations is that the majority of the
citizenry, at least publicly, applauds the government’s totalitarian actions.
Both Zamiatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 have governments that repress thought and
action through the use of physical and physiological force.
One of the most visible ways the government of the United State is able
to control the thought and actions of its citizens is by the use and abuse of a
system by which each member of society receives a number at birth instead of
given a name (Goldstein 54). The numbers are assigned according to sex and
occupation. For example, D-503, the main character in We, is male, and is thus
assigned a consonant for his prefix while his female partner, O-90, is assigned
a vowel. As D-503 is an engineer, he receives a 5 as his first number. All
state poets such as O-90 have numbers under 100. (Zamiatin 46). This use of
numbers instead of names creates a sense of unity and oneness of purpose in the
contented, complacent Numbers of the United State. “The most striking thing
about the Numbers’ “names”, is how easily they incorporate their assignment into
their lives, and their contempt for the “old way” of naming.” (Gregg 549)
The Numbers’ numbers are sewn onto their tunics called “unifs”, front
and back in large enough print that anyone, “. . .up to one hundred meters away
can read your Number from any direction.” (Zamiatin 123) While there are some
advantages to having your name known by everybody, such an innovation would
completely rob one of any privacy they have. This deprivation of privacy, and
how happy the people are about it, demonstrates exactly how the Well Doer is
able to subtlety take away other rights.
The most startling effect of the United State’s control of all actions
is their regulation governing the sexual act. “The United State, having
mathematically conquered hunger, directed its attack against the second ruler of
the world, against love.” (Richards 547) The immortal Well Doer decreed over
one thousand years prior to the current time of the novel that, “A Number may
obtain a permit to use any other Number as a sexual product.” (Zamiatin 22)
This proclamation allowed any Number to file an application to enjoy the
services of another without their knowledge or consent. The Number would
receive a passbook by which he could visit the other Number and for fifteen
minutes lower the curtains of his apartment.
The curtains normally stay wide open so that everyone can see inside at
all times. Numbers are expected to watch each other for the most minute amount
of impropriety, through the clear glass walls, floor, and ceiling of the
apartments. Even this temporary lowering of the curtains doesn’t completely
conceal the activities of those inside. A closed circuit video recorder
transmits every activity in every apartment to the Bureau of Guardians where it
is watched constantly.
The purpose of this tyranny is to eliminate the human emotions of envy
or jealousy that naturally arise from human sexual relations. (Richards 546)
But by doing away with jealousy, love also is taken away, and thus the
institution of marriage. The Numbers are free to pursue their lives free of any
thought to the well being of a spouse or children while giving up the inherent
need of companionship and relationships (Gregg 549). Replacing these vital
establishments is the United State who orders the Numbers to accept of its
substance and partake of its cold bureaucratic companionship.
In 1984, tyrannical government is exemplified by the mandated use of an
altered form of the English language called Newspeak. As Orwell explains in his
“The purpose of Newspeak is not only to provide a medium of expression for the
world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc (English
Socialism), but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”(246)
By limiting the choice of words available to a bare minimum, the
language accomplishes its purpose of diminishing the range of human thought and
expression. (Gardner 49). Big Brother’s entire fictitious existence is devoted
to the principle of thought reduction that Newspeak embodies. By eliminating
even the possibility of thoughts considered heretical by Oceania, thoughtcrime
becomes impossible by definition (Howe 32). The entire purpose of Newspeak is
reduce the amount of thought possible by the citizenry thereby making it
impossible to rebel against the indomitable, but fragile despotism.
The most noticeable way that Newspeak alters the public’s perception of
reality is through the use of an intentional distortion of truth known in
Oceania as Doublethink. Doublethink, immortalized in phrases such as “War is
Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”, serves as a
foundation upon which the government of Oceania can selectively change history
and reality by convincing the population that history is what Oceania says it is
“Even the names of the four Ministries by which they are governed exhibit a sort
of impudence in their deliberate reversal of the facts. The Ministry of Peace
concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love
with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions
are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are
deliberate exercises in doublethink.” (Orwell 178)
By using obvious contradictions the government can hold power
indefinitely because the only state of mind conceivable in such an environment
is insanity, and exclusively by controlled mass insanity can the power of the
few can be maintained (Lief 267).
Although all conceivable attempts at control are made, some people,
either through their own questioning of authority, or prompting by an external
source, will try to exceed the boundaries of law and order (Crick 283). One
such citizen is Winston Smith, the main character in 1984. When limitations are
ignored by a citizen in a totalitarianism, action must be taken by the
government to restore order not only to the offender’s actions, but to his
thought process. When Winston is arrested for his treasonous behavior, he first
goes to a Ministry of Love holding cell. After being held without food for
several days he is severely beaten to the point of death many times. He admits
to hundreds of crimes everyday simply to make the pain of the beating go away.
Then his battered body is taken to the dreaded Room 101. He is attached
to a machine whereby pain is administered by means of electrical shock. Four
fingers are held in front of him and he is asked how many fingers are held up.
He responds, “Four.” Pain racks his body. He is shocked until his joints pop
out of socket from muscle tension and spasms.
You are a slow learner, Winston,” said O’Brian gently.
“How can I help it,” he blubbered. “How can I help what is in front of
my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three.
Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to
become sane.” (Orwell 207)
By torturing his body, the government, personified by O’Brian, is
actually able to change his entire conception of number theory. This example of
power over Winston, exemplifies the basis for Oceania’s government, that true
power is power over human beings (Rees 54).
In We this power over humanity is ultimately achieved not by physical
conditioning, but rather by surgical operation. The state newspaper describing
the procedure reads:
“. . .there in paradise they know no desires any longer, no pity, no love; there
they are all blessed. An operation has been performed on their center of fancy;
that is why they are blessed angels, servants of God the Well-Doer.” (Zamiatin
The government of the United State isn’t confident enough in it’s own precepts
and principles that it is forced to rely upon a surgical procedure to exert
control over its Numbers. It isn’t enough to torture them into submission, or
schedule every second of time for them on the table of hours, it isn’t enough to
have them convinced that their leader was the creator of the Universe or have
them live in transparent homes. It is necessary to turn the population into an
army of human robots. A mechanized force of drones is required to carry out
orders without thought or pause, simply because if thought and imagination
aren’t medically terminated then the United State would lose it’s workers, and
Although these worlds of oppressive governments that torture their own
citizens may seem distant and detached from our perception of reality, how close
really are we? Like in We, many people live and die by their schedules which
must be followed to the most minute detail. During World War II, our own
government, the supposed bastion of freedom, detained thousands of Japanese-
American citizens simply because their parents were born in the wrong country.
Americans are required to have We-like Social Security numbers which allows
“our” I.R.S. to track our money to make sure we’re “contributing” our fair share
of taxes. Orwell himself summed up the feelings many Americans have about their
government in a disclaimer published after publication of 1984:
“My recent novel 1984 in not intended as an attack on Socialism or the British
Labor Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show up of the perversions to
which a centralized economy is liable and which have been realized in Communism
and Fascism. I don’t believe that the society I describe necessarily will
arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive.” (Gardner 82)
While practically no one wants to think about the possibility of
totalitarianism in our country, it is something with which our country must deal.
One can only have supreme faith in the triumph of human nature, with all its
flaws and imperfections, over the evil forces of those who would subject us to
their will for personal gain.
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