Winston Smith sits in room 101, a cage wrapped around his head that will soon release his greatest fear, rats, to feast on his flesh. Determined to escape, he only has one way out, the ultimate betrayal. He must betray his love Julia to the oppressive party that currently tortures him, and he does.
“Do it to Julia! Not me!” he begs, desperate to spare himself the pain, no matter what happens the woman he loves.
This chilling scene was played out in the pages of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian classic which told about the country of Oceania’s oppressive government and its quest to destroy free will. It’s a masterpiece, and surely one of the greatest books ever written. I did however have a small problem with it.
Before we continue, let me say that the ending of Orwell’s classic novel was appropriate given its subject matter. It would have been inappropriate and a cop-out had it ended happily with Winston and Julia going off into the sunset and Big Brother’s reign being torn down. Also, Orwell is a much better writer than me, so I may be eating my own stinky feet with this article.
Nineteen Eighty-Four does encapsulate one of fiction’s two extreme views on the balance of good and evil.
One such view is of course the peaches and cream everything is good, all have pure hearts underneath and everything works out in the end dreck that is so sweat that it gives you a sugar induced headache. Then you have the other end of that spectrum that preaches of humanity being but a creature of darkness and evil with all good and love being a mere delusion to keep ourselves from going mad.
It is my opinion that both are wrong, and most readers know that. That is why most works of fiction do not fall on these two extremes, but rather in the abundance of space between them.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book that only sees the bad, and whatever good is within it is quickly snuffed out by the overwhelming evil bearing down on the heroes, but that’s not the way the world is. The world isn’t that way any more than it’s like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
The key to good, honest fiction is finding the balance between the two. In the case of Winston Smith, I do believe the book was honest with him betraying his lover. However, not everyone would. There are far too many people in the world, it would be impossible not to eventually find someone who would be able to face their own worst fear and sacrifice themselves to save another. Winston just wasn’t one of those guys.
But, not everyone has kindness or mercy. Would it really be honest to portray a monster like Ted Bundy turning over a new leaf after someone explains to him how he’s so hurt his victims? If anything, a person like Bundy would use that expectation to lull someone into a false sense of security. Maybe someone would, as some people who have done monstrous things have indeed found themselves filled with regret. Ted Bundy just wasn’t one of those guys.
Showing all the bad and showing all the good are equally flawed.
Though both approaches may be honest for certain individuals, they are not honest when it comes to everyone. That’s one of the reasons I always preferred stories with larger casts. You get a much wider spectrum of archetypes that can react to any given situation any number of ways. With that, you get a better idea of how everyone will react to something, not just one person. When you do that, you do get the whole story.
Character studies, like that of Winston Smith, are intimate and important, because that story is about the destruction of one man. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a perfect book, even if its philosophy is a little off for me. Most people would crack under that kind of torture. Just not everybody.