Subjective Sanity

Set in a futuristic negative utopia, George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is a cautionary tale for the sake of mankind. In Orwell’s society, the Party rules with a tenacious grip on humanity. They monitor and control every thought, action, and emotion, dehumanizing society in the process. Struggling with the prohibition of his expression, Winston’s journey demonstrates the dangers of dehumanization. Individuality, the very thing that keeps humanity sane, when stripped away creates an entire population of automatons — nefariously dehumanizing society in the strive for power.

In order for the Party to remain in power, it must control the entirety of each individual, demoralizing them and their existence. O’Brien tells Winston in the Ministry of Love that “power is power over human beings,” the most important, “above all, over the mind” (264). To control a person is to govern their entire being. Physical actions are only a small part; the foremost aspect is one’s mind. With control of the brain comes control of a person’s thoughts, emotions, judgement, reasoning, self-awareness, sanity — everything associated with humanity. Therefore, to control the mind is to control the person. If a dominating group can control the individuals, they in turn hold power over the collective group. In doing so, they sacrifice humanity. Since the Party controls the minds of people, they can control reality, which cause individuals to question their sanity.

In the eye of the majority, sanity is a malleable concept. Winston questions his thoughts of rebellion along with his whole existence after his sessions with O’Brien, thinking to himself “Sanity was statistical” (277).  The perception of one’s state of mind is judged based on the majority’s opinion. If a thought is accepted by the majority, as statistics are, then the sanity of individuals depends upon the majority as well. Those who conform to the numbers will be known as sane, while those who don’t will be outliers. In Winston’s case, he is certain that 2 + 2 = 4, however, the entirety of the Party claims that 2 + 2 = 5. Although today’s society agrees with Winston, he is seen as insane because everyone that surrounds him believes a different truth. Therefore, it can be said that truth and sanity are contrived calculations, based on statistical averages. The truth of 2 + 2 = 5 is engrained in the Party’s memories, but cannot, nor is, physically proven: “reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else” (249). The state of existence lies only in the collective minds of the Party: “Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth” (249). Thus, from a position of power, the Party controls truth, therefore manipulating the existing reality.

In order to control reality, the Party uses a technique known as doublethink: “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” (214). Citizens must store previous information in their subconscious while primarily believing another thought that opposes the former. They must be able to instantly switch between two thoughts if and when the Party says so, while never believing they ever switched: in order to practice doublethink, one must use it to forget exercising it in the first place. It is an essential process for the Party to maintain power; doublethink allows the Party to constantly mold the past while citizens automatically accept new truths, depicting the Party as an all-knowing deity. Orwell portrays Winston as having incredulous difficulty with doublethink when he is with the needle and O’Brien in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien demanding of him what 2 + 2 equals. Winston is even more confused when O’Brien punishes him for saying five without believing it, even though it is the answer the Party says is correct.  As said in Goldstein’s book, “the more intelligent, the less sane” (215): Winston has the knowledge that 2 + 2 should equal four as well as the knowledge that the Party says it equals five. He has both thoughts in his mind, but he still believes the former, only answering five to please the Party; he is considered insane because the majority believes the latter. The Party uses its power over the truth to make rebels like Winston think that their own thoughts are wrong — that they are insane. O’Brien aims to change Winston, as the Party changes the minds of people, creating one uniform mind and destroying individuals.

Through contradictory concepts, Orwell proposes a yin yang element. Each thought in doublethink opposes its opposite, but works together with it — a codependency. In addition to doublethink, Orwell illustrates a similar effect through stupidity and intelligence: “Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain” (279). The two are complete opposites — one is the lack of knowledge while the other is the possession and abundance of knowledge. Even though they contradict one another, neither one can exist without the other. If everyone is intelligent, then truly no one would be intelligent, nor stupid: they would all be average. The irony is in the fact that the two terms contradict each other, yet one’s existence depends on the other’s. In addition, stupidity and intelligence are equally difficult to acquire. In both scenarios it is necessary to learn something new. The difference is that when obtaining intelligence, one must fill an unexplored part of their brain, while one must use doublethink to attain stupidity, replacing a piece of existing knowledge. In the case of the Party, stupidity is used as a tool to create a nation of automatons, all of whom think for, and as, the Party — never as individuals.

A society cannot function equally if the individuals are not seen as such. When a person’s right to existence is taken away, they lose their humanity, acting as robots instead of as individuals. They become easily manipulated and dictated by a higher group. As seen through numerous historical events — Nazi Germany in WWⅡ, the dictatorship of Stalin, terrorist groups, current presidential elections — the outcomes of dehumanization are horrific. To avoid such barbarities, individuals must be able to think for themselves. It is essential to the survival of humanity.

Works Cited

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 1961. Print.

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