'Not death, but annihilation': Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Catastrophe of Englishness

‘Not death, but annihilation’: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and the Catastrophe of Englishness. Critical Insights: Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ed. Thomas Horan. Salem Press, 2016. 98-112.      

This article complicates readings of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four as a dystopian novel by juxtaposing it with the conventions and ideological preoccupations of the English catastrophe novel. I argue that the presence of both narrative modes, closely linked in Britain since their emergence in the late 19th century, exposes a fundamental tension in the text between its critique of totalitarianism and its requiem for the immemorial values—and revolutionary potential—of English culture. While dystopias operate formally as expansive exercises in world-building, where the seeds of a more abstract disaster are extrapolated in the formation of nightmarish alternate worlds, narrative catastrophes function primarily as world-reductions, where the effects of global collapse narrow the narrative scope, rendering the subsequent loss of meaning and identity acute because experienced at the level of national, local, or even personal culture. I contend that there is great value in reading these two forms against one another: reading dystopia as catastrophe narrative exposes the parochial dimensions of the former’s pretensions to universality, while reading catastrophe as dystopia illuminates how the latter goes about universalizing those dimensions. Therefore, if Orwell’s Winston Smith represents a classic dystopian protagonist, mapping a loss of individuality and decency in a mechanized and authoritarian world, he also plays the part of a quintessential English catastrophe survivor, a ‘last man’ figure negotiating the loss of the English values in and through which his identity has formed. I assert that Nineteen Eighty-four ideologically conflates these two registers such that abstract concepts such as historical progress and individual freedom are made dependent on their prior grounding in an inherently individualist and democratizing English tradition of empirical reason and dissent. Thus, the novel’s real horror lies not in the death of the abstract individual under totalitarianism, but rather in the utter annihilation of the English cultural foundations from which the very possibility of individual life proceeds. 

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