I could not help, while reading 1984, comparing this George Orwell classic to another dystopian novel: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Both cover a similar, overarching theme of how the collective, gone bad, infringes on the freedoms of the individual. While Orwell focuses on the incredible evils that can result from a totalitarian state, Rand focuses on the virtues of individualism.
There are many differences between the two novels, but one that I noticed, quite clearly, is how Rand’s work – filled with idealism and optimism – differs to Orwell’s, which is deeply cynical. In Rand’s world, good – individual liberty and freedom – can only win, and does win eventually; in Orwell’s, evil – resulting from the abuse of power – can win, and win absolutely.
This got me thinking about how our culture tends to believe the idea that good is somehow much stronger than evil, and despite what humans do, good – the ultimate source of which lies somewhere outside of us – will somehow win in the end. This belief is entrenched in the media, religion and literature: think of the all to common narrative where the hero – even after much suffering and sacrifice – wins eventually, and evil is always defeated. The belief that there is something intrinsic in good that makes it more powerful than evil is widespread. But is it really true?
1984 seems to crush this ‘just world’ bias. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is not the strong-willed, confident hero that we see in Rand’s story, but a middle aged, unattractive, nervous guy with a varicose ulcer on one ankle, who rebels against the totalitarian state of Oceania. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s heroes, with god-like qualities, eventually come away unscathed as they tussle with the powers that be; in 1984, Smith is tortured, beaten, starved, and finally broken down completely by those in power.
I wonder if there is a possible danger in believing that good will always win, as it might encourage complacency when we observe abuses of power. Instead of taking action, a few individuals might sit back, not believing that the horrors described in 1984 can actually happen. “Evil will never fully take over our country and lives”, they might think “because good will always prevail.” And some might also add: “because God is in control.”
But one can argue that there is no god, or any other entity out there, who will ensure that good will prosper; it is totally up to us, and us alone. What freed the Jews from the concentration camps, or disbanded apartheid? Was it not human intervention – through the bearing of arms or through negotiation – that halted these acts of violence and suffering? In other words, Orwell’s message is that those with the most power will determine if good or evil prospers, and this places the responsibility on each one of us, in democratic societies at least, to hold those in authority accountable for the way they wield their power.