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Old 05-10-2017, 10:25 AM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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Did Margaret Atwood fundamentally misread Orwell's Appendix to 1984?

I heard Atwood interviewed on KCRW's The Business, talking about she came up with the "coda" for her book The Handmaid's Tale. She based it on what I would consider an overly optimistic take on the Appendix of George Orwell's 1984. Check out what she says about it at the 18:30 mark (spoilers for both 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, obv.).

I thought she clearly misunderstood Orwell's intent there, but in the only thread I could find about it on the SDMB, only the final post of the thread jibes with the way I interpreted it.

The crux of what I'd call the misunderstanding comes, I think, from the first few sentences:

Quote:
Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in the Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050.
I guess the first sentence implies to some people that Newspeak (and perhaps Oceania) did exist, but no longer do, at the time the author of the Appendix is writing. And then the implicit notion taken by the last sentence quoted above is something like "...but this never happened, because Ingsoc did not last until 2050."

But my sense is that Orwell was simply continuing to write in the past tense, as he had used the entire novel (and which I suspect was considered the standard format at the time). And even if this was jarring to fit with an appendix which discussed various time periods, he was just bound and determined to force it. I would say one clue that Orwell was simply working within an overall past tense format, that was awkward to fit with the speculative aspect of this section, is the tortured grammar of this sentence: "When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed." Okay then.

To the degree that Orwell was even imagining a narrator other than himself (and I'm not at all sure he was), I think such a narrator would have been situated in something like the late 1980s or maybe the 1990s. I base that on the closing sentences of the opening paragraph, as well as the earlier sentences quoted above:

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The version in use in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak Dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the Dictionary, that we are concerned here.
So at the time setting of the Appendix, the Eleventh Edition has been finished (wasn't this what Winston Smith's acquaintance was working on, the one who loved to jabber on about it at lunchtime in the cafeteria?), yet that wasn't the case yet in the year 1984. However, it is not yet as late as 2050, because it is phrased that full adoption "was expected" by that date. Therefore, all we really "know" from any of this is that within a relatively short time after the events of the novel, Ingsoc was still in charge of Oceania, and they expected to stay so indefinitely (including the year 2050). Whether that actually transpired (in-universe, of course) is beyond the scope of what is described. Right? Or am I way off?

Anyway, even if Orwell didn't mean it this way at all, it's interesting that it inspired Atwood to end her novel (currently arguably more influential than Orwell's) with a sense of "future retrospective" optimism that she, perhaps wrongly, assumed her authorial forebear shared.
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Old 05-10-2017, 11:31 AM
Little Nemo Little Nemo is offline
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If I'm following your argument correctly, I agree. I don't feel Orwell was trying to suggest that Ingsoc was going to collapse at some point after the events in the novel. He just used the past tense as a narrative choice.

My opinion is that Orwell was communicating the exact opposite message. He believed that once a society like Oceania it was self-perpetuating. The people within that society could not overthrow it. The only way to avoid living in Oceania was to prevent it from arising because once it existed it was too late. 1984 was a warning to readers in 1949 about a future they should work to avoid.
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Old 05-10-2017, 11:47 AM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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If I'm following your argument correctly, I agree. I don't feel Orwell was trying to suggest that Ingsoc was going to collapse at some point after the events in the novel. He just used the past tense as a narrative choice.

My opinion is that Orwell was communicating the exact opposite message. He believed that once a society like Oceania it was self-perpetuating. The people within that society could not overthrow it. The only way to avoid living in Oceania was to prevent it from arising because once it existed it was too late. 1984 was a warning to readers in 1949 about a future they should work to avoid.
I think we're on the same page. One point I hadn't thought too much about, though, that was raised in the earlier thread by Bryan Ekers is that "what will eventually doom Oceania is that they'll be unable to stave off the inevitable decay". He cites this passage describing Winston Smith's apartment building:

Quote:
The plaster flaked constantly from ceilings and walls, the pipes burst in every hard frost, the roof leaked whenever there was snow, the heating system was usually running at half steam when it was not closed down altogether from motives of economy. Repairs, except what you could do for yourself, had to be sanctioned by remote committees which were liable to hold up even the mending of a window-pane for two years.
Since 1984 is only maybe thirty years removed from the revolution at that point, one does wonder when reading that if their infrastructure is only passable because of what was created before that point. If this trajectory continues, it could indeed be that they simply can't maintain anything well enough to hold on to power or keep people fed at even a bare subsistence level. But that of course is a separate issue from what was meant by the Appendix's past tense.
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Old 05-10-2017, 12:06 PM
DrCube DrCube is offline
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My opinion is that Orwell was communicating the exact opposite message. He believed that once a society like Oceania it was self-perpetuating. The people within that society could not overthrow it. The only way to avoid living in Oceania was to prevent it from arising because once it existed it was too late. 1984 was a warning to readers in 1949 about a future they should work to avoid.
Absolutely. I thought that point was clear.
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Originally Posted by George Orwell
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.
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Since 1984 is only maybe thirty years removed from the revolution at that point, one does wonder when reading that if their infrastructure is only passable because of what was created before that point. If this trajectory continues, it could indeed be that they simply can't maintain anything well enough to hold on to power or keep people fed at even a bare subsistence level. But that of course is a separate issue from what was meant by the Appendix's past tense.
A lot of sci-fi glosses over this problem. I like to call it the "Idiocracy" problem, because it is most acute in that movie, where the world is inhabited solely by complete morons, and yet they have high-tech toilet chairs, a universal UPC based virtual currency, and television with a million channels of pornography and "Ow My Balls".

Regarding dystopian sci-fi, people just aren't very productive when living under a brutal dictatorship. They might keep things going for a while with chewing gum and baling wire like the USSR, but the economy won't be a well-oiled, humming machine, which means Big Brother will have a lot of broken ears and malfunctioning eyes, and nowhere near the resources to deal with all the inevitable dissent.
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Old 05-10-2017, 12:06 PM
CalMeacham CalMeacham is offline
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It's kind of hard to imagine an analysis of the society of 1984 existing within the society of 1984, unless it was intended for the ruling class. Ideally, the underlings wouldn't understand it (being written in non-Newspeak), and if they did, the government wouldn't want to have the principles spoken of. so either Orwell intended the analysis to be for the Rulers, or it was by a post-1984 society. (Or, I suppose, it could be by someone living in a different country, looking in)If you don't have one of those possibilities, the analysis wouldn't even exist. Since he wanted to have it in there, it does exist, although it isn't clear by which alternative.

Interestingly, in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier he DOES imagine a post-1984 society in which his events take place, so evidently he took the interpretation (at least for his literary purposes) that it DID end. It also had to last a very short time, to fit his imagined timeline.
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Old 05-10-2017, 12:35 PM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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Regarding dystopian sci-fi, people just aren't very productive when living under a brutal dictatorship. They might keep things going for a while with chewing gum and baling wire like the USSR, but the economy won't be a well-oiled, humming machine, which means Big Brother will have a lot of broken ears and malfunctioning eyes, and nowhere near the resources to deal with all the inevitable dissent.
Wouldn't North Korea be a much better example? I mean, in 1917 would you survey the world and say "of all the most powerful nations on Earth, Russia will be the one to get a satellite in space forty years from now, and a man in space four years later"? This is after being humbled by the Germans in WWI but then producing enough tanks to overwhelm the Wehrmacht a quarter-century later.
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Old 05-10-2017, 12:49 PM
AK84 AK84 is online now
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Wouldn't North Korea be a much better example? I mean, in 1917 would you survey the world and say "of all the most powerful nations on Earth, Russia will be the one to get a satellite in space forty years from now, and a man in space four years later"? This is after being humbled by the Germans in WWI but then producing enough tanks to overwhelm the Wehrmacht a quarter-century later.
Well, the North Korean's are not as stupid and backward as popular press likes to portray.
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Old 05-10-2017, 01:27 PM
DrCube DrCube is offline
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Wouldn't North Korea be a much better example? I mean, in 1917 would you survey the world and say "of all the most powerful nations on Earth, Russia will be the one to get a satellite in space forty years from now, and a man in space four years later"? This is after being humbled by the Germans in WWI but then producing enough tanks to overwhelm the Wehrmacht a quarter-century later.
But that was Russia's downfall. They tried to keep up with the Joneses but couldn't afford it. While the US on the other hand had no problem having a space program and feeding its citizens, too.

Sure, any autocrat can free up money for one-off high tech vanity programs by looting his country and causing the economy to fail, presuming there are enough people to spread the burden around. But that's not consistent with a fine-tuned, society-wide, technology-based surveillance and thought control program. Sort of like how the US can put a man on the moon, but finds it hard to provide healthcare for 330 million people on a continuing basis. They're two entirely different kinds of expenses.
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Old 05-10-2017, 01:38 PM
AK84 AK84 is online now
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But that was Russia's downfall. They tried to keep up with the Joneses but couldn't afford it. While the US on the other hand had no problem having a space program and feeding its citizens, too.
Not during the height of the Space Race, their economy was doing well. The era opf stagnation began mostly in the 70's and did not really hit home until the 1980's.
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Old 05-10-2017, 03:12 PM
Tom Tildrum Tom Tildrum is offline
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It's kind of hard to imagine an analysis of the society of 1984 existing within the society of 1984, unless it was intended for the ruling class.
Think of it like Goldstein's book. O'Brien wrote it, and when he needs to remember that he wrote it, he does, and when he needs to forget that he wrote it, he does. Doublethink forgives a lot of sins.

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Regarding dystopian sci-fi, people just aren't very productive when living under a brutal dictatorship. They might keep things going for a while with chewing gum and baling wire like the USSR, but the economy won't be a well-oiled, humming machine, which means Big Brother will have a lot of broken ears and malfunctioning eyes, and nowhere near the resources to deal with all the inevitable dissent.
Remember that Orwell postulated that the three oligarchies in the world of 1984 are too productive for the needs of the regimes, so they engage in border warfare essentially for the purpose of destroying surplus goods. Back home, ordinary infrastructure is deliberately allowed to decay to the point where people in the Outer Party are kept above starvation but in a constant state of just enough deprivation to occupy their daily lives with queueing and cadging, so they don't have the time or the energy to think about bigger issues. Presumably the infrastructure of repression gets better maintenance. It sounds like a delicate balance, but the 1984 regimes also benefit from not having to compete with any more productive societies; there's no promise of a better life anywhere else.
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Old 05-10-2017, 06:45 PM
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It's interesting to note that Jack London's dystopian novel "The Iron Heel" explicitly has a frame story of future historians writing about the bad old days.
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Old 05-11-2017, 01:08 AM
Banksiaman Banksiaman is offline
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You're all thought criminals.
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Old 05-11-2017, 07:24 AM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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It's interesting to note that Jack London's dystopian novel "The Iron Heel" explicitly has a frame story of future historians writing about the bad old days.
ORLY? I love his writing ("To Build a Fire" is one of my favorite short stories, and The Sea Wolf is one of my favorite novels). I need to check this out!
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Old 05-11-2017, 07:45 AM
Czarcasm Czarcasm is offline
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ORLY? I love his writing ("To Build a Fire" is one of my favorite short stories, and The Sea Wolf is one of my favorite novels). I need to check this out!
Project Gutenberg has it available for free in various formats. I've always wondered why this isn't the book he is famous for.
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Old 05-11-2017, 07:59 AM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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Free--even better! Thanks.
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Old 05-13-2017, 09:07 PM
AZRob AZRob is offline
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You're all thought criminals.
Exactly. And I'm telling the telescreen right now that I didn't read this thread.
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Old 05-13-2017, 11:08 PM
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Exactly. And I'm telling the telescreen right now that I didn't read this thread.
I will explain to Friend Computer that I was merely reading this thread in order to document the subversive thought-crimes of you degenerate secret mutants.
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Old 05-13-2017, 11:37 PM
John Mace John Mace is offline
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Not during the height of the Space Race, their economy was doing well.
By what measure? How did the standard of living in the USSR compare to the US, Germany or the UK in the mid to late 1960s?

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Old 05-15-2017, 01:40 PM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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By what measure? How did the standard of living in the USSR compare to the US, Germany or the UK in the mid to late 1960s?
That's not the relevant question, just as it is unfair to pose the same one about Cuba vs. the U.S. More like, how does Cuba look compared to the rest of the Caribbean, or how it looked before Castro? What was Russia's standard of living in 1917 relative to the U.S., Germany, or the U.K.? And how did that relative position look in the 1960s?
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Old 05-15-2017, 02:26 PM
RickJay RickJay is offline
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It honestly had never occurred to me that the tense of the appendix could be interpreted to mean Oceania had fallen.

Of course, it could be. Or it could be that it's written from the perspective of an English-speaking author in some part of the world that has resisted absorption into one of the three great empires. Or it could be that the Inner Party never abandons English. I think you could fanwank any number of explanations. I think it's just how Orwell writes, and he is simply writing to the reader from the perspective that makes the most sense to explain Newspeak, which is after the language is pummeled into its more-or-less final version, the Eleventh Edition.

Something merits mentioning here: "1984" is a wonderful book but Orwell does make little errors here and there, and he isn't exactly William Shakespeare, and is primarily interested in getting his point across. (The first error that jumps to mind is his saying Winston isn't sure it's 1984 - and within a chapter or two, we find out the tasks he's assigned at work are all dated, including the year, so he really has no reason to doubt what year it is.) From Orwell's perspective, the grammatical voice of the Appendix is just a convenience, I think, and not a narrative device.

Aside from the fact that this just fits Orwell, there is nothing at all optimistic about the book that suggests Oceania is going anywhere; the book is unrelentingly grim. Indeed, as it goes, you find out things are even worse than you thought they were; all hope is stamped out. In "The Handmaid's Tale" there is bother literal hope (it's possible to escape Gilead) and narrative hope (at the end Offred might or might not be saved; you don't know.) There is NO hope in "1984." There is nowhere to flee and the ending suggests no escape.

Last edited by RickJay; 05-15-2017 at 02:27 PM.
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Old 05-15-2017, 02:46 PM
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(The first error that jumps to mind is his saying Winston isn't sure it's 1984 - and within a chapter or two, we find out the tasks he's assigned at work are all dated, including the year, so he really has no reason to doubt what year it is.)
Given that the "tasks he's assigned at work" consist of fabricating the records, why would the dates be any more reliable than the biography of Comrade Ogilvy?
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Old 05-15-2017, 04:08 PM
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Given that the "tasks he's assigned at work" consist of fabricating the records, why would the dates be any more reliable than the biography of Comrade Ogilvy?
Why would the Party bother lying about the year, though?

If they were going to change the year, you'd think they'd abandon the practice of dating from the time of Christ at all, and go to "years since the Revolution" or some such practice. I'm actually kind of surprised Orwell didn't do that.

The precise line is:

Quote:
Originally Posted by 1984, Chapter One
In small clumsy letters he wrote:

April 4th, 1984.

He sat back. A sense of complete helplessness had descended upon him. To begin with, he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984. It must be round about that date, since he was fairly sure that his age was thirty-nine, and he believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945; but it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two.
Orwell never explains this, though, and it seems a bit early for people to start forgetting what year it is. They know what time of year it is, since seasons still happen. Remember, too, that Winston is meant to me a relatively reliable narrator; he remembers what reality is, even when the Party changes it.

It's not a big deal; my point is merely that Orwell did not carefully stitch together a perfect piece of speculative fiction. He does, however, capture the emotions and the feelings of it with a remarkable realism.
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Old 05-15-2017, 04:11 PM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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It honestly had never occurred to me that the tense of the appendix could be interpreted to mean Oceania had fallen.

Of course, it could be. Or it could be that it's written from the perspective of an English-speaking author in some part of the world that has resisted absorption into one of the three great empires. Or it could be that the Inner Party never abandons English. I think you could fanwank any number of explanations. I think it's just how Orwell writes, and he is simply writing to the reader from the perspective that makes the most sense to explain Newspeak, which is after the language is pummeled into its more-or-less final version, the Eleventh Edition.

Something merits mentioning here: "1984" is a wonderful book but Orwell does make little errors here and there, and he isn't exactly William Shakespeare, and is primarily interested in getting his point across. (The first error that jumps to mind is his saying Winston isn't sure it's 1984 - and within a chapter or two, we find out the tasks he's assigned at work are all dated, including the year, so he really has no reason to doubt what year it is.) From Orwell's perspective, the grammatical voice of the Appendix is just a convenience, I think, and not a narrative device.

Aside from the fact that this just fits Orwell, there is nothing at all optimistic about the book that suggests Oceania is going anywhere; the book is unrelentingly grim. Indeed, as it goes, you find out things are even worse than you thought they were; all hope is stamped out. In "The Handmaid's Tale" there is bother literal hope (it's possible to escape Gilead) and narrative hope (at the end Offred might or might not be saved; you don't know.) There is NO hope in "1984." There is nowhere to flee and the ending suggests no escape.
One wonders if Atwood would have written her ending the same way, if she had taken the same interpretation of 1984 that most of us have.

I do love the creepiness of not being sure exactly what year it is, but in addition to the problem you point out, the mandatory exercise class conducted over the telescreens is divided into age groups--which would not be possible without knowing what year it is. Unless the party has developed some new form of calendar, like happened in the French Revolution, but that is never even hinted at.

I agree that Orwell is no Shakespeare, but I do think his writing is impressive beyond the large ideas he plays with. The way he describes the taste of the "gin" Party members are given is more resonant than any description of a taste that I can think of.

Quote:
He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese ricespirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.

Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.
Then later in the novel, at a café that specialized in flavoring the gin:

Quote:
As always, the gin made him shudder and even retch slightly. The stuff was horrible. The cloves and saccharine, themselves disgusting enough in their sickly way, could not disguise the flat oily smell...
  #24  
Old 05-15-2017, 04:56 PM
Little Nemo Little Nemo is offline
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The first error that jumps to mind is his saying Winston isn't sure it's 1984 - and within a chapter or two, we find out the tasks he's assigned at work are all dated, including the year, so he really has no reason to doubt what year it is.
I think you're missing the greater point. Winston Smith is told the year is 1984. But he knows he can't be sure that it really is 1984. His experience in the Ministry of Truth makes him aware of how many of the things he's told aren't true.

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Why would the Party bother lying about the year, though?

If they were going to change the year, you'd think they'd abandon the practice of dating from the time of Christ at all, and go to "years since the Revolution" or some such practice. I'm actually kind of surprised Orwell didn't do that.
You could argue that the government intentionally told the public things like this just to demonstrate their power over society and to get people into the habit of ignoring the obvious contradictions that surrounded them.

But I think the more central point is that 1984 is a novel. Orwell wasn't describing a real world. He was sending a message to the readers of his book; readers who lived in Britain not Airstrip One. By dating the book in 1984, he was telling them that this possible future was only a generation away. By showing that there were still remnants of the era prior to Big Brother, he was telling his readers how close this future was to their present.
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Old 05-15-2017, 10:07 PM
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You could always just read "was expected" as meaning that we now know that it won't happen then. It could be earlier, could be later, or could never happen. The latter seems to contradict the book.

That said, I'm one of those people who hasn't read the book, and only knows about it. I'm just going by what was quoted above. I don't get why people would assume some sort of optimistic future when the book is clearly a warning.
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Old 05-15-2017, 10:20 PM
SlackerInc SlackerInc is offline
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I don't get why people would assume some sort of optimistic future when the book is clearly a warning.
Well, Atwood herself clearly meant A Handmaid's Tale as a warning, yet she pictures Gilead as having become a historical curiosity (even something people would reenact for fun) by a couple centuries later. So I don't think those things are inherently contradictory, even though I do believe she misunderstood Orwell's intent by using the past tense.
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