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Module Five

Question 6: Compare and contrast Orwell's and Huxley's presentation of the lives of people from the lower levels of society.

The presentation of the lives of people in the lower levels of society in these two novels is in certain respects very similar, although on many levels their lives are almost opposites. The societies in which they live are based on quite different principles: in Huxley's future vision, production and consumption are maintained in balance by the designed production of consumers, and the encouragement to consume which is a part of the conditioning process. Orwell presents a world in which needs are not met, due to the artificial shortages created by the continued state of pointless war. People in Oceania do not expect to be able to improve their material lot, and it is clear from the bogus production figures which are brought out that there is no serious intention of improving matters.

Despite the materially far more deprived situation of Orwell's world, he presents the lower levels of society as possessing a level of freedom which simply does not apply to the lower castes in 'Brave New World'. Winston Smith perceives that if there is hope in his terrible world, that hope lies in the 'proles'. They have the freedom which he, as a member of the Party, lacks. They are not required to have telescreens surveying them at all times, their daily routines are not so regulated, they enjoy greater sexual freedom and the license to choose their own mates. Winston himself is so trammelled that he has very limited scope for rebellion against the Party rule, and the novel shows how little he can do—he has an illicit love affair, and likes to think of himself as a member of the 'Brotherhood', and writes 'Down with Big Brother' in his diary. The life of a member of the proletariat (from which 'prole' is obviously derived) would permit a more effective rebellion than this—except that, of course, proles are not completely free from surveillance, and those deemed to be potential threats (presumably those who demonstrate some independent thought) are removed from society.

The freedom accorded to the proles is in fact a symptom of contempt: the Party regards them as being of no account, so it is unimportant how they behave. Goldstein, the leader of the rebel 'Brotherhood' (probably no more real a figure than Big Brother, but almost equally useful) has a similar attitude, describing the masses as 'the Low', destined to remain in their lowly position whatever happens to those in power. Naturally, there is some energy expended in controlling them—some agents of the Thought Police move among them, ensuring the spread of false rumours, and eliminating potential threats, but as it is not desirable that the proles should have political awareness, they can be left unindoctrinated to live their ordinary lives.

Winston muses that the proles have remained human, while he, Julia, and other members of the Party have not. He recognises that the proles have retained the normal capacity for decent human emotions which, in the climate of fear, suspicion, lies and constant repression, he can barely feel. At the showing of a repellent propaganda film in which refugees are killed at sea, it is a prole woman who stands up and shouts a protest. Winston himself enjoys the film and finds the most horrific aspects funny. When Winston goes walking in the prole district, its inhabitants are suspicious of him, but they nonetheless warn him of the incoming rocket—and they are concerned over the outcome, while he walks away, kicking a human hand aside as though it were mere detritus. Winston later comes to recognise the beauty of the woman who sings to herself as she hangs out her washing. He does not sing—no member of the Party sings as she does—it would not be within accepted behavioural parameters, and besides, he never feels the slightest inclination to do so.

So Winston is right in believing that the proles have retained characteristics of humanity which he himself has lost, and his hope that the proles will rise in rebellion is also reasonable, given their relative freedom. But, as he also recognises, there is precious little hope that the proles will actually rebel. Their horizons are too limited. They are content with the little they have. There is a grotesque and blackly humorous moment when he hears a roar of rage and believes the moment of rebellion has come—but it turns out to be no more than a squabble over some tawdry saucepans. This is the limit of ambition among the proles. They are also easily deceived—Winston hears three men discussing the lottery, with the passion of dedicated football fans. But he knows that the lottery is a fake, a tool designed to channel the proles' hopes into an accepted line, and that the big win which they dream of is only an illusion.

The proles, therefore, seem to bear out both Winston's hopes and the Party's contempt: they are 'real' humans, but they are essentially unimportant. Their main role in the novel is simply as background, an amorphous mass, and the occasional figures who come into the foreground are no more individualised than the rest.

The proles do have another function: they are the repository of history. In a world where 'truth' is what the Party requires, and the past is rewritten every day, the proles do represent a link with the real past. Winston has a vague awareness of this, but he is unable to make sense of what he learns because it is not quite in accord with his own ideas. He questions an old man about the past, trying to find what parts of the ludicrously simplified 'history' he has learned are actually true; but clues escape him—he does not notice that the old man claims to have worn a top hat on occasion (the top hat being the 'badge' of the evil capitalist). As before, Winston has some grasp of the truth, that the key to the past can be found among the proles, but he does not know how to use it, and it is of no help.

Huxley's futuristic society is predicated along very different lines. In the 'Brave New World', people are created with specific purpose, and conditioned both physically and psychologically into an acceptance of their allotted place. In the 'World State', the lower castes are the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, and they are far from the relatively free beings of Orwell's vision. They are not even individuals, being created in 'Bokanovsky Groups' of several dozens at a time, identical creatures who are designed to perform identical functions. The only lower-caste 'individual' brought into the foreground is the nearly-simian Epsilon whose sole function is to operate the elevator, and he does not achieve even the level of thought that enables Orwell's proles to fight over tin saucepans.

The people of the World State are designed to service the methods of production, and to consume. Understanding is quite unnecessary for the vast majority. Linda, a Beta-minus, has not the slightest idea how the world actually works, because all she ever needed to know were the basic parameters of her job. This is even more true of the lower castes. We see, early in the book, the horrific conditioning of a group of Delta babies, who are not to be permitted to enjoy flowers or books since these are not profitably consumer items. The World State is, in its cheerful way, capable of as much ruthlessness as Orwell's Oceania. But people are also conditioned to wish to go into the countryside, there to play expensive and pointless games in order to keep on consuming.

Mustapha Mond puts into plain words the essentials of life for such people: "Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?" There is an uneasy recognition for the reader: substitute 'alcohol' for 'soma', and 'television' for the 'feelies', and Huxley is presenting what for many people in our own society is an ideal life. Similarly, Orwell's vision of proles as people with no aspirations, who are perfectly able to be content with what they have and have no ambition to achieve splendid political goals like freedom, is quite recognisable in our own society. In the lower echelons of their very different societies, both authors are presenting us with something obviously true—and at the same time, both do display the kind of intellectual contempt for 'the masses' which is so difficult to avoid. They patronise, even though they are probably, uncomfortably, right.

Huxley points out that the lower castes—the unthinking masses—are essential for a functioning, stable society. Mond talks with amused horror about the experimental 'society of Alphas'—"separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities". Since this is what our society is supposed to be, it raises another uncomfortable question!

By and large, the Gammas, Epsilons and Deltas are happy with their lot—not because they have the capacity to be content despite their circumstances, like the proles, but because they have been so conditioned that human wants and needs have all been brought to the most trivial level, and there is virtually no scope for any thwarted desire: the obvious desires are easily fulfilled, and sophisticated ones simply do not occur. The drug, 'soma', is a vital part of the lives of all in the World State, and as we see in the novel, only the threatened withdrawal of 'soma' ignites the crowd into angry passion—though the existence of riot police who are ready to control the situation suggests that such disturbances cannot be entirely unknown.

Both Huxley and Orwell present the lower levels of society as essentially unthinking masses, easily contented and without aspiration, lacking in real individuality, and largely unimportant except as background to the 'real people' through whom the stories progress.

There are other points of similarity, in the use of drugs and religion; though to some extent these are applied right across society. 'Soma' is essential to Lenina just as it is to the amorphous lower castes; cheap and nasty alcohol is at first necessary to help Winston get through life—and when he visits, briefly, the really 'high Caste' Party member, O'Brien, he is unable to appreciate the taste of decent wine.

Religion is subverted in both novels: Orwell presents Big Brother as a god-like figure whose 'benevolent' surveillance has distinctly sinister overtones, and the 'Two Minutes Hate' as a quasi-religious ceremony which requires its participants to react on an essentially instinctual level. This is very much akin to the orgiastic ceremony in which Bernard Marx participates—a ritual reaffirmation of the basic primitive human nature; it is itself echoed in the ritual performed by the Savages. These 'religions' have no desire to elevate the human character or improve behaviour, they simply reinforce the requirements of society by reducing participants to an animalistic level.

In summary, then: Orwell's and Huxley's presentation of the lower levels of society have in common the assumption that the masses are not really important. They exist, they live their mindless lives, but they do not matter. Orwell's view is, in fact, slightly more generous than Huxley's—he does at least grant them potential, and sees in them the repository of basic human decency which the intellectuals have forfeited. At the time of writing 'Brave New World', Huxley held views on the desirability of eugenics which must have influenced his concept of the lower castes. In presentation, the lives of the proles and the lower castes are quite different: free because they are unimportant, or controlled because they are not individuals—but, strangely, both are happy, in the limited sense which their limited abilities allow. Perhaps such educated products of Eton were not really able to envision the lower classes as anything beyond the necessary objects at the bottom of society!


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