Should Politics and Literature Mix?

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’
(George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four)

I don’t think of myself as somebody particularly interested in politics. If asked my opinion on the current leadership of our country, I would probably struggle to come up with an intelligent response (shameful, perhaps, but true). And I probably speak for most students in saying that, on those rare occasions when I am able to read something unrelated to my course, I tend to reach for a trashy novel circulating in the bestseller lists rather than the latest political autobiography.

However, having been compelled to read numerous examples of political fiction as part of my degree, I will admit that the genre is unexpectedly riveting and provocative. In fact, on occasions when I have encountered political literature I have found myself engrossed, intrigued and even indignant; novels such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (published 1940) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are compelling examples of literature that really make you think.

Certainly, there is something to be said for the power that this kind of literature has; a power proven by the fact that the USSR felt the need to ban Nineteen Eighty-Four once it was translated into Russian, and that a screen adaptation of Darkness at Noon was purportedly blocked by communist influences in Hollywood. Though, thankfully, we are not currently living under the dominion of a totalitarian regime in the UK, when reading novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Darkness at Noon – both of which confront the disturbing implications of living in a world in which the state controls all knowledge – one cannot help but muse over the unnerving possibility that the mass media with which we are bombarded in our contemporary lives might, too, be somewhat manipulative and distortive.

This is, ultimately, what is gripping about political fiction. It unsettles us by provoking us to think critically about the world around us; we feel compelled to return to these stories and to decipher their hidden messages and warnings, in a way that we are simply not inspired to do after having read the latest trashy fiction (which is typically comforting, somewhat predictable, and certainly not hard work to read). Additionally, it is fascinating, and frightening, to consider that these works of fiction were written in response to real political circumstances which Orwell and Koestler observed in their contemporary worlds.

In both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Darkness at Noon, the reader is faced with portrayals of particularly sinister circumstances in relation to the ties between individuals and the state. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the State in an institution ironically named the ‘Ministry of Truth’, which is actually responsible for carrying out historical revisionism in line with the State’s wishes. Similarly, Koestler’s protagonist, Rubashov (who represents a party member about to be purged under Stalin in communist Russia), is under pressure to publicly admit to crimes that he did not commit in order to confirm the correctness of the Party line in the eyes of the masses. In both cases, the independent thinking of individuals is cruelly eradicated by powerful State apparatus, of which the existence and actions are, lamentably, something to which the majority of citizens are apparently oblivious.

Particularly disturbing is the fact that Koestler and Orwell both portray their protagonists as ‘last men standing’; they are both representatives of an older generation in possession of memories from before the time their respective parties came into power, and this generation is depicted as being on the bridge of extinction. Winston, for example, wonders whether he is the last person left in possession of a memory. The implication is that, once men of this generation have passed away or been repressed, there will no longer be anyone alive conscious of the oppressive nature of these Parties, and consequently there will be nobody alive capable of revolting against them.

These scenarios are deeply unsettling, especially so since both novels are dystopian and look toward futures in which the majority of the population would be trapped by their lack of consciousness, unable to think critically of the appalling conditions in which they live because they have never known any better, and because there is nobody alive who can point this depravity out to them. Both novels, therefore, provoke doubt and discomfort in readers since they implicitly imply that anybody, at any point in time, could fall victim to this kind of treatment and be none the wiser. Additionally, any half-savvy reader would be aware that Orwell and Koestler were inspired to write these novels by the obfuscating state machinery they saw at work in their contemporary worlds; the novels are thus even more disturbing because the frightening scenarios they depict have been proven to be possible, at least to an extent.

However, the compelling nature of political fiction is not only the fact that it unsettles us, and leaves us thinking a long time after reading the final page. Nor is it compelling only by virtue of the fact that it has, and retains, relevance in the real world. Crucially, this kind of fiction is empowering. Why else would its circulation have been restricted in the past? For me, at least, as much as I enjoy escapism in fiction at times, there is something refreshing about reading a challenging book like Nineteen Eighty-Four and, at the end, feeling as if I have learnt something instructive from the author of such a book. Literature’s ability to provide masses of people with a fresh perspective on the world is impressive. And, at the risk of sounding too serious, we arguably need authors to continue serving as cultural commentators; there are some oppressive regimes still out there in the world today, and literature is a crucial tool through which the voices of the oppressed can find an outlet to the wider world. In this sense, Literature is even redemptive.

Perhaps political fiction isn’t exactly what anyone would turn to as appealing bedtime reading; it doesn’t offer comfort or escapism, and it can provoke serious contemplation. However, for those looking for a read that will draw them in and offer them a refreshing escape from the somewhat hackneyed plots found in much popular fiction, political literature may be well worth considering. And if you think about it, Suzanne Collins’ immensely popular Hunger Games series (which I doubt is considered political by the majority of its substantial readership – my housemates and I eagerly turned to reading it once we were exam-free last summer as an escape from serious literature) contains many themes similar to those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Darkness at Noon: state intrusion, obfuscation of the truth, violence and endless surveillance. Who knew political fiction could be so page turning and, astonishingly, readable?

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