As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.
I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.
To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.
But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?
The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”
Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.
In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?