On Dec 12th, 1954 there was a live BBC TV adaption of George Orwell’s chilling dystopia, 1984. Although it was voted one of the top 100 British TV events, it is doubtful that C.S. Lewis took the time to watch it. He did use the publicity of the event to write a thoughtful essay on George Orwell’s work. He compared 1984–almost immediately a hit–withAnimal Farm–which was slow to catch on. He argued that Animal Farm, despite being the underdog and despite being cast in a parable or children’s tale–or, worse, an allegory–is truly the greater book. Here is a substantial portion from Lewis’ essay, first published in Time & Tide. You can now find it in Of This and Other Worlds.
Some of Lewis’ ideas are intriguing. Most of Lewis’ reasons for linking Animal Farm best are precisely what others would think would merit 1984. And, intriguingly, Lewis critiques the anti-sexual nature of the 1984 totalitarianism, and the sexual freedom the rebels find. He does not critique it because it is sexual, but because it seems inauthentic. Perhaps. Yet Lewis has the exact same parallel in his That Hideous Strength, where bodiness and sexuality are problematic and true sexuality is fulfilled in the rebels in the ultimate scene. Still, Lewis may have a point about authenticity. He certainly lands home (for me) in other ways.
What do you think? Did history agree with Lewis?
Here we have two books by the same author which deal, at bottom, with the same subject. Both are very bitter, honest and honourable recantations. They express the disillusionment of one who had been a revolutionary of the familiar, entre guerre pattern and had later come to see that all totalitarian rulers, however their shirts may be coloured, are equally the enemies of Man. Since the subject concerns us all and the disillusionment has been widely shared, it is not surprising that either book, or both, should find plenty of readers, and both are obviously the works of a very considerable writer. What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on ‘Newspeak’) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.
To begin with, it is very much the shorter of the two. This in itself would not, of course, show it to be the better. I am the last person to think so. Callimachus, to be sure, thought a great book a great evil, but then I think Callimachus a great prig. My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal. But in this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it. And I think we can all see where the dead wood
In the nightmare State of 1984 the rulers devote a great deal of time – which means that the author and readers also have to devote a great deal of time – to a curious kind of anti-sexual propaganda. Indeed the amours of the hero and heroine seem to be at least as
much a gesture of protest against that propaganda as a natural outcome of affection or appetite.
Now it is, no doubt, possible that the masters of a totalitarian State might have a bee in their bonnets about sex as about anything else; and, if so, that bee, like all their bees, would sting. But we are shown nothing in the particular tyranny Orwell has depicted which would make this particular bee at all probable. Certain outlooks and attitudes which at times introduced this bee into the Nazi bonnet are not shown at work here. Worse still, its buzzing presence in the book raises questions in all our minds which have really no very close connection with the main theme and are all the more distracting for being, in themselves, of interest.
The truth is, I take it, that the bee has drifted in from an earlier (and much less valuable) period of the author’s thought. He grew up in a time of what was called (very inaccurately) ‘anti-Puritanism’; when people who wanted – in Lawrence’s characteristic phrase – ‘to do dirt on sex’ were among the stock enemies. And, wishing to blacken the villains as much as possible, he decided to fling this charge against them as well as all the relevant charges.
But the principle that any stick is good enough to beat your villain with is fatal in fiction. Many a promising ‘bad character’ (for example, Becky Sharp) has been spoiled by the addition of an inappropriate vice. All the passages devoted to this theme in 1984 ring false to me. I am not now complaining of what some would call (whether justly or not) a ‘bad smell’ in the erotic passages. At least not of bad smells in general only of the smell of red herring.
But this is only the clearest instance of the defect which, throughout, makes 1984 inferior to the Farm. There is too much in it of the author’s own psychology: too much indulgence of what he feels as a man, not pruned or mastered by what he intends to make as an artist. The Farm is work of a wholly different order. Here the whole thing is projected and distanced. It becomes a myth and is allowed to speak for itself. The author shows us hateful things; he doesn’t stammer or speak thick under the surge of his own hatred.
The emotion no longer disables him because it has all been used, and used to make something.
One result is that the satire becomes more effective. Wit and humour (absent from the longer work) are employed with devastating effect. The great sentence ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’ bites deeper than the whole of 1984.
Thus the shorter book does all that the longer does. But it also does more. Paradoxically, when Orwell turns all his characters into animals he makes them more fully human. In 1984 the cruelty of the tyrants is odious, but it is not tragic; odious like a man skinning a cat alive, not tragic like the cruelty of Regan and Goneril to Lear.
Tragedy demands a certain minimum stature in the victim; and the hero and heroine of 1984 do not reach that minimum. They become interesting at all only in so far as they suffer. That is claim enough (Heaven knows) on our sympathies in real life, but not in
fiction. A central character who escapes nullity only by being tortured is a failure. And the hero and heroine in this story are surely such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them.
In Animal Farm all this is changed. The greed and cunning of the pigs is tragic (not merely odious) because we are made to care about all the honest, well-meaning, or even heroic beasts whom they exploit. The death of Boxer the horse moves us more than all the more elaborate cruelties of the other book. And not only moves, but convinces. Here, despite the animal disguise, we feel we are in a real world. This – this congeries of guzzling pigs, snapping dogs, and heroic horses – this is what humanity is like; very good, very bad, very pitiable, very honourable. If men were only like the people in 1984 it would hardly be worth while writing stories about them. It is as if Orwell could not see them until he put them into a beast fable. Finally, Animal Farm is formally almost perfect; light, strong,
balanced. There is not a sentence that does not contribute to the whole. The myth says all the author wants it to say and (equally important) it doesn’t say anything else. Here is an objet d’art as durably satisfying as a Horatian ode or a Chippendale chair.
That is why I find the superior popularity of 1984 so discouraging. Something must, of course, be allowed for mere length. The booksellers say that short books will not sell. And there are reasons not discreditable. The weekend reader wants something that will last till Sunday evening; the traveller wants something that will last as far as Glasgow.
Again, 1984 belongs to a genre that is now more familiar than a beast-fable; I mean the genre of what may be called ‘Dystopias’, those nightmare visions of the future which began, perhaps, with Wells’s Time Machine and The Sleeper Awakes. I would like to hope that these causes are sufficient. Certainly, it would be alarming if we had to conclude either that the use of the imagination had so decayed that readers demand in all fiction a realistic surface and cannot treat any fable as more than a ‘juvenile’, or else that the bed-scenes in 1984 are the flavouring without which no book can now be sold.