The Ancestral Contract
Written by Sahib Al-shemeri
for Prof. Robin Feenstra
In Oceana, power and propaganda are the main tools that the party uses to purge its citizens of their humanity and ultimately their self-worth. The goal of this endeavor is so that the party can create a populace where the sum of the whole is greater than its parts, a place where individuals do not have any value. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four offers its readers a warning that power seeks to establish collectivism because it perpetuates the need for government to represent people’s identity, self-worth, and sense of belonging.
The past, present, and future: a trifecta of time and space that is very important towards understanding where one’s identity is derived from. The orthodoxy of English Socialism is acutely aware that this communication between yesterday, today, and tomorrow allows one individual to garner perspective on themselves and the world around them. Perspective leads towards thoughts, and thoughts lead to identity. An individual with an identity undermines the power of the collective group identity, through which English Socialism and the Party maintain their status quo. Distorting the perspectives one might have on understanding their own past, present, or future identity is key towards understanding the core message of the Party’s propaganda. As the Party banners read in Oceana, “who controls the past, (…) controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 37). The party must be all-powerful today so that it can be the benchmark, the lens, by which the past is understood and identified with. By having the party orthodoxy usurping the past, the only identifiable manner to navigate into the future is through the grace of the party and the collective identity it maintains. Thus the Party establishes itself as eternal.
Winston is aware of the intended distortion of the individual identities of each and every person who makes up the citizenry of the Inner and Outer Party. From Winston’s perspective, “we are the dead. Our only true life is in the future” (183). The future Winston envisions here is not his own or that found in any other individual human time span, but instead lives on in the furthest reaches of our ancestral memories, and are to be carried out by generations yet born. Individuals cannot live forever, but the identities they create can be transferred through generations. These are unspoken social contacts between peoples of past, present, and future. It is through these bonds of the past, present, and future that individuals can craft their own identities. The ultimate power of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four rests upon his ability to rewrite the terms of the ancestral contract.
The limitation of one human life span is at the heart of much of what both the Party and Winston strive for. For O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party, the individual must give themselves up to the collective because “It must be so, because every human is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures” (277). How can the Party see itself as the cure for death, and if not death, at least alleviate the burden of losing one’s thoughts to oblivion after death? From Big Brother’s perspective, total intellectual submission to the Party is security from death. Think only of Big Brother and your thoughts will live on forever after you die because they are the same thoughts that continue on in all of Big Brother’s believers. Think only of Big Brother because Big Brother thinks only about you: the core of English Socialism in its purest form. This orthodoxy is the keystone of the Party’s power, and in O’Brien’s mind, his strongest accusation towards Winston is that he “would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity” the Party’s vision of sanity: “You (Winston) preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one” (261).
Winston has committed the ultimate crime in Orwell’s fictional dystopia; Winston has thought differently. It is an act that is cancerous to the collective. An independent thought, even a momentary one, jeopardizes the entire continuation of the thought of the collective. It puts the tempo of the majority at risk. This is because the body of government that rules Oceana is not purely hegemonic, a rule of one. The government body in Nineteen Eighty-Four is kept alive by the tyranny of the majority because almost every citizen is a member of the party, and their fanaticism keeps the party alive. “The individual is only a cell” (276), as O’Brien said, and only as a collective can English Socialism see itself as a fully functioning body. The logic of the ideology is that by merging one’s individual being into the Party collective, no one can ever die because their thoughts of devotion to the Party will continuously be rejuvenated by each new generation of loyal Party members. This notion that it is better to belong than to think is the underpinning of the Party slogan: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” (6).
This political logic takes it as a given that an individual’s self-worth is tied to their mortality. Death is a defining feature that we all share, and it is in its context that we value our time. The Party is the answer to humanity’s slavery to time because the Party alleviates the burden of death. Winston is so dangerous because he believes he has found a cause worth dying for, and thus is no longer afraid of death. Winston believes, perhaps only momentarily but still long enough, that he would die for his love of Julia, the moral values of the Brotherhood, and their rebellion cause. Winston believes he has found value in death if his sacrifice pays dividends towards future generations. Winston believes this because he feels his own ancestral memory to those before when he envisions the sacrifice his mother and sister made for him a lifetime ago. “To the past” (184), Winston reflects during his acceptance into the Brotherhood. Losing his fear of death is the ultimate high treason against Big Brother because it means Winston no longer values the security Big Brother provides. Only later on in room 101, in the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, does O’Brien reinstate Winston’s fear of death and thus save him from his path towards the slavery of time.
Finally, the reader now understands what freedom from death really means. It is at the heart of all propaganda in Oceana. This is what it means to double-think; it means that you may know that you are wrong, but you know it is safer to be wrong. Soon you instinctively become able to think that the truth is a lie, because it feels safe to do so. You do it because you want to belong; you want Big Brother to love you. As O’Brian explains in room 101, “there are three stages (…) There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance” (273). This is the triad that pierces the ancestral contract. The trinity we understood as the past, present, and future is forever changed. Learning molds our past, understanding creates our present, and acceptance shapes our future. Winston is taught once again to Love Big Brother and the security he provides.
In conclusion, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four teaches us that state-sponsored terror can always be rationalized. We may think that there is a limit to cruelty, but his story shows us otherwise. Remove the social contract between the past, present, and future and then reality becomes malleable. Retaining the right to sacrifice is important because it gives value to what is hard-earned, which is directly what English Socialism seeks to take away from the individual. Our self-worth is tied to the sacrifices we make for ourselves and others. Big Brother wins out against Winston without having to kill him because they did something far worse by putting the fear of death back into him.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Penguin, 1949. Print.
About the Author: “The Ancestral Contract” was written for my English BXE class, taught by Robin Feenstra. The course centered on literature based on dystopia. There were many excellent dystopic works of fiction, but George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four became my personal favorite: a novel I had heard much about, but had not yet read until it was assigned to me for this class. In many ways I am glad that I had put off reading ituntil my English BXE class because reading this book while also learning about the use of writing and language found throughout other dystopic fictions made it clear to me why Nineteen Eighty-Four is so special. My essay was my attempt to rationalize the politics found in the world of the novel. Trying to understand the mindset of the antagonists who inhabit this novel was a real joy for me: a sort of mental exercise to see how far any sort of evil could be could be rationalized, and how language is often a necessary part of the equation. Quite honestly, without this novel and my English BXE class, I don’t think that I would have the appreciation for the power of language that I have today.