There is a standard phrase about taking things to their logical conclusion, which I think is wholly misleading. It is usually used to describe taking things to their extreme conclusion, something that can happen certainly, but also something that is not necessarily logical nor even particularly likely. And this is what Orwell's dystopia does.
I have other doubts too. Each time I have read the book the characters do not come to life for me and I find the the depiction of the working classes faintly patronising. However, it is the cynicism and the bleakness of the conclusion that I really dislike. Everyone can be broken, everyone can betray everyone else, everyone can be made to love Big Brother. Power is unlimited, the future is certain - "a boot stamping on a human face - forever".
All this was brought to mind as I have just finished reading another novel, written and published a year before 1984, also the last work of a writer who died shortly after completing it. It too chronicles a story of failed resistance to totalitarianism, this time loosely based on real events and personal experience, but it offers us a completely different conclusion.
Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin is currently a word of mouth best-seller. It is available in a wonderful translation (yes George, I noticed) by Michael Hofmann, allowing both the poetic language of the novel and the use of Berlin street argot to become accessible to English readers. It has the odd clunky bit of plotting and the usual awkward contrivances of the novel. At first, it reads almost as if it is a detective thriller before becoming an essay on morality and the human personality. Yet the book is compulsive, disturbing and, in its way, beautiful.
Fallada's main themes are the resistance to the Nazis by people of all classes, collaboration by people of all classes, and the enthusiastic sadism of the true believer, again drawn from all classes. Centring on the inhabitants of one apartment block in a working class district of Berlin, it deals with low life opportunists, Nazi apparatchiks, those torn between their private lives and a sense of disgust at the crimes of the regime and the all-pervading fear that keeps people quiescent. The action by the main protagonists fails, as was always utterly inevitable, but this is the crucial difference between Fallada and Orwell, they are not broken. They do not come to love Hitler.
And from the disgust of ordinary people like these, a new society can emerge after the inevitable defeat of tyranny. For where Orwell offers us a vision of perpetual power, Fallada gives us one of perpetual resistance. Resistance that will, one day, end the darkness and overcome fear.
At the end of the book he writes of,
...life, invincible life, life always triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death.Orwell's bleak warning is countered by Fallada's bitter, painful, realistic and fully human hope.
There is one final irony. Fallada invested his hope of the rebirth of an anti-fascist Germany in the Soviet occupied East. He died in 1947 so did not see one totalitarianism morph into another. But then that too, in its turn, has fallen. I think history is on the side of Fallada. And with events elsewhere threatening a surrender to cynicism, it may be time to remember and support the resistance and hope offered by the lives ordinary people.