An Approach to Teaching 1984

1984 email imageHaving just finished teaching Orwell’s 1984 for the first time in twenty years, I thought I’d share my approach with anyone out there interested in tackling the novel. I find covering novels during a school year very challenging because of the time involved, and limited reading assignments make coming up with lessons difficult because students don’t know the complete arc of the narrative. In this case, my victims are high-achieving 9th graders.

What struck me when rereading the novel is its high artistic achievement.   For whatever reason, I remembered it as being more polemical than artistic; however, I now consider 1984 as a beautifully synthesized work in which setting, character, plot, symbolism all reinforce one another to create a devastatingly powerful whole.

But where in the hell to begin? There’s so much there: the geographic dynamics of the three superstates, the concept of doublethink, the linguistics of Newspeak, the pervasiveness of totalitarianism, the structure of the novel — not to mention characterization and symbolism.

Part One

I begin with characterization, with Winston, the protagonist. The first reading assignment is short, the first seven pages of the Signet Classic edition, the assignment ending when Winston writes the date April 4, 1984 in his diary.[1]

In our close reading, we focus on Winston’s fragility, how his overalls symbolically swallow him, much as his dystopian world has swallowed him. We discuss the setting and especially the tone.

The second assignment is to finish “Section 1.” In the subsequent class, we focus on O’Brien, who, of course, takes over the narrative at the end of the novel. I especially note the initial description of O’Brien’s person:

O’Brien was a large, burly man with a thick neck and a course, humorous, brutal face. In spite of his formidable appearance, he had a certain charm of manner [. . .]. Winston had seen O’Brien perhaps a dozen times in almost as many years. He felt deeply drawn to him, and not solely because he was intrigued by the contrast between O’Brien’s urbane manner and his prizefighter’s physique.

Note that prevalence of negativity in that ambiguous description and how O’Brien’s very appearance calls to mind doublethink, the paradoxical juxtapositioning of antithetical elements.   WAR IS PEACE. O’BRIEN’S UGLY MUG IS ATTRACTIVE. During Winston’s interrogation near the end of the book, we return to this passage. Obviously, Winston “misread” O’Brien.

In the passages describing “the flicks” and the Two Minutes of Hate, we explore how the violence involved in the movies and the “two minutes” might negatively condition even intelligent contrarians like Winston, which sets up later revelations like his regret over not killing his wife when he had the opportunity or his blithely promising to throw sulfuric acid into the face of a child. Of course, contemporary phenomena like violent video games offer correlations students can relate to.

Sections 3 and 4 provide elaboration and an opportunity to discuss the modus operandi of the State, the barbarism of the children, the undermining of basic human instincts like filial love. We also discuss the ubiquitous surveillance of Outer Party members and how telescreens and hidden microphones create paranoia and why a paranoid populace would be less inclined to rebel.

In Sections 4 and 5, we tackle Newspeak. I encourage students to record Newspeak vocabulary in their notebooks, and on our once-a-week block day (85 minutes as opposed to 45), I have them translate the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities into Newspeak.

What a wonderful opportunity to discuss language and how the specificity of vocabulary sharpens perception. We talk about the role that language plays in shaping what we call reality. I ask them to visualize an oleander. If they don’t know the word, I tell them an oleander is a bush. Then I compare descriptions between a student who knows what an oleander is and a student who describes a bush. (Or you could have one student sketch an oleander and another a bush). We discuss how eliminating words and simplifying vocabulary help to restrict thought in Oceania.

Section 8, the last section of Part One, is particularly important as Winston enters the prole ghetto, visits a pub, and discusses the past with a senile old man. We debate the pros and cons of being a prole versus a party member. Here also is a chance to question the relationship between human cognition and our understanding of history.

At the end of Part 1, I show the movie trailer for the 1984 version starring John Hurt.

Part 2

Part 2 deals with Winston’s and Julia’s love affair. Here we have the dichotomy of thoughts versus feelings highlighted by Winston’s inner proclamation at the very end of “section 7”:

They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you couldn’t alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could not lay bare in the utmost detail everything you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

Obviously, a comparison and contrast between Winston and Julia is a potential subject for discussion or a paper.

Although I’m a frequent quizzer, I don’t quiz them on the contents of “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” the treatise written by Inner Party Members but attributed to the fictitious Emmanuel Goldstein. This part of novel is not nearly as popular with the students and difficult for many of them to comprehend.

We do discuss the geopolitical configuration of the planet, but spend most of our time exploring how the ubiquitous slogans (IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, etc.) work as paradoxes that can contain some elements of truth.

orwell-1984-propaganda

At this point, on Block Day, I divide students into groups and have them discuss the following topics and to record in writing their conclusions:

  1. It is vitally important to the Inner Party that the people of Oceania be kept in a perpetual state of paranoia. Discuss how this is achieved and, most importantly, why it is so important to the party’s system of control.
  1. Discuss the use of technology to control public and private behavior in 1984.
  1. How does Newspeak enable the Party to control thought and limit emotion?    How important is Newspeak in the plan for perpetual Party power?
  1. Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Why or why not? Provide examples from the novel to support your argument.

I allow students to choose whatever topic interests them the most, and at least this year, the groups broke down remarkably well into units of three and four. These topics end up being the basis of a writing assignment, which I’ll reproduce at the end of the post.

Part 3

In Part 3, I introduce students to the three elements Aristotle’s rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos and argue that O’Brien’s interrogation is an act of persuasion that utilizes these three elements. Here, I’m indebted to Emele Brax’s dissertation “A Rhetorical Reading of George Orwell’s 1984,” which you can find here.

We discuss how O’Brien establishes his credibility and Winston’s ambiguous feelings toward him (ethos), how O’Brien manipulates logic to convince Winston that Winston is wrong (logos), and how appeals to pathos, i.e., comfort, protection, and family[2] help to convert Winston into a believer.

We also talk about O’Brien’s contention that reality only exists in the minds of right-thinking Party members. I introduce them to the concept of existentialism.

Wrap Up

Once we have finished the novel, I go subversive and claim that it has a happy ending, that the protagonist’s conflict is successfully resolved in a way that makes him happy. After all, “two gin-scented tears of joy” are “trickling down” his cheeks as we learn that Winston “had won the victory over himself.”

Of course, the students disagree, so I take on O’Brien’s persona, hold four fingers up and ask how many they see, explain to them they’ve been brainwashed by Western humanism.  I ask them to imagine that they’re North Koreans and how might their interpretations differ if that were the case. This play acting leads to a summing up discussion, so all that’s left is the paper.

1984 Essay Assignment (based on the 4 topics listed above)

Your first sentence should mention the title and author and convey that 1984 is an important dystopian work about totalitarianism.

The next three or four sentences should provide a short summary of the culture of Oceania.

Then depending on your topic, you should pivot towards your thesis.

For example, for topic number 1, you might say something to the effect that because of constant surveillance and the tendency for neighbors and children to inform on their parents and friends, paranoia runs rampant among Party members.

The thesis comes next.

For number 2, you might say something to the effect that being under constant surveillance controls both public and private behavior, which makes rebellion next to impossible.

The thesis comes next.

For number 3, you’d mention Newspeak as a major factor in limiting Party members ability to reason and experience emotions before stating your thesis.

For number 4, your pivot should mention the distribution of the prole and Party population and how they’re treated by the Inner Party before stating your thesis.

Each body paragraph’s topic sentence should reflect an idea in your thesis and should be debatable (in other words not a statement of fact). You need to demonstrate that the topic sentences are true by providing examples from the novel via direct quotations.

  1. When incorporating quotes, provide context (where and when the quote appears, and if it comes from a character, tell us who says it).
  1. Fluidly incorporate quotes into your own prose.

You don’t want long quotes but to break quotes into small segments and “sandwich” them into your analytical sentences.

For example, rather than writing, “Party members have it better than proles. ‘They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty,’” it’s better to slice the quote into more digestible bites like this:

All Winston seems to know about proles is that they grow “up in the gutters” and go “to work at twelve.” Even though they enjoy “a brief blooming period of beauty,” they end up “middle-aged at thirty” and “dying for the most part, at sixty.”

End your paper with a conclusion that doesn’t merely summarize your argument but pivots to another related aspect of the novel. For example, if you argue that being a Party Member is better than being a prole, you might end the paper by discussing what a terrible choice it is because Party members lead wretched lives given that . . .

[1] 4 April was coincidentally the day the reading assignment was due.

[2] Both O’Brien and Big Brother are father figures.

On Teaching

For some teaching is a calling – my colleagues Ralph Nordland and Chuck McCarver come to mind. To them, it’s as if teaching is a vocation in the religious sense. These individuals devote their lives in almost monastic fashion to educating young people, in Ralph and Chuck’s cases, educating young people about the profundities and intricacies of history, a subject they revere almost religiously.

James Gasque

James Gasque

These dedicated teachers approach the academic year like generals mapping out a campaign. No improvisation for these masters. Each precisely planned class (to abruptly shift metaphors from the martial to the aesthetic) creates a distinct picture but also serves as a mosaic piece that occupies a place in an arrangement of other pieces that collectively form a “bigger picture” – in Ralph and Chuck’s cases, portraits of civilizations. We’re talking here – if you’ll allow one last metaphor shift — – motifs, tapestries.*

Not coincidently, these teachers demand much, receive much in return, and are almost universally revered by their students.

Another teacher of this ilk was the late James Gasque, a legend at Dreher High School and Heathwood Hall in Columbia.


*I wish I could blame my inability to sustain a metaphor on over-exposure to the attention-span obliterating frenetics of Sesame Street, but that was before my day.

* * *

Still other teachers enter the profession because they love children as a species. They think science or math is cool but don’t live and breathe their chosen subjects the way the “called” teachers do.

Still others — like me — stumble into teaching because they haven’t planned their lives out well, and, in my case, as HL Mencken said, “all that’s required of an English teacher is that he can read and write.”

Plus, you get the summers off.

* * *

Who in his right mind would spend the majority of his life in high school?  I hated it when I was a student at Summerville High: the hierarchies of popularity, the drab concrete walls plastered with bright propagandist posters, the jock friendly administration that suspended you when exercised your First Amendment rights by wearing a black armband to protest a stupid war. The principals, vice-principals, coaches considered non-conformity a personal affront.

T-A67107LIn my case, I majored in English in college because I enjoyed reading and especially poetry. I remember being in kindergarten and checking out old editions of Mother Goose from Summerville’s Timrod Library. I read the rhymes out loud, despite suffering from a speech impediment that rendered s-sounds lispingly and prevented me from pronouncing L-and-R sounds. Hick-o-wee, dick-o-wee, dock.

At any rate, I ended up being a teacher thanks to a series of fortuitous accidents.   Engaged to be married and having dropped out of grad school with 27 hours, I was unemployed and responded to an ad in the paper to teach at community college even though I lacked both of the requirements it demanded, a Masters degree and teaching experience. The ad said to contact Ed Bush, English Coordinator.

So I did, not by sending him a letter or resume but by showing up on campus, standing in a drop-ad line with students, and being hired on the spot, sans resume, sans transcript. As they say, timing is everything.

Years later Ed Bush, who was close friends with the English Chair at my current school, suggested me as a replacement for someone who had been fired. I didn’t realize that the Chair himself had been forced to resign, but thanks to the compassion of the incoming chair (she felt bad for the departing chair who wanted me), I was hired.

Despite my lack of credentials and high school experience, I had published a couple of short stories, and as it turns out, being a working writer is advantageous in teaching writing, so all in all, it’s worked out all right, despite my lack of dedication, my not particularly liking children any more than I do adults or old people, despite my inability to shovel propagandist bullshit (like consoling the losing team by telling them everyone is a winner) or my inability to buy into the latest pedagogical methodology. Yawn.

Anyway, if every teacher were super dedicated, the kids would have 10 hours of homework a day, which might lead to an armed insurrection, or in the case of independent schools, a mass exit for less Spartan education.

So I raise my glass to the average teacher, the Joe or Joanna who does the best she can without sacrificing the rest of her life — romantic relationships, outside hobbies, lazy Sunday afternoons — for the sake of the hormonally unbalanced. After all, it ain’t the best paying job; plus society holds you to a higher standard in your personal behavior than it does doctors, lawyers, and Congressmen.