“What the Dead Know” essay by Chelsea Pratt

What the Dead Know:
Political and Personal Corpses in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

essay by Chelsea Pratt

.       Seeping ulcers, naked bodies, tortured forms: as intellectual as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four might seem, it also draws heavily on the corporeal aspects of human existence. In fact, the individual body often serves to emblematize Oceania itself: the body personal, in other words, is inscribed with the messages and ideals of the body politic. Uniformity of thought is mirrored by near homogeneity of bodies, each small and dark. Civilian hatred inflames, like Winston’s varicose ulcer, with the slightest itch – readily delivered by the Two Minutes Hate. Resistance itself is as fleeting and frantic as Julia and Winston’s brief couplings. Despite the novel’s lofty intellectual qualities then, Nineteen Eighty-Four is also deeply invested in the corporeal realm – a fact that an established academic tradition has long recognized. Orwell scholars, explicitly or implicitly, identify the body as the sole site of hope, the locus of potential, in an otherwise despairing novel. Sex and travel, according to these scholars, are the bodily capacities through which Winston resists the Party (Shklar 14, Phillips 69-79). There is, in other words, salvation in sexuality and redemption in mobility.

.      This overly overly optimistic approach has only recently been problematized, primarily by Naomi Jacobs (Jacobs 3-20).[1] Like other Orwell scholars, however, she fails to account for what I term the most important body of all – the dead one. Despite substantial scholarly interest in the mobile or sexual body, the idea of the corpse in Nineteen Eighty-Four has remained unexplored. In a way, that is far from surprising. For a novel that is obsessed with death, Nineteen Eighty-Four is strangely devoid of cadavers. Winston might insist, over and over, that he is “already dead” (Orwell 33), but that corpse is only ever verbally constructed and is never physically present. On a superficial level, which critics seem more than willing to accept, Winston’s continual declarations of death evidence his sense of futility. If “from the moment of declaring war on the Party it [is] better to think of yourself as a corpse” (156), then resistance is, from the onset, a doomed endeavour. Winston’s repeated declaration, “We are the dead” (156), however, reads as more than merely an acceptance of mortality and human limit. Rather, these declarations seem to be an embrace of death. Ironically enough, Winston comes to see the corpse – vulnerable to decay and putrefaction – as the ideal place to fix, preserve, and physicalize a subversive truth. Illusory and misguided, that vision ultimately collapses by the end of the novel, as we realize that the body knows things the mind does not, and that death itself is not the promised end.

.     As strong as Winston’s craving is for political change, he exhibits an equally intense desire for anchorage – that is, a need to fix truth in physical space and preserve it there. In a world of fluidity and inconstancy, where the past can be rewritten and individuals erased, that sense of anchorage is nearly impossible to find. Nevertheless, Winston’s hunt for it is unrelenting, even from the very first chapter of the novel. Although “the interminable restless monologue…ha[s] been running inside his head, literally for years” (10), Winston nevertheless feels compelled to render his seditious thoughts concrete. By placing them on paper, he anchors a subversive truth in both space and time: the diary itself is a tangible object, on which he immediately marks the date (9). This desire for fixedness, preservation, and physicalization, or what I will call ‘anchorage,’ is indeed a sort of compulsion: he buys the diary before he can consciously articulate why he wants it, and his initial entry is written in a sort of fugue state (9-10, 21-22). Clearly, Winston’s desire for anchorage is a near instinctive drive. It is this same desire that makes Goldstein’s book so reassuring. The manifesto does not articulate any thoughts that Winston himself has not had (229); its comfort therefore seems to lie in its tangibility. Embodied in a solid object rather than in an incorporeal mind, seditious thoughts become “enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden” (229). Anchorage, then, appears key to resistance.

.      Winston identifies another possibility for anchorage in the body of certain citizens: “[i]f there was anyone still alive who could give you a truthful account of conditions in the early part of the century, it could only be a prole” (100). Left unsupervised, the proles lead an instinctive, natural, and animalistic life. It is one closely tied, in Winston’s mind, to a life of the body: “[t]hey were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to [physical] work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming-period of beauty and sexual desire…they died” (82). In contrast, Inner and Outer Party members are systematically deprived of a natural bodily existence. Their food is highly processed, so that gin tastes “oily” (58) and stew has a vaguely “metallic” (68) flavour. Innate sexuality is appropriated to become a “duty to the Party” (152). Even something as natural as facial expression becomes artificially performative: in his conversation with Syme, a “sort of vapid eagerness flit[s] across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother” (60). The barrier erected between Party members and their bodies is most clearly evidenced by the fact that Winston identifies the proletariat’s organic life cycle as “natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern” (82, emphasis added). It is as if the proles comprise an entirely different species. Winston is incapable of realizing that the cycle of birth, sexual awakening, age, and death is in fact the natural course of all human existence.

.      Like utopian theorists who suggest the body that is more animalistic is also more noble or ‘good,’ Winston sees the natural and body-centric course of the proletariat life as a precursor to viable resistance against the Party (Jacobs 4, 10). After all, resistance has always been, for him, more rooted in the corporeal realm than in the intellectual one. Throughout the novel, Winston locates the germinating seeds of resistance within the body: he declares early on that, “Always in your stomach and in your skin there was a sort of protest, a feeling that you had been cheated of something that you had a right to” (Orwell 68). This idea is later reiterated with Winston’s reference to “the mute protest in your own bones” (84) and his construction of resistant energy as an “instinctive feeling” (84). Since the proles live a life more closely linked to the body, they become, in Winston’s eyes, a potential site to anchor subversive truth. They are the wellspring of resistance.

.      It is clear that Winston’s need to fix, preserve, and physicalize subversive truth propels much of his action in the novel – from writing in the diary to chasing after the prole in the bar. Even Winston’s bizarre fascination with knickknacks (such as the coral glass paperweight) is the direct result of his need for physical proof of a different past: these objects are, he tells Julia, one of the few places where the past “survives” (178). Indeed, Winston’s drive for anchorage is so consuming that he is willing to literally risk his life in order to own such objects. It is something that Julia cannot understand. As she says, “I’m quite ready to take risks, but only for something worth while, not for bits of old newspaper” (179). Winston, however, will risk anything for those bits of old newspaper because he believes what they really offer is anchorage.

.      The diary, Goldstein’s book, a coral glass paperweight, even the mass body of the proles: each offers more tangible proof than merely the mute protest of bones. Nevertheless, they are inadequate avenues for anchorage, as Winston quickly realizes. It takes a mere memory hole to destroy paper evidence, a fact that O’Brien reinforces when he incinerates an incriminatory photograph and declares, “I do not remember it” (283). Winston’s attempt to anchor his thoughts in time immediately fails as well – he realizes that he cannot be certain that the date he has marked down in the diary is correct (9). While Winston might recognize the proles as a body where truth is fixed, preserved, and physicalized in theory, he remains unable to put that idealism into practice. As Lawrence Phillips points out, Winston receives just the answer he needs from the old prole man in the bar (Phillips 72-73). When asked whether it was usual to be pushed off the pavement into the gutter, for example, the old prole reflects that it did happen – once (Orwell 105). The implication is that the abuse was not, as the Party pretends, common practice. Winston, however, cannot “decode” the disordered form that answers like these take (Phillips 73). The fragmentary nature of memory is virtually incomprehensible to a man raised on a diet of linear history (Phillips 72-73). As a result, the truth that Winston is so desperate to anchor in the proletariat body goes unrecognized, dismissed as a mere “rubbish-heap of details” (Orwell 105). All of these events are linked by our protagonist’s uniform emotional response to them. Realizing his uncertainty over the date, a “sense of complete helplessness” (9) descends upon Winston. That same “sense of helplessness” (105) returns after Winston’s unsatisfactory conversation in the bar. It surfaces once more when O’Brien burns the picture: “Winston’s heart sank…He had a feeling of deadly helplessness” (283). This blatant repetition surely indicates that these otherwise disparate events are meant to be linked in the reader’s mind. Each instance is, quite simply, a failure to find anchorage.

.      Still, one more chance at anchorage remains. It is perhaps the one that Winston believes in most of all. After all, while the other avenues of anchorage almost immediately collapse, Winston’s belief in the power of the corpse persists for nearly the entire novel. “We are the dead,” “it [is] better to think of yourself as a corpse,” “death and life are the same thing” (156): time and time again, Winston returns to the image of his own dead body as a sort of self-soothing mechanism. The verbal construction of this corpse represents Winston’s struggle to turn himself into an object of anchorage. As I have suggested, he consistently identifies resistance as having corporeal rather than intellectual origins. That mute protest in the bones, stomach, and skin must also be performed physically. Sex with Julia, for example, is described in famously martial terms: “[t]heir embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act” (145). Considering this, Winston’s premature declaration of death seems all the more odd. Why would he seek to kill off this site of active resistance – if only verbally?

.      Put quite simply, the living body is an inadequate site of anchorage, just as paper and proles are. Even as he recognizes the living body’s potential, Winston is simultaneously mindful of its vulnerability. He is all too aware of the Party’s ability to penetrate the living body, as an early description of The Two Minutes Hate makes clear:

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. (17, emphasis added)

Under the influence of the Two Minutes Hate, Winston finds himself adoring Big Brother and loathing his revolutionary idol, Goldstein – just like those goodthinkful people. The living body, then, is immediately presented to us as a flawed instrument of resistance, a faulty anchor for subversive truth. The corpse offers the perfect alternative. Having escaped the permeability that characterizes its living form, the cadaver becomes a viable anchor for an individualistic self-selected identity. The moment of death freezes an imprint of resistance in the human form, it allows the individual to embody a subversive truth that will remain forever uncured by the Party. Death is a safe place; it is here that truth can be fixed, physicalized, and preserved. The corpse, in other words, is the ultimate form of anchorage. It is in the Ministry of Love that Winston first consciously articulates this idea:

One day they would decide to shoot him. You could not tell when it would happen, but a few seconds beforehand it should be possible to guess…In that time the world inside him could turn over…suddenly the camouflage would be down and bang! would go the batteries of his hatred. Hatred would fill him like an enormous roaring flame. And almost in the same instant bang! would go the bullet, too late, or too early. They would have blown his brain to pieces before they could reclaim it. The heretical thought would be unpunished, unrepented, out of their reach for ever. (322-323)

Of course, Winston is here reflecting on the perfection of the literally dead body, rather than the imaginary corpse he has been attempting to fashion throughout the novel. Nevertheless, this passage illuminates Winston’s motivation in verbally constructing his own dead body, even as that body still breathes and feels – even as that body still resists. If the living body is the portal through which the Party corrupts individual identity then, paradoxically enough, Winston’s fatalistic fantasies are a form of self-preservation. Since an “unconquerable instinct” (175) makes suicide impossible, a verbally constructed corpse is the next best thing. The dead are personally untouchable, individually immutable, and the man that dies resisting also dies free.

.      That being said, Winston knows the dead body cannot anchor truth and resistance in Oceania as a whole. After all, his job in the records department ensures that he is continually aware of the Party’s ability to overreach the conventional limits of mortality and craft a sort of second death for its victims: the murder of their memory. O’Brien’s ‘revelation’ that “we do not allow the dead to rise up against us” (291) is really nothing new to Winston, who knows that once vaporized, you are “considered never to have existed” (49). If your memory does persist, it is only because it has been remade to support the Party agenda, as is the case with Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford. The dead belong to the past and the past, in Oceania, is infinitely mutable. If the Party can transcend the conventional boundaries of mortality, if they can, in effect, make the dead die again, what power does the corpse really hold? It is, quite simply, a personal victory, nothing more than a single hole blown in the Party’s perfection. It is not much, but it has to be enough. As Winston says, “In this game that we’re playing, we can’t win. Some kinds of failure are better than other kinds, that’s all” (155).

.      Where does Winston get this notion of the corpse as an anchor for personal truth and resistance? From the city itself. As Phillips has rightfully noted, London’s place in Nineteen Eighty-Four has received little scholarly attention – yet it is key to interpreting the novel as a whole (70). Phillips contends that it is the “material fabric”[2] of the city that incites Winston’s resistance: the hidden alcove enables him to write in his diary, the view of London’s ruinous vista sparks his ruminations about the past (75-76). As attractive a thesis as this might initially appear, Julia’s relationship to the city undercuts Phillips’ conclusions. Whereas Winston’s interaction with the city does prompt legitimate acts of rebellion and intensifies his desire to know the past (Phillips 73-74), Julia’s mobility leads to only mundane inquiries like, “I wonder what a lemon was” (Orwell 169). Unlike Winston, Julia does not “feel the abyss opening beneath her feet at the thought of lies becoming truths” (177), and as such, the illicit memories that accrete in the material fabric of the city do not affect her in the same way. While Phillips correctly identifies London’s centrality, he perhaps misreads the city’s significance. Importantly, the language used to describe the skeleton of the city is reminiscent of that used to characterize a corpse: it is colourless, rotting, and cold (4, 5). Early on, Winston sees that this political corpse of a prerevolutionary London preserves an aspect of human life that the Party has sought to destroy: namely, privacy. The alcove in his apartment enables him to write in the diary, the church belfry becomes a place for him and Julia to meet, seemingly unobserved. If lurking in the dead, skeletal, bombed-out shell of the city are glimmers of an old pre-Party past, why should Winston’s ‘dead’ body not be able to preserve personal resistance and individual truth in much the same fashion?

.      The Party is also aware of the possibility of this quasi-victory – it is why Room 101 exists. Enemies of the Party must be cured before they are killed, lest a single individualistic, self-selected identity be preserved in the anchorage of the literal corpse. Power, the Party’s ultimate goal, cannot exist in degrees – it is an all or nothing sort of venture, as O’Brien makes clear (303). It is for this reason that Winston invests such hope in his single resistant body, and it is for this reason that the Party cannot allow even one man to remain oppositional at the moment of death. We have already seen that the literal corpse can have no lasting anchorage in the eyes of the populace as a whole: after all, “in this place there are no martyrdoms” (290). In Room 101, the possibility of a personal victory collapses as well. The rats have traditionally been read as Winston’s confrontation with his own loathed aspects of self (Lefort 15-16). Yet while our protagonist might feel shame and disgust at his rat-like greed, he is never terrified of it. The rats break Winston because they prove that the safety and redemption he assigns to the corpse is illusory. After all, rats feed on the dead. O’Brien is careful to tell Winston that they will bore out his eyes, gobble up his tongue (Orwell 329). He will, in other words, be both sightless and speechless. Voiceless, Winston cannot spread the subversive truth he has discovered. It is far worse, however, to be visionless. The implication is that once the Party has done with him, Winston will be unable to see the truth right before his eyes. Indeed, this is precisely what happens. Despite his constructed corpse, Winston is vulnerable. The Party, like rats, can consume the ‘dead.’

.      The tragic irony of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that even as Winston believes he is subverting the Party, he complies with their ultimate aims. As O’Brien makes clear, Winston’s ‘resistant’ body serves an important purpose in forwarding the Party’s goals – it must have enemies in order to assert its power (307). Emmanuel Goldstein, in other words, is as critical to the Party’s survival as Big Brother is himself. Indeed, there are subtle indications that Winston has been cultivated for just this oppositional purpose. Although immediately aware of his and Julia’s affair, the Party nevertheless allows the lovers to liaise for weeks in Mr. Charrington’s back room. O’Brien’s possession of the incriminatory photograph at the end of the novel also makes Winston’s earlier ‘accidental’ contact with it seem all the more suspect – almost as if it were purposely fed to him through the pneumatic tubes. He is an enemy that the Party manufactures for itself, an oppositional force required to assert their power against. Winston’s choice to embrace the corpse as a means of anchorage is just one more way in which he becomes inadvertently complicit with the ideology of the Party. In the same way that the Party is revealed to have infiltrated the skeleton of the city – with its hidden telescreens and unseen microphones– its insidious influence appears within Winston’s supposedly invulnerable constructed corpse. Goldstein’s book, after all, declares that Ingsoc is by other names known as “Death-Worship” or “Obliteration of the Self” (226) – phrases that ring eerily close to our protagonist’s fascination with a redemptive death. Winston’s verbal construction of his corpse inadvertently contributes to the Party’s mandate of obliterating the individual self.

.      Indeed, his attempt at anchorage actually furthers the Party’s divide and conquer strategy when it comes to the mind and body. By verbally constructing a corpse to freeze it in a moment of perfect resistance, Winston cuts himself off from a living, breathing, and most importantly, knowing body. In the mid to late twentieth century, interest was growing in the nature of knowledge. Reluctant to settle with the Cartesian dichotomy of mind and body, a minority of scholars came to interrogate the mind’s traditional monopoly on knowledge. A theory of ‘tacit knowing,’ developed by Michael Polanyi, offered the first fully articulated opposition, positing that the body, like the mind, is a site of learning (Polanyi 239).[3] We know things with our bones and muscles, even if we are not consciously aware of that knowledge and even if we remain unable to articulate it. For example, regardless of whether or not you understand the concept of buoyancy, you will be able to float in water – this is tacit knowing (Polanyi 239). Orwell’s work in many ways seems to prefigure Polanyi’s now standard theory: in Oceania, it is the bones that sense something wrong with the world, it is the stomach and skin that rebel against totalitarian oppression. Having constructed a verbal corpse and thus separated himself from his living body, Winston inhibits his ability to know tacitly. As a result, he becomes almost comically inept at reading people: Julia is a member of the thought police, Parsons will never be vaporized, and O’Brien is a coconspirator (13, 70, 182). Time and time again, Winston predicts precisely the opposite of what actually comes to pass. Just as he cannot decode the prole’s fragmented response in the bar, he here cannot intellectually decipher what his body seems to know. After conversing with O’Brien, for example, Winston notices that “a chilly shuddering feeling had taken possession of his body” (184). Despite having “the sensation of stepping into the dampness of a grave,” Winston decides to trust O’Brien. He leads Julia to the other man’s house and there declares, forthrightly, his belief in the Brotherhood and opposition to Big Brother (197). A novel that warns of totalitarian unity, then, also understands the threat of division – particularly when it comes to the self. It is equally wary of both complete solidarity and total fragmentation. Despite appropriation from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, Orwell appears to be an advocate of balance above all else.

.      The closest we ever come to seeing a physical corpse in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four comes in the final chapter of the novel. Seeing Julia, Winston is reminded of a cadaver he once pulled from the ruins of a rocket bomb – rigid, awkward, hard, and stiff (336). The Party, it appears, is far more successful than our protagonist at transforming the living into the dead – even while they still breathe. Like Winston, the Party is morbidly fascinated by the potential of a living death. While our protagonist identifies the corpse as the place for personal victory, the Party sees it as the site for political triumph. It is this vision that ultimately closes the novel. The living corpse, we find, has become the place where the Party’s ‘truth’ can be anchored, as O’Brien’s chilling words suggest: “Everything will be dead inside you…We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves” (293). In his attempts to turn the Party’s own weapon against it, Winston ensures his future as something even less than a dead body. He is an unperson in waiting.


[1] For more on the problematized sexual body in Nineteen Eighy-Four, see Sunstein and West.

[2]For Phillips, that “material fabric” includes both substantial elements like infrastructure and architecture, as well as more intangible elements of city life – such as the circulating nursery rhyme.

[3] Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowing was first posited in 1958 with the publication of Personal Knowledge.  The theory was more fully explicated in later works, which, because of their increased clarity, I have here chosen to cite.


Works Cited

Jacobs, Naomi. “Dissent, Assent, and the Body in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Utopian Studies
.          18.1 (2007) : 3-20. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 February 2011.

Lefort, Claude. “The Interposed Body: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Writing:
.          The Political Test. Trans. and ed. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000.
.          1-19. Print.

Phillips, Lawrence. “Sex, Violence and Concrete: The Post-war Dystopian Vision of
.          London in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Critical Survey 20.1 (2008) : 69-79.
.          Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 February 2011.

Polanyi, Michael. “Tacit Knowing: Its Bearing on Some Problems of Philosophy.”
.         Philosophy Today 6.4 (Winter 1962) : 239-62. Print.

Posner, Richard A. “Orwell versus Huxley: Economics, Technology, Privacy, and Satire.”
.         On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. Ed. Abbott Gleason et al.
.         Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. 183-211. Print.

Shklar, Judith N. “Nineteen Eighty-Four: Should Political Theory Care?” Political Theory
.        13.1 (Feb. 1985) : 5-18. JSTOR. Web. 12 April 2011.

Sunstein, Cass R. “Sexual Freedom and Political Freedom.” On Nineteen Eighty-Four:
.       Orwell and Our Future. Ed. Abbott Gleason et al. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP,
.        1999. 233-41. Print.

West, Robin. “Sex, Law, Power, and Community.” On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and
.       Our Future. Ed. Abbott Gleason et al. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. 242-60.
.        Print.