An approach to the 2022 HSC English Advanced Questions on the Common Module Paper.
Paper 1: Texts and Human Experiences 2022
Your answer will be assessed on how well you:
- Demonstrate understanding of human experiences in texts.
- Analyse, explain and assess the way human experiences are represented in texts.
- Organise, develop, and express ideas using language appropriate to audience purpose and context.
To effectively respond to NESA’S marking criteria above, any essay in this section would need to demonstrate the connection between the ideas explored in the chosen text, why these ideas are raised and how these ideas reflect the human experience.
Question 6 (c) — Prose Fiction – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (20 marks)
How does Orwell represent the emotions arising from human experiences through the features of prose fiction?
In your response, make reference to the prescribed text.
Breaking down the question:
All emotions are derived from the way people respond to language; as language has the capacity to create empathy, reflect and affirm value systems, and challenge emotional responses by instilling fear or giving rise to hope.
The features of prose fiction can be understood in the following way. Writers employ language designed to mirror the way a character thinks or feels. The choice of language or technique used by the composer may also carry a symbolic effect for the reader, allowing the reader to experience the world the way a fictional character might.
In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, hope, despair, contempt, fear, and confusion are some of the emotions that we observe. Composed as a speculative political satire, in response to the trajectory created by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, Orwell crafts a despotic regime that belies hope and reflects the power of totalitarian regimes to not only destroy “the individual” ‘body and soul’ but shape their consciousness to mirror the party’s composition of reality. The novel is fundamentally dystopian and nihilistic, as it ultimately succeeds in quashing any hope or possibility of individual or collective insurrection.
How do you know which human experiences to draw on?
I would always suggest drawing on a variety of experiences that fictional characters undergo which reflect the core ideas raised in the novel, and of course, those that you feel moved by.
Here are some suggestions. Remember the most powerful experiences undergone in the text are those which resonate with the reader, which is you. It is important to consider the way you feel as you need to be able to identify with the characters. Once you identify the experience and subsequent emotions in your essay, the rest of your essay would need to explain how and why Orwell represents the emotional and or physical experience in the way he does.
The physical environment and infrastructure of Oceania are essential in our understanding of Orwell’s dystopian world as the environment one lives in contributes directly to the human experience. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the physical and economic degradation of the whole of Oceania is palpable. It reflects the oppressive and decayed environment of Winston’s experience.
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The whole way smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colossal poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about 45 with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs it was no use trying the lift.”
In keeping with the sceptical perspectives of modernist writers when speculating on futuristic worlds, Orwell’s description of Winston’s environment is reminiscent of TS Eliot’s poetry. The dilapidated nature of Winston’s world is given material presence through Orwell’s use of olfactory descriptions. The oxymoron of the words “bright” and “cold” are as harsh and impersonal as the environment. In this way, Orwell is able to convey Winston’s response to his world and experience.
The quest for self-expression and personal agency:
Winston’s diary entries reflect his struggle to exercise agency. Orwell expresses the human motivation of defiance, which is palpable and identifiable.
“they’ll shoot me I don’t care they’ll shoot me in the back of the neck I don’t care down with Big Brother they always shoot you in the back of the neck I don’t care down with Big Brother.”
Winston’s italicised prose lack punctuation and are a reflection of his deep-seated anxiety which paradoxically convey his willingness to defy big brother and his instinctual fear of being caught.
The psychological and physical destruction of the individual mirrors the insidiousness of the regime.
The overall mood of despair in Nineteen Eighty-Four which permeates the entire text is the way Winston, the failed hero of the text is physically represented. This physical representation of Winston is pivotal to the reader’s anxiety as Winston’s lack of physical well-being and stamina is further exploited at the hands of the party.
“He moved over to the window; a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasised by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by the coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.”
The cluster of adjectives employed by Orwell to describe Winston is inseparable from the contempt with which the individual is treated. Although we cannot see Winston’s emotions, we know his body reflects his state of being as much as his mind. This emphasis on Winston’s physical degradation is extended when Winston is taken to the Ministry of Love.
“Winston began to dress himself with slow stiff movements. Until now he had not seemed to notice how thin and weak he was…Before he knew what he was doing he had collapsed onto a small stool that stood beside the bed and burst into tears. He was aware of his ugliness, his gracelessness, a bundle of bones in filthy underclothes sitting weeping in the harsh white light; but he could not stop himself.”
The third-person narrative conveys the power and brutality of Winston’s psychological and physical torture. It is the deliberate attempt of the party to break Winston’s spirit and to further destroy the elements which contribute to a person’s sense of self and identity.
The power of propaganda to weaponise and indoctrinate the individual against contrived enemies.
The Hate sessions
The hate sessions in Nineteen Eighty-Four reflect deliberate attempts to scapegoat individuals and are of course form an indelible part of Winston’s experience of propaganda. Like the Nazi regime, Orwell references Goldstein, an undeniably Jewish name. The targeting of Goldstein draws upon the rampant propaganda and scapegoating of Jews under The Nazi Party.
“Winston’s diaphragm was constricted. He could never see the face of Goldstein without a painful mixture of emotions. It was a lean Jewish face, with a great fuzzy aureole of White hair and a small goatee beard- a clever face, and yet somehow inherently despicable.”
Despite Winston’s scepticism and awareness of party propaganda, he nonetheless experiences feelings of contempt and discomfort. The party’s agility to direct hostility and channel emotion through the invention of any act of state sabotage or by targeting an individual contribute to Winston’s confusion and inability to anchor his reality. The description offers a visceral representation of human susceptibility to propaganda as the reader can identify with the “constriction of Winston’s diaphragm” and the “painful mixture” of emotions.
“Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, On the contrary, against Big Brother, The Party and the thought police; And at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of the truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of Goldstein seemed to be true.”
Winston’s awareness of his susceptibility to propaganda, nonetheless, does not allow him to exercise rational thought and control over his emotions. This anomaly reflects the power of Big Brother and the insurmountable control a system has over the individual.
Orwell’s ability to communicate the profundity of Winston’s desires adds to the tragedy of Winston’s failure to achieve revolution. Dreams which reflect aspiration and memory are referenced throughout the text. They are important as they contribute not only to Winston’s ambiguous perception of his environment but also to the reader. For much of the novel, we too suffer the uncertainty experienced by Winston. The following extract is an example of Winston’s longing for liberation and release from the stronghold of Big Brother:
“The girl with dark hair was coming towards him across the field. With what seemed a single movement, she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed, he barely looked at it. Overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness, it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother in the party and the Thought police could be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. That, too, was a gesture belonging to the ancient time. Winston woke up with the word “Shakespeare” on his lips.
Orwell captures Winston’s unconscious longing as he powerfully contrasts the human expression of freedom and its intrinsic beauty against the more brutal representation of destruction; depicted by the connotations associated with “annihilate”. The idea of annihilating a whole culture would normally be understood as an act of abject terror, however, Winston’s reference to the “thought police” and the implied despotism and terror unleashed by the “culture” of Big Brother merely serves to underscore the misery of his entrapment and oppression. “The single movement of the arm” evokes a sense of ease and elegance as it effortlessly conveys the only weaponry used to vanquish the party’s potency is an act of unconscious freedom of expression.
The intertextual reference to Shakespeare is of course significant as it adds a further dimension to Winston’s suppressed emotions. Shakespeare is of course associated with a body of work that draws its power from its ability to celebrate the tragedy and beauty of human experience through the rendition of poetry and prose, and of course through the travails of characters, an emotion which absents itself in Nineteen Eighty-Four.