An integral theme in the four texts I studied, all connected by the dystopian genre, is how far people will go to maintain order in society, even at the cost of free will and the ability to make choices for oneself. The texts are A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the film Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg, and The Death of Truth, by Jean Seaton, Tim Crook and DJ Taylor. These works warn of the perils of keeping societal control at all costs, even as the levels of authoritarian intervention vary, from the totalitarianism and overt thought control of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to the subtler depictions of this theme in Minority Report. All the texts focus on free will and the importance of individual choice, and how many authorities prioritise keeping their population under control over allowing their citizens freedom and individuality.
A Clockwork Orange forces us to ask if all humans, even the worst among us, have a right to free will? Alex is a sociopathic 15 year old who commits despicable acts of violence for no reason other than his own pleasure. However, when he is subjected to a cruel aversion therapy (called Ludovico’s Treatment) by a corrupt state looking to depopulate the prisons and reduce street violence, we’re forced to consider the morality of a state imposing its values on its citizens in order to run a society which is easier to keep under control. Burgess asks us if we are still human if our very essence has been changed to the point where we are the titular clockwork orange, going through life stripped of any sense of autonomy or our own moral choice, instead acting on the morals of the government trying to clean up the streets? F. Alexander, an author opposing the Government, describes Alex’s treatment as turning him “into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to only socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good.” Fear and a need to avoid pain drive Alex to nonviolence, not his free will. He effectively is no longer human, as he can’t make his own moral decisions. This disregard of who people are makes no sense to Alex, the novel’s narrator. “They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it, and I wouldn’t ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop.” Alex believes that “badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddy knockies, and that self is made by Bog or God and is his great pride or rastody. But the not-self cannot have the bad, meaning they of the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self.” Alex sees his own evil as a natural part of him, the State’s interference in his moral fibre as trying to play God and go against what are merely biological impulses. Alex’s fatalistic complacency towards violence and lack of morals, contrasts with the views of the quietly sinister aversion therapy team, who believe that the natural human moral state is one of goodness. Dr Branom, part of the group in charge of Alex’s treatment, says to Alex “What is happening to you now is what should happen to any normal, healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the force of evil, the workings of the principles of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy.” He doesn’t believe that there are people who are inherently bad, and those that are merely ill. He considers Alex’s desire towards violence a sickness in need of curing. Ironically, the therapy involves curing the ‘illness’ by actually making Alex physically sick at the slightest mention of any behaviour unapproved by the state. He wants Alex to be able to fit smoothly into society, so it runs like clockwork. However Burgess is saying that the fundamentally different nature of human beings means that society can’t always run like clockwork, while allowing people the right to express their free will. He instead puts forward the idea that the most effective way of preventing violence in society is to allow the evil within people to change along with them as they grow and develop. In the novel’s’ final chapter, Alex comes to a realisation that he needs to grow up and leave the rape and ultra violence of his past behind. By having Alex not respond to the treatment, instead coming to this conclusion himself, Burgess demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the state’s attempts to control humanity’s intrinsic nature, saying that maintaining order in society by removing our free will not only cannot be justified, but also doesn’t work unless the state is entirely totalitarian.
An example of a totalitarian state keeping order effectively in society at the cost of free will is Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It’s another progression in the theme of keeping societal order over individuality. Orwell created a society which we find a lot less plausible, more blunt and open in it’s controlling nature. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, in which the state, though corrupt, has some altruistic intentions (actually wanting to reduce violence for the safety of it’s citizens), the ultimate aim of the totalitarian Party, who rule over the state of Oceania with an iron fist, is power for power’s sake. As O’Brien, a senior member of the Party says; “power is not a means, it is an end.” They want to control the individual thoughts of their citizens simply because they can, taking their surveillance and control to extreme levels, so much so that “if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” They control what people think using the shadowy thought police and even taking away words with which to express thoughts of rebellion by paring their language (called Newspeak) down to the bone, limiting the range of vocabulary, and consequently the range of thought. Anybody who dares think differently faces not only execution, but also an enforced change in ideology before their end, so they can’t take any part of them to the grave. As O’Brien explains to Winston during his torture “we do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him.” Their thirst for absolute order in society is what gives them the proclivity to “make the brain perfect before we blow it out.” The necessity of individual thought is highlighted through the depiction of a brutally ordered and well-maintained society, with no individual thought from anyone, alive or dead. The population is controlled by methods such as the Two Minutes Hate, which diverts everyones hatred away from the Party, but strips away any individuality in the process, by getting all the negative emotions out towards an external source, leaving nothing to be directed towards any thought of rebellion. “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in.” Strategies like the Hate do succeed in keeping order. Nothing is out of line. Criminals are few and far between, but there is no free will, and living conditions are miserable for the majority of the population, even protagonist Winston, who has a government job but still lives at the dilapidated ‘Victory Mansions.’ This shows Orwell’s alignment with Burgess, in that both their texts champion free will over order in society at any means necessary. Another significant connection between Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Clockwork Orange is the techniques the state uses to control the people they perceive to be out of line. In both novels the protagonists are cruelly controlled by their government. Both Winston and Alex undergo treatments to make them ‘normal’ and ‘healthy,’ experiencing the use of morally dubious techniques to change the very human nature within them. Both novels demonstrate the state using torture to make people to fit into their society, under the guise of curing them. The difference comes in how we perceive the characters undergoing the change and the society they fit into. In A Clockwork Orange, we see Alex’s evil as something bad, meaning we find it easier to justify the end his treatment is trying to achieve, if not the means used to accomplish it. Nineteen Eighty-Four takes it one step further by having us not only be able to condone the method used to make him ‘sane,’ but also unable to agree with the thought process behind his torture. O’Brien wants Winston to become sane by having him believe 2+2=5, something we know is unequivocally not true. This shows that Orwell’s vision of the future is entirely dystopian, one step further than in A Clockwork Orange. Coming in the wake of the rise of fascism during World War Two and the state authorised twisting of language through propaganda, Orwell’s bleak vision was one of endless oppression. In his opinion, the fall of the Nazi Party didn’t signal the end of state control, but instead that a much more successful totalitarian regime would lead to a new stage of constant surveillance and thought control.
A more nuanced look at a dystopian society can be found in Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg. Society functions in a very similar way to today, but with a more invasive criminal justice system that has a murder prevention system with little regard for privacy. Pre cognitives are people with an ability to see the future, used by the government to foresee premeditated murder. The concept of Pre Crime is based on the belief that free will doesn’t exist, that everyone’s fate is predetermined. The purpose of the Pre Crime division is to maintain order in society, which disregards the freedom of choice to decide not to kill before the fatal blow is struck. Spielberg reveals his opinion on free will being more important than order in society by portraying an imperfect pre cognitive system, headed by the corrupt Lamar, who’s view represents that of the Pre Crime system, with an ultimate belief in determinism, influenced by his role models. “My father once told me, ‘We don’t choose the things we believe in; they choose us.'” The corruption of Lamar is a connection to Nineteen Eighty-Four, in that the main antagonist is power hungry, wanting to keep order over their citizens, whether simply for the sake of power, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four’s” O’Brien, or Lamar’s more noble wish to prevent murder by continuing a successful Pre Crime unit. This is the most subtle and ambiguous look at the state keeping order in society, as the motives for keeping the highly successful program running are easily digestible. According to John Anderton, “there hasn’t been a murder in the six years,” since the start of the program. Additionally, although the level of surveillance is higher than in our current society, the invasion of privacy is less than in the other texts, which leads us as viewers to need to decide if we morally support the program or not, something we didn’t need to ruminate on with A Clockwork Orange and Nineteen Eighty-Four. This less overt state control provides another perspective on the theme of order in society at the cost of free will. However, Minority Report is still reinforcing the idea of the other texts, in that free will takes precedence over the state preserving order in society. Spielberg reveals this message by portraying the Pre Crime system as fallible. People could make use of their free will to decide against murder at the last minute, but get locked up to keep the peace regardless, thus taking their own choice away from them. For example, protagonist John was supposedly destined to commit a murder, but makes the decision not to kill of his own volition. John’s views reflected those of the Pre Crime division early on, when he’s steadfast about the murder. “No. You said so yourself. There is no minority report, I don’t have an alternate future. I am going to kill this man.” However, he ends up finding the flaws in the system, by deciding not to kill Leo Crow.
A significant connection to A Clockwork Orange is the use of eye symbols in both texts. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s eyes are held open and are used to bring about his change. Similarly, in Minority Report, John’s thoughts on free will start to change with the removal of his eyes. It leads him to change his perspective on how much of a role freedom of choice plays in his society, symbolising him looking at the world through different eyes. Also, as a drug dealer says to John “in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” This uses sight as a metaphor for power. Those who are able to ‘see the future,’ the Pre Crime unit, have the power to observe the choices of the ‘blind,’ those that are consigned to their fates without knowing them, and see that their free will has been stripped away. This connects to Nineteen Eighty-Four in that the state, the ‘one eyed man’ has the ability to see what their innocent, blind constituents can’t, that they’re controlling the will and individuality of their people.
A text which critiques aspects of our world today in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four is an article by Jean Seaton, Tim Crook and DJ Taylor, The Death of Truth, published in the Guardian. By looking at our Donald Trump infested world today through a lens of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the article draws some startling parallels between Airstrip One and the modern day Western world, proving just how timeless Orwell’s classic novel is. Written after Trump’s inauguration, it speaks to the pertinence of literature in dealing with issues of the day, noting that “sales of the book have soared in the past week,” as millions realise it’s increasing relevance. It addresses Trump’s simple language, which appeals to the lowest common denominator, by saying “Orwell is writing of now when he writes, ‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness a little smaller.'” The connection between Nineteen Eighty-Four and the what is said by the current US government is also emphasised by the article. When talking about the lies of Sean Spicer regarding the crowd size at Trump’s induction speech, Seaton observes that “any lie from the podium is deeply unsettling.” She sees the steps being taken towards a totalitarian society, in which the state has free reign to lie and control it’s citizens through political means. The similarities between Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, key members of Trump’s inner circle producing ‘alternative facts,’ and “Winston Smith, sitting in his cubby-hole at the Ministry of Truth falsifying back-numbers of the Times,” are highlighted, taking us another step further to Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are also strong links between Trump and Big Brother, the figurehead appealing to the masses, the main difference being Trump’s affection for Twitter and putting as much of himself on show as possible. The connection is obvious, the article pointing out that “as Orwell foresaw, his slogan could be ‘Ignorance is Strength.” Indeed if Orwell had lived on another 70 years “Trump would amuse and horrify him at the same time.” Seeing Trump as the leader of the free world makes one realise the pertinence of Orwell’s future.
In conclusion, the dystopian genre has a common theme, demonstrated in the texts. A controlling state attempts to maintain order in society by imposing their values on their citizens and taking away free will and individuality. The creators of dystopian fiction establish a setting with less privacy and individual thought in order to warn us of away from their future. Many dystopians carry timeless messages, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, which we still look to as a sign of totalitarianism today, nearly 70 years on. Although they’re also made for entertainment purposes, the main objective of dystopian authors is to communicate their message to their readers.