Orwell’s 1984 classic returns to conversation in packed professor panel

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Professors Uzendoski and Ceballos listen to audience questions in the 1984 talk. (Photo by Courtney DeVita ’19).

George Odigwe

There is little question that the totalitarian theme of George Orwell’s “1984” resonates with modern audiences, but the novel written a half-century ago has much broader applications to today’s political climate, according to a trio of Lafayette professors.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd this week at a brown-bag lunch, professors Lindsay Ceballos, Joshua Sanborn and Andrew Uzendoski addressed other issues apparent in the novel, which has climbed back to the bestseller list since Donald Trump took the oval office.

Set in a fictional “superstate” that is really a thinly veiled Great Britain, the novel describes a political regime run by an elite inner circle that governs by omnipresent surveillance, intimidation and “thought police.” At the helm is Big Brother, a cult figure who may not exist.

“A lot of people read [1984] in the context of totalitarianism, but can also be read in the context of women’s rights,” said Ceballos, professor of Russian and East European Studies, noting that the novel’s portrayal of women is not only shallow but highly objectified.

Even allowing for differences in attitudes just after World War II, when Orwell’s novel was written, Cabellos criticized his portrayal of what it means to be feminine and references quotes from the book.

For example, Ceballos noted how Winston refers to Julia by saying, “With just a few dabs of color in the right places she had become…more feminine.”

Ceballos declared that from the beginning of the novel, Orwell portrays women as sexual objects and disagrees with the author’s tendency to do this. She also tied Orwell’s tendency in with current feminism discourse by quoting commonly used excuses such as “just kidding” and “locker room talk.”

Uzendoski from the English department discussed the time period in which the novel was written, in 1948, and it’s coinciding with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. For him, though, there was no bright light at the end of the tunnel.

“I don’t know if [Winston] is an agent of anything,” Uzendoski said. “The interesting thing about the book is that there may be zero heroes despite the main characters’ [awareness of their social and political situation].”

Members of the audience had their share of counterpoints and emphasis for the latter half of the hour-long discussion. Many addressed the varied character of George Orwell and his literature.

While Sanborn, a history professor panelist, said he believed that Orwell’s use of sex between Winston and Julia in the novel was primarily a political tool to oppose totalitarianism, a student asked whether it may also be just a tool of escape from a strict society.

Rado Pribic, retired professor of comparative literature at the college recalled a symposium held at the college about 35 years ago in which Orwell’s 1984 was also discussed. That time, it lasted a week, not an hour, he said, which allowed for many more angles to such a complex book.

“One can read the book in a broader context than just totalitarianism,” Pribic said. “[However] it is interesting to sit and listen to what students had to say about it in the present day.”

One student, Alex DeSantis ’20 found the book helpful for its commentary on totalitarianism.

“It unfortunately brings up a lot of fear in readers,” she said, “but I think it’s interesting and somewhat necessary because we are dealing with a lot of that today in America.”