1984 and Invitation to a Beheading Comparative Essay by EY

The terrifying nature of freedom causes individuals to assimilate into society to shirk their responsibilities.  Societies thus take advantage of this by oppressing individuals to maintain stability.  1984, by George Orwell, and Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov, both exhibit oppressive environments and individuals who accept these societies.  The protagonists believe in the ideals and opinions perpetuated by their respective powers, and choose to subject themselves to the oppression put forth by those in control.  Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism”, discusses the freedom and responsibility inherent to humanity.  In Orwell and Nabokov’s works, the protagonists, faced with the burden of decision and consequent responsibility, choose to suppress their freedom.  Out of fear, not of oppressive forces but of self-dependence, they turn to another to control their lives.  Thus they ultimately engage in deceiving themselves and choose lives of bad faith, where they are dishonest with themselves and refuse to embrace despair and anguish.  They suppress their individuality to ignore the responsibility inherent to freedom.  Both 1984 and Invitation to a Beheading exhibit the intrinsically oppressive nature of society and show that, through an existentialist lens, structured society is unnatural and accepting it is ultimately a form of self-deception as it suppresses an individual’s freedom.

In 1984, Winston Smith, fearing responsibility, chooses to accept society and its oppressive nature.  After exceeding amounts of torture in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien commands Winston to look at himself in the mirror, saying, “Do you see that thing facing you?  That is the last man.  If you are human, that is humanity” (Orwell 272).  These words ultimately push Winston into giving in to Big Brother, as he crumbles from the knowledge that he makes choices on behalf of mankind.  When forced to reconcile with the idea that he represents humanity as a whole, Winston immediately feels the fear associated with responsibility.  He allows society to alleviate his control because of the reminder of humanity’s inherent anguish.  “Existentialism is a Humanism” discusses the duty of each individual when faced with a choice.  In making a decision, this person commits his/herself, but “also commits the whole of humanity” (Sartre 9b).  Winston, in this situation, refuses to take on the burden of changing himself and consequently humanity.  He has the control and power due to man’s inherent freedom, yet fears taking action. To cope, he chooses to believe that he cannot, and therefore accepts the erroneous notion that control cannot exist.  By doing this, Winston gives the power to his society and thus accepts the standards and opinions of others because he fears the freedom of complete control.  Society in turn perpetuates this fear of responsibility, prompting its subjects to relinquish individual freedom.  To maintain control society must suppress an individual’s freedom.  Oppression becomes a necessity for a functioning society.

In Invitation to a Beheading, as well, Cincinnatus accepts society to alleviate his responsibility and allows it to oppress him.  When reflecting on his childhood, Cincinnatus writes, “I…understood that things which to me had seemed natural were actually forbidden, impossible, that any thought of them was criminal” (Nabokov 96).  From early on, Cincinnatus’ society rejects how he thinks and what he believes.  He grows up as separate, and resenting his solitude, decides to hide who he is and assimilates to please those around him.  For his entire childhood he tries to suppress what makes him stand out and changes himself to fit others’ standards.  Cincinnatus gives his society the power of oppression to avoid the burden of control because he seeks definition in others and refuses to take responsibility for himself as an individual.  He thus chooses an inauthentic life as being authentic entails standing by one’s beliefs and not relying on others to affirm one’s opinions.    In both novels the protagonists fear freedom and allow their societies to oppress them by accepting the views set forth by their respective surroundings.  The societies in turn comply and even cause this fear to maintain control over the general public.  Therefore society must be oppressive to function, and by accepting society’s definitions, a person gives up freedom and suppresses their individuality.  Societies work because the people fear the burden of responsibility and give in to a power that suppresses freedom.

Through this oppression, Orwell and Nabokov convey the true self-deception that occurs when one chooses to accept the unnatural structure of society.  According to Sartre, man is “condemned to be free” (Sartre 4b).  Sartre illustrates the ever-present nature of freedom; man can never truly exist without self-control.  Moreover,  “the situation of man [is] one of free choice” (Sartre 10a).  Man inherently has the power to decide and forever must make choices; therefore man is naturally free.  However, some choose to suppress this freedom: “any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver” (10a).  Freedom cannot be taken from an individual; however people may ignore it by deceiving themselves into believing they have no choice.  When an individual accepts society, accept its views and judgement, they engage in self-deception as they convince themselves that they have no power.  Society therefore exists unnaturally because it suppresses the individual’s intrinsic right to choose.  In 1984, Winston deceives himself until the end, and loses his individuality because he believes he has no power.  “He had grasped the frivolity, the shallowness of his attempt to set himself up against the power of the Party” (Orwell 276).  Winston allows society to take over because he turns to self-deception.  He convinces himself that control cannot exist with an individual, and in doing so loses his individuality and assimilates into a life of bad faith.  Nabokov, however, shows the possibility of one breaking free from societal constraints.  As he heads towards his inevitable demise, Cincinnatus repeats the phrase, “by myself” (Nabokov 218, 219, 221), and in the end escapes his oppressive environment.  By finally realizing that he can make a choice, that others cannot control him if he choses to take action, Cincinnatus breaks his society apart.  Because he embraces responsibility, he can thrive as an individual and live in authenticity.  Orwell and Nabokov each create characters that exhibit the importance of freedom in living as an individual.

When looked at through an existentialist lens, both 1984 and Invitation to a Beheading show the unnatural nature of society and the self-deceptive acceptance of individuals when faced with responsibility.  The inherently free nature of man, as shown by Sartre, highlights the choice that the protagonists make when turning to oppression to alleviate the duty of defining the self and consequently humanity.  However, Sartre does not suggest authentic life as one in isolation from others.  Therefore authentic life must somehow thrive in society.  The company of others does not suppress freedom.  Rather the acceptance of others’ views as an excuse to avoid choice stunts the growth of the individual.  Life as an authentic individual can therefore only exist when one takes the full responsibility entailed in making decisions.  If people choose to assimilate into society in favour of interdependence, they never discover themselves apart from others.  Denying responsibility leads to reliance on others, allowing them to define and shape the individual.  A life of good faith can only thrive once someone shoulders the burden of absolute freedom and control, accepting the self-reliance of individualism.

1984/Invitation to a Beheading Comparative by E.Y.

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