To what extent do you agree with the view that the struggle for liberty in Orwell’s 1984 and French’s Billy is ultimately worthless and futile?
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‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows’
Orwell’s 1984 encapsulates the story of Winston Smith’s fight to rebel against an authoritarian party, Big Brother, which strives to control and manipulate every aspect of society. The devious use of prejudicial metaphors creates a resemblance over the beliefs of Big Brother and dictators at the time Orwell wrote the novel. Death in 1984 is made visible on a mass scale by the way Winston’s death is a symbol for the individuals that also tries to rebel. On the other hand, Billy entangles the reader into the life of a ten year old ‘nigger’ who lives in a racist American society. This works as an impetus towards Billy being tragically incriminated for killing a 15 year old girl in self defence and subjected to the notorious electric chair. By including a personal perspective and emotion in the narration, Billy identifies the corruption of late 1930s American society, such as racism and the attention-seeking view of media. It is suggested that both Winston and Billy lose their fight for freedom. However, in doing so, they both produce messages towards each of their imperfect societies.
The reader’s sympathy towards the death of the central characters being futile will vary considering that Billy approaches death from a personal viewpoint. The narration of Billy is in the voice of a third person spectator with a deep south dialect, ‘He’d (Otis) fight as quick as lightning flash, had that wild-dog temper’. This technique, used by French, brings the reader into the mind of black American society which, consequently, means that the reader will experience the peaks and valleys of Billy’s journey alongside him. Billy’s fate is in the hands of a society that controversially wants to bring adult charges down upon a ten year old child. This brings out more despair from those who attempt to defend Billy such as his mother Cinder, ‘NO…YA CAN’T HAVE HIM. NO’ and Reverent Wilson Wagner who resorts to blasphemy, ‘For God’s sake’. A mother would find this novel disturbing to read from the way she is able to relate to Cinder and her helplessness towards securing Billy’s freedom, ‘The faint cry of “Mama, Mama”, tried to follow Cinder, but it could only go so far’. This quote alone identifies Cinder’s inability to save Billy: as much as Cinder tries, she could never succeed. The struggle for liberty in Billy is not fought by Billy but by those around that love him and believe in justice. Therefore, it is a battle between the emotional strength of those that love Billy against the fight of an overpowering racist society. This is clearly displayed when Billy is being hunted down. The phrase ‘Coon dogs howl’ and ‘Thorn bushes bite’ is repeated several times to reinforce the message that Billy cannot run away from such a force. This makes clear that Billy’s attempt by Cinder to run away can be deemed futile: the ‘Coon dogs’ and ‘Thorn bushes’ represent white society which will not give up until Billy is captured.
Orwell’s 1984 excludes the element of emotion by viewing death on a mass scale. Winston Smith was one of many people that went through the process of getting ‘cured’ by the party so that they believe, ‘two plus two equals five’ alienating the reader from Winston. This provides a cyclical form to the novel that the battle for liberty does not finish at the end of the novel. Orwell wants the reader to understand that there are others like Winston who believe in the brotherhood and who will be brought to light by the thought police and brainwashed into loving Big Brother. From this, it makes clear that there is no hope for liberty in 1984. Unlike Billy, the reader follows Winston’s journey alongside him up until the point where Winston is indoctrinated by O’Brien. During this moment, the reader will detach themselves from Winston because, while Winston has been cured, the reader hasn’t, signifying a clear juxtaposition. From Orwell doing this, the reader is able to identify that Winton is insane and has lost the battle to Big Brother, ‘Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia’, when the reader knows they have not. From Winston losing the battle it is made clear that his death is worthless. Individually, Big Brother is near to impossible to defeat. Thence, if, like Winston (who represents the Brotherhood), the rebels are attempting to individually defeat Big Brother, it can be seen that there is no hope for an overthrow and therefore the attempt for independence is barren.
Racism acts as a stimulus towards the death of Billy. His contest for justice can be seen as a hopeless battle which Billy can never win: it is the black society versus the more powerful and influential white society. This is clarified with what stereotypical white society members, such as Frank Ottum, administer to Billy, ‘Can’t have that nigger runnin loose […] we got children and women at home’. The whole of society now consider Billy to be a dangerous murderer who feel he will kill again if he isn’t caught. The desperation for what white society deem justice creates a strong build up of anger and frustration towards black society, ‘Just pull im out, burn it if they don’t get out’. Their charging continues, describing the ‘goddamn niggers’ as ‘fuckin killin bastards’. If white society are preparing to burn and injure guilt-free black members of society, it gives the impression to the reader that Billy has little hope for his own freedom considering the crime he has committed. There is resistance to the reckless white society from Big Jake, ‘Ya’s hurt my children, Ah breaks yer necks’. However, to provide such resistance requires physical strength: something which a ten year old boy does not have. From this, a paradox is created that the reader still feels sympathy towards Billy even though he has killed, viewing his struggle for autonomy worthwhile through evoking emotion from the reader.
The prejudice presented by Orwell in 1984 demonstrates the power of subtlety which influences the views of the reader. Orwell wrote 1984 at a time where dictatorships were present in the form of Hitler and Stalin. It is clear that Orwell was influenced by this and implemented the beliefs and traits of dictators into the novel as Big Brother. Winston realises when playing chess that, ‘White always mates’. This makes reference towards Winston that he can outwit the party and obtain freedom. However, the outcome stays the same with the white knight of Big Brother defeating the black knight of Winston. This provides a predestined fate for Winston. It is pure imagination that Winston thought he could outwit Big Brother and, due to this, he will be incriminated for thought crime and die loving Big Brother, ‘He loved Big Brother’. On the other hand, from the use of Orwell symbolising Big Brother as a white knight introduces the theme of prejudice to 1984. The chess colour ‘White’ refers to white being a superior race that will always dominate over the weaker force being black society. Winston goes on to wonder whether this was an ‘unvarying triumph of Good over Evil?’. From making white always mate, Orwell has subtly made the reader believe that Big Brother is also ethnically cleansing society portraying black as evil. This links to Hitler’s beliefs of the Aryan race and his ethnic cleansing of non-Aryans. Orwell has subtlety introduced dictatorial-like prejudice to 1984 without the reader knowing. From this, there is little hope for Winston: the power of Big Brother has partially ‘cured’ the reader through a simple chess metaphor making clear Winston’s struggle for liberty is improbable of succeeding.
The use of media to provide propaganda in favour of the corrupted society in which Billy exists makes it impossible for truth and justice to occur. Harvey Jakes of Banes County Times produces a story with the subheadline, ‘Sheriff captures two colored in the brutal slaying of fifteen-year-old Lori Pasko who died of multiple knife wounds’. The media in Billy is only interested in Billy’s story because they know it is a big story that the public are going to ‘be reading this for hundreds of miles’. Harvey Jakes’ incentive is not to portray the true events of Billy and Lori’s encounter. Instead, he simply wants his paper to sell using the sensational headline, ‘KILLER BOY TO DIE’. In doing so, he creates a stereotype over black society and Billy that they are barbarian-like and dangerous. The killing of Lori was not ‘brutal’ and neither did she have ‘multiple knife wounds’. Yet, for the paper’s story to gain notoriety, it must conform to the American white society’s viewpoint. Through no fault of his own, media has twisted and corrupted the story of Billy to make him, in the eyes of the whole of America, a personification of pure evil revealing Billy’s fight for freedom as contemptible and futile.
The role of media in 1984 enables the dictatorial party to manipulate society so that ‘WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’. Big Brother creates an oxymoron through believing that it is freedom to be free from choice. The party’s objective in 1984 is to rewrite the past so that society cannot judge modern day life to that of the past .The principle is made clear when the party, who promised not to reduce the chocolate ration, end up reducing it, ‘substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration’. Through rewriting history, the party has made it possible to alter the past as a tool of comparison to the future, ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’. The problem is that Winston is one of many that are rewriting history in the ironic ‘Ministry of Truth’ that is based entirely on dishonesty. Therefore, if he thinks, ‘freedom is to say that two plus two makes four’, he is ironically believing in the freedom for truth but is not producing the actions to support such beliefs. This makes apparent his battle for independence will falter.
Ultimately, the struggle for liberty can be seen for both central characters as worthless considering they both fail and result in being defeated by each corrupted society. However, it depends strongly on what the definitions of ‘liberty’ are for Winston and Billy. For Winston, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four’, identifying that he wants the freedom of truth and thought. On the other hand, from Billy being viewed from a personal angle makes credible that he is not just fighting for physical freedom but unintentionally for the freedom of equality away from prejudice. Taking this into consideration, Billy’s fight for freedom was not futile. He achieves an ideology towards American society of corruption and racial aggression which is made clearest when the patch is being attacked, ‘BURN IT DOWN’. Some people may say that Winston displays the exploitative traits of Big Brother towards society. Nevertheless, Winston’s approach to defeating Big Brother made coherent to the reader he had little to no hope considering it was Winston, isolated from society, against a party of unquestionable power. From this, Winston’s struggle for liberty can be deemed worthless, whereas Billy’s fight and achievement of an ideology towards his society creates the impression that his struggle was worthwhile.
Word Count – 1,914
Albert French, 1994, Billy, Minerva original by Mandarin Paperbacks
George Orwell, 1954, 1984, Penguin Books