“Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.”  A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him.  What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine.  There will be no thought.  Orthodoxy means not thinking.  Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?

After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”

A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:

“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”

To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”

Why?  Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer.  But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness.  Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go.  And indeed later in the book he does disappear.

(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.”  Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)

The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying:  We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.

In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.

One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.

I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.

Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”

7 thoughts on ““Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

  1. After writing this, I recalled the feeling of not being able to express myself when I can’t recall just the right word. Which is one reason why word destruction in Newspeak is so debilitating to thought. Destroy the words and you destroy the meaning — the ability to think, to express oneself clearly.

    Hence Syme is right: destroy enough of the “bad” words (those unacceptable to The Party) and you destroy the very possibility of thought-crime — and revolution.

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  2. The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for. > – Ludwig Wittgenstein— A quote I keep on the wall of my classroom to answer “why, oh why, do we have to study vocabulary?”
    Even our brightest kids suffer from word poverty. The language of our public discourse is so limited. Look at Donald Trump and how dizzyingly close he has come to the presidency with a range of adjectives from “huge” to “horrible” and verbs as simple as “win” and “lie.
    1984 is surprisingly popular among bright 8th graders. Dystopia is everywhere in YA fiction and I always pitch it as the granddaddy of them all. Brave New World is a little much for the 8th grade, but every year I have small groups read Fahrenheit 451

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    1. In addition to 1984, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, I would recommend William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for young adult readers. Especially regarding this latter work, I would encourage the presentation of a little historical context concerning the Nixon Administration’s secret (to Americans) saturation bombing of Cambodia, which devastated the country, wiping out much of the adult generations, leaving behind hords of homicidal orphans who quikly became the Khmer Rouge who turned much of the country into the notorious Killing Fields. What we like to call “dystopian” literature can, with a little historical context, frequently illuminate contemporary conditions to a remarkable degree — as the authors of such works have understood and appreciated.

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  3. Hello, how do you think why, in the original sentence where we have the indirect speech, narrator uses will and not would? Why was it decided not to backshift?— One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized.=He thought he willl be vaporized.

    Is it up-to-date and Syme is still alive at the moment of reporting, “these days” are still to come in other words the era described in the previous sentences has not come yet, the situaiton has not changed? Or was it decided not to backshift to show how the person whose speech the narrator reports thinks. How do you think what year is the year the narrator communicates to the reader, I mean is it before or after 2050?

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    1. I’m not sure I understand your question. I think Orwell uses “will” to express the certainty that Syme, because he is too intelligent, too knowing, will be killed by the Party, and sooner rather than later, which is what happens in the book.

      Syme is simply too dangerous to tolerate, even though he’s a Party man. He lacks discretion and is a bit too knowing (and too proud of his knowledge).

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  4. “Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?”

    Or true of all those democrat party supporters, devastated by Clinton’s election loss who have no idea what, if anything, she actually stood for and have no thoughts, let alone opinions about her graft, corruption, influence peddling and war-mongering.

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