What if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.
Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of George Orwell’s eerily prescient dystopian novel 1984. Having witnessed the horrors of autocratic governments of Russia and Spain in the mid 20-century, Orwell wrote 1984 to warn readers about the dangers of autocracy — physical torture and execution of political foes or disloyal citizens, suppression of the press and critical voices, monitoring of citizens, promoting conformity, the propaganda of lies, manipulation of the truth, the use of language to control thought, and technology used for evil. In the first sentence, Orwell immediately introduces something highly unusual: a clock striking thirteen. How is that even possible? And not just one clock — all the clocks are striking thirteen. Welcome to the tightly controlled world of Oceana where things are not what they seem: it is the role of a totalitarian government to control what you believe, how you behave — in short, every every aspect of your life: “the clock has thirteen hours because the Party says it does. Accept it and don’t ever question it.” The protagonist, Winston Smith steps into a world that is vile and dusty — not just physically, but psychologically, politically, and philosophically. When you carefully analyze how mercurial President Trump and his administration works, you can’t help notice so many similarities with the Party portrayed in Orwell’s novel — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin, covered by a N95 face mask, nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind whipping past FEMA’s medical tent city that had sprung up almost overnight, slipped quickly through the glass doors of the Beresford though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a color poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about seventy, with a ridiculous hairstyle: a sandy-reddish helmet of hair, where all the ends are drawn up, meeting in the center, then swept back and glued into place with hair spray. The hair accentuated a squarish head that was distinguished by an odd orangish complexion, except for pinkish circles surrounding each eye, creating the effect of a raccoon’s face. The expression was menacing — narrowed, beady eyes, beneath lowered bushy eyebrows and the mouth was firmly set. Winston made for the stairs using his iPhone as a flashlight. It was no use trying the elevator due to social distancing protocols. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electricity was cut off during daylight hours because the Party deemed that the electric company was not an essential business during the COVID-10 pandemic. Besides, most electricians were sheltering in place. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week — Congressmen’s way of spreading their dysfunctional hatred of one another to the citizens they were supposed to represent. The apartment was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had an untreated varicose ulcer above his right ankle since he couldn’t afford healthcare (the Party repealed the Affordable Care Act because citizens were expendable), went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the elevator shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. TRUMP IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
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