Posted: March 18th, 2023
Appearance vs. Reality
Discrepancies between inner and outer realities:
1984 versus Death of a Salesman
Both George Orwell’s dystopian classic novel 1984 and Arthur Miller’s realist stage drama Death of a Salesman create a contrast between appearances and reality in order to criticize the political and social structure that exists in society and its negative effects on the protagonists. In Orwell’s novel, the world within Winston Smith’s head is far more real than the propaganda manufactured by Big Brother. In contrast, the dramatic techniques used by Miller illustrate how Willy Loman lives in a fantasy world of his own making that stands in sharp contrast to the reality of the world inhabited by his loved ones. Orwell’s novel is a critique of idealized socialism, a world where everyone is supposedly equal but where people have no freedom, even the freedom to think. Miller scathingly critiques the American Dream that it is easy to ‘make it big’ in America through a poignant tale of a salesman who is cast off by the company he worked for throughout his life, which now treats him as if he is no longer valuable.
The discrepancy between appearances and reality is most starkly manifest in 1984 through Winston Smith’s job, working for the Ministry of Truth. The Ministry of Truth not only strives to change how politics are discussed and disseminated in the present; the Ministry also strives to change how the past is portrayed. Winston must change newspapers that contradict Big Brother’s current version of events and destroy them. Although he knows in his own mind that the lies perpetuated by Big Brother are false, he seems to have no choice other than to eradicate history. Orwell’s narrative raises the question — if history is destroyed, what is ‘reality,’ if even memory can be officially eradicated and the truth becomes officially false?
There is a continual discrepancy between the lies that Winston must project to the world and the truth he feels within. Early in the novel, when forced to participate in physical conditioning exercises, compelled by a television that seems capable of watching him, Winston’s mind is elsewhere, even though he carefully puts on a mask. “Wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper during the Physical Jerks, he was struggling to think his way backward into the dim period of his early childhood” (Orwell 1.3). Despite the fact that officially the nation is at war, Winston still retains a clear memory of when things were different. “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war, but it was evident that there had been a fairly long interval of peace during his childhood, because one of his early memories was of an air raid which appeared to take everyone by surprise” (Orwell 1.3). Memories are what make us distinct — our love for our parents, for example, suggests Orwell. Memories are also what give us allegiances to something other than the state; this is why Big Brother strives to wipe them out.
By the end of the novel, Winston’s sense of self has been utterly obliterated, and there is a harmony between the emptiness he feels on the outside and on the inside. “A violent emotion, not fear exactly but a sort of undifferentiated excitement, flared up in him, then faded again…. Almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table: 2+2=5. ‘They can’t get inside you,’ she [Julia, his former lover] had said. But they could get inside you” (Orwell 3.6). The state demands such utter loyalty of its citizens that factual truths are rendered into falsehoods. The only way to marshal such utter obedience is to drain the spirits and the minds of the citizens until all men and women are shells.
When there is such a great discrepancy between outer truth and inner reality, Orwell implies, something eventually must ‘give’ psychologically. Winston grows more careless in his relationship with a young woman named Julia, and the state demands conformity between the interior and the exterior, so that the lies they tell are truly emblazoned upon his mind rather than merely upon his lips. Orwell’s novel was intended as a critique of communist, as existed in the Soviet Union at the time, which demanded an end to individual liberty and property as part of the price of creating what was officially a completely equal society (that of course merely served the interests of the party leaders like Stalin). However, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which was also written during the Cold War era, critiqued what Miller saw as the equally hollow ideology of American capitalism. In Miller’s play, the salesman Willy Loman moves in and out of reality on stage, seamlessly talking to his brother Ben one minute or interacting with his younger sons as they were when they were boys, and then suddenly, coldly finding himself talking to his boss, who is casting him out because of his poor sales figures.
Unlike Winston, who struggles to ignore lies, Loman tries to convince himself of lies, like the fact that he still has the potential to concoct a ‘get rich’ scheme. His son Biff, who has utterly rejected his father’s materialistic values and lives an aimless life out west, begs his father to acknowledge that his son is a ‘failure.’ The young Biff bought into his father’s dream that if he played football well, the world would be his oyster, but became disillusioned and fled after learning of his father’s infidelity. Biff sees beyond the lies of Willy’s self-presentation and accepts both himself and his father for what they both are: a drifter and an elderly, washed-up salesman working on commission. To the end, however, Willy is unable to acknowledge the bankruptcy of the ideology to which he has mortgaged his entire existence aloud. But in his final, suicidal gesture, which ensures that his wife Linda receives enough life insurance to buy the family home, Willy seems to have a startling and tragic moment of clarity — he understands that in American capitalism, a man like himself is worth more dead than alive.
The clear-sighted Winston ends the novel with his internal moral compass and sense of individuality destroyed. The dreaming, lying Willy finally admits to himself that he lives in a world in which all he has left is a life insurance policy, not a real relationship with his son or a profession of which he can be proud. Both men, in different ways, illustrate the problems of their respective societies and cultures: worlds in which people are either unable to or afraid to see the world in a clear-eyed fashion.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Plays, 1976.
Orwell, George. 1984. E-text available:
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