Orwellian Dystopias and Green Plums: The Role of Folk Literature in the Face of Totalitarianism
Throughout history, censorship and state control have been countered through acts of protest and rebellion. Folk literature can also be viewed as a means of resistance, especially when oppressive regimes seek to wipe out the past. This article will explore the role that folk literature plays in the context of resisting totalitarianism in 1984 by George Orwell (1949) and Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums (1994) and its use as a tool of dissent. However, close reading and comparison of the texts show that folk literature is a double-edged sword in the context of totalitarian rule.
Keywords: folk literature, protest, censorship, resistance, oppression
Censorship is one of the most commonly implemented tools used by totalitarian governments to control the actions of the general population. This is mainly because censorship is frighteningly effective— it not only allows the ruling party to control how people think and perceive the government and the rest of the world, it also restricts the information the public has access to, creating a nation that is docile, ignorant, and malleable. In the past, this was seen during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s, the Nazi regime in Germany in the late 1930s, and during the Communist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1922 until its dissolution in 1991. Surveillance and censorship continue to be used to control artists, intellectuals, and the general population in many countries today.
In 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was first published, a dystopian novel portraying the practices of a future totalitarian Communist government, where censorship, wiretapping, mass surveillance, and torture were used to control and repress people. Although the novel was seen as an exaggeration and a cautionary tale, practices similar to those of the Party in 1984 were often used by totalitarian governments in many Eastern European countries, most notably in Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s oppressive regime from 1948 till his execution in 1989. The frightening practices carried out by the Securitate turned the events and actions in 1984 from fiction to a nightmare reality. Many writers fled Romania during this time, including Noble Laureate Herta Müller, whose works portray the harrowing experience of living under Ceaușescu. Müller is most well known for her novels The Hunger Angel (2009) and The Land of Green Plums (1994), originally published in German with the title Herztier. What is striking about both Müller’s The Land of Green Plums and Orwell’s 1984 is the underlying presence of traditional or folk literature throughout their narratives. The protagonists in both novels have an affinity towards folk stories and poems and use them to stand up against totalitarianism. The use of stories, poetry, and rhymes by the characters in George Orwell’s 1984 and Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums demonstrate the power of folk literature as a means of resistance against censorship and oppression.
In 1984, Orwell creates a frightening prediction of the world where Oceania is being ruled by a party spearheaded by the image of Big Brother, which follows the ideology of English socialism (Ingsoc) in name only. In reality, it operates only to wield power and control the masses on behalf of the elite members of the Inner Party. The idea of corruption and totalitarianism is not new to Orwell and he explores these themes in his allegorical novel Animal Farm (1945) as well after his disillusionment with communism. Censorship is also a major theme of 1984, as is surveillance. The citizens of Oceania are constantly monitored and they had to live “in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (7). Any infarction is severely punished and attempts at rebellion are destroyed with ruthless efficiency. However, what makes the Party so terrifying is that they don’t just seek to monitor and control behaviour and actions. Their grip goes beyond mind control and mass propaganda. According to Thorp, the government spies and Thought Police don’t merely monitor outward behaviour, but also “probe into the inward depths of the psyche” (10). The concept of Double Think is what the party uses to keep the citizens in a state of cognitive dissonance, allowing them to hold two contradicting beliefs at the same time and accept them both as reality. In this way, the citizens will do, say, and believe whatever the Party wishes them to do at all times without any need for any written law.
However, propaganda and misinformation are also important to the upper echelon of the Party when maintaining total control over the population. The telescreens and hidden microphones paint a picture of wiretapping and stifling surveillance, even in the safety of one’s home as “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously,” (6). Thus, the Party could inject a constant stream of propaganda while monitoring the populace at all times. Furthermore, the Party destroyed all traces of the past so that the people have no sense of history or awareness of life before the Party. In fact, even the date of the present-day in the novel is uncertain as the reader isn’t fully sure if the year is really 1984. This is done to control the population, as the Party slogan states “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (242). Thus, the Party used propaganda and surveillance to manipulate, control, and suppress the people of Oceania.
The protagonist of the text, Winston, is inexplicably drawn to things from the past, especially objects relating to art and literature. For instance, at the very beginning of the novel, he buys a diary and writes in it, the very act of which is considered a Thought Crime. Winston is also drawn to the song “The Chestnut Tree” which he associates with the memory of three revolutionaries meeting in a café which had quite an impression on him. It first appears in Chapter VII of the first part of the novel and Winston has a strong emotional reaction when he listens to the words:
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There they lie, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree. (Orwell 77)
The lines are a loose adaptation of the lyrics of the jazz musician Glenn Miller’s song “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree”. The song would have been popular in the 40s, and in the setting and context of 1984, it would have been seen as old-fashioned and from an era long gone. It is also interesting to note that the lyrics have been modified and the song is frequently used as a nursery rhyme for children. Although the lines of the song seem to imply betrayal, they also convey a sense of quiet nostalgia. It is perhaps for this reason that Winston once again has a strong emotional response to the verses when he thinks of them again, at the very same café at the end of the book. He has betrayed his lover Julia and has been successfully tortured and brainwashed into total devotion to the Party and Big Brother, yet he still remembers the lyrics and weeps when he hears them (287). Orwell seems to imply that Winston’s longing for a better, purer past has not been completely stamped out in spite of his newfound and genuine love for Big Brother. Moreover, his reaction is the indication that art/literature and memory serve as an almost unconscious act of rebellion against repression.
Winston is also preoccupied with an old English folk song and nursery rhyme called “Oranges and Lemons”. Although he does not even know the rhyme in its entirety, he cannot stop thinking about it throughout the novel.
Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells at Old Bailey.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head! (Orwell 97)
This folk song was first recorded around 1744 and would have been considered archaic during the timeline of Orwell’s novel. Like “The Chestnut Tree”, the verses evoke a sense of nostalgia and convey the sentiments of a simpler, better past. Compared to the twisted logic of Newspeak, the language is straightforward and innocent. In a time when everything from the past is outlawed, Winston’s recitation and preoccupation would have been considered a Thought Crime. In 1984, everything is censored, including the thoughts of the citizens. The use of brute force, the implementation of both physical and psychological torture to enforce the Party’s ideology makes the government a Repressive State Apparatus as it “functions massively and predominantly by repression” (Althusser 16). Winston uses folk literature to not only hold on to the past but also to assert his own identity as someone who can think for himself and see through the tyrannical regime. While language is manipulated by the Party to control the thoughts of the population by promoting and enforcing Newspeak and Doublethink, folk literature continues to exist quietly despite everything and is used by the protagonist to withstand the forces of oppression and censorship.
However, the verses are also macabre and this is sharply contrasted with the childish rhyme and rhythm. Throughout the novel, Winston tries to remember the missing verses of the rhyme. It almost seems like the end of the rhyme is tied to Winston’s freedom and the ultimate act of rebellion: joining the underground resistance known as the Brotherhood. Instead, he is interrogated, tortured, and eventually brainwashed by O’Brien, a former ally who is revealed to be a member of the Thought Police. He also discovers the ending of the poem from Julia, who would go on to betray him to O’Brien and the party. Moreover, in a moment of dramatic irony another member of the Thought Police, Mr. Charrington, finishes the poem for Winston as he is being arrested for his treason and acts of subversion by “men in black uniforms, with iron-shod boots on their feet and truncheons in their hands” (217).
This suggests that even in folk literature there is no escape from the oppressing forces. The Party’s knowledge is vast and all-encompassing and this makes them even more powerful. This idea is reflected in Foucault’s idea of the knowledge-power nexus when he says “Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true’” (27). The Party has knowledge of folk culture and any rebellion it may entail and even acknowledges it. They then use this knowledge and their power to further relegate the actions of their citizens. Although folk literature can be considered as a means of resistance and perseverance, it can be weaponized and used as a tool of oppression by the forces in power as well. In other words, the attempt at resistance is manipulated and twisted to further control the individual. Thus in 1984, folk literature is many things; an escape from totalitarianism, a means of resisting oppression, and a tool used by the totalitarian government to wield control and attempt to break the protagonist’s spirit.
While 1984 is George Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian dystopia, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums is an example of life imitating art. The Securitate in Romania was Orwell’s setting brought to life and Müller herself suffered at the hands of the secret police before immigrating to Germany. A reading of her Securitate file reveals “an Orwellian world of dictatorship that aimed at total control” (Petrescu 502). This world of surveillance and censorship is described aptly in the novel in the line “The loudspeakers see and hear everything we do” (5). A sense of suffocation and dismal foreboding permeates the text, and the mood and setting convey a state of stasis which is clear from the beginning when a character states that “No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it’s being watched” (44). This mirrors the dreary stagnation and relentless surveillance portrayed in 1984. The text has several autobiographical elements; for example, the protagonist-narrator was from a German-speaking ethnicity like the author, they both lost their jobs for refusing to cooperate with the state, and they both immigrated to Germany. The novel revolves around a group of five friends and the events are narrated by a nameless woman. It takes place during Ceaușescu’s Securitate in Romania and the lynchpin of the events is the questionable suicide of a young woman called Lola who attended university with the main characters. The narrator and the four young men become friends as they believe her death wasn’t simply a suicide and bond over their mutual discontent over life under the Securitate and their identity as members of the ethnic German minority.
Folk literature is woven into The Land of Green Plums, punctuating the narrative that relies heavily on the trope of silence. The nameless narrator and her friends (Kurt, Georg, and Edgar) all use language and literature to quietly defy the regime, and folk literature plays a large role in this. The characters hid stories and poetry that had been banned by the state: “Edgar and Georg wrote poetry and hid it in the summerhouse” (49). Possession of forbidden literature was (and continues to be) a major crime under fascist governments, and this is an example of active resistance against Ceaușescu’s regime.
But the folk song (by the Romanian poet Gellu Naum) sung by Kurt, Georg, and Edgar throughout the novel is the most significant because it is both innocuous and daring at the same time. Along with their other subversive activities, it is this song that draws the most scrutiny from Captain Pjele, who represents the entire Securitate.
Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud
that’s how it is with friends where the world is full of fear
even my mother said, that’s how it is
friends are out of the question
think of more serious things. (Müller 73)
It is significant on many different levels. Firstly, the three men would always recite the poem, especially “when they felt suspicious” (73). Silence and suspicion are prevalent in every oppressive regime; you can never trust anyone and you can never say anything about it. Moreover, the silence is associated with “feelings of guilt, powerlessness, submissiveness, and vulnerability…Her characters can keep silent because they are afraid of punishment for speaking out against the totalitarian regime or for voicing their ideas, which are irreconcilable with the oppressive social norms” (Shopin 253). The poem, in contrast, is an insinuation subtly pointing the finger at those who cannot be trusted. It is for this reason that Captain Pjele calls it an “an incitement to flee the country” (80). The characters are interrogated multiple times, threatened, and have their rooms searched.
The repetition of the poem emphasizes its role. It is a German folk song and the characters recite it in their mother tongue as it links them to their German roots and ancestry. Like the nursery rhyme in 1984, it evokes a sense of nostalgia and comforting familiarity, even though the verses are also vaguely ominous. It offers them a momentary respite from an existence marked by terror of the dictator and his guards who were “lurking and doling out fear” (48).
They also set these characters apart from the accomplices and collaborators of the Securitate. For instance, when Georg sings a popular old song that had been banned, the image it conjures is a sharp contrast to the drab depictions of factory workers, guards, and policemen that we see throughout the novel.
Yellow canary bird
yellow as yolk
with feathers so soft
and eyes so far away. (Müller 60)
Once again, the verses are innocent and completely harmless, yet the song had been banned and its original singers had fled the country. The act of singing a song that had been banned is dangerous enough, but these acts of repeatedly reciting, singing, or owning forbidden art is a covert act of standing up to the regime. The act of reciting the folk nursery rhyme or reading the banned books was an act of quiet subversion, not active, rousing resistance. They were the actions of a group of individuals suffocated by the force of Ceaușescu’s government asserting their identity as the German minority in Romania, in an attempt to keep their traditions alive. The characters’ persistence in their actions leads to their undoing, as they have made themselves visible to the oppressing forces, instead of conforming to the norms and melting away into obscurity. Foucault stated that “Visibility is a trap,” (200) and Pjele uses this visibility to corner the characters. His threats, abuse, and mind games loom over the four characters and their families, and no character emerges unscathed from the brutality inflicted on them.
If silence is an act of complicity, then the act of reciting and singing folk poems and songs, hiding old books, and taking secret photographs serves as an act of defiance. The very act of singing old German folk songs reaffirms their identity as the German minority in Romania, linking the characters to their culture and the traditions of the past. It serves yet another purpose; separating the main characters from everyone else. Pjele points out that singing the folk song differentiates them from the others. Folk songs and poetry are dangerous because they set the protagonists apart, resulting in a stark contrast to the conformity of the masses, making them visible. Pjele tells them: “Maybe it was a folk song once, but those were different times…Today our people sing different songs” (80).
Folk literature is more than just a means to protest against censorship and oppression in The Land of Green Plums. It is also a source of strength and comfort to the characters, a way to make their lives a little more bearable. For Edgar, Kurt, and Georg, reciting the old folk poem is therapeutic, almost like a ritual that allows them to bear the oppression and constant threats levied on them. As a result, they were “…forever reciting the poem. In the bodega, in the scruffy park, in the tram, in the movie theatre. Even on the way to the barber’s…” (78). Besides, the constant recitation of poetry, the singing of old songs, the stories, poems, and photographs that the protagonists hide in the summerhouse all counteract the silence that they must endure. This trope of silence is the note on which the novel begins and ends, with Edgar telling the narrator that silence makes them unbearable and speaking turns them into fools (1 and 242). Thus, art and folk literature act as alternatives to both silence and speech, a medium through which the characters can express themselves and their trauma. Moreover, folk literature is also reminiscent of a simpler, easier past, which in turn links to the hope for a better future. It allows the characters a brief escape from their horrific present and functions as an act of rebellion at the same time. The idea of art and memory containing the seeds of possibility for a different future has been echoed by Horkheimer and Adorno in their text Dialectic of Enlightenment. They claim that “The urge to rescue the past as something living…has been satisfied only in art” and that invoking the past threatens the current order (25). In other words, folk literature and art serve to protest oppression, comfort the oppressed, and threaten the oppressors. Although this threat is largely indirect and symbolic, its very existence is still enough to alarm those in power.
However, there is a dark side to the folk literature in The Land of Green Plums as well. As in 1984, folk literature is also used by the Securitate against the characters. This is most evident during their interrogations: Kurt is made to eat a piece of paper with the poem written on it (79) and the narrator is forced to sing a vulgar version of the poem by Pjele (95). This shows the characters that the Securitate knows just how to punish them for their so-called transgressions. Both these instances demonstrate the fact that the Securitate is always one step ahead of the protagonists and aware of what they do or think and that their resistance is futile. The idea that the protagonist can never escape the grasp of the Securitate or Party is obvious in both texts: in 1984 Winston has been successfully brainwashed and tortured by the Party and the characters in The Land of Green Plums suffer an equally dismal fate. Kurt and Georg are both murdered by the regime and their deaths are made to look like suicides. The narrator and Edgar escape to Germany, but they too are plagued by threats from the Securitate; both receive letters that are essentially death sentences (Müller 235). The forces of oppression are so powerful that any act of resistance can be redirected to the dissenters. Even folk literature is not fully exempt from the absolute control the ruling party has over every facet of existence.
Both 1984 and The Land of Green Plums depict life under totalitarian rule and their brutal attempts to control how their citizens think and act. While 1984 seems to serve as almost a blueprint for cruelty, dominance, and authoritarianism, The Land of Green Plums shows us these things when carried out successfully. Fear, suspicion, and paranoia infect every aspect of the characters’ lives; they have to “walk, eat, sleep, and love someone in fear” (Müller 34). However, despite the extreme censorship, the characters in both texts gravitate towards folk literature and find ways to incorporate it into their everyday lives. This makes it possible for them to carry out small acts of rebellion, protest against oppression, and stand their ground in the face of unspeakable brutality.
Even when the same folk poems, songs, and nursery rhymes are used against the characters, it still gives them the strength to carry on living, endure, and survive against the odds. It links them to a better past and offers hope for a future where they can exist unshackled and have a voice of their own. Folk literature allows them to express their yearning for freedom when they are unable to do so with ordinary speech. Although the characters are unable to actively protest, folk literature remains the final source of rebellion. This in turn gives them a sense of comfort and makes their current predicament a little more endurable. In short, both texts portray folk literature as a double-edged weapon of sorts. It is something that can be used as a tool that controls, dominates, and instills fear. At the same time, it can be a form of protest against censorship and oppression and a source of comfort and healing.
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Date: December 24, 2021