Anthony Burgess

Twentieth Century Dystopian Fiction

This resource places Anthony Burgess’s writing in the context of the other dystopian novels of the period.

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Dystopias: Burgess and George Orwell:

The essays and novels of George Orwell were a major influence for Anthony Burgess. In the book collection at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, there is the well-thumbed, four volume edition of Orwell’s complete essays, journalism and letters. Burgess has inserted a card in volume four, on which he has made notes on the essay ‘The Prevention of Literature’ and Orwell’s review of We by E.I. Zamyatin, two texts which demonstrate Orwell’s strong interest in political dystopia.

Burgess’s most sustained analysis of Orwell comes in 1985, a critical/creative book which responds to many of the ideas in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first half of Burgess’s book contains a commentary on Orwell’s dystopia and discusses the origins of IngSoc. In this passage Burgess discusses Nineteen Eighty-Four as a creative critique of 1948:

‘Let me tell you about 1949, when I was reading Orwell’s book about 1948. The war had been over four years and we had missed the dangers — buzz-bombs, for instance. You can put up with privations when you have the luxury of danger. But now we had worse privations than during the war, and they seemed to get worse every week. The meat ration was down to a couple of slices of fatty corned beef. One egg a month, and the egg was usually bad. I seem to remember you could get cabbages easily enough. Boiled cabbage was a redolent staple of the British diet. You couldn’t get cigarettes. Razor blades had disappeared from the market. I remember a short story that began, ‘It was the fifty-fourth day of the new razor blade’ — there’s comedy for you. You saw the effects of German bombing everywhere, with London pride and loosestrife growing brilliantly in the craters. It’s all in Orwell.’

Burgess never stopped returning to Orwell. As the year 1984 was dawning, Burgess published an article in the Miami Herald titled ‘Good Morning! It’s 1984: Are we Free?’ In this piece he assesses the state of freedom in Great Britain in 1984 as opposed to that of 1948, ‘when we had to tolerate the insolence of clerks of the Ministry of Food and be brainwashed into thinking the rascally Groundnut scheme a good thing’. Burgess believed that this increased freedom was partly thanks to Orwell, and that Nineteen Eighty-Four acted as a prophylactic against totalitarianism:

‘Freedom is so painful an obligation that there will always be some who would prefer to abandon it. The virtue of a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four — or Zamyatin’s We, or Huxley’s Brave New World, or Wells’s When the Sleeper Awakes, or David Karp’s One, or even More’s Utopia — is its capacity to remind us that the freedom of responsible human beings is not that of proles or animals. If 1984 is no more terrifying a year than 1983, that will partly be because Nineteen Eighty-Four has done its work’.

Burgess’s dystopian novels redeploy some of the conventions pioneered by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Wanting Seed examines the role of the State in controlling the growing population of Britain, and the totalitarian methods that might be used to enforce population control. For example, when overpopulation reaches critical levels and there are mass food shortages, the government adopts a military structure and sends soldiers to a perpetual war while at the same time promising them food. The war, it is revealed, is not against an enemy but against another platoon of British soldiers, and its sole purpose is to thin the numbers. A Clockwork Orange examines the ideas of freedom and state brainwashing, which can also be seen in Orwell’s novel, as Winston Smith undergoes reconditioning by the Party.

Published in 1978, Burgess’s 1985 is strongly influenced by Orwell. The second half, a novella depicting a future where the trade unions have overtaken society, is clearly a work of its time. Burgess is critical of popular entertainment and the people who consume it, striking firemen, street gangs and religious reformers. Nevertheless, Burgess’s close readings of Orwell and other writers combine to make his work a valuable companion, which helps readers to understand the development of political dystopian fiction in the twentieth century.