No More Roses

(Disclaimer: this post was originally written as a term paper for my 20th Century British Literature class, and the intent of the thing can really be seen, as well as the need to fill more space than I would on simply a normal post blah blah)

On perspective and influence in Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant” and Moore & Lloyd’s V for Vendetta

The influence of George Orwell’s writing on Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta is inescapable. It is nearly impossible to describe the text, as well as an innumerable amount of dystopian fiction, science or otherwise, without using the word “Orwellian”. It says so much about the lasting impact of Orwell’s masterwork Nineteen Eighty Four that while he certainly had forefathers, contemporaries and usurpers for the definitive depiction of the dystopia. Of the modern world led into collapse and disrepair, from Wells to Huxley to McCarthy to Delilo to Otomo, there have been hundreds of candidates yet “Huxleyan” seems to not have the etymological weight that comes with “Orwellian”, despite Huxley’s work being arguably more prescient.

Alan Moore appears to have been influenced by Orwell on a far greater level than simply implementing a dystopic worldview for many of his works. In fact, in Moore’s work, which is heavily allusive and done so in a very literary manner (he is perhaps the definitive comics creator in exerting a truly post-modern approach to fiction, more akin to Stoppard and Pynchon than modernist Orwell), he goes beyond Big Brother references to the larger intent of all of Orwell’s fiction. Nineteen Eighty Four has greatly influenced Moore’s entire career, early on (in 1985) he wrote a Captain Airstrip One parody serial, and one of the later (in 2008) League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories, the Black Dossier, features a London ten years after the collapse of the Oceania government (and the titular dossier itself is framed in spot-on newspeak documents). Both of these are explicit examples, Orwell’s work has had larger implications, in terms of subject and style, on Moore’s career. This is found most explicitly in V for Vendetta, which it must be said is noticeably the work of a younger artist. Clearly, unlike the playful literary games of the Black Dossier, Moore is deadly serious in the themes which Orwell brought forth in his own work, and the transliteration by Moore in V for Vendetta is itself a deadly serious act of tribute.

The opening line of Nineteen Eighty Four, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” has been crafted explicitly to create a discontinuity with readers. Moore follows Orwell in the second panel of  V for Vendetta by having his omnipresent Voice of Fate explaining “The weather will be fine until 12:07 AM when a shower will commence lasting until 1:30 AM” followed by the ominous, more explicitly “Orwellian” statements of totalitarian control. There is authorial intent in both opening sentences, which can be used to show the contrasts between the work’s creators: Orwell’s line is meant to create an immediate discontinuity between language and our understanding of it as readers. Conversely Moore’s line is meant not only to illustrate an eerie sense of control in the fascist state we are being introduced to, but also it creates a doubt in the reader of whether or not that could ever be possible, even in a predictive manner.

Orwell’s greatest influence on Moore is not the oppressive, matter of fact horror that colors Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm, though surely that is present in much of his work. No, instead it is the sense in which Orwell spent a lot of his work humanizing the cog in the clockwork of the fascist machine. One could call it Totalitarian Empathy. You can see this in both author’s work, over and over again, where instead of portraying the members of the ruling party as snarling monsters they are consistently shown to be human. Not simply human even, but people who are defined by the fear and helplessness that such a society creates at all levels. V for Vendetta’s three-act structure begins with what one could call the de riguer slings and arrows of the angry young man. Wherein all the fascist monsters who run the country are killed off one by one (the media, the government, religion, and the military are all establishments tarnished by the corruption inherent in these people) and policeman are portrayed as racketeers and rapists. But Moore, either intentionally subverting this tone or maturing past it, begins not only showing these ostensibly evil characters as people but begins showing the hero of the piece as nowhere near morally good, whether he understands it or not. In fact, possibly the greatest achievement of V for Vendetta is that as it makes its antagonists more human, more aware of themselves, it makes its protagonist less, despite the formation of the character as seemingly all-knowing. One of the major themes in V for Vendetta, as the book develops, is that all that separates people is perspective and experience. The characters of Inspector Finch and Evey both change drastically from when they are introduced by simply experiencing an aspect of V’s life. It doesn’t mean that they understand him, or that they become him, instead it shows that it is possible to become a better person by understanding someone outside of one’s self.

George Orwell’s short, semi-autobiographical essay Shooting An Elephant is an early example of the use of a sympathetic narrator to illustrate the kind of moral tension that imperial culture creates. The narrator of the story, likely Orwell himself, finds himself in a position of finding the empire deplorable while still presenting himself, and yes, acting, as the personification of the empire’s iron hand. The speaker from the beginning states his disdain for the encompassing arm of the British empire, but still performs his duties. He fulfills his role not simply because he is asked to, but because he feels that the people around him create societal expectations of his role.

“Shooting An Elephant” is in fact, the key to understanding the dichotomy at the heart of Orwell. He is a vehement figure in decrying fascism, imperialism, and control. He is also experienced enough in the day to day personal compromises that add up to complicity. He is at once, understanding of the kind of person who can allow themselves to become part of something he finds, ostensibly, to be evil. It is this quality which makes Orwell’s indictments so biting. Orwell himself wrote “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.”

Orwell’s position as he describes his politicized work he maybe misses this empathetic nature. There is a kernel of what makes Orwell’s work so powerful in “Shooting An Elephant”, wherein we find the internal life of a compromised man as sympathetic and possibly heroic as those which can be called legitimately “heroic”. It is this ability to shift sympathies within character moments, of placing on inside the contradictions of a human being, which has had the greatest effect on Moore’s writing. And ultimately, on V for Vendetta.

Unlike the collapsing postwar British empire that Orwell was creating in, Moore was responding to the tenor of his time, Margaret Thatcher’s England. While both texts are personal, Moore felt that he had particular stakes in what he was discussing, as he was involved in a nontraditional relationship with two women at the time, one which, under Thatcher’s proposed policies on homosexuality (such as the famed “concentration camps for AIDS patients”), he would be considered a criminal. While I think that it would likely be an overstatement (and one deriding the sheer skill and insight which Moore possesses as a writer) to say that this personal stake in the events is what makes V for Vendetta the only legitimate successor to Nineteen Eighty Four. It certainly exposes how unlike Moore’s other highly held work, no matter how accomplished, it never feels as immediate as V for Vendetta does. Orwell, for all his progressive intent, is inherently a Victorian at heart, and his work argues for those ideals. Moore on the other hand is in many ways an anarchist, and progressive in his attitudes concerning much more than Orwell’s sympathies.

The narrator in Shooting An Elephant is never clearly defined as Orwell himself, though it is intimated. We’re never quite sure if this is a memoir or short story, as it would be possible that this event really happened but nothing in the work tells us that this is not it’s author, whether it was documentation of a real experience or not. One could, if they felt like following this line of logic to V for Vendetta, could argue that V is Moore’s personal projection into his story. The sequence in which V dies and remains unmasked, and the character’s argument that V himself is an idea, in a way blurs the authorial stand-in. Surely, the character pronouncing himself an idea which cannot be killed is one of the more audacious (and yet successful) moves by the young author; but there is an obfuscation at work there as well. Perhaps Moore understood that when he was finalizing the book (there was a 5 year publishing gap between the second and third volumes of V for Vendetta) that it was an author surrogate in a lot of ways and sought to distance himself from that.
V, as a character, is problematic when describing him as the hero of the story. In fact, V is a character who appears to come from the long line of British villains-as-heroes, a lineage ranging from Robin Hood to Richard the Third to Sid Vicious. The formulation of the character of V seems to exist to bring contrast to the world Moore creates around him. There is a sense that only in the world that is as horrific and dour as this, only then could a character such as V be considered a hero. One could describe V for Vendetta is the story of a villain who does what he does for arguably the right reasons.

He murders, destroys, tortures, drives insane, manipulates. He commits so many evil acts that calling him a hero is interesting. Moore himself has described it as “a terrorist superhero story”. Which is interesting when you consider how Moore has approached superheroes over his career, ultimately creating political, sexual, and spiritual contexts in which they can exist, and applying the consequences inherent in those contexts. It then means that “terrorist” is the operative word in his description. It was David Lloyd’s idea of adopting the image of Guy Fawkes, and Moore who took his gunpowder plot and use it to open up their story.

The image of a historical terrorist, one that has been made into a folk hero by the British people; manipulating that into the “caped avenger battles fascist dystopia” concept that he and Moore had been batting around when devising a new serial gave the concept a unity it was lacking. Any similarities to Batman and the Shadow are superficial at best, despite both characters influence.

No, V’s every action and characterization are objectively that of a villain. His origin, revealed in narrated journaled flashback similar to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s introduction of Doctor Doom but full of subject matter closer to Thomas Disch’s darkly comic Camp Concentration, belies nothing but how evil has been portrayed throughout 20th century fiction. Built on medical experimentation and dehumanization, his face obscured for the story’s entirety. His dialog, chock full of a lingering kind of insanity, is built on alliteration but quickly shows the fierce intellect and dangerous mercuriality of megalomania. He grows roses, he stockpiles plastic explosives. He monologues. V’s home is composed like the famed Winchester Mystery House, doors opening into brick walls, rooms interlocking with one another like the elements of the master plan. V’s lair is eventually revealed to be located in the disabused London Underground, allowing him to be everywhere and nowhere (is there any phrase more apt than describing terrorism?). He appears throughout the piece in disguise, playfully compares himself to Satan, and is most sympathetic when he is about to kill someone. Maybe most importantly, he’s got a dead (non-romantic) love of his life he’s dedicated his quest to. V’s commitment to her is perhaps his most traditionally “villainous” quality, a trait long kept on the side of villains in western literature. V subjects people to torture in order to force them to think like he does, to recreate versions of himself. He kidnaps a young girl, brainwashes her, and makes her an accessory to murder of a prominent figure. When they part ways, he kidnaps her and destroys her personality through concentration camp style tactics and torture. He brings her to the brink of insanity and death, only to create another person like himself. Finally, upon his death, he asks her literally to become him. This not an anti-hero, or a subversion of an archetype, insomuch as it is making the idea of the  terrorist and the super-villain into something like a hero. For in this world that Moore creates, developing motivations for even the most vile human being. There is a twisted kind of equilibrium in V for Vendetta, one that I think is the opposite side of the Orwellian approach to characterization. V is not ever given the chance to become truly human for the reader. V is instead an idea, a hero who is also simplified enough to simply call him a terrorist without any explanation of motivations. He is an argument, a cipher, and yet he is still so compelling that it would be short sighted to call him a non-character. V is a bad person, who does what he does because it’s right. He wants to make the world a better place, and the only way he can do that is by burning a society down to its knees, just to prove a point.

The brilliance of V for Vendetta is that not once as a reader does one ever think V is in the wrong. Not once. There is certainly some doubt about his methods, but he is completely in the right, killing his way across his past so as to clear a path for his ornate terrorist plans. To bringing down an entire fascist government. To bringing about an age of anarchy, one carved in his own image. As Finch says in the middle third of the book, he is either enacting a Hitchcockian revenge plot and then escalating to a society, or he misdirecting the cops while he moves toward a larger and more sinister plan. Still, because of the way he moves, the way he talks from the first scene on,V is doing what he does because he knows it needs to be done. Moore and Lloyd are truly interested in portraying the terrorist, the villain, as a moral force.

Being moral, of course, does not mean that he’s not evil. Evil is something which both Orwell and Moore tend to avoid discussing. As with both of their works, the intentions behind actions, if truly understood, cannot be described as evil. If looking at both author’s careers, the presence of evil is there in the work. Surely Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four can be used to show that there is a malignancy within people. Moore has spent a lot of time portraying murderers, rapists, and monsters as human(his finest character may very well be Jack The Ripper, not to mention his “I had a bad day” motivation for his Joker in The Killing Joke), but throughout the work there is a sense of something ineffable about these sympathetic portrayals. There is a driving force behind transgression and violence that could easily be called “evil”.

That is what makes V for Vendetta worth discussing in relationship to Orwell, that even in it’s most sympathetic portrayals of the character there is an allowance, maybe one the author is not even aware of, for the ineffable. Beyond that, instead of a morality play in which we learn that fascism is wrong, we are given a story with no easy answers. V for Vendetta’s core scene is often said to be Evey’s experience in the prison, and the narrative within the narrative of Valerie’s letter. The other scene frequently discussed is V’s to-camera monologue where he gives humanity their metaphorical walking papers. There is no disputing what either of those scenes is “saying”. In the story around it, the argument is that ideology forever hurts people when it is put into practice, and that putting ideas over people is always going to be damaging. No matter what the ideas are, whether they are paranoid and venal or V’s own, ultimately the lengths gone to have compromised any ideals held in the fist place.

There is another scene in V for Vendetta which moves past the argumentation stage, and reveals the ineffable sense of something more than ideas. Near the finale of the piece, where Evey sits staring at V’s body, following his pronouncement to Finch “This is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof.” and his order to her to never know his face. Evey sits and walks herself through unmasking V over and over, each time thinking about who he could be, until realizing what V meant by his final words. The smile, Lloyd’s closeup of Evey’s ear to ear grin is perhaps the most disturbing moment in the entire story, giving the impression of not just an idea being passed but a malevolence reasserting itself on a new host, a demon of anarchy finding a new messenger. There is something terrible about this moment, the only way for V’s terrorist plot to be fully achieved is through this young girl. Even if this is what needs to be done, if it is the right thing (and Moore has spent a large amount of time dissuading us from the idea that there is a right thing to be done), it is a horrible gut-sick beat for the character. One would be hard pressed to call it “evil”, but it is the one moment in the piece that allows for such an idea to fly. Perhaps Moore and Orwell would prefer their gallery of characters to all be believably human in some way, all of their moments to come from a place of understanding, the one that stands out most in these two works is where it was impossible.

-Sean Witzke November 2011

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About sean witzke

Writer.
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