English & EAL

Comparing: Stasiland and 1984

Anna Wittwer

July 22, 2017

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1. Introductions

Stasiland is a memoir-style recollection of the author Anna Funder’s encounters with people affected by the years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or when Germany was divided into east and west. It marries the author’s personal growth and development during her period of research with the personal histories of those who acted as both perpetrator and victim of the regime’s atrocities. The result is an emotional and deeply human perspective of this heavily-documented period of history which delves into the lasting yet often invisible marks the GDR left on those it touched.

1984 is on the surface the dystopian narrative of the struggles and ultimate downfall of a man named Winston who lives in the depressingly grungy and hopeless world of Big Brother and The Party. In a more profound sense, however, it is author George Orwell’s warning concerning the possibilities inherent in the development of totalitarianism and how these might come to damage the human race.

2. Themes

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3. Character analysis and comparison

When comparing the characters presented in these two texts, it is important to remember that Orwell’s are fictional and Funder’s are her retellings of real people’s stories. Take care to avoid discussing Funder’s characters as constructions, and focus instead on how she has chosen to portray them.

Stasiland

1984

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4. Sample paragraphs

Prompt: Discuss the different ways in which the authors of Stasiland and Nineteen Eighty-Four explore the intricacies of state power and knowledge.

Sample introduction

When significant knowledge in any form is gained, it follows that it can be used in any way an individual or group sees fit. Stasiland and Nineteen Eighty-Four both show that the same piece of information can be used in drastically different ways to suit the purpose of that information’s owner. In both texts, we can observe this in many areas: mass surveillance for security or espionage purposes, recordkeeping to retain the truth or warp it, and medical or physiological advancements used to solve humanity’s problems or deliberately harm and deform people. Such examples force us to consider two well-known maxims, and to decide between the bliss of ignorance and the power of knowledge.

Sample body paragraph

In theory, mass surveillance has many benefits; it could be used to prevent criminal activity such as large-scale terrorist attacks and ensure the happiness and wellbeing of citizens. However, it is almost never associated with anything positive. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are introduced to his hypothesis concerning what it would be like if it were to become developed to its full extent. The concept can be divided into three levels; firstly there is the obvious, external activities that we observe in both texts, which include mail screening, a military or gendarme presence in the streets and a network of informers. Secondly there is the introduction of the state into the home, which is achieved by The Party mainly through the telescreen, the most prominent and sinister instrument of mass surveillance in Oceania which gives total access to individual behaviour in the privacy of the home. While Winston seems to have found a loophole in this area by being ‘able to remain outside the range of the telescreen’, The Party carries its mass surveillance to the truest sense of the expression by extending it to a seemingly impossible third level, which introduces the state into ‘the few cubic centimetres inside [the] skull’. Interestingly, while the Thought Police cannot truly ‘see’ what is inside someone’s head, they can still control it; as long as people think that someone can see their thoughts, they will censor them themselves. This shows that the beauty of mass surveillance is that it does not actually have to be universal or all-encompassing to be successful. This is why the Stasi did not need to go to the lengths of The Party to achieve a similar result; the people merely need to believe that it is so on the basis of some evidence, and through this they can be controlled. Ultimately, mass surveillance can never be anything but destructive for this reason; it could put a complete halt to all terrorist plots and it would still act against the people by insidiously forcing them to censor their own thoughts out of fear.

Sample conclusion

Both Stasiland and Nineteen Eighty-Four show absolutely that knowledge is a fundamental and intrinsic part of power, as it cannot exist without knowledge. While it is true that knowledge can be held without exercising it in some external display of power, it always shapes the person who holds it in ways both subtle and direct. Knowledge can therefore be seen as similar to Pandora’s Box; once it exists in a mind, it alters it, and the actions it prompts depend only on the desires and will of that mind.

 

5. Tips

In order to properly understand either of these texts, you’ll need to put on your history hat. Both of them are very firmly rooted in historical events, and to get a good grasp on what they really mean, you need to understand these events. You should research communism and socialism fairly extensively as well as the GDR, but you don’t need to sit for hours and write a book on the subject. All you need to do is trawl through Wikipedia for half an hour, or as long as it takes to get a sense of the subject. They key is to not ignore things that you don’t understand; if you see terms like ‘Eastern Bloc’ or ‘Marxism’ or ‘The Iron Curtain’ and you’ve got no idea what they are, research them! Even terms that you might believe you’re familiar with, like ‘Communism’ could also use a refresher.

The other main point is that 1984 particularly deals very heavily in ideological and philosophical argument. Orwell constructed the events of the plot as one giant hypothetical situation, so try and think to yourself – could that really happen? Is that really possible, or is this whole thing just plain silly? Remember that this text is much, much more than a simple narrative, and address it as such

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