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The Famous Thirteen

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four

On every list of most famous first sentences in a novel ever, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four stands out.

And rightly so:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.1

This is marvelous. A first paragraph that’s crammed with vital information, but without any clumsy explanations. What we often hear is, “Oy! Exposition in science fiction is so hard!” Now you might object that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not true sf but rather more like, well, mainstream, all things considered. This might be so, but it makes Orwell’s job even harder.

Consider this. In science fiction, you can at least rely on your readers to expect the extraordinary, and to suspend judgment on what kind of world they’re entering into until they’ve picked up sufficient information. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, you have science fiction-ish mainstream and a world very similar to ours in many respects, but outrageously different in others. Now that is hard, in terms of exposition! If you read along, you will see that Orwell refrains from explaining anything for a few more paragraphs until Winston launches into an inner monologue which does indeed proceed to explain quite a bit. But then, miraculously, this monologue turns out to be not simply a device to put us in the picture, but Winston’s inner musings and preparations in order to sit down and carry on with his diary, which, in turn, will later turn out to have played a pivotal part in the story all along. Everything’s connected here, and beautifully so.

But, let’s have another look at the first paragraph. You have two strong markers here that do not explain anything but make you aware that there are facts in need of explanation. The first marker is the clock that strikes “thirteen,” which clocks in our world don’t. The second is the “swirl of gritty dust,” which isn’t what you’d expect “on a bright cold day in April.” Or at the “Victory Mansions,” for that matter. Something does not ring true, something is not quite right.

And there’s another important subtext in the clock that strikes thirteen. In Great Britain, historically, the 24-hour clock format was introduced rather late. In the British military, this notation came to be used during the First World War, and it began to spread into civilian use not before the end of the Second World War, when it was used mainly for transportation schedules. (Remember, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949.) So “thirteen” had, and for many ears still has, a decidedly military ring to it, and “the clocks” “striking thirteen” even pushes this right into unreflected, every-day use. Together with the untimely signs of crumbling decay, the very first paragraph already evokes, or for a less attentive reader at least prepares, without explaining anything, a world where England is a society at war and has been so for a long time.

1 Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin, 1988 [orig. published 1949]. 5. 

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