In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the famous opening sentence of Orwell’s final novel
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Since those words were first published in 1949, they have joined the pantheon, the literary canon, of great opening lines. They are, without doubt, up there with Austen’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’, Dickens’s ‘It was the best of times’, and Melville’s ‘Call me Ishmael’ (which aren’t technically the opening lines of Moby-Dick; but that’s a story for another Friday).
But what is it about Orwell’s opening words which make them so celebrated? Many of the most effective opening lines offer a microcosm of the work as a whole, or, more accurately, one key aspect of it. So that ‘Call me Ishmael’ (if we overlook the fact that they’re not the novel’s very first words) tells us that the narrator probably isn’t really named Ishmael, but that for some reason or another he finds it necessary, in light of what he is about to recount, to offer an assumed name.
And Jane Austen’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ offers an assertion, a statement of objective truth, which is in fact anything but objectively true: Austen is signalling to her readers to be on their guard, to be prepared to detect the irony dripping from her narrator’s words as she uses the (then highly innovative) device of free indirect speech to ventriloquise the opinions and voices of the novel’s characters.
And ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ does something similar. In his sequel to Orwell’s novel, 1985, Anthony Burgess – also the author of another classic dystopian novel, of course – claimed to have read an Italian translation of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Orwell’s ‘thirteen’ became ‘uno’ (i.e., ‘one’), presumably because the Italian translator thought Orwell couldn’t tell the time.
Thirteen-hundred hours is, of course, one in the afternoon on the 24-hour clock, but church bells do not operate on that basis, and so clocks ‘striking thirteen’ is Orwell’s way of defamiliarising the world he is presenting us with, right from the off.
It’s the same defamiliarising trick that Aldous Huxley had pulled in his (less well-known and less quotable) opening line to Brave New World (1932), an important precursor to Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys.’ If a building of some thirty-four storeys can be considered ‘squat’, with that adverb ‘only’ reinforcing the oddity, then we are clearly among a different world whose skyline is dominated by vast skyscrapers (which in 1932 were still a rarity).
But Orwell’s clocks striking thirteen registers something more than the fact that we are being ushered into an alien world.
After all, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not that alien from Orwell’s contemporary 1948, when he completed the novel (it’s thought that he arrived at the eventual title, which was almost going to be 1982, after he reversed the last two digits of the novel’s year of composition): as Jeffrey Meyers observes in his excellent companion to Orwell’s writing, George Orwell (Reader’s Guides), Nineteen Eighty-Four is not so much a ‘nightmare vision’ of the future as a naturalistic depiction of the present and the past.
Indeed, Orwell had read Arthur Koestler and knew what living under Stalin in the Soviet Union was like, and that’s why he wrote Animal Farm (which I have analysed here).
The clocks striking thirteen signals a subtle change to our own familiar world, then, but nothing drastic or momentous. (It’s a nice, though probably entirely fortuitous, fact that there are fourteen words in Orwell’s opening sentence, so that just as ‘thirteen’ goes one better than the usual limit of twelve hours, so the word ‘thirteen’ itself overshoots and otherwise thirteen-word sentence by one.)
Indeed, we have to wait until the end of the otherwise perfectly normal piece of naturalistic detail (April days can all too frequently be both bright and cold, after all) to get to the off-note, the jarring discordance of that final ‘thirteen’.
And what does this signify? It signifies the world of the novel that follows, what Meyers calls ‘the uneasy menace of a military regime’, a totalitarian society in which the one-party state can change the number of hours in the day or the way time itself is structured. Time is one of the few things which most people would agree we human beings have no control over.
We cannot travel through it other than at the regular one-second-at-a-time rate that nature and the universe has arranged for us. We cannot turn back the clock and revisit the past. But changing the system by which time is managed is something that tyrannical dictators can do to give the illusion that they are controlling time. And this is what Orwell’s clocks striking thirteen so brilliantly conveys.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.