What do we mean by Kafkaesque, Pinteresque and Orwellian?

Many writers lend their names to adjectives, but what do they really mean? And are they accurate? Here are six to consider…

Scene for the film Nineteen Eighty-four to illustrate a blog post on Orwellian

Some writers become associated with a certain style or idea to such an extent they get their very own adjective. But what do the most common “eponymous adjectives” really mean and are we using them accurately? Here are words derived from six authors who may or may not be turning in their graves right now…

The novels and short stories of Franz Kafka revolve around individuals who are lonely, perplexed, threatened by anonymous forces and trapped within faceless systems (an analogy for human existence, probably). In Kafka’s dark and menacing settings, torture, cruelty, physical suffering and hopelessness abound. His worlds are recognisable but unreal – nightmarish and impossible to navigate, much as his protagonists strive to do so. Nothing feels sure or solid or comforting, and nothing makes sense.
So “Kafkaesque” describes a situation that is deeply unsettling or frightening because it is close to one’s everyday reality, yet feels unfamiliar, illogical and sinister for reasons that cannot be identified. Normal behaviour and patterns of thinking no longer work, and the individual is untethered from everything he thought he knew. This vision is so powerful – and so unnervingly close to aspects of the modern world – that the word is often used to mean, simply, bureaucratic or pointlessly complex. But that interpretation does not do justice to the nightmarish scenario of the individual caught inside a nameless, self-perpetuating system, the very existence of which appears meaningless. Futility, insignificance, impotence and ineffectiveness haunt and frustrate Kafka’s protagonists – ultimately, it is the fear that our lives mean nothing at all that sits at the heart of something truly “Kafkaesque”.

Twentieth-century playwright Harold Pinter presented murky, puzzling situations that appear to hover on the brink of trouble or danger – threat and menace hanging in the air of his one-room settings. His language was spare and precise, and he was renowned for mastering the nuances and layers of meaning in colloquial speech and, ironically, using them to convey a sometimes deliberate lack of communication. He showed that dialogue does not always operate as a channel of understanding – it can act as a barrier, too. In particular he made use of pauses and silence to suggest awkwardness, unease and menace, and the “Pinter pause” has transcended its literary origins to mean a gap in conversation that is laced with tension. “Pinteresque” often refers specifically to such a pause, but it can also mean an uneasy situation in which the full facts have not been disclosed, or an uncomfortable – perhaps threatening – dialogue that carries a greater weight of meaning than has been voiced. Is the term overused? According to Pinter himself: “Those silences have achieved such significance that they have overwhelmed the bloody plays — which I find a bloody pain in the arse.”

If a theme is emerging here, it would be that Kafka and Pinter dealt with unidentified but palpable threat. Perhaps we attach adjectives to their work because they allow us to name the unnameable – our unspoken, suppressed fears. But when George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-four” (in the late 1940s), his fears did have names: totalitarianism, authoritarianism and oppression. Although Orwell wrote several other highly respected novels, his eponymous adjective derives solely from the dystopian vision of this one book, which describes a world of totalitarian control over every part of one’s life and its most sinister aspects thereof: the outlawing of individuality, freedom of expression and critical thought; constant surveillance; the falsifying of history; the reshaping of language to eradicate independent thought and free expression; the elimination of the concept of a private life or human rights; a ban on contact or communication with others; sentencing without trial; labour camps, torture, death… an absolute horror story in other words.
Orwellian, then, refers to any policy, system or technology that appears, however subtly, to be eroding human liberty by manipulating and controlling our actions and thought processes, or rewriting history to anaesthetise public consciousness and avert criticism or protest. It has become such a common word that this relatively narrow definition has, inevitably, been widened to include all manner of political cover-ups or forms of surveillance. But presenting NHS finances in a misleading way, or filling a town centre with CCTV cameras, are not really Orwellian acts – there is no attempt at total control over you or your mind (which is not to say we shouldn’t worry about those things, but that’s another story). “Orwellian” is also sometimes used as a synonym for “authoritarian”  or “oppressive”, but this is not accurate, either, because freedoms can be removed and ideas can be manipulated in democratic societies, too.  Does it matter? Well, ironically, one of Orwell’s greatest insights was his recognition of the power of language – soundbites, slogans, euphemisms, constantly repeated phrases – to corrupt meaning, manipulate thought and proliferate ideas. So Orwell would probably argue that linguistic precision is crucial to independent thought, free speech and, by extension, personal liberty. When words become detached from their true meanings, nuance, clarity and insight are lost – along with clear judgement and critical thinking.
Not only that, but events of the past few years should prompt us to think deeply about whether or not we are sleepwalking into a genuine Orwellian nightmare. When 1984 actually arrived, we smugly noted that democracy and its attendant rights and freedoms had emerged victorious from the Cold War and were, we believed, fully entrenched. The book, brilliant though it was, was a reminder that we had dodged a bullet and that that bullet was well and truly spent. And yet, lately, the word “Orwellian” has been cropping up all over the place. From our blind enslavement to technology to the rise of fascism across the West, it is starting to feel as if Orwell’s vision of the future was far more accurate than we realised. What if the only thing he got wrong was the date?

Poor Charles Dickens. A titan of British literature, one of our best known and best loved writers and yet… the word “Dickensian” conjures up a somewhat twee vision of Victorian London – all snowy cobbles, bonnets, street urchins and shoppes of one kind and another. What’s more, “Dickensian” generally suggests his novels’ least appealing aspects – the grotesque, evocatively named characters and the squalid living conditions and desperate plight of the poor. In fairness, “Dickensian” does have literary connotations, too – a long novel that features multiple characters, plot strands and settings is often described as such, as are vivid caricature and detailed description. But I can’t help thinking that it’s all a little unfair – Dickens gave us far more than rich source material for the BBC drama department. His use of comedy, his dry, sarcastic asides and quick wit, and the apparent effortlessness of his prose turned serious literature into popular pleasure, and showed that the two are not mutually exclusive. In his hands, caricatures still had depth, galloping plots still had social and political resonance, and fleeting moments were still memorable. He was, in many ways, a literary magician – not merely a sentimentalist with a good line in puns.

George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was a baron from the age of 10, a prolific author of poetry and drama, a member of the House of Lords, and a traveller, adventurer and bon viveur. His works were hugely popular and he was infamous for his scandalous affairs (including one with half-sister), his dedication to freedom of thought and independent action, his anarchic political views, and his shocking codes of morality. Occasionally, the word “Byronic” refers to Byron’s poetry, and means contemptuous of conventional morality or rebelling against fate. It can also refer to the characteristics of his romantic heroes – melancholy, plagued with guilt, yet dynamic and defiant, much like Byron himself. But – oh the indignity! – it more often than not refers to Byron’s supposedly handsome looks: pretty yet brooding with dark eyes and dark curly hair… Aidan Turner as Poldark, essentially. Byron was very vain and did much to manipulate his own public image – so perhaps he wouldn’t mind this somewhat shallow interpretation of his name as much as we might think.

If you think Dickens has it bad, pity poor Proust. The French novelist spent the latter part of his life as a near recluse, utterly dedicated to the completion of his masterpiece “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (“Remembrance of Things Past”), a loooong seven-part novel concerned with despair at the loss of past experience and the futility of human endeavour in the face of the passing of time. But – yay! – the narrator discovers that the past is eternally alive in the unconscious and may be rescued from oblivion by art, or by chance moments of sensory perception, most famously described in a passage where he tastes a madeleine sponge dipped in tea. He experiences an exquisite pleasure, the surfacing of a long-forgotten memory of his childhood which, after much concentration, he identifies as Sunday mornings with his aunt in the pretty village in which he spent his early years. So a moment in which a taste or smell suddenly conjures an involuntary distant memory is known as “Proustian” – in other words, an entire oeuvre reduced to a cup of tea and a piece of cake.

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