“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their People.” – V
Publisher’s Note: We publish this essay every Guy Fawkes Day. “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November…”
“One man’s terrorist,” wrote Gerald Seymour, “is another man’s freedom fighter.” This saying, popularized in the 1980s by president Ronald Reagan, perfectly sums up the message of James McTeigues’ film, V for Vendetta. The film stars a masked man known only as “V” and his quest to bring a government by the people back to London. The Guy Fawkes mask worn by V gives some insight into his philosophy. Fawkes, an English revolutionary who allegedly plotted to blow up the English Parliament on November 5th 1605, fought the oppressive English government just as V does. Though some criticize V for his violent actions and label him a terrorist, in reality, V is fighting for the good of the people in hopes of reviving the vox populi. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” McTeigues’ V for Vendetta , and the content of our Three Democracies course all convey the same message: fearful citizens must emerge from the cave of oppression and challenge corrupt governments by organizing and raising their civic voice.
Though an engaging and enjoyable action thriller, V for Vendetta contains a powerful political message. The film’s setting is a futuristic England where a totalitarian government rules, led by Chancellor Sutler. Sutler is strikingly similar to Hitler – in fact, the flag of Sutler’s country even resembles the Nazi swastika. As portrayed on the government-controlled English TV, the United States is suffering a harsh civil war, but England, under the centralized rule of Sutler and “the Party,” seem to be doing well –
until so-called “terrorist” V appears. As the film opens, he makes his entrance in a dark back alley as he saves a woman from being raped by government officials as punishment for being outside past the mandated curfew. When asked by Evey, the woman whom V saved, who he is, V gives a long and theatrical speech in which he uses no fewer than forty words beginning with the letter “v.” V’s speech, though seemingly melodramatic, contains an important message that V reiterates throughout the film. V states that “the only verdict” against the “virulent vermin,” who currently rule England in a manner which “violates volition,” is a “vendetta.” V champions his vendetta as hope for England’s future as “the value and veracity of such a vendetta shall one day vindicate the vigilant and virtuous.” In other words, V is upset at the current corrupt rule of England, which has taken away the people’s voice and thus their freedom. V describes the problems in Sutler’s government as “cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression,” but rather than blaming just the leaders, as citizens so often like to do, V says, “if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror,” suggesting that citizens themselves are to blame as well for not actively opposing this corrupt government. Analogously, in Plato’s Allegory, the cave’s inhabitants choose not to turn their heads from the wall of shadows. V’s ambition, similar to that of Plato’s, is to help rekindle the power of the vox populi, to inspire people to turn from watching shadows to enjoying reality.
V for Vendetta conveys this inspiring message through both dialogue and the use of symbolism. V himself is a symbol. As V remarks at the film’s beginning, there is a “paradox” in “asking a masked man who he is.” The mask allows V to represent the idea of freedom, justice, and voice, an idea that can be adopted by anyone if they have the courage to put on the mask. Just before V kills a man who poses a threat to him he whispers, “beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea.” As the story unfolds, V and Evey make their introductions. V finds Evey’s name particularly interesting, pronouncing it “E-V,” in Latin this translates to “of V,” suggesting that Evey represents the same idea V does. V then commences to blow up the Bailey building to the background of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a concerto he dedicates to “Madame Justice.” The music itself is symbolic, as the overture was written in honor of the small Russian army who defeated Napoleon, their oppressor, against all odds. This classic concerto is heard throughout the film, as the story it commemorates is similar to the one V strives for: the people rebelling against an unjust government and reclaiming their voice. V is similar to the prisoner who escapes the cave; it’s up to V to guide the citizens of England to a discovery of the truth.
After the spectacular demolition of the Bailey, V essentially kidnaps Evey because she has seen the “terrorist” for whom the government is searching. While in V’s cave, Evey notices many artifacts stolen from “the censor.” These artifacts include Renaissance paintings, a plethora of literature, and marble statues. All of these relics represent moments in the past that symbolize knowledge, creativity, and freedom of thought. It is significant that Sutler’s government tried to hide these artifacts, as if the government would like to keep its people in a cave similar to that of Plato’s Allegory, watching shadows on the cave wall, mere illusions of reality. But one day a prisoner is compelled to turn his head and, even though he “suffers sharp pains,” the prisoner emerges from the cave to face a whole new reality and decides “he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions,” or shadows, alluding to V’s mindset of the corrupt English government.
During her stay at Shadow Gallery, V’s lair (the name of which is ironic because it’s the opposite of shadows) Evey finds out that V’s favorite movie is Monte Cristo. Not by coincidence, this classic film parallels V for Vendetta, as Edmond Dantes seeks revenge against those who wronged him and strives to bring down corrupt nobles in the government. Evey, after executing her escape from V, seeks refuge with her dear friend Gordon Deitrich, star of a famous television show, who startles Evey by cooking her the classic English breakfast of “eggie in a basket” the very same way V did during her time at Shadow Gallery. This connects V and Gordon, and, as it turns out, Gordon is very similar to V. He’s been forced to cloak his true homosexual desires, in order to conform to the repressive government’s expectations. Gordon tells Evey of his predicament: “You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.” Another connection between Gordon and V is their collection of illegal relics of the past. Gordon too has hidden art and literature, such as the Qur’an and a politically satirical painting, in his house, saying that he finds the “images beautiful and the poetry moving.” These symbols of the past are examples of realities found outside of the cave.
Evey eventually falls back into V’s hands, after being tortured by him, under the guise of Sutler’s government. This part of the film initially defies all moral grounds, but is ultimately transformational for Evey. By imprisoning her, V liberated Evey from her fear allowing her to help him change the world for the better by reigniting England’s vox populi. “You found something else. In that cell you found something that mattered more to you than life” V tells her, “It was when they threatened to kill you unless you gave them what they wanted… you told them you’d rather die.” By defying what she thought was the government, Evey found her voice and realized she was strong enough to fight for V’s cause, just as her parents had been. In prison, Evey met Valerie, another character who embodies the idea of freedom, justice, and voice. Valerie’s writing reinforces V’s idea as she says:
An inch – it is small and it is fragile, and it is the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.
She is talking about integrity, which is often defined as “the state of being whole.” When the voice of the people is lost, the film suggests, so is their integrity. Valerie helps Evey in her grueling emergence from the cave. Evey is released from prison when she faces her death because V deems her free of fear, a human emotion V blames for the loss of the vox populi.
Evey’s transformation is symbolically portrayed in the rain, juxtaposed with scenes of V’s fiery escape from the Larkhill Detention Center. Evey came out of the cave, literally and figuratively. Her imprisonment awakened her to the value of freedom, justice, and voice. The cave from which she emerges is almost identical to that of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” As she stands on the roof, Evey raises her arms up in the shape of a letter V, symbolic of her adopting V’s idea. The rain that falls around her is representative of baptism and new birth, the road to which, like Plato’s Allegory, is not easy – “a steep and rugged ascent.” Evey has been exposed to the light of knowledge, but must enter the “cave” again, filled with the “puppeteers” of authority and the “chains” of conformity in the hopes of revealing to other citizens, or prisoners, the real world, rather than the government-created shadows to which they have grown accustomed.
As the revolution draws nearer, V sets up an extensive array of dominoes. The scene is interspersed with images of uprisings, as if the dominoes represent people that have adopted V’s idea and have begun to dissent from the corrupt government. When V sets the first domino in motion, it rapidly knocks over all the others, creating a large, red “V” inside of a black circle, as if to show the number of citizens who are united under the idea of freedom, justice, and voice for which V stands. These people are later seen storming the parliament building, all of them wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The mask creates a cover of collaboration, allowing people to stand together in raising their civic voice. It is the sheer number of masked citizens that instills the courage in the populace to remove their masks and step into their role of government.
Three Democracies teaches a similar message to that of V for Vendetta, but instead of fiction, Three Democracies instructs through real events of history. The message of Three Democracies is to “Question Authority” and regain civic voice, just as V for Vendetta encourages viewers to regain freedom and voice. In the ancient city of Athens, home to the first true democracy, the citizens’ loyalty to the polis came above all else, that is until Pericles introduced greed to this once glorious city. Thucydides writes that the desire Pericles instilled into the people turned the Athenians from a “sober, thrifty, and self-sufficient people, to a money loving, intemperate, and licentious one” (48). Pericles, though seemingly benefitting Athens, in fact changed it from a democracy to an empire right under his citizens’ noses. But they didn’t object. The citizens gave away their power in government to Pericles, though perhaps they did not know it at the time, in exchange for luxuries, which imbued the Athenians with apathy and complacency. A similar situation occurred in V for Vendetta. When giving his televised speech to England, V says,
War, terror, disease. They were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.
Just like the people of Athens, the citizens in V for Vendetta exchanged their own free will and engagement in government for the false comforts of order and peace. For a democracy to thrive in the long run, citizens must question authority and dissent from unjust policies as part of their role in government. In the words of V, “People should not be afraid of their government. Government should be afraid of their People.” This is hard. Famous in the world of psychology, the Milgrim experiment showed that it is a fundamental human trait to accept authoritarian rule. Classes such as Three Democracies and films like V for Vendettaare valuable in that they remind us of the importance of civic engagement.
As renowned Greek historian Thucydides once commented, “such things have occurred and will always occur as long as human nature remains the same” (80). Therefore, it is no surprise that the Roman Republic suffered similar circumstances to Athens and, subsequently, England in V for Vendetta. Rome, like Athens, started out as a strong city with a fierce culture of virtue. As Rome began her conquests, however, a great influx of wealth changed the city and “Roman ideas of virtue changed” (Polybius, 36). Greed replaced all virtues. The historian Sallust describes the effect of this erosion: “Greed destroyed honor, and every other virtue, and taught men to be proud and cruel” (107). This created a downward spiral and without a culture of virtue, the diseased Republic became a sewer, attracting corrupt and licentious men. Politicians in the Republic began appealing to the citizens’ greed and love of luxury and wealth by putting on gladiator fights and circuses, marking the beginning of a Republic in which the leaders no longer needed to appeal to justice to gain the support of the Roman people. Julius Caesar is a well-known politician who was very liberal with his wealth, which proved to be an investment in the people and “gained [him] so much popularity with the people that many were ready to elect him to higher offices,” (118). Caesar’s power, given to him by the citizens themselves, destroyed the city of Rome. Citizens in Athens, Rome, and futuristic England all exchanged their civic voice for luxuries, possessions, and safety just as the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory were decidedly more content watching the flickering shadows presented by the puppeteers, rather than making the arduous journey out of the cave.
In the midst of these changes in government, several cognizant citizens noticed a similar warning sign present in the three different governments. In Athens, Thucydides wrote that “words began to change their meanings” (81). In Rome, Cato comments that “for a long time now we have ceased to call things by their proper names” (113). And in V for Vendetta, Valerie writes:
I remember how the meaning of words began to change. How unfamiliar words like “collateral” and “rendition” became frightening, while things like Norsefire and the Articles of Allegiance became powerful. I remember how “different” became dangerous.
These similarities in times of transition from a people’s government to authoritarian rule provide a lesson to current and future democracies, warning citizens to look out for words changing their meanings. The current United States has shown signs of this change, as they call their brutal torture of alleged Islamist extremists “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the deaths of innocent Muslim woman and children in drone strikes “collateral damage.” This is what the great English novelist and journalist George Orwell called “double-speak” in his classic novel 1984. Changing the meaning of words suggests a false sense of reality; if words can change meanings then do they even contain meaning? These spurious realities in Athens, Rome, V for Vendetta , and the United States all resemble the false sun used by the puppeteers in Plato’s Allegory.
Three Democracies is not just about the past, just as V for Vendetta is not just about the future. Both have thematic elements that connect to the present as well, one of these being political satire. Three Democracies explored political satire through Aristophanes’ The Knights, which provided biting political commentary on Athens’ situation. The character of Demos, the Greek word for people, is a blind and deaf old man, which comments on the Athenians’ lack of civic engagement. In V for Vendetta , Gordon Deitrich is responsible for political satire. He stages a show in which Chancellor Sutler is portrayed as V, suggesting the Chancellor is the real terrorist. The repercussion of Gordon’s attempt to tell the truth results in his death at the hands of Sutler’s intolerant government, not unlike the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting, in which Al-Qaeda terrorists killed the staff of a satirical newspaper in Paris. Just as in ancient Rome and Athens, freedom of voice and expression is not a part of most governments in the world today, and those who do employ their volition are banished from their home country or even murdered. Similarly, the enlightened prisoner in Plato’s Allegory is murdered in his attempt to guide the other prisoners to the truth of their situation.
Another parallel from V for Vendetta to the present day is widespread citizen surveillance, something that violates the freedom of the polity and the privacy of individuals. In the authoritarian setting of V for Vendetta, vans drive around monitoring citizens’ conversations; nothing anyone says is private. Unfortunately, this is not just an element of fiction. Edward Snowden recently disclosed widespread surveillance conducted by the U.S. government through the NSA. Unlike other citizens, Snowden used his voice to question authority, the consequence of which resulted in him fleeing the country for his own safety when he became a “whistleblower.” If he was a character in V for Vendetta, he would have worn a Fawkes mask because he stands for the same ideas as V: freedom, justice, and voice. Snowden, speaking about his choice to reveal the widespread surveillance, says: “Citizenship carries with it a duty to first police one’s own government before seeking to correct others” (No Place to Hide, by Glenn Greenwald). This epitomizes the message of Three Democracies, V for Vendetta, and Plato’s Allegory: question authority and regain civic voice. A true democracy can only be maintained when a system of government is based on isonomia, and the citizens, loyal to the polis, use their collective courage and voice to question authority and hold leaders accountable.
“It will be enough for me if these words are judged useful by those who seek a clear vision of the past and of things to come,” explained historian Thucydides at the beginning of his history of Athens, “since, by human nature, such things or similar ones will come to be again” (52). Plato’s Allegory, V for Vendetta, and Three Democracies convey the importance, beauty, power, and necessity of civic voice and the practice of questioning authority. True democracy thrives on volition, veracity, and virtue. It is, unlike any other form of government, a process that must always be worked at by its citizens and is crucial to the success of democracy. At films end, V’s actions catalyze formerly fearful Londoners to remove their masks of anonymity (or, as Plato suggests, to come out of the cave) and raise their civic voice to question and challenge authority. As parliament explodes in the background, Evey speaks to V and his legacy, saying,
“He was Edmund Dantes. And he was my father…and my mother. My brother…my friend. He was you…and me. He was all of us.”
As V says, “ideas are bulletproof” and ultimately, the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy is to, in the powerful words of poet Mary Oliver, “ignite, or be gone.”
 Harry’s Game, Gerald Seymour (The Overlook Press, 1975)
 What I have learned so far, by Mary Oliver
Anneka Williams is a first year student at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.