How Does “The Twilight Zone” Episode “The Obsolete Man” Criticize Totalitarianism?
Directed by Elliot Silverstein and written by series creator Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone (1959) episode “The Obsolete Man” originally aired on June 2, 1961. Clearly influenced by the German expressionist films of Fritz Lang (such as 1927’s Metropolis), this episode acts as a re-imagining of Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial (later made into a film by Orson Welles in 1962), which tells the story of Josef K.‘s incomprehensible arrest for an unknown crime.
Starring series favorite Burgess Meredith as Romney Wordsworth, “The Obsolete Man” depicts an unspecified totalitarian society in an unspecified age, wherein “logic is an enemy and truth is a menace,” according to Serling’s opening narration.
Here, Burgess’ character, whose occupation is a librarian, is put on trial for being obsolete. Like Ray Bradbury’s 1952 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, which was adapted for the screen in 1966 by François Truffaut, there are no more books in this society and therefore no need for a librarian.
It is appropriate that Romney’s last name is Wordsworth, which plays on the worth of words. During his trail and the time leading up to his ultimate liquidation, Wordsworth debates the worth of literature, and knowledge in general, with the state’s Chancellor, portrayed by Fritz Weaver.
Romney also believes in God, despite the state’s claims of having proven that no such thing exists. The state’s notion mirrors that of Karl Marx, who famoulsy argued that religion is the opium of the people and the proletariat should not be subdued in the present with promises of a heaven in the afterlife. Accordingly, given the time period, some view “The Obsolete Man” as an anti-communist tale, while others argue that the fable applies more generally to totalitarianism and a state that oppresses individual rights (Wordsworth compares the Chancellor to both Hitler and Stalin). Sterling held complex religious views—he was born Jewish, on Christmas Day, and later converted to Unitarianism in order to combine views from both religions—but rather than being essentially pro-religion, his cautionary tale condemns the state’s ruling to control thought and outlaw any divergent beliefs.
After being able to choose the method of his execution, Romey requests a private assassin, the only one to whom he will reveal the means of his death, and asks for his death to be televised. The Chancellor is delighted by the perceived benefits this will give the state in warning other rebellious spirits. However, the obsolete man manages to turn the tables. Wordsworth summons the Chancellor as his assassin, then announces he will die by bomb; the door is locked with both men inside, so the Chancellor will now die with Wordsworth. If the state were to rescue the Chancellor, it would contradict its own ruling. Moments before both men are about to be blown to bits, Wordsworth produces his most prized possession: a Bible. (Owning the forbidden book is a crime punishable by death.) The Bible’s contents provide the man of words with comfort, as Wordswoth demonstrates for his audience how a spiritual man prepares for death, but the man of the state breaks down in tears and begs, “Let me out in the name of God!” Although Wordsworth releases the Chancellor (“in the name of God”), the Chancellor’s comments and escape ironically render him obsolete in the eyes of the state, like the now-deceased Wordsworth, since he did not present an image of bravery in the broadcast. The scene gives a double meaning to the episode’s title, as the Chancellor receives his death sentence.
Other than Fahrenheit 451 and “The Obsolete Man,” perhaps the most famous works of dystopian fiction, portraying worlds in which critical thinking is discouraged, include Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1948 novel1984 (which was made into two films). In Brave New World, the lower castes are bred for low intelligence and serious literature is banned as subversive, while in 1984 rebellion is made impossible through the gradual destruction of words.
“The Obsolete Man” is primarily concerned with illustrating how totalitarianism threatens freedom of thought, through its attack on arts, expression, and words in general. Wordsworth, the man of words, stands as a motivational figure against this oppression, and he draws on the Bible, not primarily as scripture, but as one of our most powerful examples of how literature may teach us self-knowledge, free thought, and inner peace.