“The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering – a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons – a nation of warriors and fanatics marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting – three hundred million people all with the same fate. The reality was decaying, dingy cities where under-fed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories” (p 63).
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the eyes and ears of Big Brother are constantly watching and listening. Whether in the street, the office, or the bedroom they know if one has broken an unspoken law or committed a thoughtcrime. Assisting the oligarchical government are the Thought Police, the Junior Spies youth group, coworkers, strangers, and even family members. People are under 24 hour surveillance and any sign of deviation, subconscious or not, is cause for arrest and death vaporization.
The setting is in what used to be called England, which in 1984 is a part of one of the three totalitarian states in existence. The story follows Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites alters printed media as required by the Party. He vaguely remembers a time before the Revolution, when he tasted real chocolate and things didn’t seem so dismal and wrong. Longing for truth and better days, Smith secretly rebels against the government, beginning first by writing in a diary.
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over our own memory. “Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘double-think'” (p 31).
Written in 1948, the literary critic’s last novel is heavily social commentary. 1984 portrays a perverse, totalitarian government through the omnipresent Big Brother regime. Nationalism is extreme on both sides of the spectrum. Freedom and individuality has been stripped away. When one’s not working or participating in community activities, one is at home where Big Brother can keep a watchful eye through the telescreens. Censorship and sexual repression are used as control methods. Energy can be used for better things than pleasure, like assisting the government. Seen as unnecessary and dangerous, language has been minimized to good and ungood while other words like justice and free have been erased. Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s themes span generations.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right” (p 127).
While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four I wondered why I hadn’t read it sooner, but I’m really glad I finally got around to doing so. It’s extremely thought provoking and has made for some interesting conversation with a friend. Twice I had to put it down, after the explanation on “war is peace” and the end. It’s an intense, scary, and brilliant masterpiece. After reading it, I understand why it’s been banned and made so many “must read” lists. Now that I’m older and it’s been awhile since high school, I may have to re-read Animal Farm.
Have you read anything by Orwell? What did you think?
“How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (p46).
Counts towards the Books of the Century challenge.