Saturday, July 9, 2016

1984 by George Orwell

Genre: dystopia
Pages: 290
Published: 1949

"War is Peace"
"Freedom is Slavery" 
"Ignorance is Strength"

--the motto of the Party

1984 is a 1948 dystopian fiction written by George Orwell about a society ruled by an oligarchical dictatorship. The Oceanian province of Airstrip One is a world of perpetual war, pervasive government surveillance, and incessant public mind control. Oceania is ruled by a political party called simply The Party. The individual is always subordinated to the state, and it is in part this philosophy which allows the Party to manipulate and control humanity. In the Ministry of Truth, protagonist Winston Smith is a civil servant responsible for perpetuating the Party's propaganda by revising historical records to render the Party omniscient and always correct, yet his meager existence disillusions him to the point of seeking rebellion against Big Brother.

Like many readers, I became a fan of the dystopia genre and the recent dystopian trend in YA after reading The Hunger Games a few years ago.  1984 is something like the granddaddy of dystopian fiction and I had heard a lot about it.  Some phrases which Orwell coined in the book, like "Big Brother is watching'' is part of popular culture, and many people know that the society Orwell wrote about was inspired by Stalinism.  However, 1984 is more than the few things about it which have become part of popular culture; I now think that 1984 is an amazing book that everyone should read for themselves.

1984 is different from many YA dystopias I have read, in that while the teenage characters in books like The Giver and The Hunger Games do not usually get to see the inner workings of their dystopian societies, Winston is a part of the Party that seeks to control every aspect of citizens' lives.  Winston's job is basically to eradicate and "edit" information.  For example, if the mysterious Big Brother made a prediction in the newspaper that never came to pass, Winston would go back and change the prediction so that it matches what actually happened.  Though he comes to loathe this job, Winston literally rewrites history.  He reflects that in this society, "all history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary."  History is constantly altered to justify and vindicate the present--a historian's worst nightmare.  While the endless work hours, uniforms, telescreens that watch everyone's every move, and proscriptions against divergent thought were more standard dystopian fare, I was most intrigued by this more psychological aspect of Oceania's control over its citizens.

One of Winston's colleagues is hard at work on furthering the development of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania.  As he tells Winston, this is not so much a process of creating new words as destroying "unnecessary" words to par English down into its simplest form.  The concept is that nobody "needs" words like "exquisite," "extraordinary," "brilliant," "wonderful," "fantastic," when they can simply say "doubleplusgood."  And if there is no word for "liberty," then how can anyone yearn for liberty?  The limits of one's language prescribe the limits of one's mind, after all.  The people of Oceania are warned to never even let themselves think that the Party may be wrong-- doing so would constitute what in Newspeak is called "thoughtcrime."

While Orwell was doubtless inspired by Stalinism, it would be a mistake to write this book off as "political commentary on Stalinism" or other totalitarian governments.  Some of the phenomena which 1984 describes are very relevant to capitalist societies, such as the Lottery system which provides hope to the disadvantaged in the society that they may rise economically and the way governments wage war abroad "on behalf" of the folks at home.  The book also introduced to me the concept of doublethink, "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them."  An example of doublethink that came to my mind immediately was, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."  The people who wrote that believed that "all men are created equal," yet they also consciously believed that people of non-European descent were inferior--classic doublethink!

While I was clearly fascinated by the philosophy and the world of 1984, characters aren't really the book's strong suit.  Winston is a rebel, but that doesn't mean he's a particularly exciting rebel.  His co-worker Julia, who also isn't buying what the Party are selling, seemed promising.  Julia initially freaks Winston out, because she seems to be stalking him outside of work and he fears she's an agent of the Thought Police who has discovered his "thoughtcrime" by watching his expressions.  (Even "facecrime," making incriminating expressions which suggest disapproval of the Party, is a no-no in Oceania.)  Instead, Julia abruptly declares her love for Winston and the two of them begin a passionate relationship which they must hide from the eyes of Big Brother and the Thought Police.  However, Julia also wasn't an extremely likable character; the book really isn't character-driven, but more a book about ideas.

I highly recommend 1984 to those who, like me, may have had it on their tbr lists for ages but have hesitated to read it because they think they know the story already.  1984 was actually the oldest book on my Goodreads to-read shelf.  I added it in 2010 and just now got around to reading it, but I'm so glad that I did.

Another favorite quote:

"Perhaps a lunatic is simply a minority of one."

This book is

riveting                                      thought-provoking                  unsettling


Kate @ Fictional Thoughts said...

I remember reading this book almost ten years ago and whilst I enjoyed it I think a lot probably went over my head. I really like how you compared it to modern dystopian YA and how it stands up against those. You've inspired me to re-read it.

Brona said...

I first read this one when I was your age - it was only a couple of years after the year in the title, so I have been curious to read this again 30 yrs later to see whether it is as frightening and disturbing as I remember.

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