Themes Explored: totalitarianism, psychological manipulation, physical control, control over history/information, technology, language usage, mind control, urban decay, big brother government, torture, relationship, hope
Synopsis: Winston Smith rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. This new world demands absolute obedience and controls the populace via all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother. Winston is a diligent and skillful worker but secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother.
Review: Originally published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) is a classic dystopian novel about the logical progression of modern society and government. George Orwell penned this tale shortly after the end of World War II and his liberal viewpoints are evident. This over-politicized world, society is ruled by a totalitarian government that monitors and controls all thoughts and actions. In the sixty-six years since publication, the many of the terms and concepts explored in this novel have entered into common usage. The most popular terms being: Big Brother, doublethink, Orwellian, thought-crime, Newspeak, telescreen, 2+2=5, and memory hole. TIME Magazine listed 1984 as one of 100 Best English Language novels published from 1923-2005. It was also listed as number 8 on the BBC’s The Big Read survey. The novel still resonates today as technology erodes privacy and society becomes increasingly connected.
In Orwell’s dystopian future, nuclear war has divided the world into three repressive superstates. The majority of the story is set in Oceania in a city known as Airstrip One, formerly known as London. Winston Smith is a middle-aged bureaucrat employed at the Ministry of Truth. Winston is a lower member of The Party and feels hemmed in with all the rules. His job is too change historical information in order to portray the government and Big Brother (the party leader) in the best possible light. However, Winston is consumed with revolutionary ideas and records his anti-governmental thoughts in a diary. He thinks there is no way to escape the all-seeing government until he meets Julia. A much younger woman, Julia convinces him to sneak away and become her illicit lover. Even though he has a nagging fear of beng caught, Winston takes Julia up on her offer. Though he cannot imagine what awaits him when O’Brien captures him and takes him to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is both a horror story and a political commentary. Orwell uses his narrative to warn against the dangers of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This dystopian society has conditioned everyone to say one think, follow one ideology, and use only the official language. And the “proles” only role in society is to do menial work in order to support the governing class. The narrative is an interesting take on the recording of history. Part of the disturbing nature of dystopia is the depiction of a world where the current ruling party rewrites history to reflect a different past. Also, in a colorless controlled world there is no laughter, art, freedom, or creativity. I would go crazy if anyone tried to control my thoughts or creativity. Poor Winston really pays the price for going against the party line. It is an interesting exploration of how the fundamental building blocks of society collapse when certain actions and words are forbidden. How can people form a revolution when they have no historical examples to follow or words to inspire?
A large part of the narrative is dedicated to a recitation of the Brotherhood’s manifesto. This includes an exploration of social democratic ideals and a powerful disavowal of fascism. The last half of the novel deals with Winston reading the manifesto and questioning why The Party has stayed in power. And Winston is constantly plagued by the question as to why this has occurred. Winston finally achieves his answer when he asks O’Brien why and the answer is: power only for the sake of power. Orwell is trying to show the utter hopelessness of social power keeping itself in power because it is confident in its own immortality. And this only occurs because the government controlled society keeps the population downtrodden and oppressed. This is meant to instill horror in the reader as a direct parallel to the thorough indoctrination of Winston. Instead of successfully rebelling against the government and loving Julia, Winston only feels love for Big Brother. He meets Julia again and has no feelings for her whatsoever. His oppression is complete.
I think the novel’s lasting power lies in the narrative, not just the discussion on social theory. Orwell interweaves the entire range of human experience into the narrative. Winston is a perfect hero who is tortured until he reaches the end of his psychological durability. As is common with most dystopia novels, the reader is never told why Winston is rebelling. We merely know that he decided to rebel. He is a thought criminal and the entire premise is built around this action. Everything Winston does is explored through his crime: his job altering history, his love affair with Julia, and his obsession with O’Brien. All of his emotions, frustrations, and sexuality are controlled by the Party in order to channel expressions of humanity into less socially destabilizing channels. Julia and Winston are even forced to participate in the Two Minute Hate as a form of catharsis and control. Every human experience we take for granted is controlled and manipulated by The Party. Thankfully, the book does not become overly philosophically. Orwell merely poses the questions and lets the reader argue over the outcomes.
Unfortunately, the last fourth of the novel is rather boring. While the images of Winston being tortured are horrific, the narrative comes to a grinding halt. A majority of this part of the novel details Winston reading the dry Brotherhood Manifesto and understanding The Party’s political theory. And no is surprised when the author is not who Winston originally thought. Drama wise, the narrative loses its footing with the torture sequences. There is a little too much theorizing and not enough action. However, the ending scenes between Winston and Julia are superbly written. Actually, their re-meeting is probably the strongest writing in the novel. Despite being sixty-six years old, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains one the best dystopia novels in publication.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, Signet, 1949, ISBN 9780451524935