Book Review : 1984 by George Orwell
Winston Smith dutifully goes to work in the Ministry of Truth carefully updating all the records so that everything matches the proclamations of Big Brother so that everything the Party says is true. Strangely Winston remembers being at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia, but no one else seems to remember. He also seems to remember that the Party didn’t invent the airplane. The real problem is that it is dangerous to think and Winston can’t seem to stop thinking. Unexpectedly Winston acquires a beautiful book, bound full of empty pages. Even though he knows it is irreconcilable to remain a good Party member and own this book he cannot get rid of it. Making matters worse he begins to write in the book knowing that by doing so he is a dead man, it is just a matter of time.
Adult Point of View
1984 has been required reading for all seniors in high school for the last ten years in our school district. Ironically this book is on the list of books that have been censored in different places since it was first written. I have some concerns that the students will not fully grasp what Orwell is warning us about, however, if we don’t teach our kids to think that is an even larger danger. I do not like the sex scenes in the book and am uncomfortable with high school teens (17 and 18 year olds) reading it, and I would prefer to see this as a college book for study.
Current dystopian novels tend to create a dysfuntional future as a backdrop for a steamy romance. The point of these novels is some points of disaffection for society, but really are a means of creating a relationship. Young adult dystopians also tend to end with hope for the future. Classic dystopian novels full function was to explore the plight of humanity if a society was to spiral down into a destructive cycle and to serve as a warning to society that we need to retain our humanity. Some of the most revered dystopians include, Orwell’s 1984 written in 1948, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (a personal favorite) published in 1931, The Iron Heel by Jack London published in 1908, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 written in 1953 (another favorite) and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin written in 1921. Each of these novels is terrifying because the author makes it seem possible.
The structure of Winston Smith’s world:
After an atomic war the globe is divided into three super-powers, each that are totalitarian governments and truly indistinguishable from each other; Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. Ingsoc, the government philosophy is an abbreviation of English Socialism. Big Brother, though fictional, is the face of the Party, originally the Labor Party of Oceania. The past is continually erased and re-written to correspond with the information that the Party wishes for their citizens to believe. The proles, short for proletariats, retain their human instincts, but are kept in ignorance by the Party so they will remain a non-threatening work force. The Inner Party seeks for power, and believe power is created by fear/suffering. The Inner Party may know the truth, but they are uninterested in change because of their desire for power and actively choose to believe their own lies. The Outer Party are truly as ignorant as the proles and are taught from an early age to be willfully stupid, or use doublethink, to change their thoughts to always align with anything Big Brother tells them to believe.
The Party is full of intentional discrepancies to further befuddle the human mind and to retain their power. The Party slogans are 1) War is Peace 2) Freedom is Slavery 3) Ignorance is Strength. The government is divided into different ministries. The Ministry of Peace is in charge of the war, the Ministry of Plenty deals with rationing and starvation, the Ministry of Love takes care of torture and the Ministry of Truth disseminates all the propaganda.
The sanctity of the family has been destroyed as children are taught to spy on their parents, there are no friends, only comrades, and that Big Brother – the government – now fulfills the role of the family. Sexual intimacy is only for the procreation of children and sexual acts if committed as a perversion are also accepted (such as sex with a prole prostitute or acquiring state written pornography). One of the most telling scenes of the completion of the state’s perversion of natural human emotion is when Winston and Julia are talking for the first time in the country, and Winston reveals that when he had seen her his desire was to rape, beat and murder her. Julia laughs as though he has said something delightful and later they have sex, not as an intimate act, but as a mechanical rebellion against Big Brother. Later they have sex purely for their own pleasure, but they know that their actions will lead to their deaths. Winston is also happy that Julia has slept with many Party members because “anything that hinted at corruption filled him with wild hope.”(p.125) The Party disguised corruption as being pure and good and so “corruption” was a rebellion against the Party which was actually corrupt. The war is another means to repress the people of the nation by having a continual shortage of goods, justification to have a strong government and providing a unifying effect in the form of patriotism.
A strong theme is the dehumanization of mankind found in multiple references, such as, two blank discs instead of eyes, the man’s speaking that sounded like the quacking of a duck and Winston kicking a severed hand off the sidewalk as if it was nothing important. The opposite is also true, when Winston sees Julia as a human being he knows he must take note of the color of her eyes and discovers that they are a warm brown. He also observes the wild eyes of the prisoner and the fanatic eyes of O’Brien.
Winston has a high regard for O’Brien and believes that they may have something in common even though he observes that this man has a coarse, brutal face. In a dream Winston is told by O’Brien that, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” So often darkness is used in an analogy for that which is evil, though not here. Where everything is light, there is nothing hidden, all is revealed and wickedness can reign.
Winston is told, “Don’t worry, Winston; you are in my keeping. For seven years I have watched over you. Now the turning point has come. I shall save you, I shall make you perfect.” (p. 244)
The process of being made perfect, or dehumanization, that Winston undergoes in the Ministry of Love as he is tortured is terrifying. O’Brien has a dual role in Winston’s mind as his Torturer and Savior because he is the one who can stop the pain. Ultimately when pain is not enough to reprogram Winston he is sent to room 101, where people meet their worst fear. In Winston’s case this is rats, and he finally succumbs and betrays his love for Julia, which was his last shred of humanity. After his release Winston is still periodically interrupted in this thoughts with false memories that are incongruent with Big Brother. Winston finds a kind of enlightenment in the end with the news broadcast of the war and he completes his transformation being at complete peace with Big Brother thinking, “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” (p. 298) (I might add this is a rather sickening scene that makes me scream with the loss of final hope for Winston.) Though alive everything Winston knew and questioned is now dead, being alive is now no different than being dead.
This is not a book to read for a fun, fluffy time, and it is not enjoyable in that sense. It is valuable and we can see shades of warning in our time. Are we going to be part of the uneducated masses? Not illiterate but alliterate? Not caring about others? Allowing our freedom to be eroded? Will we retain our humanity? Do we live in a time when we can allow for others’ success rather than oppression?
4 out of 5 stars
ps- Truly I could have written pages about this book. I have included some of the other art for fun. Also, as a point of interest, there is a t-shirt which reads: 1984 is not an instruction manual.
When I was a teenager, our perception would have been that 1984 was the USSR which was under a communist regime.
According to biographer John Newsinger, the other crucial dimension to Orwell’s socialism was his recognition that the Soviet Union was not socialist. Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist—indeed he became more committed to the socialist cause than ever.” (as found on Wikipedia.org) Orwell believed that Socialism was the only political philosophy that would be successful over time.