George Orwell‘s “1984” is a favourite of many idols of mine, and after finally reading it for myself, I can see why. Much of the novel has made its way into popular culture, so some concepts are already familiar to the new reader. “Big Brother” – the leader of The Party, whose presence is felt through the entire book, but is never actually seen. Some might think of the ever-present and unrelenting surveillance by The Party, and some might think of the almost unpredictable brutish terror of the dreaded Thought Police.
The novel is written from the point of view of Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist, and the book follows his journey from his own personal acts of minor rebellion against The Party to outright revolt by turning to activism for The Brotherhood – the mysterious and covert organization dedicated to the eventual overthrow of the totalitarian state – and back to being a middle-class drone, spirit broken and hopes dashed.
Whenever I read books set in the future, I tend to get distracted by the sillier notions of the author’s predictions of that future. 1984, however, was never intended as a prediction of anything, but more as an immediate warning. Written in 1948, the book was set only 36 years in the future, when the ugly forces of totalitarianism, fascism and a nuclear arms race culminate in three totalitarian global nation-states of Eurasia, East Asia and Oceania in a state of constant war.
(Orwell did, however, correctly predict that the continuation of active warfare would necessitate an eventual move away from atomic weaponry and a return to more “conventional” rocketry weapons. Full marks there.)
While Orwell’s broad vision of the world in 1984 bears little resemblance to what we have today, we do see a startling amount of elements of the story paralleled in modern life. For example:
In the book: The government engages in continuous revisionism, constantly rewriting history to change inconvenient things. Today: Republican Party champions rely on pseudo-historians like David Barton for creating and reinforcing false ideas like “America was founded on Christian principles”, or crazy “historical perspectives” on gun laws, or the Constitution and its various amendments, and so on.
In the book: The government’s departments are given names that are opposite to their function (eg, The Ministry of Truth is the department that engages in this historical revisionism). Today: Political action groups use very misleading names, such as; “Focus on the Family”, dedicated to obliterating the concept of same-sex marriage; The “Independent Women’s Forum”, an anti-feminist conservative women’s organization that encourages women to take “traditional family roles”.
|George Orwell, 1933 press photo.
Above, still image from the 1956
BBC movie (linked below)
In Orwell’s Oceania, the population is divided into three classes: The Inner Party or ruling class represents less than 2% of the population, the Outer Party or middle class is about 13%, and the Proles (from “Proletariat”) or working class represents 85%. Occupy Wall Street made famous a similar structure of 1% ruling class, and 99% everybody else, lumping the middle class and working class figures together.
In the book: The government’s oppressive and pervasive surveillance programs force people to be subversive with even everyday things. Personal privacy is virtually non-existent. Today, cameras are practically everywhere, recording just about everything, often from multiple angles and in high definition. The Patriot Acts and other laws have obliterated personal rights and freedoms, just ask the No Such Agency. Your local grocery store probably knows more about you than your own mother does. People have to take extra measures with even everyday things just to maintain some small privacy and anonymity.
The comparisons continue, and the more you think about it, the more parallels come to mind.
But amongst the dire warnings and the dystopic setting of 1984, there lies a message of hope.
Winston’s constant reflections lead him to a recurring conclusion. “If there is hope for the future, it lies in the proles”. This is probably the most important theme of the book. Winston realizes that the ruling class (Inner Party) have no desire to change the ruling structure, and the members of the middle class (Outer Party) are individually focused on trying to “earn” their way into the ruling class themselves, so the greatest hope for change lies with those who stand to gain the most from it. This realization is reinforced when he receives a copy of “The Book“, a secret manual of The Brotherhood. The proles are content to abide their oppression because The Party wraps its authoritarian fist in a thin glove of socialism. Winston also realizes that the proles will have to recognize their oppression for themselves before they find the proper and just motivation for revolt.
Love, compassion and romance have been crushed out of the population. Relationships are more for procreation than anything else, so when the unlikely pair of mature and bitter Winston and younger and vibrant Julia get together of their own free will and try to create their own little private utopia, the reader finds themself almost pulling for the couple, sharing the idyllic dream of a “happily ever after” ending.
The conclusion of the book leaves the reader in self-reflection, much as Winston was at the beginning of the book. Fear is a tremendously effective motivator of The Party. Fear is used in Room 101 (and no, I won’t spoil what Room 101 is all about). Even the anticipation of fear – some might call it terrorism – is a tool used by The Party, and people will go to great lengths and give up great freedoms to assuage that fear. (does that sound familiar?)
At least, that’s what I got out of it on first read, your mileage may vary. I’m still rolling parts of it around in my head, and gawd help me, I think I finally understand a little of Glenn Beck’s “totalitarianism = socialism” brain. (In no way does that make it correct, but at least I see where it comes from)
1984 has appeared in numerous formats in film, on radio and on television, and there are strong rumours that an American group including director Ron Howard is developing another movie adaptation.
I give 1984 five out of five paws. Next time I read this book (and I will re-read it) I will make myself a good playlist of mood music and block off a good chunk of time. I dearly love reading but I’m a slow reader. This is not a book to guzzle, this is a book to savour and digest.
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1984 (Audio Book) (Internet Archive)
1984 (Audio Book zip file) (Internet Archive)
1984 – The BBC Movie (1956) starring Edmond O’Brien, Michael Redgrave, Jan Sterling, Donald Pleasance (Internet Archive)
1984 – The CBS “Studio One” Movie (1953) starring Eddie Albert, Norma Crane, Robert Culp, Lorne Green (Internet Archive)
1984 (eBook) (Internet Archive)