1984 is a dystopian novel that deals with the intricacies and banalities of totalitarianism. It features twenty four chapters divided up into three distinct parts, adding up to 342 pages in length alongside a thirteen page long appendix/epilogue. Depending on your reading level it’s either something you could read over the weekend or something that’ll take you a whole week. Either way, it’s fairly enjoyable. As enjoyable as a Holocaust can be.
The novel takes place in a dystopian future (Future for Orwell, past for us) in which England and the rest of the world has been divided up into three distinct parts. There’s Eurasia, which features all of Europe and the Soviet Union. There’s East Asia, which features a large chunk of the Asian nations such as China and Japan but excludes India and the Middle East.
Then there’s Oceania, the largest region. It occupies the Americas, British Isles, Australasia and the southern plains of Africa. At the time of writing this the Teheran Conference had already taken place and the Allies were dividing up the territories once occupied by the Nazis. Orwell proposes a world in which these divided territories didn’t just surmount to Germany, but everywhere.
The USSR would inherit all of continental Europe, China would inherit almost all of Asia and the USA would inherit the remains of the British Empire. In this world each province is almost indistinguishable in ideology but forever at War. Because War in this world is not a means to an end, it is simply an end. Never ending war keeps the people in line, justifies awful living conditions and springs to mind senses of jingoism. In this world, War is Peace.
The fighting grounds are, as always, the poorest and most far away regions. India, North Africa, the Middle East- so on and so forth. None of the provinces need anything they don’t already have, they don’t want to win- but just to carry on the decrepit tradition that humans are loathe to do.
The novel is based in London, a city in England which is now referred to as Airstrip One. Everything is worn down and broken, to fix anything requires an inane bureaucratic procedure that’ll take up to four years. It’s a bleak and cold world, occupied by creatures that were once considered human.
The novel’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a middle aged man doomed to live the worst possible existence imaginable; a Middle Class Brit.
The town exhibits the same desolation exhibited during the Blitz, everyone is drudging along with austerity measures and food rations. But to make everything worse, the totalitarian government is watching everything you do. Independent thoughts are a crime, the wrong facial expression or a simple tick is a death sentence.
The main inspiration behind the Novel is of course the brutal oppression exhibited under the Soviet Union. Big Brother with his glorious moustache is obviously a reference to Stalin, the acts of removing all public records of people murdered by the state (victims referred to as “unpersons“) were carried out similarly in the USSR. An example can be seen by this photo, where Nikolai Yezhov (member of the Secret Police) stands next to Stalin. But upon his execution the Party Sensors erased him from existance.
Oceania is at continuous War, but not with the same province. Sometimes they’re at war with Eastasia and other times they’re at war with Eurasia. But instead of admitting that a war with one province is over, they simply change the public records to suggest that Oceania was always at war with Eastasia/Eurasia and that anyone who says differently is wrong and should be shot.
An example of this kind of nonsense occurred under the USSR, particularly in WW2. Before the war Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union hated eachother, but after they signed a treaty to team up, all evidence to suggest that the USSR disliked the Nazis was removed from public record. But immediately upon the Nazis returning to their state as an enemy all these records were corrected- in a sense we hated the Nazis, except we never hated the Nazis, but we always hated the Nazis. You see what they did here?
It’s a propaganda technique known as Gas lighting. Designed to confuse and disorientate the viewer to such a degree that they cannot observe an objective reality and will accept whatever claims you throw at them. An example of this can be seen by Trump supporters arguing that the recent immigration policy about separating families at the border isn’t new as “Obama did the same thing” which he didn’t.
What happened under Obama’s term was that a number of Child/teenage Immigrants crossed the border illegally by themselves and were then detained in similar conditions. They did not have a policy upon separating families at the border, that is a Trump policy. To suggest otherwise is simply wrong and an attempt at Gaslighting.
But despite the obvious condemnation of Communism, we also have to take into account that it isn’t a pure indictment on the left. The indoctrinated children known as the Spies in the novel closely resemble the Nazi Youth in Germany and the State’s established antagonist Emmanuel Goldstein is an obvious reference to the anti-Semitism exhibited in Hitler’s tyranny.
And while many Right Wingers are very fond of using the term Orwellian to describe any Politically Correct issue they may have, it’s important to acknowledge that George Orwell was a proponent of Democratic Socialism. He was such an ardent Leftie he makes Jeremy Corbyn look like Ian Paisley.
The book is a condemnation of all forms of Authoritarianism, whether they be secular or religious. To understand the the numerous ideologies this book both exposes and condemns, you only have to look at the people trying their best to ban it. An example of this can be seen when the book was challenged in 1981 by the city of Jackson in Florida, for allegedly being “pro-communist” and containing a sexual manner. The latter was probably the reason why they tried to have it banned.
Because, to my surprise, George Orwell perfectly describes how celibacy is used as a weapon to instil orthodoxy to a cause. What do Jihadists, Fascists, Communists and anyone a little too obsessed on a certain subject all have in common? None of them are getting laid. They’re all pent up, ready to burst and they need to direct all this anger to something. So they launch a Caliphate, commit a genocide, start a fight in a mosh pit or harass an Actress on Instagram because they didn’t like the movie she was in.
This celibacy is used deliberately by Religions and Political doctrines in order to instil a dogmatic drive to their followers. That’s why 1984 is so dangerous to Theocrats and Fundamentalists, it reveals them to be what they truly are; Moral Busybodies.
The story of 1984 is a sad yet predictable one. Upon buying a diary, Winston Smith knows that he is doomed. He has committed thought crime and is destined to be arrested without trial, tortured and executed. He lives his middle class life strife with Austerity, working in the Ministry of Truth- which ironically creates lies. Winston is in charge of correcting newspaper columns and other public records in order to ensure Big Brother predictions were correct, to ensure that the current enemy has always been the enemy and to simply make certain individuals disappear from existence.
Who ever controls the past controls the future, whoever controls the present controls the past. The entire population is divided up into three classes; the Inner Party (upper class), the Outer Party (middle class) and the Proletariat (working class) commonly referred to as the Proles.
The latter group is the largest of the three and the poorest. But they’re so uneducated that they are oblivious to their oppression. Winston believes that a rebellion can never happen inside the Party itself, because they have become so devoid of emotion they cease to be human. But if there is hope, it is in the Proles- and the Proles are inept at such a rebellion.
Life in Oceania is a very accurate depiction of how a Totalitarian State operates. When you possess such power, the main goal is to maintain it. In that way you can’t just spread it out evenly, you need to focus it- clump it all together in one area in an attempt to disincentivise any form of rebellion, like having your Army in your kingdom and not roaming the country.
You focus your attention on certain people in order to keep them in check you ensure that the others are so inept they can do whatever they like free of consequence. That’s why the Inner and Outer Party are in constant surveillance while the Proles are free from sight.
A State like this is difficult to maintain so obviously corruption runs rampant. The poor food and services cause the Outer Party to engage on the black market, which is dominated by the Proles and Crime Lords. Even something as simple as razor blades is seen as an expensive commodity.
This kind of corruption can be exhibited in North Korea, where the state allows the Black Market to illegally import goods such as food, clothes, appliances and other items across the Chinese border as it maintains the peace and in some cases raises the standard of living. It’s suspected that North Korea’s recent adoption of Capitalist policies will allow a middle class to be born. But upon whether or not the state itself will ever be overthrown any time soon, well, we’ll have to wait and see.
So the main downfall about 1984 is that it can be a little predictable. Not to say that it’s badly written- it’s not- but every outcome that the novel discusses with comes to fruition. At the start of the novel Winston knows that buying the diary is a one way ticket to jail. The affair he has with a co-worker named Julia is tragic, but they both know that they would eventually be captured and tortured so when that does occur it’s heartbreaking- but not surprising.
The way I see it is if your character has an unwavering belief that they will be shot, and they go ahead and do something that will condemn them to be shot, all the while jabbering on and on about how they will be shot, then it’s not really a surprise that the story will end with them being shot. Despite it being sad, you’ve had plenty of time to prepare yourself for it. The greatest tragedies are the ones you never see coming.
It’s kind of obvious that O’Brien, an Inner Party member who claimed to be a Rebel, was actually a member of the Thought Police. However I have to admit, I didn’t see the twist with the antique shop owner coming.
The major criticism I’d have with the text at hand is one of the more notable criticisms of the book at hand, the section last chapter of part two. Upon his secret meeting with O’Brien, Winston receives the most “dangerous” book in all of Oceania. It’s Emmanuel Goldsteins critique of the state and how collectivised oligarchy operates. The entire book is reference to Trotsky’s publication about where the Soviet Union is heading, it blends Trotsky and Marx together with a hint of dystopia for good measure.
He lays out how the entire country is run, from the history to the uses of propaganda to keep to people subverted. So for twenty odd pages in chapter none of part two, Orwell writes out two chapters from the book that Winston reads. Now it’s a very helpful passage for world building but it’s not so good for novel and story structure.
The entire novel itself is a political outcry but it borders on being an entire social essay at parts. Which is great if you want to discuss ideas in such intricate detail, but if you want a compelling narrative with extensive drama? It’s not too good.
I’m not gonna lie, after six pages of reading Winston reading the book I was like “Oh, wow this is…still going on, huh?” which is not a great sign when your reader is getting bored and begging fr the main character to be arrested already. I don’t think you truly understand, I was reading about a man reading a book. That’s like book-ception right there.
The characters themselves are serviceable enough. Winston is quite stoic but possesses enough mystery and tragedy around him to make a good morally ambiguous character, he’s an excellent template for an anti-hero. Julia on the other hand is more emotional and lively. There’s a great diversity of personalities in this novel which some authors *cough* Hemingway *cough* struggle to handle.
The entire romance takes place in part two. In the beginning Winston suspects her of being a spy because she’s always looking at him and sitting close to him, even in one case follows him to a bookshop. He can’t handle his attraction for her so he tries his best to hate her, like a good little misogynist. But of course he soon learns that she isn’t spying on him, she actually fancies him and they start having an affair.
In my opinion these people really shouldn’t be together, but desperate times call for desperate measures. If everyone else is a mindless zealot then you’ll settle for a frail, middle aged man too.
The age gap isn’t what bothers me about the affair, but the apparent differences of personality. Now that’s not to say that different personalities can’t co-inhabit a relationship can’t work together, they definitely can- but to a certain degree.
Winston’s desire for freedom is not only for his own privacy and free thought, but in the hopes that everyone can experience such things. While Julia on the other hand has no concern over the parties authoritarian manner so long as it doesn’t interfere with her personal life and desires, but because it does interfere she hates them. She is, as Winston points out, only a rebel from the waist down.
The liveliness of her character can be exhibited by the fact that instead of being offended by the criticism, she takes it as a compliment. So there’s an obvious moral gap between the two and a longtime relationship in a free society would be almost impossible. Hell, a relationship at all between the two would be impossible.
There’s a sense of naivety they possess when they talk about their inevitable capture, they say that they can never betray eachother. Because although Big Brother can make you say anything, they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside your head. Except that’s exactly what big brother does.
Everything that Winston has done has been supervised by Big Brother. Big Brother sold him the diary, Big Brother sold him the lover’s nest, Big Brother recruited him into the secret rebellion- Big Brother not only will get in your kind, it’s already there.
Winston is physically and emotionally tortured until he confesses everything he knows and everything he’s done. But that’s not enough, he still believes in an objective reality and that cannot abide. The torture him until he believes that two plus two equals five and then continue to torture him to the point that he hates Julia and loves Big Brother.
O’Brien oversees the torture. He’s very prone to monologues that contain such intricate social theory. The objective of Big Brother is to seek and maintain power simply for power’s sake. By doing so they need to eliminate the undesirable but ensure they do not become martyrs. They will be converted into believers, and then executed.
When he rambles on it quickly becomes apparent that O’Brien, and by extension the Inner Party, are as much victims of Big Brother as they are perpetrators. Those who enslave others will them too become slaves. Big Brother has caused O’Brien to possess such cognitive dissonance that he can acknowledge the flaws and layouts of such a system, and carry it out regardless. It’s like seeing the futility of a War but fighting it anyway.
The novel, like Animal Farm, acknowledges how a well intentioned rebellion can end in tyranny. The English Labour party simply wanted to establish a Socialist Democracy in post war Britain but upon receiving power they were corrupted. They grew to hate the poor they claimed to fight for and set about establishing an authoritarian state that ensured they would stay on top, forever. By killing their initial party leaders and establishing a figure who may not even be real; Big Brother.
But despite the novel ending bleakly, with Winston and Julia betraying and despising eachother while loving Big Brother, there is a semblance of hope. Because at the end of the novel there’s an appendix, which is an essay discussing the intricacies of Newspeak- the language adopted in Oceania. The English language was butchered in such a way so that certain words could not be uttered and therefore certain thoughts could not be concocted, by 2050 the language was to be fully adopted and therefore rebellion would be impossible- because the idea of rebellion would be impossible.
But this essay is written in regular English in the past tense, so long after Winston Smith had perished- the World would truly be free once more.
Despite it’s flaws, the Novel serves as an apt warning against totalitarianism of all forms. It’s an indictment of the vices of human nature and a celebration of it’s virtues. The novel is still as relevant as ever due to the whole Snowden/NSA fiasco, TV’s recording your conversations, how China has created a point system for the citizens to rank favorability and how at all moments we are surrounded by devices that are watching us.
But what Orwell failed to predict is that we wouldn’t be forced upon such devices, but accept them whole heartedly. The fear is no longer that someone is watching, but that nobody is watching. Has the world fully accepted Orwell’s warning? Have they curved the path away from this dystopia? Are the Proles ready to rise up?
Well, all you need to know about whether or not anyone is listening to Orwell is to simply acknowledge the fact that we took the menacing character of Big Brother, and turned him into a reality TV show.