Author: George Orwell
Published: 2008 (originally 1949)
‘The best books’, Orwell writes towards the end of 1984, ‘are those that tell you what you know already.’ And its true. This is one of those books. It tells us what we already know, but is horrifying nonetheless.
In 1984 the world is divided in three parts: Oceania, consisting of the former United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England, Eurasia with what used to be Europe and Rusland and Eastasia which is in fact China grown out of proportion. (Basically present day China’s wet dream.) The countries we know have ceased to exist. Instead, the three new ‘continents’ (for want of a better word) are the new nations. They’re constantly at war with one another in order to conquer the parts of the world that have not yet been divided (most of Africa, some of the Middle East).
The three ‘continents’ are all ruled by their own Party which are different in name, but similar both in ideology and dictatorship. We follow Winston Smith, inhabitant of London, Airstrip One (former United Kingdom), Oceania. He’s working for one of the four ministries, the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite everything that needs editing in order to keep up with the Party’s continuously fluctuating and contradicting statements. Winston is a member of the Outer Party, the new middle class. The new high class is the Inner Party with Big Brother as omniscient dictator. The lower class consists of the proles – basically Orwell’s idea of the proletariat. Everyone within the Party (that is the Inner and Outer Party members) is constantly listened to and watched by telescreens. On every street corner, in every building, staircase and room a big screen is able to record everything – day and night.
Winstons primary task is to rewrite news paper articles to eliminate names of ‘unpersons’ (people that have been eliminated by the Party because they were considered a threat). The Ministry of Truth is thus essentially busy making lies: they’re altering the past to make the Party and Big Brother look infallible. The three other ministries (of Love, Plenty and Peace that regulate everything on respectively punishment, malnutrition and war) are the Party’s other means of retaining that position. Because of his work, Winston begins to doubt the Party’s system. When he meets Julia, a chain of events is set in motion in which his doubt turns into silent rebellion.
This was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Both Orwell’s prose and world building were extraordinarily gripping. I did not have a lot of time to read this past week, but I tried to read everywhere I could. Although you kind of know how the story will develop and eventually end, it was never dull.
A lot has been said on the subject of Dystopia and whether or not Orwell’s horrific vision of the future was and is anything near probable (especially in comparison to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), but I cannot deny that there were times that I thought: ‘this is exactly as it is now or will become’. Not everything, thank God! But a lot of things are strangely familiar – most obviously the Big Brotheresque way the NSA can ‘watch’ us all.
However, one of the most interesting things about how the Party works is their ability to control the past. Because of this, the Party is able to control everyone. And this is, truly, one of the most horrifying prospects.
If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?
Maybe that just the historian in me, but 1984 reminds us of just how important, how essential it is to have a past. To remember the past. To have history. That makes us who we are, is part of our identity. Is our identity. Without past – without history – we are nothing but what we are told we are. It results in unconsciousness, or orthodoxy as Orwell calls it: not having to think for yourself, not having to test the facts or reflect on the past.
History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
Orwell’s prose, as you might have guessed from the 41 (!) reading updates on goodreads, was one of the best things about the book. He writes in a very realistic manner – not plain, but truthful. At the same time he manages to evoke such a specific vision that I cannot but applaud him. In the hands of any other author, 1984 might have been ridiculous, but Orwell takes you by the hand and shows you the self-destruction mankind is capable of.
There were just two small things I had a problem with, the first being the excerpts from the book in the second part of the novel. Although they were very interesting as such, they slowed the story down a bit. It didn’t annoy me too much, but I think Orwell could have narrowed it down. The second thing was the fact that, in my opinion, Winston trusted some people too quickly. That didn’t feel natural. But maybe that’s just me and me knowing (because it such a well known story) how it would end. Those were the only two things that bothered me just a little, but didn’t made me lower my rating.
Read this book. Then lend it to your friends.