Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
When I started reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I thought to myself “How is it that I haven’t read this book before?”. It is, after all, responsible for several words within our common, everyday lexicon—Big Brother, the Thought Police, and double-think, to name only a handful. Now that I have finished the novel, my opinion of it has definitely undergone some change.
One thing I discovered by reading the novel is that I didn’t actually know what it was about. The narrative follows Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old man who lives in Oceania, one of the three “superpowers” of the world (the other two are Eastasia and Eurasia, and Oceania is constantly at war with one or the other). Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to alter historical records so that the “official history” of Oceania says what Big Brother wants it to say, and so that no evidence exists that could challenge Big Brother’s power. This includes erasing all traces of the existence of individuals who are guilty of thoughtcrime—that is, having thoughts that are contrary to the collective thinking Big Brother mandates. That the past is mutable and alterable and that people can be so completely wiped out of existence bothers Winston to the extreme, and this is exacerbated by his memories of the past, which contradict the official history. What Winston wants is privacy from the constant surveillance he and everyone else in the Party is under, history to be fixed and unchangeable, and to possess absolute control over his mind and thoughts. He wants to know that in his own mind he is free to think what he wants with impunity, and this is exemplified in his desire to always be able to say that two plus two equals four, even when Big Brother would force him to believe that two plus two equals five. Winston wants freedom of thought, and this puts him into direct opposition with what Big Brother wants—to control the minds and thoughts of all Party members. In Big Brother’s mind, controlling thought is the royal road to perpetual power. As the story unfolds, Winston falls into a relationship with Julia and forms a strong attachment to an Inner Party member named O’Brien, whom he believes to be working with a resistance movement to take down Big Brother. As you might expect, everything that Winston fears the most and yet at the same time longs for occur, and inexorably he is brought to what can only be understood as an inevitable, hopeless conclusion.
Orwell was writing this novel in the years just after World War II had ended, and so that has to be taken into consideration when reading the novel, because otherwise the fatalistic, hopeless tone might be much harder to understand. The novel is also a dystopia and so the world of Oceania and Winston’s life are intended to be cautionary tales to the reader. It warns against complacency and suggests that the reward for such complacency is the kind of life that Winston lives. I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its depiction of death-in-life. That is precisely the kind of life Winston is living—he is already dead even though his body is still alive. Perhaps one thing Orwell intends to suggest is that without privacy, without intellectual freedom, the individual is dead. Of course, this is not all Orwell is warning against. The dangers of propaganda, favoring collective thought over individual thought, and the consequences of a society in a constant state of war are also things he is warning against. Indeed, the world that Orwell creates in Nineteen Eighty-Four is more than bleak and inhospitable, it is hell on Earth. Winston’s fate at the end of the novel only makes this hell more intolerable in that there is no chance or hope that anything else could have happened.
I was reading an article about this novel in which the author suggests that the novel perhaps doesn’t deserve its place as a great book that it currently enjoys in the literary canon. I thought such a statement preposterous. In my experience so much is made of Nineteen Eighty-Four that I couldn’t imagine such a statement being true. And yet, now that I’ve read the novel, I understand what the writer was saying. The novel is divided into three parts, and the third part is hard to pin down. It takes place almost entirely within the Ministry of Love (in which political prisoners are tortured) and the story shows us what happens to Winston after he becomes a political prisoner; however, it seems to me that this is where the novel loses its tension. I stopped caring about what would happen to Winston, and I can’t completely explain why, but I know this lack of tension is one explanation. What this final section did show was the power of Big Brother and the futility in trying to defy him. The thing is, I don’t expect a dystopia to only be a cautionary tale. I expect it to offer some kind of hope or idea for how the kind of world that is being portrayed could be avoided. Nineteen Eighty-Four does not offer that. Instead, Winston capitulates, and nothing has changed. He believes that two plus two equals five, and Big Brother has complete control of his mind and his thoughts. Big Brother has won, and we have no other choice but to believe that his reign will indeed last forever.
My final analysis is that I came into my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four with a set of assumptions and expectations based upon what I thought I knew about the book. Maybe my expectations were too high, and that’s why the book feels like a bit of a disappointment. Still, I would recommend reading the book because I do think it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.