This month I read 1984 by George Orwell for the Eclectic Reader Challenge, and let me tell you, it was some heavy reading. I’m sure much of the ideological and political commentary went straight over my head, but I think I understood enough of it to at least give you a rough review. Do understand that I cannot fully speak my mind about this book without spoilers. Be warned.
Also, I do really hate to cut off posts like this, and I know I’ve been doing it a lot lately, but this is a super long post so I’m going to go ahead and do it.
First, a rough overview of the plot: Winston Smith lives in the superstate of Oceania (the book was written in 1949, hence the title indicates a future time) where one dictatorial Party rules everything, led by an almost deified person known only as Big Brother. The Party literally controls everything in its subjects’ lives, from the food they eat to what they believe. Everyone is constantly under video and audio surveillance, and the Thought Police arrest anyone who even considers committing a thoughtcrime against the Party; that is, not believing its doctrines or decrees – not being completely and unerringly “orthodox”. The book is mostly about Winston and his struggles with what is wrong or right, what exists or does not, in this world where nothing is certain and everything is questionable.
One of the biggest issues in the book is that of the Party controlling reality. The Ministry of Truth, where Winston works, is completely dedicated to this; namely, altering past events and making them align with the political needs of the present. For example, for the first half or so of the book, Oceania is supposedly at war with Eurasia, one of the other superstates. According to the Party, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. When the war suddenly shifts so that the enemy is now Eastasia, all past documents, photographs, speeches, et cetera must be essentially rewritten to accommodate this fact: that Oceania is, and always has been, at war with Eastasia. For every new scheme of the Party, for every shift in the principles of Ingsoc (as the political system is called), for every prediction that was wrong, the past is continually rewritten and reworded into something different and something that is henceforth accepted as truth.
The scariest thing is that not only are the physical records of the past altered so as to make the past a falsity, but the citizens of Oceania are also trained in doublethink. The basic principle of this is to eventually make the shift from one truth to another: to go from knowing Oceania is at war with Eurasia, to accepting that it is now at war with Eastasia, to believing that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, and at the same time forgetting that you have made the mental switch at all, so that the new truth becomes the only one. These techniques are applied to everything the Party says, so that it has come to the point where they believe that they can control reality itself.
This, of course, leads to a huge question about the malleability of the past. Winston struggles with this continuously in the book: if an event occurred in the past, and if the only record of it ever occurring exists solely in human memory, then can it be said to have happened at all? If one believes that he is seeing an impossible act, and if the majority of people believe this as well, than is it not really happening? If reality is only seen through the human mind, then there is no objective reality, and reality is whatever the human collective believes.
At least, this is what the Party holds to be the case. While I have always been fine with the notion that everyone has their own personal version of reality and that what they believe is “their” reality, I cannot deny the existence of objective reality. The past is the past, and events that happened will always have happened, no matter what the perception about those events is. We can learn more about the past, and we can disprove myths about it, but we cannot change the reality of what actually happened. The Greeks beat the Persians. Thomas Jefferson was America’s third President. World War II happened from 1939 to 1945. These things are concrete, unalterable facts, and it is this idea that Winston struggles to maintain.
Another issue of the book was the systematic wiping out of human nature at its finest: the abolition of family ties, of happiness, of hope, of love for any person or idea other than the Party and Big Brother. In the book, love acts as a sort of catalyst for the expending of energy which the Party had hoped to control in the form of hatred and fear. It is seen as an unnecessary thing because it does not serve the Party’s aim, which is of course to stay in power.
I can’t even begin to imagine a world where the essence of humanity itself can be wiped out. Indeed, that seems to be what the author is asking: what are the essentials of humanity, and can they be taken away? Can we be made to abhor love, to deny ourselves hope, to believe that happiness is the work of the enemy?
It is Winston’s belief that opposition to the Party will come from the lowest of this society’s classes, where pure human nature still resides due to the Party’s ignoring it, where people still sing when there is nothing to sing about. There is a certain hope that the human spirit cannot be vanquished, that somehow life will go on.
A final point I want to discuss is the mutilation of language that occurs with the introduction of Newspeak. This is a language made up by the Party in order to further restrict the thoughts of its citizens. It is a language which grows smaller every year as unnecessary words are thrown out. This, to me, is absolutely horrifying. It means the end of people expressing themselves fully, the end of all ideas that need words to be expressed and which do not strictly conform to the party. In Newspeak, there is no word for freedom.
The range of connotations and subtle changing of synonyms that is present in almost any language today has been destroyed, leaving in its wake the most primitive form of speech possible. Everything that I have come to love about words is being actively dismantled by the Party, and that is one thing I cannot get past in this book.
Overall, this was a deeply disturbing book, and yet it made me think about society and human nature in ways that I never have before. As terrifying as it is, it’s no less intriguing to think about whether this kind of thing could ever happen in real life. I suppose that’s the point of dystopia.
Bottom line: I thought it was brilliant.