George Orwell – 1984 (1949/1977)
First and foremost, let me just say that this book is DEPRESSING as all HELL, but I also think it is a VITAL work that has become more and more important in the decades since it was written. The concepts that Orwell warned us about have slowly been slipping into place, although he was off a bit in his dates. Still, it’s remarkable (and HORRIFYING) that he was so ON with so many of the predictions that this book makes.
For those who haven’t read 1984 or don’t know what it’s about, here’s the skinny. Our primary character, Winston Smith, lives in a dystopian country in which cameras and video-screens are everywhere, spouting ideological propaganda for “Big Brother,” the mascot of the ONE political party that controls all life in Oceana. Smith works in the “Ministry of Information,” where his job is to alter historical records and documents so that all information available to the public shows that THE PARTY is correct and infallible. Smith is good at his job, being capable of coming up with believable lies that meet Party specifications, and then disposing of any evidence that demonstrates how the past might disagree with accepted doctrine.
Unfortunately, Winston Smith is also a THOUGHT-CRIMINAL. He doesn’t believe unquestionably in the moral right of Big Brother, and in Oceana it is illegal to even THINK thoughts that aren’t in line with Party dogma. Smith purchases a notebook from a junk shop, an illegal item that can be used to contain heretical thoughts, and he begins to write in it (just outside the view of the telescreen in his home.) Smith also REMEMBERS, in fragments, what it was like BEFORE the revolution when the Party came to power. These CRIMES, if discovered, would mean a death sentence, as the Party uses kidnapping, torture, and murder as deterrents to suppress THOUGH CRIME. Knowing he is potentially throwing his life away, Smith even goes so far as to have an illicit affair with a young woman, Julia, making both of them potential targets of the THOUGHT POLICE.
The story is told almost entirely through Smith’s eyes, and although the world that Smith lives in and describes is chilling---almost terrifyingly plausible---let’s get something ELSE straight. Winston Smith is a MONSTER. He knows that the Party is evil, and he despises it, but he also despises the people who CHEER along with the propaganda messages that are broadcast over the telescreens. He despises his neighbors and their children. He despises his co-workers, who he believes might be members of the Thought Police in disguise. He goes walking amongst the “PROLES,” the members of the working class who make up some 80% of the population of Oceana, and although he believes that their raw numbers COULD be adequate to overthrow the Party, he also despises THEM for their crassness, their stupidity, and their enjoyment of the Party’s pop-culture creations---such as the lottery (which they all hope to win, even though no one ever does) and popular music (which is all written and recorded by machines and aimed at the lowest and basest sentiments)… Smith even despises himself, as is clear from the numerous suicidal actions he engages in, like purchasing the journal and writing “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in the first few pages, then leaving the book open for anyone who comes into his apartment to see.
When Smith begins his affair with Julia, he learns that she has had several partners before him, and this, for some reason, excites him. He says, “The more men you’ve had, the more I love you” (p. 125). She says she understands what he means, and Smith continues, “I hate purity. I hate goodness. I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones” (p. 125). Our HERO folks.
Although lying and falsifying documents to change how people understand the past are clearly immoral; although brainwashing and terrorizing a population to keep them from acting or even THINKING out of turn is awful; although murdering innocents, while pretending that the “rocket-bombs” that are falling have come from “THE ENEMY” that the country is perpetually at war with is cruel beyond belief; although it is clear that the Party is EVIL, Smith is ALSO a horrible a person. He claims to want a “revolution” in which the Party is overthrown, but all he does to “STRIKE A BLOW” against them, is to have an affair with a younger woman, UNTIL the day he is invited to join the “Brotherhood,” a secretive organization plotting the downfall of society. As part of their initiation into the group, Smith and Julia have to swear an oath, which includes the following questions:
“You are prepared to give your lives?”
“You are prepared to commit murder?”
“To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?”
“To betray your country to foreign powers?”
“You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases---to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?”
“Yes” (p. 172).
In other words, the Brotherhood that Smith is trying to join sounds like it is just as horrible as the Party they are supposedly trying to overthrow. Smith is NOT a hero, and although the society he lives in his horrible, a disgusting and amoral world where TRUTH no longer exists (because all evidence of it has been outlawed and destroyed), Winston Smith is not noble or kind or caring. Even as a child, he was cruel, taking food from his starving little sister and mother. Smith is a monster, and he seems to enjoy being an OUTLAW as much as working to undermine the Party.
So what does this tell us? I THINK that what is being suggested here (although it’s possible that I’m just reading into the text) is that WITHOUT compassion, WITHOUT human connections, any revolution like the one that Smith and his supposed “Brotherhood” would cause would be doomed to repeat the cycle. The MONSTERS who have been overthrown would be replaced by the MONSTERS who would do anything to rest power from their leaders. The citizens of Oceana, where Smith lives, are isolated, are kept in fear of EACH OTHER. Children are taught to turn their own parents in to the Thought Police for any perceived unorthodoxy. Citizens all suspect their neighbors and coworkers of being secret agents, just waiting to catch them betraying the Party. Every action is recorded and watched and scrutinized, day and night. It’s horrific---but it also works to SEPARATE the populace into isolated individuals. All connections are eroded. (Like, perhaps, how people have thousands of “friends” on social media, but never look away from their phones or computer screens in the “Real World.”) To FIGHT the power of leaders who have stolen control, and made people into virtual slaves (or ACTUAL slaves), the people must COME TOGETHER, trust one another, and cooperate.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I truly believe that this book is ESSENTIAL for modern citizens to read. In a PERFECT world, it would be taught in schools, to warn people of the dangers of totalitarianism---but schools NOW only teach children how to take standardized tests, not how to live good lives. Still, I HIGHLY recommend this novel. It’s brutal and depressing and violent and horrifying, but it also clearly demonstrates the value of CONNECTING, of keeping LANGUAGE alive, of COMMUNICATION, and it shows how FRAGILE freedom is. I don’t ever really ENJOY reading this book, but like getting a polio vaccine (which DOES NOT CAUSE AUTISM, nor does it help the government CONTROL YOUR MINDS---social media does that), you don’t enjoy it, but it just might save your life and help keep society from collapsing. Not bad for a novel that’s almost SEVENTY YEARS OLD! Final words: READ THIS BOOK and tell others to read it…while we still can!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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