The book 1984, by George Orwell, is an incredibly depressing dystopia about what it is like to live under a totalitarian government that wants to control absolutely everything – including people’s thoughts. Written in 1949, the book describes a bleak, hopeless, future.
The reader views it all through the eyes of the main character, Winston Smith. It is the book where the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” originated.
The first time I read this book was when I was in high school. It was assigned reading for one of my English classes. If I had to guess, I think this assignment was given when I was a Junior, so that would put the actual year at around 1989 or 1990.
Many of my fellow students noted that the year 1984 had already gone by, and none of what was “predicted” in the book had come to pass. We were young, and presumed that if the year had passed, and nothing that happened, it meant the author was “wrong” and there was nothing to worry about. We had absolutely no idea why the teacher thought 1984 was such an important book.
I chose to re-read 1984 after noticing so many references to it online. Read over any article that mentions either the NSA (National Security Agency) or Edward Snowden and you will find at least one or two comments that compare what is going on today to the book 1984. I started to wonder just how closely the book matched up with recent events.
In doing so, I learned that we must have been given an abridged version of the book in high school. There are some really disturbing and violent things in the book that I do not remember from English class. Also, the version we read excluded all mentions of sexuality. No wonder we thought the book was boring, dull, and incoherent! Take out the violence, and all references to sexual desire, and story loses its impact.
Looking back, it seems so very odd that we were assigned to read an altered version of a book whose “universe” includes the intentional alteration of books, news, and even photos. It also explains why the book I was assigned in high school was about half the width of the book I got from a bookstore, years later, as an adult.
The main character, Winston Smith, is an unhappy 39 year old who has an untreated varicose ulcer on his leg. He lives in a building that is called Victory Mansions, an apartment structure that is incredibly worn down and decrepit. The whole place smells of boiled cabbage, and everything is run down and dirty. The electricity is cut off during daylight hours. This means Winston can’t use the lift to get to his apartment on the 7th floor, and must climb the stairs. Doing so causes his varicose ulcer to flare up. This is his daily life.
Winston lives alone. He smokes Victory cigarettes (which fall apart and don’t contain much tobacco). He drinks Victory gin (a horrible, oily, concoction that contains some type of alcohol). Victory is not the name of a brand. Instead, it is the word attached to many of the things that the Party allows people to sometimes obtain.
Everything is rationed, even things like shoestrings and razor blades. Characters in the book are constantly asking if anyone has an extra razor blade because there is a shortage going on and they have run out of them. At the same time, there are frequent news reports that say that the Party has produced an amazing amount of goods, exceeding their quota yet again. People are absolutely miserable and are being told that everything is fine. Large posters of Big Brother are plastered everywhere. Winston notes that it feels like the eyes in the poster are watching you.
I said that Winston lives alone, but that’s not entirely true. I mean, he doesn’t share an apartment with anyone else. However, there is the constant presence of the telescreen. There is one in every apartment. There are telescreens in every workplace (including in the cafeteria). Restaurants have telescreens in them. People who are the same social class as Winston cannot get away from them and are unable to turn them off. Everyone knows that they are under constant surveillance by the Party. “Big Brother” is, quite literally, watching everyone (and listening to them, and recording their voices).
There are times of the day when a voice on the telescreen instructs everyone to get up, stand in front of the telescreen, and do specific physical exercises. The exercises cause Winston’s leg to hurt. He gets yelled at when he slows down because everyone in his age group is expected to be able to keep up with the amount and speed of exercises that are assigned. Never is there any implication that Winston will have access to a doctor who can treat his varicose ulcer. He is just supposed to ignore his pain and carry on.
I think that when people leave comments that refer to 1984 in response to news articles that are about surveillance, it is the telescreens that they are thinking about. Clearly, there are people who believe that what is going on in today’s world is equal to what happened in 1984. Or, perhaps they are terrified that what is going on today is the starting point towards a world that resembles the dystopia of the book.
My intentions for this book review is not to create an argument for or against the idea that 1984 is happening today. I am simply noting why so many people have started mentioning the book in their online comments.
At the beginning of the book, Winston is in his apartment and trying to stay out of view of the telescreen. He has purchased a journal from a store that he wasn’t supposed to be visiting. The journal has blank paper. Winston bought a pen, and intended to go home and do some writing.
He has to hide what he is doing because no one is allowed to write in journals. Doing so puts him at risk for being convicted of “thoughtcrime”. Thinking the wrong things, that appear to be against Big Brother and the Party, has resulted in the disappearance of many people.
The things that Winston decides to write are, without a doubt, words that would be called “thoughtcrime”. He is trying to recover broken memories of his childhood. There is no way to know what year it is, but his best guess is that it is the year 1984. That’s where the title of the book comes from. Writing down the date is incredibly risky. So is the rest of what Winston writes.
Right from the start, we know that Winston is going to end up in trouble. Across the hallway is the apartment of a man and woman who have two, uncontrollable, children. The kids are being indoctrinated into what resembles the Hitler Youth that really did exist in Germany before World War II. Children are encouraged to closely watch their parents (and all other adults) to see if they can detect that the person has committed “thoughtcrime” or “facecrime” (the act of not having the correct expression on one’s face in response to news reports). Parents in this “universe” are absolutely terrified of their children.
Winston, and everyone else he knows, wears a uniform. The description sounded to me like the type of overalls that one would expect a mechanic to wear. This makes everyone look pretty much the same. This is a world with no need for fashion magazines, designer outfits, or seasonal lines of clothing. It is also a world were even the decision about what to wear is taken away from people.
I cannot help but wonder if Winston’s job is part of what made him start to “lose it” and do all kinds of risky behavior. He works in the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth. His job consists of altering news stories in order to make them consistent with what the Party is telling people today. In other words, he knows first hand that the Party alters information and acts like it has always been that way.
For example, Winston lives in Oceania, which is constantly at war with one of the other two superpowers that exist. It is at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia. Whenever the enemy changes, Winston’s job is to alter all the news reports that mention the previous enemy. The Party has always been at war with Eastasia. Or, the Party has always been at war with Eurasia.
Winston changes the wording in the old news reports, and then sends the “incorrect” one down a shaft that leads to a furnace. He also has to change news reports that mention people who once were given an award, but have since disappeared. They never existed. Winston is not allowed to mention the changes that he makes to anyone else. That must be absolutely maddening!
At some point in the book, Winston becomes interested in a man named O’Brien. One day, O’Brien looks at Winston in a way that makes Winston believe that O’Brien is an ally. Winston believes that O’Brien knows that Winston has been having doubts about the Party. He thinks that O’Brien feels the same way. Winston starts to believe that O’Brien is someone that he could talk to.
The third main character is a woman named Julia. She is much younger than Winston. For a while, he suspects that the reason she appears to be watching him closely is because she is a secret spy. He is terrified that she will turn him in. Instead, she slips him a note that says “I love you”.
That simple statement is an incredibly dangerous one. No one is allowed to fall in love. People who ask for permission to get married are denied it if the Party thinks that they are too fond of each other. Marriage is for the purpose of creating children. Adults are taught that sex is disgusting and only to be done as their “duty to the party”. Despite this, Julia and Winston start seeing each other, and having lots of sex, and he begins to experience happiness.
Of course, things go horribly wrong from there. I’ll leave the ending out so as not to spoil it for those who have yet to read the book. What I will say is that the events that take place are horrific on a number of levels and incredibly disturbing. I should also note that there are many significant details about the book that I have left out of this review. So, those of you who are reading this in the hopes of plagiarizing it and handing it in for a school assignment are going to be greatly disappointed.
The thing about this book that stands out the most to me is the concept of “doublethink”. It is described in the book this way:
…the power of holding two contradictory beliefs on one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while take into account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on, indefinitely, with the lie always one step ahead of the truth.