Truthfully, I hadn’t intended to write a review for 1984. It was one of those books I was forced to read in high school and incidentally had a horrible experience with because the reading question packets were long and time-consuming and the teacher wasn’t really passionate or even too caring about us getting anything from the story—strange, I know. But because of this, I started off actually quite disliking 1984, and only came to appreciate the novel more as I grew up and reconsidered some elements.
All of that being said, however, I figured I’d write something about 1984 today, because as of January 2017, the book became a best seller again, seemingly as response to Donald Trump’s senior counselor and White House staff, Kellyanne Conway’s term: alternative facts. In the literary publishing world, a book being connected to current societal and political turmoil is pretty big news!
Now, onwards with the review, and why 1984 became unnecessarily relevant today…
The dystopian world that George Orwell created in 1949 was such an intimate and haunting portrait of a surveillance state and totalitarian rule that it would be difficult to talk about 1984 without bringing up its activist elements. However, as much as ideology and philosophy are important, as a stupid teenager encountering this novel for the first time, what I wound up caring most about was the story element—rooting for Winston and Julia, becoming angry at their betrayals, and listening to other kids in my class talk about that depressing sex scene. As a story, Orwell’s 1984 was good enough.
Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, works as an editor at the Ministry of Truth where he gets to rewrite history according to The Party / Big Brother’s decided history, which changes quite regularly. Winston considers rebelling against Big Brother but doesn’t know how, and admires the Trotsky-esque Emmanuel Goldstein, responsible for writing the treatise illegal in their world because it inspired revolution. Winston falls in love with a co-worker at the ministry, Julia, and the two struggle with their love as well as their freedom together in the world of Big Brother.
I understood the tone of the story was supposed to be very subdued, because we’re to imagine these characters/people as having been suffocated in a totalitarian regime for so long they can’t be colorful, but there are still ways to make people interesting, and Orwell didn’t quite do it with his entire cast of faces.
With Winston, as the novel’s protagonist, by the end I started to feel Winston’s pain when The Party had stripped him of his emotions, a profoundly human characteristic that his relationship with Julia and struggle with Big Brother’s thought control throughout the entire novel had struggled to retain. In the end, the villain won, and Winston was defeated. I felt his pain, and it sucked like hell.
The other characters, however, weren’t all that fun to read about. Julia was pretty much a prop. Sure, she was a bit snarky and off-putting, but ultimately she was just a plot tool used to showcase Winston’s spiral into being controlled by Big Brother. Other characters like O’Brien and the existence of Goldstein seemed more like tools for Orwell to deliver his political message, not people pretending to be alive in a story.
Character complaints aside, however, 1984 was a crazy-good political thriller. I was very curious as to how the world looked in Orwell’s dystopia—in contrast to classic portrayals like in The Time Machine—1984 proposed a destructively-innovated future that was believable. In fact, it’s so believable that terminologies like ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Big Brother’ can be used in our typical American rhetoric, and most people would know what we are referring to. The novel is again so believable that a member of the White House staff used a term very representative of the novel’s signature ‘Newspeak,’ the ways in which the government had manipulated language to make it easier to lie to its citizens. In 1984, Winston and Julia had 2 + 2 = 5; and sometimes they were at war with Eastasia, sometimes with Eurasia. In 2017, the United States of America has “alternative facts,” amongst other more tragic events.
At the very end, even though the evil government won and Winston and Julia lost entirely, it wasn’t so much the character’s fate that made 1984 retain its importance to us as people. I mean, sure, I was sad they had such a brutal end when I first read the book, but shit happens—that part didn’t stay with me. It was the energy and the encouragement Orwell slipped into his narrative, in a way that didn’t make you feel guilty for not moving or having done enough, that made it stay.
I personally dislike books that, themselves, are propaganda, telling me to go do this and that because I should care more or because I’m a terrible human being. I know all that about myself, I don’t need a book make me feel guilty over it, and furthermore, books like that always feel like they’re blatantly shoving their beliefs down my throat. Only my parents are allowed to try that.
What Orwell did, wasn’t that. I felt encouraged to learn more about the state of my own government, the intentions of my politician, and care more about the world and society that I live in, but not because Orwell told me I had to. He only framed a narrative around a man questioning his world and breaking beneath its corruption—I’m a human, I’ve got a heart too. Orwell made me relate Winston’s world to my own. I empathized, because it could happen to us.
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“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”