Friday 28 October 2011

Orwell October: Nineteen Eighty Four

Cherish the way 1984 is written in the title, because that's the last time you'll see it written like that in this review. I'm just that lazy, folks. NOT too lazy to read every single word of 1984 for the zillionth time, including the appendix about Newspeak and that bit that's a book within a book that, in my copy, you basically need a magnifying glass to read. I did all that because this is the one- it's the payoff for reading Coming up for Air and Homage to Catalonia, the magnificent culmination of Orwell October, an absolute dystopian masterpiece and one of my favourite books written by anyone ever. You could say I like it a little bit then.

So, reading 1984, I do always have to back up a little, breathe, and remind myself that actually, none of this stuff happened. I hope that nothing close to this has ever happened or ever will happen, but you never can be quite sure of what those pesky people are going to do. It's so easy to forget this is a work of fiction, because Orwell so convincingly creates a self-enclosed universe where love, and friendship and every positive human emotion is considered wholly unnecessary, and superfluous to the needs of the Party. The same Party, that is, that exists only for it's own sake, and for no pure or good motives at all:
"'The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.'" They are all knowing, all seeing, all powerful, and for no motive other than that power in itself. What people want or need is of no interest to them, and all they are consumed by is having power, gaining even more power (over people's thoughts, even) and ensuring that people aren't happy, unless it is by the Party's own definition of happiness (which is power for the Party). It's a horrifying system, and one which leads to the ultimate image: "'If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face- for ever.'"

In the midst of all this awful awful governance, there is Winston Smith, a man who is ideologically opposed to the Party, but who, since he has already broken protocol as we meet him, is unfortunately dead already (in case you hadn't got this yet, the Party is kind of evil, except that they've already defined evil as 'everything that is against the Party'. The slippery little suckers.) Poor Winston can really do nothing by himself, has no idea whether or not there is anyone who feels the way that he does, and so has to go about his daily activities as if he loves the Party, Big Brother (who may or may not exist) and the little telescreens that watch his, and everyone else's every movement. It's also pretty unfortunate that Winston works doing the precise thing that he finds so abhorrent, in doctoring the past so that it fits with what the Party is doing in the present, he goes against everything he believes about the past being unalterable and fixed, and, quite frankly, it's killing him.

Basically it's an awful awful world, and honestly it's so well drawn and amazing in its awfulness that you really have to read it if you haven't yet. What is so fabulous about it though, is that in the midst of all this awfulness, love is still possible, and really, much as I love political ideologies and stuff, the love parts are some of the best of the book. What Orwell does is masterful, in that, through Winston and Julia's love, he allows the reader to have hope- to dare to dream that somehow, what their love means is that the horrid tyranny can be overthrown, at least in people's hearts, and if that can be the case, then maybe it can be overthrown in reality as well. At the height of being given this hope, it is so suddenly snatched away that you're shocked, mournful, and just wanting things to be better. This is one of those times where you've got to remember that it's not a real society, or you might have to cry quite a bit.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the book which Winston receives that expresses criticism for the Party, and that, I think, is also extremely critical of most political systems that have ever existed. It is here that reading all the rest of Orwell's work becomes useful, as it is clear to see that his political thoughts and experiences have influenced him so that he can see what is wrong with other societies and can create a society that is so contrary to what he believes is the right one that it's scary. So yeah, in this book by the major enemy of the party, there are echoes of The Road to Wigan Pier, where he conjectures that no political system helps the poorest, and other things like that that give an extra air of authenticity to the scariness of this horrid world. Which we obviously all needed to be able to sleep better in our beds at night.

So really. 1984 is the perfect book for hallowe'en when you think about it because of all the scares and brainwashing and that whole Room 101 thing (DON'T tell me you don't know about Room 101, because frankly, I don't want to hear it). But it's also perfect for any time you feel bad about your own political system, because after reading this, no matter how crappy things get, you'll at least be grateful that you have the ability to speak out against injustice and inequality and all those other bad things. I feel like there's so much more I could say about the book, but to do so would probably rob anyone who hasn't read it of a lot of the story, so I'll just leave you with some quotations that I find the coolest/scariest/most interesting in the whole book:

  • (On Big Brother) "On coins, on stamps, on the covers of books, on banners, on posters, and on the wrappings of a cigarette packet- everywhere. Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull"
  • "'Who controls the past' ran the party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'"
  • "Everything faded away into a shadow world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain."
  • "'The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought... In the future we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.'"
  • "It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty and insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness."
  • (After having sex) "No emotion was pure because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow against the Party. It was a political act."
  • "'Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or  courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you up with ourselves."
Yeah. So, sweet dreams everyone!


  1. I really need to re-read this. I read it once for class when I was 14 and I hated it so much. Not because it was bad but because it was so damn scary that I just got angry at it for letting the world get that way. So really, it was way too successful of a novel.

  2. You nerd, you put an apostrophe in Halloween. ;)

    I read this when I was 13 or so, and I THINK I read it after Brave New World (ah, dystopias, how you go together). Should probably look at it again. Mebbe.

  3. Guys, you both need to read this again because, apart from being really clever and awesome, it's also TERRIFYING, and rumour has it it's halloween (no apostrophe! Because sometimes I do that, too) tomorrow. So yeah.
    Also, Alley, if this made you angry, you probably shouldn't read The Handmaid's Tale/you probably had an aneurism when you did if you already have...

  4. I've read Handmaid's but I think because I read it when I was 20 instead of 14 I dealt with it in a more mature way. i.e. I acknowledged it was a good and terrifying book but I didn't take it out on the lit.