This is another novel that I’d been meaning to read since I was young but only just recently got around to. I knew what the basic premise was, and I was familiar with plenty of the concepts that surrounded the book (Big Brother, ThoughtCrime and the use of the adjective Orwellian to describe an oppressive, totalitarian state), but I hadn’t actually sat down to see what all the fuss was about.
When I finally did, I was blown away. No other book that I’ve read even comes close to the constant level of dread, anxiety, claustrophobia and fear that 1984 is able to sustain. From the opening paragraph you can feel the main character’s feverish need to rebel against his oppression, as well as the impending sense of doom and fatalism he feels in the knowledge that he will mostly likely be caught and punished for his transgressions.
If you don’t already know the basic plot, 1984 tells the story of middle-class bureaucrat Winston Smith in the fictional super-state of Oceania – a nation controlled entirely by the ruling Ingsoc party and its figurehead dictator: BIG BROTHER. Needless to say, Big Brother controls all aspects of life in Oceania, from where people
live, work and eat to the most intimate details of people’s personal lives (including their thoughts). Operating in a surveillance state in which ubiquitous telescreens keep watch over the population at all times, the mere thought of rebellion or disobedience is considered a crime punishable by death (or worse). It’s in this climate of fear and paranoia that Winston tries to assert his individuality and independence.
Winston finds a kindred spirit in Julia, a colleague at the Ministry of Truth, who at first seems to conform to the rigid ideals of the party but who eventually reveals herself to bea fellow libertine with a history of promiscuous behavior. Their secret love affair is a tender respite from the constant gloom and degradation of their daily lives – although the constant threat of detection looms large throughout. Along with their secret meetings, the pair also become interested in learning more about the mysterious rebel organization The Brotherhood (whose leader Emmanuel Goldstein is said to be an early member of the Party – and who is now Public Enemy #1). Their meeting with one of the Brotherhood’s supposed leaders marks a turning point in their rebellion.
The sheer visceral impact of the book’s not so subtle implications and warnings of the risks of unchecked totalitarianism and government surveillance do nothing to distract us from our intense sympathy for Winston and the emotional and psychological torment that he is forced to endure at the hands of the Party for transgressions that seem, to us, to be the basic rights of any human being. And even though the temptation is to think that this type of society could never really exist, even a cursory look back at the political landscape of the 20th century will reveal multiple instances of societies and regimes that foreshadow this type of manipulation and control.
“From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.”1984 Movie: A film version of 1984 was produced (released conveniently in 1984) that starred John Hurt as Winston Smith. The film got generally good reviews upon its release and adheres relatively faithfully to Orwell’s original text.