Monday, 9 July 2012

The Classics Club: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

I first read 1984 by George Orwell in 1984, and, while the whole story was depressing and scary, it was evident that it was a work of fiction, in a futuristic setting, far, far away in another galaxy ...
Fast forward today, or actually about 10 years ago, when the whole craze of the "Big Brother" reality series started.  Never could I have imagined that the words of caution in the book would be misinterpreted and actually turned against fellow humans and seduce all of us into a voyeurism without precedent... 

This was a totally different way of reading... I found I had to stop several times because the plot was becoming so heavy, I felt I was getting out of breath.  I had to recollect my thoughts and analyse bits before I could proceed to the next part.

The book follows the life of Winston Smith, a citizen of the Oceanian province of Airstrip One, where the Party is the absolute dominant power, requiring an almost religious fanaticism. It's not a wonder that the 2-minute Hate resembles the anti-semitic movement in the second world war:

"in its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy.  People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices ... it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowing of consciousness by means of rhythmic noice"
Everything in the citizens' lives is controlled:  the totalitarian system is headed by Big Brother, the party leader (who may not really exist) - he is omnipresent via screens installed everywhere that monitor every move, every thought, every reaction.  In order to survive, one must obey blindly the doctrine of the Party:


What is the ultimate freedom?  is it really the ability to say that 2+2= 4, without fear of torture? Winston wonders when people in Oceania stopped trusting their eyes and ears and replaced all with the Party's "evidence".  And here comes one of the major themes that still prevails in our society:  manipulation of information.  From major political events, to sports activities to everyday "celebrity" lives, we are meant to believe what the system in place wants us to believe - modern politics have been proven to promote what Orwell calls "doublethink" (to know and not know) - one simple example is evidenced by the curiculum taught at schools, which reflect each government's wishes and ideals of the time.  When I went to study in a foreign university I actually relearned the history of my country.  Later on, however, when I saw the curiculum my nephew was taught, I realised that it was totally different to what I was taught, twenty years ago. Which begs to question:  are we free and content to be just so - or do we realise that we are relatively free?

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth and his mission is to rewrite history:  as soon as one element in present day changes, he has to modify all past references to it.  So, if Oceania is at war with Eurasia:  this means that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia: 

"who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past"
A second theme in this book:  ignorance.  People in Oceania are constantly brain-washed with "truths" that determine their lives.  Problem is that inevitable changes in them would make the Party look suspiciously manipulative.  Solution:  abolish all written evidence and update references accordingly: "the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth".  With all proof to the contrary falsified, and with human memory failing, the Party's claim to have improved the conditions of human life for example would have to be accepted as a fact.  No possibility to even doubt what people are being fed by the information channels.  This is already despressing in the book, but what about current practice?  While it's true that we have a so-called "freedom of speech" which can provide a multi-faceted focus on a news item, still I can't help but wonder - do we ever know the whole truth about major events?  while not entering into conspiracy-theory logic, are there interests that morph truth into something that will be palatable for the majority of us? Here, as well as elsewhere, the book does not propose solutions.  It just provides food for thought - and actually urges us to keep on thinking.  We should always be aware of what is happening around us - even if we cannot make major changes. 

Last major theme in 1984, and the most interesting for me:  war.  Oceania is in a constant state of warfare, with the result that people have to make do with bare necessities. They never have enough to eat, to drink, to wear.  Whatever they consume is of  deplorable quality and there does not seem to be an end to this situation.  The reasoning came as a shock to me and remained in my thoughts for a while:

"the essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour... it eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs"

And why shouldn't the surplus be distributed to the citizens?

"... an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction - inded, in some sense it was the destruction of a hierchical society... people would become literate and would learn to think for themselves... they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had not function and they would sweep it away"

All is black and doomed in Oceania and not even a love story can escape from this:  When Winston meets Julia, it's only to prove how volatile human nature is - and how in the end, if the circumstances are dire, each will sell the other to save themselves:

"We are the dead", he said.  "We are the dead", ecoed Julia dutifully.  "You are the dead" said an iron voice behind them.

While the book may appear to describe an extreme situation in a civilisation far-away, let us not forget that there are still many examples of political systems that will try to impose ideals and visions that satisfy an elit's wishes.  This is the major issue I take from reading this book, the slow but constant removal of rights, possibilities and "freedoms", which may lead to a situation similar to Oceania.

Towards the end there is a sentence which, for me, captures how I felt reading this book "if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever".  However despressing I found the story in 1984, I'm glad I re-read this book as an adult, I'm glad I got into the deeper meanings of the story and I'm glad I'm able to use my brain to challenge "reality" around me...

Also read for the Back to the Classics challenge


  1. I remember when I read 1984, the thing that got to me was newspeak: reducing the language reduces thought reduces reality. Would we know what freedom was if there wasn't a word for it?

    And good point about double-think and school curricula - it ties into my point the other day. We should get together and talk about this further. Form all the nationalities I've met while in Brussels, I think the Greeks are some of the other that have to deal more with this reality readjustment.

    1. Interesting question - if we'd know what freedom is if we didn't have a word for it. I suspect we would know it at least as a certain feeling, but we'd also want to put a word to such a feeling. Also without the word it's so much more difficult to discuss the concept or feeling with others and develop it further.

    2. With respect to language and expression, I believe 1984 is also close to Animal Farm - where the animals already know that something is wrong with the pigs, but cannot come to express their fears. Result - they say nothing and suffer. That's how I see this issue here as well: if we can no longer express our ideas, fears, hopes we end up saying nothing and we will either become emotionless or suffer...

  2. I found I had to stop several times because the plot was becoming so heavy, I felt I was getting out of breath. I had to recollect my thoughts and analyse bits before I could proceed to the next part.

    I've experienced the same thing with a recent book I've read, Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton; also reading it for the Classics Club Challenge. A beautifully written book but the main character is infuriating - a monster without realizing she's a monster.

    The rewriting of history, and doublespeak struck me most from 1984 I remember. Ministry of Peace for Ministry of War - distorting words to minimize the impact of what they refer to and muddle people's thinking about them.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    1. Indeed, the wealth of points to be raised is a good indicator of the depth of a book - thank you for your kind words




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