I recently read the novel 1984– the 328 page long dystopian horror novel by George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, Homage to Catalonia (autobiography), and several essays, most of the before mentioned books being published one year after the other (from 1933-1941, he had a novel, study, or collection of essays published each year). Besides writing and writing and writing, George Orwell served in the Imperial Police in Burma before moving to Europe and becoming a political writer (he also served in the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War).
This book is a horrifying story of a world where the only political system is that of Ingsoc (or otherwise known as Death Worship/Obliteration of the Self in Chinese or Neo-Bolshevikisim). This book is a comment on human nature and politics, inspired by WW2. It is not trying to show off or tell a story, but rather to warn and protect against a utopia gone wrong. I have read several old utopia books, and they all show a similar use of Communism and government control over jobs. Orwell shows an utopia gone wrong. In Oceania, the country’s motto is “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” (mentioned first on pg. 4 and repeated over and over). It is a world where people are made “equal” through loss of rights and the political system is designed to last forever. It is horrifying, with its need for loyalty and love to only Big Brother. Humans are made into machines. This striking bleakness and hopelessness is what made me decide to try and read this (also the fact I heard about the ending and thought: ‘I must read a TRUE dystopia! Move over, Divergent! Or Detergent! Or whatever your title is!)
The main character, Winston, wants to rebel, but also stay alive. However, the Thought Police are everywhere and there is no privacy. So he ends up meeting with Julia. Julia is a girl who never knew the world before the Revolution (which took place a bit after World War 2). She wants to rebel as well- in the form of loving who she wants and how she wants. Ingsoc doesn’t want any love or loyalty between party members, so children are trained to be spies and hate intercourse. People found having intercourse for a reason other than reproduction are punished. With these rules, it is difficult for Julia to live how she wants, so she finds ways to escape the Thought Police and live her own way. Later, she and Winston are found. They want to escape, to keep their ideals, but the Ministry of Love (concerned with war and the Thought Police/the law) is a harsh place. So @^^(#@ *&#$ *(^&#@ ^#^*%(# (spoilers; read the book yourself!)
I would not view this as similar to modern teen dystopias, but I will compare this to a popular dystopia series- The Hunger Games. The main difference between these two is the societies in them. In The Hunger Games, we see more of a Roman empire. In 1984, we see a new form of government that is based off of the views of both Stalin and Hitler. With 1984, the government is also much more of a threat. They leave no martyrs, they change history and facts (so much that they can even claim that 2+2=5), and they manipulate even human nature. The Capital, however, does not do these things. They only kill their enemies, and we never see any sort of mind tricks being done on the population to keep them from realizing their situation- they just keep them too overworked and hungry to do anything. Ingsoc and Big Brother have three parts of their society- inner party, outer party, and the Proles. The inner and outer party are kept in check with the Thought Police and constant surveillance. The Proles (85% of the population) are left to do as they will and are the working class. They are kept uninformed and working, meaning they will never see a reason to rebel because they have no point of comparison. They don’t know of any other lifestyle or any other countries. From what we see of the Districts, they have points of comparison and can realize “well, our lives are poop, but theirs aren’t. LET’S OVERTHROW THEM!!!!!” Another huge, enormous, absolutely important difference is that we never see things get better in 1984. There is no happy ending. There is no democracy or whatever else. Only Big Brother. That’s what makes this novel absolutely terrifying and a horror story, while The Hunger Games is a sci-fi action book. True dystopias never get better.
Winston is extremely interesting, well written, and a good fit for this story. He is 39 (making the fact he was around before the Revolution completely plausible, meaning it should a bit after 1945, maybe 1951, if he was 6). He is also described as frail, with a varicose ulcer above his ankle, coarse skin, and very fair hair. The fact that he is frail makes it easier to believe his place in the outer party and his lifestyle. His health is realistic for the life outer party members live, and he is the type of person who fits into the role of a rebel, sneaking around in the shadows and remembering the truth. He also works at the Ministry of Truth (concerned with lies and propaganda) in editing newspaper articles, brochures, and other Ingsoc writings. This creates an ironic contrast between his truth/history loving personality and his job in rephrasing and recreating it- a thing he despises. The way George Orwell writes him means the readers learn a lot about him and his views. And his descent into madness. His hysteria and nervousness before madness bring us even closer to this character. For example, in his journal, he writes in a sort of hysteria that “theyll shot me i dont care theyll shoot me in the back of the neck i dont care down with big brother they always shoot you in the back of the neck i dont care down with big brother” (pg 19). This apostrophe-less, punctuation-less, capital-letter-less mess is one of the first things, if not the first, that truly yanks the reader into believing that this is a real person, rather than a character. The panic stricken flow, the repeating descriptions of being shot in the back of the neck and the lying “i dont care”s and the echoes of “down with big brother” make Winston seem real, pained, and perhaps with a few fun mental illnesses from his lifestyle (yay. anxiety.) Its flow follows a thought pattern anyone who has ever been badly hurt or scared knows. It isn’t some eloquent and heroic inspiration, its an inhuman cry of terror and upcoming death. It slaps the reader in the face with its suddenness and life like quality. Every other dystopia I have read has nothing like this. This makes 1984 and Winston even more horrifyingly real.
One thing I noticed was the use of “Again and Again”. Many phrases are repeated over and over, like “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” (pages 4, 16, 26, 104, in pieces throughout 184 and 185 and 201. And that’s only when it is set apart from the rest of the text). This is not only a way of making suspense and tone, but it is also a warning to the readers. “War is peace” means, to Ingsoc, that their constant state of war with no victories or loses is the same as a constant state of peace. This doubles as a message to readers on the way a war can become a normality, as described on pg. 186. “Freedom is slavery” is an excuse by Ingsoc that the lives citizens live is the freedom and equality people look for. The warning in this is a reminder of the complete awfulness in Oceania and how it clashes with most cultures’ ideals. “Ignorance is strength” is the Ingsoc way of saying “propaganda is a-ok! In fact, it is a strong thing for a country to do! Completely control all your citizen’s thoughts!” This is a reminder to reader’s of the backwardness and lack of progress in Oceania, and how being informed is important. This book was mainly written to try and prevent Ingsoc governments, so this repeated mantra is meant to tie together all the bad of Oceania into three basic, memorable statements by tying something associated with bad to something associated with good. The idea that “war is peace” would be horrifying to 1949 anywhere. Having a World War and then being told “that’s peace” would seem ridiculous and a thing no one would want. Hearing that “freedom is slavery” would also be jarring to persecuted groups. And the idea that “ignorance is strength” would be disliked by anyone. Not knowing is a huge fear- it’s the reason why the dark is instinctively a fear to many people. Humans like to know and understand things. This “Again and Again” isn’t just a tool to make a better story, it’s a tool to prevent Ingsoc.
In the book, after Winston buys an illegal glass decoration and thinks Julia is spying on him, he goes back to his room,
“He tried with a little more success than before to summon up the image of O’Brien. ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ O’Brien had said to him. He knew what it meant, or thought he knew. The place where there is no darkness was the imagined future, which no one would ever see, but which, by foreknowledge, one could mysterically share in. But with the voice from the telescreen nagging at his ears he could not follow the train of thought further. He put a cigarette in his mouth. Half the tobacco promptly fell out onto his tongue, a bitter dust which was difficult to spit out again. The face of Big Brother swam into his mind, displacing that of O’Brien. Just as he had done a few days earlier, he slid a coin out of his pocket and looked at it. The face gazed up at him, heavy, calm, protecting, but what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache? Like a leaden knell the words came back at him:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” (pg 104).
This paragraph intrigued me, looking back at it from the end. The subtle foreshadowing coupled with the repeated quote of “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” makes the writing of this paragraph chilling, the second time through. The way it shows more than just the actions or thoughts is skillful. It shows the physical effects of his (Winston’s) thoughts, rather than just their mental/emotional effect, which makes for a stronger empathy toward the character and a more interesting story.
I would rate this book a 6, purely because although it is well written and interesting, it is slightly sexist and a horror novel.
P.S. Don’t read this if you are sensitive about physical relations between people- one of the main points of the Party is keeping people from having loyalties or love to anyone except Big Brother, so this is a large part of the book. It isn’t extremely explicit, but it is there. You are warned.
P.S.S. Can I take a moment to talk about the awesome cover shown at the beginning of this post? It is an amazing cover. The white bleakness, with only the iris of an ice cold eye as decoration is chilling. It shows the Thought Police perfectly- an eye, always staring out. And with the title in the pupil, it is like a magnifying glass, focused in on it. Absolutely frightening, with its simplicity. Where other book covers have a significant character or scene, this has an eye- the symbol of the Thought Police and Big Brother. It may seem boring, but the white blankness stands out, between bright, vibrant shouts and pale, solemn statements and quiet, pastel whispers, just like the plot of this book.
P.S.S.S. Here’s the movie trailer.