Thursday, January 25, 2018

1984 by George Orwell: A review

In 1984, the world has been carved up between three superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. In Oceania, which includes the Americas and Great Britain, there is a province called Airstrip One and in that province (formerly Great Britain) is the city of London where the action of the novel takes place.

The three superstates are essentially identical in their societies and forms of government, and so, of course, since they have no differences, they are perpetually at war with the aim of controlling all the face of the Earth. Oceania's foe may be Eastasia this week and Eurasia next week, but the war itself never ends.

Oceania's political ideology is called Ingsoc in Newspeak, the English language as reinvented by the government. The government is overseen by an entity called Big Brother, whom no one ever sees, and the ruling class is the Inner Party which seeks to stamp out individualism and independent thinking with their Thought Police whose duty is to root out and punish "thoughtcrimes" (Newspeak).

Below the elite Inner Party members are the Outer Party members who are the middle class of society. This comprises the bureaucrats who serve in four different government bureaus: the Ministry of Peace, which deals with war and defense; the Ministry of Plenty, dealing with economic affairs, rationing, and starvation; the Ministry of Love, in charge of law and order, as defined by torture and brainwashing; and the Ministry of Truth, which is in charge of news, entertainment, education, art, and propaganda. The protagonist in 1984, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue in Newspeak).

Finally, at the bottom of the heap of society are the proles (proletariat), representing 85% of the population. They are the uneducated working class.

As we get to know Winston Smith, we learn that he is not an admirer of Big Brother and that he is seeking a way to rebel against the constraints of the totalitarian government. In the face of omnipresent surveillance by the government, this is almost impossible. Miraculously, Winston is able to meet and fall in love with Julia, a woman who works in the fiction department at the Minitrue, and their relationship supplies the impetus to try and resist Big Brother. 

But their efforts are for naught. They are caught and taken to the Ministry of Love (Miniluv) where they are tortured, brainwashed, and eventually renounce each other. Considered "cured," they are released back into society. The last chilling words of the novel, referring to Winston, are: 
”But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Reading 1984 in 2018 America is a surreal experience. It often seems that one is reading a newspaper rather than a novel published in 1949. Big Brother's slogans seem eerily familiar.

  • "War is peace": Oceania engaged in perpetual war as a distraction for the populace. It was a way of giving the population a common enemy and so keeping peace - or at least order - in the country. Our country has been at war since 2002, with no end in sight, and it is considered sacrilege, treasonous even in some quarters, to suggest that we should be spending money elsewhere - our crumbling infrastructure, for example - to make our country stronger. Distraction complete.
  • "Freedom is slavery": If people have freedom to act and think and control their bodies, they will make bad decisions, become enslaved by vices, be ruled by sentiment and emotions. This, the Party said, was slavery. If the Party controls bodies and actions, it actually sets people free, i.e., they don't have to think for themselves. Think of the strenuous efforts currently being made to control what women are able to do with their bodies and how they make choices about their health care.
  • "Ignorance is strength": People were encouraged to accept as fact everything that the Party told them, without using rational thinking. They must believe and never question! If Big Brother tells you black is white and 2 + 2 = 5, believe it! After all, Big Brother would never lie. And anyway, who needs science or math? Who needs data and observable truths when you have "alternate facts"? Why should we need rational thinking when we have the benevolent "1 percent" (who only have our best interests in mind) to run things?
When I read this book in my youth, I was somewhat bemused by Orwell's theme. Today, I find it frightening and depressing. He was prescient in so many things. It is not a fun read, but it is certainly one that we should take seriously in the present political climate.
“The best books... are those that tell you what you know already.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

   

6 comments:

  1. Great review, Dorothy! I'm glad this book resonated with your beliefs.

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    1. It certainly gives the reader much to think about. For at least as long as we can think independently.

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  2. This book resonated with me from the very first time I read it as a teenager back in the 1960's. As I grew and matured, I was able to understand it more and more. I haven't read the book in years. Honestly, I would be scared to read it now. George Orwell got so much "right".

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    1. The further I got into the book, the more scary it became. It is difficult to read it now, in light of our current situation, and to realize how fragile our democracy truly is and how eager some are to accept authoritarian rule, as long as it protects their status.

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  3. Frightening resonating indeed. But reading novels enables independent thinking. At least I feel I am thinking independently when I read them.

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    1. Reading is the way that we install new software in the brain. A necessary procedure, I think, even if the software is sometimes challenging or even frightening.

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