I have not read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty- Four in several years. I read it twice in my lifetime. Appropriately my first reading was back in the actual year of 1984. I read it for the second time a few years ago. I will likely never read it again. As I found it to be the most disturbing piece of fiction that I ever read, I do not wish to endure this brilliant but terribly dark novel again. Since I found this work to be so affecting, I have wanted to post some commentary on it for a while.
Written in 1948 the story takes place in the monstrously dystopian future world of 1984. The planet is divided up onto three horrendously oppressive dictatorships. All members of the middle class are constantly observed with cameras and other electronic surveillance devices installed in their homes, places of work, public spaces etc. Enthusiasm for the ruling party and its leader “Big Brother” is enforced as the state has infiltrated all aspects of life. The dictatorship has even subverted the language in the creation of “Newspeak”, a dialect that discourages free thought. Television and other media are continually blaring pro government propaganda into all private and public places. The slightest perceived breach of loyalty to the party is punished by ghastly torture. The nation is constantly at war and there are habitual shortages and near famine.
Winston Smith is a citizen of what was once the United Kingdom and is now part of Oceana. Winston meets Julia. The two begin a clandestine love affair and participate in a private rebellion. They fantasize about “The Brotherhood”, a legendary and likely mythical dissident movement.
When Winston and Julia are discovered and arrested, lets just say that really bad things happen. The primary villain is a state operative known as O’Brien whose fanatical loyalty and belief in the party is absolutely insane.
Many people whom I have communicated with, as well as some commentary that I have read, share the opinion that this novel as extremely troubling. There are many reasons for so much reader discomfort.
First this is an extremely negative book. Knowing a bit about Orwell’s life, it is clear that he was disillusioned when he wrote it. Among many reasons for his despondency was that he was sick with tuberculosis, an illness that would soon kill him. I believe this novel to be more of a prediction then a warning. It seems that Orwell believed that the fate of humanity was inevitably leading to horrendously oppressive dictatorship across the globe.
Others have remarked to me that they were disturbed by the accuracy of Orwell’s predictions. Indeed, since the publication of this novel, mass media, particularly television, has shown itself to be devastatingly effective propaganda tool. Both small and large oppressors have used modern technology to monitor people in their homes, workplaces as well as in public areas. I would however point out that as much as Orwell got right, he also got some things wrong. For instance, modern technology has often been the bane of the oppressive and powerful, with people using radio, the Internet, mobile devices, etc. to combat oppression and tyranny. In addition, Orwell clearly felt that the Democracies of the time, particularly The United States, Great Britain and France were soon to descend into chaos and eventual dictatorship.
Many including myself, find the overall theme, fate of the characters, as well as few particular passages in this book to be the most unsettling. Though I will not give away additional details as to the fate of the protagonists, the main idea here is that an oppressive government can crush the best and most noble aspects of the human character and soul. Furthermore, Orwell seems to be saying that there is a sadomasochistic strain in dictatorial regimes, and if the regime is smart and resourceful enough, it will successfully exercise its complete domination over the individual.
O’Brien describes the level of control and submission that the state demands,
“We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, and we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.”
There are a few particular passages in this book that hammer these ideas home and that are exceedingly difficult to take. There is one scene that I find to be unbearable. Interestingly it is not one of the passages that everyone seems to talk about. Often folks will comment upon a part known as the “Room 101” scene and describe it as the most traumatic of the book. This passage is an unimaginable description of psychological and threatened physical torture. This is not however the most disturbing part for me.
Likewise the last few lines of the book are often mentioned as extremely wrenching as they express a shocking and utter moral defeat of the human will. Indeed the above-mentioned parts of the book are really troubling. But for me, it is yet another section that is the worst.
There is a part, near the end. It is a cold March day. Not having seen each other in months, Winston and Julia meet by chance in a park. The description of the day, of dead vegetation and of the dialogue between the two is incredibly well crafted. I will not give away more details, but for me, this is the darkest, most despair filled fictional passage that I has ever been written. It is utter coldness and represents the ultimate in despair. It is difficult to imagine how Orwell wrote about such darkness. I will not read this book again as this part is just too much. There is no point in quoting it here, as it needs the context of everything that has happened before to have any meaning.
Orwell’s main theme is the inevitable obliteration of the individual by a supremely powerful state pumped up with technology and sadism. The message here is that all the character and courage in the world is no match for ingenious and brutal torture. Furthermore, in the author’s view, the world of 1948 was trending dangerously toward societies completely subdued by such hideous forces.
Is there any hope at all in this work? I recall, back when I was seventeen years old and first reading the work, I thought that I had detected something. There is an appendix to the book that explains and analyzes Newspeak. This addendum is written in the past tense. It seems to imply that a scholar is writing it many years after the main events of the book. It also appears to be written from the point of view of someone operating in a free society. When I reread the book a few years ago I was again struck by the tense and tone of the appendix. Was this book so dark that Orwell felt the need to throw in a tiny wisp of light? Was he implying that Big Brother eventually fell? A little online research reveals that others have noted the apparent mystery of the appendix and that there is debate regarding its significance!
Though it seems that a large percentage of the population have read Nineteen Eighty- Four, a discussion with of many readers that I encounter indicates that it was read at a young age and that the book was rushed through for a school assignment. Often such quick reads overly focus the reader, to the exclusion of all else, on how many of the technological oppressions predicted have come true. Though this is an important aspect of this work, it is a pity, as there is so much more here.
I will not actually recommend a careful Nineteen Eighty- Four unless one is prepared for the darkest of dark tragedies. Though I think that art should be driven by a combination of the negative and positive, this one may go a little too far for many. On the other hand this is in many ways a work of genius and it is of immense importance. Though history has shown that Orwell was too pessimistic, it has also shown that he was amazing prophetic. His warnings are still of great use as a caution to any citizen of the twenty–first century.
Finally this book also gives us something else. It has provided us with an arsenal of words, phrases and allusions to use against both big and small oppressors. Every time we make a remark about “Big Brother”, or mentions “Groupthink”, “Newspeak” or say that something is “Orwellian,” we shoot a little rhetorical arrow at the tyrannical. This arrow was a gift from George Orwell.