Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nineteen Eighty - Four by George Orwell

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.


The Bookworm said...

Fantastic review. I like how you end it by paying omage to George Orwell and the phrases he came up with.
I'm glad I randomly stumbled upon your blog.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Nadia - Thanks for stopping by!

I often hear people use these terms that Orwell coined. I sometimes ask them if they know the origins and sometimes they do not even know about this book!

LMR said...

I read this novel once, and I still like to re-read parts of the Room 101 section from time to time, since I find O'Brien a remarkable villain.

But more and more I doubt the accuracy of this novel: I don't think this vision of a totalitarian future will come into being, full of sturm and drang, marches and black shirts. I fear fascism wised up, learned its lessons, and evolved better than democracy did to detect its new guise.

I think totalitarianism is already around us, inside us, gnawing away at our democratic institutions, in Europe and America, and we're mostly unaware of it, and those who try to warn us of it are ridiculed as alarmist nutcases.

I think Huxley's vision is more accurate: we'll be too busy watching TV and reality shows, and taking drugs and pursuing pleasure, to notice what's going on.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I agree that the kind of world that Orwell predicted will likely and happily not come true.

At times I have been very much in agreement with you that Democracy was slowly being subverted and that the mass of public was being cowed further and further by pop culture fluff.

However lately I have been a little more optimistic. Anti democratic forces are not new and have been working hard for centuries. These forces seem to achieve success but also suffer setbacks.

I totally agree that the mindlessness that people consume is dangerous. But when I think about it, this pop culture swill actually seemed worse thirty years ago when there was less exchange of ideas. It seems that there are an awful lot of smart independent thinkers (including lots whose beliefs are very different from mine) around who are utilizing the internet as well as other aspects of the free societies in order to thrive intellectually, disseminate ideas and organize.

It is all so complicated and as I mention I have gone back and forth on this in my mind.

We shall see what the future holds!

@parridhlantern said...

I think that orwell's vision a bit too operatic to be fully realised as with the other comment I believe Huxley's dystopia to be more likely. With the book itself I have a love/hate relationship due to a particularly horrid and yet inane teacher. Also with Huxley it pays to read both Brave New World & his own answer to it Island. Great thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for reviewing this book. Your unwillingness to quote the darkest passages is just the sort of review I needed of this book. I am one of those terribly sensitive souls that has not, cannot and will not read this book because I would not sleep well for a long time after reading it. Your review has given me just enough to know I do not need to read this book to feel complete. I just read a great review on how Amazon, et al are monitoring our e-reads and that we don't truly own those books on our e-readers. I then came over here and read your review. Combine that with the dreariness outside and I will be in complete turmoil today. On the up side, I have a great outdoor run planned for today and that will set me free. Right?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - I very much agree with you and Miguel that Huxley's vision, as well as Bradbury's dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 reflect what has happened to human society much more accurately.

I have not read Island. It looks very interesting!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - So sorry to bring you down!

The passage I referred to as The Cold March days losses much of its impact when read out of context.

That information about e - books is troubling but very much in line with the way that the world is going.

I actually will be putting up a post soon that will hopefully make us all feel a little better. I have read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Its conclusions if valid bode very well for the future.

Good luck on the run! We still have snow on the ground here so I am stuck in the gym. It will likely make you feel better! Just do not listen to a depressing audiobook while doing it!

Harvee said...

I don't remember being overly affected by the book when I read it in school, but I think I would be if I read it today. I take your word for it that it's absolutely depressing dreary. I think I'll read something else. I agree though that the news media is way too powerful in influencing how we think and react to what's going on around us.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - The interesting thing about this book is I think that at a young age we are most impressed by the technological impact of the story and tend to overlook the pathos. At a later age ,many of us see the emotional impact as the more important aspect of this tale.

As we have been discussing here, the media is indeed very powerful, but I am still heartened that we have so many alternative outlets and communication channels available to us that previous generations could never even imagine.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian & Harvey, interesting comment' I also think as you've grown you've experienced more examples of bureaucracy & butted our heads against them. Giving us ideas of what it could be like.

stujallen said...

I have only read it once myself ,love your review must really reread it see how 20 years have change my views and this book has coined so much that is common pl,ace in the world big brother extra ,been watched (cctv) etc ,I did read Anthony Burgess 1985 a book inspired by this one ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I totally agree as to how we learn more about the excesses concerning big organizations.

I think that as we learn more about the world we also lean how oppressive states with secret police, torture chambers, etc., operate and can have such a crushing effect upon the individual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I have heard about Anthony Burgess 1985 and sounds like an interesting book. I was thinking about giving it a read.

If you re read Nineteen Eighty - Four I would love to hear what you think.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian, ditto stu's choice & in reference to your last comment to myself, you might be interested in Imre Kertesz's Detective Story, written from the perspective of a state torturer for the secret police of a now defunct dictatorship, whilst languishing in a prison cell.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I just googled Kertesz's Detective Story and it looks to be fascinating.

A remember seeing a couple of films that explored the psychology of state sponsored torture, abuse and oppression. Closet Land was interesting but an average film. I thought Death and the Maiden was really thought provoking.

Caroline said...

I'm not sure what that say s about me but I didn't find it all that terrible. I also read it at 17 or so, in school but at the same time I read Pinchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Célines Voyage to the End of the Night. At the end I thought what history had to offer was more horrible. But I still remember the Room 101 scene (I didn't remember the name but I guess it's what I would call the "rat scene").
I'm glad for your in depth review. It brought back a lot.

Guy Savage said...

Brian: I've been thinking that I need to get back to Orwell soon mainly because I am read George Gissing who reminds me of Orwell in some ways--plus Orwell admired Gissing's social criticism a great deal.

Sharon Wilfong said...

This was an excellent review. I like how you intertwined the story outline with your reaction to it.

I also found 1984 and Animal Farm bleak. I think that Orwell saw the darkness in man very clearly. I see groupthink in action all around me in the news and throughout history.

But Orwell discounted a Sovereign God so his viewpoint was incomplete.

As C.S. Lewis said of Nathanial Hawthorne:
He sees darkness in all things but sheds no light in which to pierce the darkness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I am laughing as it seems that everyone read this around 17 years old. At least for me the full emotional understanding of this work only came when I was older. The understanding of the technological horror was easier to get.

I think that Gravity's Rainbow exhibits a similar theme but without as much emotional punch. I have not read Voyage to the End of the Night.

Real history is indeed worse but I think that in fiction we sometimes connects with characters in a deeper way (I say sometimes since I think that this is an issue ripe for lots of discussion). Interestingly Richard recently put up a post relating to the issue of connecting to fictionalized accounts over non - fiction within his discussion of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. His context is a little different but I think that it is still relevant:

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - i had only head of Gissing as well as Orwell's connection with him through your blog. He looks like a writer well worth reading!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks for the good word!

Indeed both Nineteen Eighty For and Animal Farm were so very pessimistic. They are the only Orwell that I have read, I get the sense that his earlier writings were not so negative. That CS Lewis quote indeed fits Orwell, at least at this stage very well.

Groupthink has been and is indeed pervasive, but I also think that those of us who live in a free society have lots of opportunity to escape it that not everyone is fortunate enough to have.

I also have strong doubts that there is an omnipotent God but I do think that Orwell likely was too pessimistic about the big picture.

Thanks for the great comments.

Take care!

Unknown said...

Thanks for that analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I read that book when I was 15 and found it very depressing. More recently, I've been thinking of re-reading it to explore the more mature issues that I'm sure I missed in my cursory reading years ago. This analysis makes me want to move the book up in my reading queue. :) Very thought-provoking!

Geosi said...

Oh 1984, one book I have been daring to read. nice review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - It is amazing at how many people say that they read this in their teens and not since.

If you give it another try I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Geosi - Thanks for the good word! If you do read it I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Of course you are right and we should not shun this book. I hope that I have not scarred anyone off by my commentary.

The interesting thing is that the Room 101 scene I can take. It is that ONE passage that takes place in the park. It is not graphic in any way. In fact, as I mention if I quoted it here it would have little meaning on its own. I suspect that it will not bother most people as it does me. It seems just to push certain buttons.

I looked up Grotesque on Amazon. It looks like it may be disturbing.

Suko said...

Excellent, incisive review, Brian! You've whetted my interest in a book that I, too, read many years ago, when I was too young to really understand it.

I don't think we should shun 1984 because it's so dark; reader discomfort is not always a bad thing, although if it's extreme enough it may be (and I refuse to read certain books for precisely this reason, such as Grotesque). I think the point of presenting such a dystopia is (at least in part) to act as a "cautionary tale". Perhaps now, with all of our "advances" in technology, I am also due a reread of this book, although your warning is very strong.

(Sorry, Brian, I reposted my comment because I noticed a typo I made!)

Ryan said...

I'm glad you brought up the subject of technology as a method of fighting oppression. This was the point that always troubled me about 1984. It troubled me that the people simply laid down and submitted themselves to this oppression without using the exact same technologies the government was using to oppress them. The Brotherhood should have been far more tangible than it actually was, especially amongst a population (the former UK) that had once experienced freedom.

Anyway, 1984 is one of my favorite novels (in a strange disturbing way) and this was an excellent review. Many salient points.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - thanks for the good word.

Certainly a worthy book to be one's favorite.

I think that when Orwell wrote this it was not at all apparent that such technology would be so accessible to the mass of people. I think that in the 1940s the thinking was that if something was advanced technology only the government would have it. Progress moved in unexpected ways.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

I read this when I was a teenager but I'd like to read it again now. I wonder how I'd respond to it as an adult.

It affected you a lot and your discomfort is clear in your review.
Don't forget this was written a few years after the horror of concentration camps was revealed to everyone. It was hard to be optimistic about human nature after that.

I also think that Huxley's vision is more accurate than this one. Except for CCTV everywhere, and cell phones that can be tracked down.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Huxley was definitely a more accurate predictor of the general future of humankind. I think part of my point that Orwell's take on what can be done to the individual is the most troubling aspect of this work.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

WOW. You've written yet another wonderful, thought-provoking review!! I love the way you analyze the books you read -- you mention the positive and negative aspects of a book impartially, objectively.

This particular review is a very enlightening one. I've never read "1984", and, thanks to your fascinating analysis of the book, I don't think I ever will! It IS indeed much too dark!

I'm glad you pointed out that Orwell was much too pessimistic. It would have been intolerable if everything in this novel had actually come about!

I suppose that, in spite of all the darkness in this novel, we do need books like this, to serve as a warning, so that we never descend into such an evil abyss. That doesn't make this novel any easier to read, though.

Thanks for such interesting comments!! :)

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I've read this book a few years ago and instantly liked Orwell's style and decided to read more books by him. You could say it had a very powerful impact on me. That scene in Room 101 was really hard to read because up until that point there is still hope.
Burmese Days and A Clergyman's Daughter were also good, especially the former.
Thanks for the review, it brought back memories.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Indeed most folks find the Room 101 scene the most disturbing. It truly is horrifying.

The only other Orwell that I have read was Animal Farm. I really need to give Burmese Days and A Clergyman's Daughter a try.