War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. The three slogans of the Party sound eerily like the propaganda and doublespeak we hear on the nightly news. Not surprising, seeing as the term doublespeak is a play on George Orwell’s created language, Newspeak, which is his way of playing with how the signifier necessarily affects the signified in our everyday speech. If we no longer have the words to express dissent, dissent dies. And for Winston Smith, finding the right words to express himself is a matter of living a short while as a free man, versus living a life as another cog in the machine. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not only one of the most prescient novels of the twentieth century, it’s one of the greatest novels of all time.
George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four commonly shows up on Best Novel of All Time lists, and it’s with good reason. I first read the novel twenty-six years ago when taking a Russian Literature course. No, Orwell hadn’t been assigned for that class; rather, I was reading so that I could talk about what a terrible thief and plagiarist Orwell was, as I studied We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I’d been told by my professor that Orwell had borrowed liberally from Zamyatin. Both books tell tales of men who are trying to fight against a monolithic system, who fall in love, who end up losing their humanity and their sense of freewill. But while Zamyatin’s book is a classic, and a very good book in its own right, Orwell’s is a mature work of genius. Sharing common themes doesn’t mean you’re plagiarizing, and even Shakespeare borrowed and/or stole themes and ideas from lesser writers that came before. To ignore what Orwell does with the motifs of oppression, self-awareness, and civil disobedience in the face of overwhelming strength, would be to ignore one of the best novels ever written.
The story, for those not familiar, follows Winston Smith, a low-level functionary who works in MiniTru, the Ministry of Truth. His job is to ensure that the news reflects the current Party line – not just the news in the day’s paper, but all newspapers that have come before. The irony here is that he is often privy to information that is obviously contradictory, but in the parlance of newspeak, to disagree with the party is thoughtcrime, a crime punishable by retraining, brainwashing, and eventually death. Smith and his compatriots are asked to use doublethink, Orwell’s term for cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two opposing positions within the mind at the same time. In so doing, they can do their job, and still toe the line that everything the Party says is true, even when it patently isn’t.
Smith tries little moments of rebellion, moments that come in the form of hoarding a small supply of worn out razor blades, or not reaching all the way to his toes when doing mandatory exercise (a rebellion which backfires when the trainer sees him shirking – in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the TVs watch you). However, his ultimate form of rebellion comes when he begins to keep a journal. Personal writing is strictly forbidden – it smacks too much of having independent thought, of having an ego, and everything that follows comes from this one choice he makes when on the way home from work one evening. By day, he follows Party guidelines as strictly as everyone else; by night, he hides in a small nook out of view of the television, scribbling furtive notes to a posited future generation. He eventually takes further steps of rebellion, and although it becomes apparent that the government has known since the very beginning that he is subversive, they wait until he is thoroughly damned by his own actions before they move in to take him.
The third act of the novel shows the lengths the totalitarian government will go to in order to break the individual to its collective will. There is torture, there is cajoling, there is false camaraderie, and it all comes to a head in Room 101 – a bugaboo whispered about among the populace, which no one is sure even exists. It does, and what happens there changes Smith on a most fundamental level.
On a basic level, this is a love story, though it is seldom called that; it is a story of hope, though the bleakness tends to make people forget; and it is a story of warning, of what can happen if the state is allowed, in the name of security, to gradually erode the freedoms of the individual. It is not a novel to read alone in the night, for it is far more frightening in its prospect than any Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe; but it is a novel that must be read, by each generation, as its warnings made in earnest by a disillusioned Orwell writing in 1948 are just as pertinent – perhaps even more so – now, in the twenty-first century.
Steve’s Grade: A+
One of the great novels of the last one-hundred years, and a title that should be on the bookshelves of readers everywhere. Its beauty lies in Orwell’s bleak portrayal of a world truly gone to hell.