Last year was certainly an interesting one for history, but also for my reading list! I finally got around to enjoying a few classics I’d been wanting to read for years, so today I’m focusing on one of them for my first book review of 2018. As if you haven’t heard about it enough in the past year, here’s my review of 1984 by George Orwell!
First published in 1949, 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) is a dystopian political novel and the last book ever written by George Orwell. The protagonist of the story is Winston Smith, an Outer Party member living in the fictional totalitarian superstate of Oceania. The government of Oceania is run by the Inner Party, commonly referred to only as the Party, and enforces an ideology known as Ingsoc.
Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, revising historical records for the government while secretly hating the Party and dreaming of rebellion against their leader, Big Brother. The novel follows Winston as he navigates through a world where history is fiction, the government is always watching you, and independent thinking is punishable by death.
First off, I know it may seem like I only read this book now because it feels more relevant than ever, but while that was a valid reason that did make the book easier to find (I picked it up from a “bestsellers” table at Barnes & Noble), the truth is that George Orwell’s 1984 is a book I’d been wanting to read for years but that I hadn’t found the time (or copy in English) to read until last year.
Having said that, the fact that I read the book in 2017 may have made it that much more realistic and terrifying.
The totalitarian nightmare that is the world of 1984 is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read in a book, probably because it feels so real. Modern history aside, the idea of an authoritarian government with absolute power existing only 35 years into the first edition’s future speaks volumes about how easily people can be manipulated and controlled.
The most obvious criticism within this theme is against communism (Ingsoc being short for “English Socialism”), which was still on the rise in Orwell’s day, but the author was warning us about the dangers of psychological manipulation and the control of information even in democratic societies. As is mentioned later in the story, the Party seeks power solely for the sake of power, and in so doing, deprives humanity of the very freedoms that make us human.
But as noted in this TED-Ed video, “authoritarian alone does not Orwellian make.” The scariest part of Oceania’s totalitarian regime isn’t the omnipresent surveillance nor the persecution of individualism, terrifying as they are; it’s the control of thought and behavior through language.
The official language of Oceania is Newspeak—a version of English stripped down to its barest bones. In Newspeak, most words have a single concrete meaning, sentences are constructed via a basic grammatical system, and entire words and definitions have been scrapped from the dictionary. The point of this is to completely eliminate critical thinking from the population, thus maintaining the Party’s power indefinitely. If that idea doesn’t send chills down your spine, I don’t know what will.
It is in these portrayals of language and thought that George Orwell’s astute observations about society are most evident. In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), he examines the use of language as a political device—or more accurately, the distortion of language as a catalyst for political manipulation.
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)
Overall, 1984 is a chilling yet fascinating read that deserves its place among the greatest novels ever written for its timeless message of warning to humanity. Though I’m sure he could never have imagined a future with the Internet and social media, Orwell was right to urge us not to lose our language and individual thought. They’re our greatest defenses against the threat of a world where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.
Orwell’s 1984 is considered one of the most powerful and influential literary works of the 20th century, and with good reason. Despite having been written in the late 1940s, the book only seems to become more relevant with each passing year. Why else do sales of this novel continue to spike over half a century since its debut?
Along with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, 1984 is part of the trilogy of quintessential “negative utopia” novels of the mid 20th century. To this day, it inspires us to imagine a world without the basic freedoms we take for granted and to question if we’re really headed in the right direction as a society.
In the digital age, we’ve long been at the point of willingly trading privacy for convenience, and a case can be made for how we already practice “doublethink” every day. It’s no wonder this novel continues to top bestseller charts in the 21st century: we’re already living in the future of mass surveillance and public manipulation!
It’s worth noting that spikes in sales of 1984 are not that uncommon. Remember Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal? Current events have a way of drawing people back to this classic again and again, but whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your perspective. Yes, it’s scary to think we’re becoming the world Orwell predicted in the ’40s, but it’s good that we’re recognizing the signs early, right?
While it’s easy to read a book like 1984 and fear the expanding powers of government, Orwell’s story is more of a cautionary tale for society as a whole. It’s not just our democracy and political integrity that we must protect, but our language and our ability to think critically.
Like the people of Oceania before the perpetual war and the rise of Ingsoc, we are responsible for the course our history takes. The difference is that we may still have a chance to preserve our rights and defend our individuality before it’s too late.