This is not the first time that I’ve read 1984. But now, the world of Oceania, of purge and Newspeak and Airstrip One and betrayal and IngSoc, doesn’t seem all that far off. It is April 5, 2017, and the clocks are just striking thirteen.
George Orwell elected to build his world carefully. Where this novel is superior to predecessors like We and Brave New World is not just in Orwell’s peerless writing. Writing in the late 1940s, and coming off the success of Animal Farm, Orwell was concerned with the future of Britain as a nation just getting over the trauma of the Second World War. Atomic weapons had been used against civilian targets to end the war in the Pacific, and pessimistically Orwell saw no reason to think that they wouldn’t be again. War seemed to be the new normal state of the world, so there was no reason why the Peace should not be lost in favour of constant combat. The logical outgrowth? How do you keep a formerly democratic society — albeit a flawed one — involved in a state of War for thirty, or fifty, or a hundred years? Obviously, that would require a corrosively powerful totalitarian state, one which would combine the very worst tactics of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In short, it would require a state like the fictional Oceania, once given over to a Socialist ideology, but soon converted into a totalitarian regime paying half-hearted lip-service to English Socialism, or IngSoc. With this basic foundation constructed, Orwell could proceed to details.
The central character of 1984 is Winston Smith, a late-30s member of the Outer Party, who works in the Ministry of Truth. There are four named Ministries in London: the Ministry of Plenty (miniplenty), which deals with rationing and shortages; the Ministry of Peace (minipax), which deals with the neverending War; the Ministry of Love (miniluv), which deals with corrections and torture; and the Ministry of Truth (minitru) which attends to matters of propaganda. There, Smith’s job is to re-write history, quite literally. Smith is one of thousands of workers engaged in removing undesirable stories from past issues of all sorts of media; newspapers, photographs, magazines, and books. If a person has been killed by the State, or made an unperson, as Newspeak succinctly puts it, Smith is given the pieces and rewrites the relevant story. If Oceania’s state of constant war switches from Eastasia to Eurasia or back again, Smith rewrites the relevant documents that he is handed. If the chocolate ration was supposed to remain the same, but is instead cut by ten grams, Smith alters the previous speech. If a photograph directly contradicts some established piece of history, Smith sees to its deletion. All of his assignments are delivered via vacuum tube, and those items he disposes of disappear down a similar tube which is named the Memory Hole by Ministry employees, and leads directly to the furnaces.
Outside of work, Winston Smith lives in a dreary flat in Victory Mansions. He drinks Victory Gin (which is described as a similar experience to drinking wood alcohol) and smokes Victory Cigarettes (assuming that the tobacco doesn’t fall out of the tubes). His food is meagre and foul. A telescreen watches his every move, can never be turned off or even completely muted, and demands that he take part in compulsory exercises, whether they be physical training or the institutional ritual of the Two Minutes’ Hate; the Hate is devoted to a declared bogeyman of the Party, the great apostate, Emmanuel Goldstein, upon whom all defeats and setbacks for Oceania and Airstrip One are blamed. Although married, Winston and his wife Katharine split up when they found that they could not have children: the only sanctioned reason for marriage in Airstrip One (previously, their relations consisted of once monthly connubial encountered referred to as “doing our duty to the Party”). If they had conceived, the child would have been enrolled from an early age in the Spies, a youth organisation reminiscent of the Hitler Youth without the hilarity. In London, Airstrip One, and Oceania generally, anyone can inform on anyone else, and for almost any reason, and the Party Members particularly assume that they are under constant surveillance.
Watching over all of this is the figure of Big Brother, a leader who is never seen, yet who demands absolute, unconditional loyalty and complete obedience. His words follow the citizenry everywhere: “Big Brother Is Watching You.” Slogans dominate Party-approved thought: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Love is Hate, and the like. Only the Proles, a massive grouping of the working classes which make up some 85% of society, have some degree of freedom, although their thoughts and lives are guided by drudgery and the entertainments which they are given to consume by the Party, including meaningless songs and books written by machines, films of war victories which dehumanise and demean the enemies of Oceania, and cheaply salacious pornography.
Winston, despite his position, is plagued by memories and doubts. Although he is never quite sure of his age, he guesses that he was born in 1944 or ’45, and is tormented by memories of his youth, in which he lost first his father, then his mother and sister, in the purges which in 1984 wracked British society in the 1950s. The memories of his mother and sister are particularly painful, as are some of the nightmares which he never quite understands. Winston also remembers tiny fragments of the past, but after the rise of the Party, history has been re-written so many times and he has been so beaten down by life that he is no longer certain what is true. He knows, for example, that his job is part of machinery to change history. But he is no longer certain which the correct history was. In an effort to clarify for himself, he begins to keep a covert diary, using a journal he coveted in a junk shop window, and written in a secret alcove of his apartment from which he is not visible to the telescreens.
Into this shadowy life comes a young Party member, Julia. Winston first suspects her of being a spy, and considers killing her when he suspects that she is following him. But he instead finds that she (unaccountably, it must be said) is attracted to him, and pursues a clandestine liaison with him, against all sense. They venture into the countryside at first for their trysts, but eventually settle upon a small flat-cum-refuge atop an ancient junk shop in a Prole part of London. There, they share their hatred for the system, and are eventually driven to find out if other members of the Party, perhaps even Inner Party members, also contemplate rebellion. Julia is a sexual libertine, who has contempt for the Party without having a driving philosophy guiding her hatred. They meet with Winston’s friend O’Brien while attempting to track down Goldstein, and learn that members of the Inner Party live better, but still captive, lives. However, Julia and Winston grow careless, and are captured with a copy of a politico-philosophical text attributed to Goldstein in their possession.
In the third and final section of the novel, Winston is taken alone, first to be interrogated and tortured by his betrayer, and then to be conclusively broken by the greatest terror imaginable: what lies behind the door to Room 101?
There are so many facets to the world of 1984 that the book acts as an incredibly immersive experience. And with that immersion comes a deep and abiding sense of oppression. Every prong of attack, whether media or language or the dissolution of the bonds of family or even the suppression of sexual desires, is meant to achieve the very specific end of completely undermining the ability and even the will of the citizenry to imagine, to think of possibilities in life or politics which the Party does not wish. Because of this, to my mind it is a more effective dystopian tale than We, and a more effective critique than Brave New World. Although both of the other novels have admirable qualities, and Huxley’s writing is the equal of Orwell’s, 1984 stands in a class of its own.
So many elements of 1984 are reminiscent of the events of 2017 that the book now takes on a sinister resonance which I do not recall it having when I first read it in 1983, or even later in 2003. The desire by some governments to control sexual mores (a perennial and utterly misguided cultural conservative hill to die upon) is the very least of it. Rather, it is the whole basic set of assumptions: the mutability and inutility of language (useless words are disposed of in Newspeak, and meanings which the Party does not condone are simply written out of the dictionary), the flat denials of reality by Party and leadership (witness Ms. Conway of the “alternative facts”), the ongoing threat of government spying and tracking of people’s movements without cause or warrant, even the concept of doublethink, defined as “holding two contradictory thoughts in one’s mind at the same time, and believing them both.” These are just the obvious comparisons. Most of all, it is the act of rendering history completely fluid and meaningless. By deciding that history can be rewritten, that books can be burned and inconvenient facts simply ignored or wished away, governments can attempt to alter reality itself. When we rely (stupidly) on pronouncements of 140 or fewer characters, tapped by this or that inveterate and unrepentant liar, when we try to learn about the world through the media lens of the polarised ends of the political spectrum, we fail. Real journalism and research and science and history matter, and we should not forget that.
Consider: if there were no history books, or if every single history book on the planet were destroyed, and then a new one was written which claimed that the United States was founded in 1821, who would know the difference? Sure, some people would remember the correct date of 1776, for a time, at least, but if those people were subjected to the tender ministrations of Miniluv, what then? They would forget. They would have no choice. And if every time you encountered a coin or a plaque or something with the date of 1776, you took that item and destroyed it, how long would it be until everyone thought that the United States was founded in 1821? Napoleon is said to have claimed that “history is a fable agreed upon,” but is it? If history has no objective reality, then we are screwed, because the only things that will remain true are those which make sense from the perspective of those who rule, and we will lose the lessons and accumulated wisdom of the past.
Despite its brilliance, 1984 does have a few flaws. The text of Goldstein’s alleged book does carry on a bit, although it is an extremely convincing extension of the world building already undertaken. And the appendix dealing with some details of Newspeak, while interesting to wonks such as myself, may be skipped by readers who have gotten the point already. But none of the minor failings detract from the importance and value of this book. If you have read it before, it’s time to read it again. And if you’ve never read this book, you should. Almost 70 years after its publication, 1984 is a prescient, worrying, and disturbing tale that unexpectedly serves as a roman à clef for the world of today. Read it, but only if you don’t mind a few (more) sleepless nights.
Reviewed 5 April 2017.