Topic #7: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
Book: 1984, by George Orwell
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt , 2013 (originally published by Secker & Warburg, 1949)
What makes a classic a classic? There was a time when I thought that it was its age; after all, books that have achieved such a status generally come from bygone ages. The age of a classic, however, should rather be an emblem of its enduring significance. George Orwell’s 1984 is a fine example of this, for his discussion of power, language, and truth is universal – it applies to today’s reality as much as it did in 1949, when the book was published.
The novel takes place sometime around 1984 in Oceania, one of three world states which “comprises the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia and the southern portion of Africa.” Oceania is ruled by the Party, the regime of which is absolute: as the famous quote indicates, “Big Brother is Watching You” – and indeed its citizens are closely monitored as to make sure that they do not commit any crime – even in thought, for “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: it IS death.” The world that Orwell creates is nightmarish. The government closely watches one’s moves, teaches children to spy on and betray their parents, and makes sure that pleasure and free thought are not exercised.
The story’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a grumpy, middle-aged, middle-class Outer-Party member who lives in London, where he works as an editor at the Ministry of Truth, one of the four Ministries (The Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Plenty). His job is to adjust the written record. Information is always tailored to the Party’s standards, facts changed in its favor, and all evidence to the contrary is destroyed, any memory to the contrary deemed a false memory or a hallucination. “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” explains Orwell. The safety of written (or visual) records is false, as records can easily be destroyed or changed by those in power.
The question is not how possible can it be for someone to work in a ministry which concerns itself with propaganda and not be aware of what is going on. It is, rather, whether it is possible to be so dedicated to the cause that it would not matter. For Orwell, when faced with a choice between happiness and freedom, most would choose happiness, no matter the cost. It is a survival instinct. As Winston learns by the end of the novel, “Sanity is statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” It could be argued that he knows that from the very beginning; he certainly knows that any form of rebellion on his side will be unsuccessful and likely result in death. What he does not know, however, is that death is the least of it, almost a relief in fact, for before death the Ministry of Love proceeds to fully exorcise a rebel’s capability of thought and emotion, until only complete loyalty and – yes, love – for the Party remains.
The book has three parts: Part I, in which the setting is sketched out and Winston cautiously decides to break the law. Part II, in which Winston begins a forbidden relationship with a fellow Party-member and rebel, and grows bolder. He thinks for himself, analyzes all that is wrong with the Party’s regime, and wishes to help destroy it. Part III, in which Winston is held at the Ministry of Love. Orwell’s writing is very analytical – Winston’s thoughts and most of the dialogue within the book is a meditation on the human condition, on power, language, and truth.
Language is particularly key for Orwell, who discussed politics’ impact on it in an earlier essay, called “Politics and the English Language”. The principles he outlines in the essay are reflected in this novel, not only through the paradoxes he introduces (such as The Ministry of Truth being the one that engages in matters of propaganda), but also through the fact that 1984 is very readable. Orwell’s observations are very much on point; he drives them even deeper by detailing them in a clear, precise language.
This is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of literature that I have ever read. It is dark and can feel hopeless, but its discussion of language, power, and human nature are worth considering. In the end, I think that it is something that everyone ought to read at least once, especially at a time of political turmoil and uncertainty such as the one we live in now.