Much has clearly been said and written about Orwell’s classic vision of a dystopic future. In 2017, it appears that people are more interested than ever, perhaps as a result of the Trump presidency in the USA and the UK’s referendum result to leave the EU. It was always my intention to re-read the book for this project, and I’ve recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign called 2084 – a book of short stories inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This is the third time that I’ve read the book. In this instance, I read the Everyman’s Library hardback edition published in 1987. As usual, I didn’t read any of the introduction or notes within the edition.
My problem with Nineteen Eighty-Four is the actual story, not the ideas or the prose or the characters (although I have a tough time fathoming how Julia could fall in love with an older man without really knowing him). The story is threadbare: A disillusioned man works changing the past within a dystopia, while dreaming of a better future. A young woman falls in love with him. They have an illicit affair. The man finds a dissident group and a book written by the enemy of the state which provides some hope. Everyone, except the woman, betrays him by not being who they seem. He is imprisoned, tortured and brainwashed. End of story.
It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a decent narrative, but the first third of the book is exposition and world-building. Then there’s about 50 or so pages of forbidden romance. And just as you think it is really getting going, Winston Smith – for he is the man in question – spends pages and pages reading this secret manifesto of hope. And then the concluding section is all the horrible torture and Room 101 (which is a tad under-whelming to be honest).
Of course, where Orwell comes into his own is with the ideas and the fear. All the elements that have seeped into our cultural consciousness are brilliant: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101 and others. A quick look at the now familiar world Orwell created…
Early on (p37 of my edition), Orwell is at his startling best. “If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death”. Somewhat reminiscent of the fake news outbreak of 2016! So, Great Britain, now called Airstrip One and part of one of the three superstates, Oceania, is run by an English Socialist ideology under the watchful gaze of Big Brother and the Party. There is the Inner Party, or the elite and privileged, the Outer Party who work for the benefit of the Party (of which our hero Winston Smith is one) and the proles – the 85% of society who are worthless. Less than people. Oceania is at war with one or other of the other powers; the Neo-Bolshevistic Eurasia (Europe and Russia) and Eastasia (far east) whose philosophy is Obliteration of the Self. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth – making lies. Essentially altering all record of history – he works in historical revisionism. “Who controls the past controls the future”. The Party slogan. This gives him insight and is the source of his self-doubt and rebellion. He recalls events that officially never happened, or that one day Oceania is at war with Eurasia and an alley of Eastasia, and the next day the reverse is true. Society is monitored, of course, via the Thought Police and the telescreens that watch your every move.
I think this world happens too quickly. It only takes 20 or so years from the post-WWII world we know to get to Orwell’s world of superstates and oppression, with almost no internal conflict or rebellion. It would take a lot longer. People would fight. Not everyone would believe the Party and equivalents so readily, no matter what the circumstances. And how do other people live? We hear a little about the other states and nations, but we don’t here at all about how people live in Madrid, or Moscow, or Sydney or Santiago, Durban, Rio or anywhere else. All of which, I think, takes the edge off Orwell’s creation. Maybe it should have been called 2048?
There’s nothing wrong with Orwell’s writing of course. He articulates his concepts perfectly and they are genuinely terrifying, even – especially today. The prose is very readable, and even some of the higher concepts on display are explained well. There’s a beautiful passage on pg228 just before our heroes are captured. Winston and Julia watch a woman pegging out diapers as the sun goes down. It is a lovely piece of writing but also storytelling, proving Orwell could do it, if for short bursts. I’d have liked more of this type of writing and less of the pages and pages of reading from a text book!
Some of the character decisions don’t ring true for me. Julia falls for Winston because she can ‘see’ the kind of person he is from one or two brief and distant encounters – enough to fall in love with him – but yet the Thought Police and spies apparently cannot. Or can they? Of course, everyone Winston thinks he can trust turns out to be on the side of the Party – or else there’d be no horrific conclusion. On one occasion, Winston visits O’Brien on the pretence of picking up a new version of the Newspeak dictionary, but in truth to find out more about the resistance. He never leaves with the dictionary. So this is either an error on Orwell’s part, or on Winston’s!
I think Brave New World is a better book, and We is a more interesting story. But Orwell has managed to distil the ideas of all that went before him into a great read. It is no wonder this book is a classic. The ideas are phenomenal. The story let’s Orwell down. Nineteen Eighty-Four is still a remarkable work of science fiction, despite being heavily influenced by more rounded books.