Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

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1984 by George Orwell

Back Cover Blurb: The world of 1984 is one in which eternal warfare is the price of bleak prosperity, in which the Party keeps itself in power by complete control over man’s actions and his thoughts. As the lovers Winston Smith and Julia learn when they try to evade the Thought Police, and then join the underground opposition, the Party can smash the last impulse of love, the last flicker of individuality.

But let the reader beware: 1984 is more than a satire of totalitarian barbarism. “It means us, too.” says Erich Fromm in his Afterword. It is not merely a political novel but also a diagnosis of the deepest alienation in the mind of Organization Man.

George Orwell writes with a swift clean style that has come down from Defoe. Like Defoe, he creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing–from the first sentence to the last four words…words which might stand as the epitaph of the twentieth century.

Goodreads Description: Written in 1948, 1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while the year 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions. A legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.

My Review

1st sentence: “It was a cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Thirteen? Clocks don’t strike thirteen, at least not in the world I live in. This is a brilliant opening sentence. You immediately know something is off, the world has changed. And if you suffer from triskaidekaphobia then you already have little warning bells sounding in your head.

The world Orwell created is divided into three super states that came to power after a global war: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The novel takes place in Oceania which is comprised of three social classes:

  • The Elite (Inner Party) – 2% of the population,
  • The Middle (Outer Party) – 13% of the population, and
  • The Low (Proletarians or Proles) – the remaining 85% of the population.

The Elite control every aspect of society through the elimination of personal freedoms, fear, and mind control, but according to the Elite this control is necessary to maintain the safety and security of the greater good. The Middle carries out the orders of the Elite. The Proles are viewed as mindless cattle that work, eat, sleep, and procreate. They’re just a commodity to the Party.

Even the language is controlled. It’s continually being simplified. Words are being eradicated or concatenated into a language known as Newspeak. The idea is that if there is not a word for it, then it does not exist. Reading and expressing your own views (verbally or in writing) are outlawed. Individualism is not allowed.

“To do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.”

The masses are under constant surveillance through telescreens, wiretapping and hidden cameras. The only time they have alone is when they are sleeping, and even then a word uttered against the Party could have one arrested by the Thought Police for a thoughtcrime.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”

The government of Oceania established four ministries to maintain control over the people. The names reflect the brainwashing methods of the Inner Party:

1. Ministry of Truth (news)

The Party controls the media and thereby controls the “truth.” The past is continually being rewritten (fabrication, not truth) to reflect favorably on the Party, and any evidence to the contrary is eradicated.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

2. Ministry of Peace (war),

Oceania is constantly at war (not at peace) with one of the other superpowers.  This endless war is a means to keep the people under control. The angst felt at the loss of their personal freedoms is directed, or rather misdirected, at one of the other superpowers. They are too busy preparing for or thinking about war to believe otherwise.

“Heavy physical work, the care of the home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

3. Ministry of Plenty (economic affairs),

Basic human needs like food and water are under the control of the Party. Food is scarce, not plenty. The Party employs self-preservation as a powerful influence over the masses.

4. Ministry of Love (law and order)

Psychological and physical torture (not love) is used to punish any acts of rebellion against the Party. The Ministry of Love is located in a building where there are no windows. It’s continually bathed in light. Since one cannot distinguish between night and day, the passage of time is unknown. The following sentence appears early in the novel and gives the reader a feeling of hope, but by the end it is evident that it refers to something completely different.

“We shall meet in the place where this is no darkness.”

The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party who works for the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to cast a favorable light on the Party. He seems to be the everyman hero at the beginning of the novel. There is nothing unique about him other than his desire to write down his own thoughts, to dream of a better life, but in this Orwellian society those desires are quite extraordinary. He purchases a journal in secret and writes his thoughts in it with his back to the telescreen. That act alone could have him arrested by the Thought Police, but he goes further with the declaration of “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” at great personal risk of being “vaporized” (eradicated from existence). Readers will immediately root for him.

Orwell created a world so believable and prophetic that it is actually quite frightening. Don’t think so? We only have to look at the recent past, the era just prior to the time the book was written, for an answer. It happened during the Third Reich with the rise of Hitler. An entire nation was brainwashed through propaganda into dehumanizing the Jewish population, and we know the unspeakable atrocities that followed. Who says it cannot happen again?

It is often beneficial to reread books. You gain new insights based on your own life experiences since that first reading or you may make odd connections like I did. When I read the following sentence, I shook my head in disbelief. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, the sentence:

“He had been appointed to a sub-committee of a sub-committee which had sprouted from one of the innumerable committees dealing with minor difficulties that arose in the compilation of the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary.”

What is so compelling about this passage? For most of you, probably not much, but for me it could have been taken from a scene in my life. When I was working in the financial services industry, I received an e-mail from my boss letting me know that I had been appointed to the subcommittee of the committee to report on reportable events and would need to take part in a weekly conference (paraphrased except the words in italics which are verbatim, yes really). I wish I had a copy of the e-mail as proof, but it only exists in my mind (readers of the book will appreciate the reference here). I thought my boss was playing a joke on me, so I sent a reply to him saying as much. But, the subcommittee of the committee was, in fact, real. I had to sit through a meeting (via conference call with members in other cities) and listen as the other twenty plus members droned into the phone, “I have nothing to report.” Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

This novel is complex and thought-provoking. Although it was written in 1948 about the future, and 1984 has long since passed, it is still relevant today. I believe the author intended it to be a warning of what could be. It will leave you with a feeling of deep concern about the danger inherent in giving up too much personal freedom. I highly recommend this book.

5 of 5 stars

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