Full spoilers for the entire book below. Proceed with caution.
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Author: George Orwell
Publication Date: June 8,1949 (novel), 2007 (audio)
Publisher: Harcourt Brace and Company (novel) and Blackstone Audio Inc. (audio)
Narrated By: Simon Prebble
Recording time: 11 hrs and 22 mins
In 1984, civilisation has been ravaged by world war, civil conflict, and revolution. Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain) is a province of Oceania, one of the three totalitarian super-states that rule the world. It is ruled by “The Party” under the ideology of “Ingsoc” (a Newspeak shortening of “English Socialism”) and the mysterious leader Big Brother, who has an intense cult of personality. The Party brutally purges out anyone who does not fully conform to their regime, using the Thought Police and constant surveillance through telescreens (two-way televisions), cameras, and hidden microphones. Those who fall out of favour with the Party become “unpersons”, disappearing with all evidence of their existence destroyed.
In London, Winston Smith is a member of the Outer Party, working at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical records to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history. Winston revises past editions of The Times, while the original documents are destroyed after being dropped into ducts known as memory holes, which lead to an immense furnace. He secretly opposes the Party’s rule and dreams of rebellion, despite knowing that he is already a “thought-criminal” and is likely to be caught one day.
While in a prole neighbourhood he meets Mr. Charrington, the owner of an antiques shop, and buys a diary where he writes criticisms of the Party and Big Brother. To his dismay, when he visits a prole quarter he discovers they have no political consciousness. As he works in the Ministry of Truth, he observes Julia, a young woman maintaining the novel-writing machines at the ministry, whom Winston suspects of being a spy, and develops an intense hatred of her. He vaguely suspects that his superior, an Inner Party official O’Brien, is part of an enigmatic underground resistance movement known as the Brotherhood, formed by Big Brother’s reviled political rival Emmanuel Goldstein.
One day, Julia secretly hands Winston a love note, and the two begin a secret affair. Julia explains that she also loathes the Party, but Winston observes that she is politically apathetic and uninterested in overthrowing the regime. Initially meeting in the country, they later meet in a rented room above Mr. Charrington’s shop. During the affair, Winston remembers the disappearance of his family during the civil war of the 1950s and his tense relationship with his estranged wife Katharine. Weeks later, O’Brien invites Winston to his flat, where he introduces himself as a member of the Brotherhood and sends Winston a copy of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Goldstein. Meanwhile, during the nation’s Hate Week, Oceania’s enemy suddenly changes from Eurasia to Eastasia, which goes mostly unnoticed. Winston is recalled to the Ministry to help make the necessary revisions to the records. Winston and Julia read parts of Goldstein’s book, which explains how the Party maintains power, the true meanings of its slogans, and the concept of perpetual war. It argues that the Party can be overthrown if proles rise up against it. However, Winston never gets the opportunity to read the chapter that explains ‘why’ the Party is motivated to maintain power.
Winston and Julia are captured when Mr. Charrington is revealed to be a Thought Police agent, and they are imprisoned at the Ministry of Love. O’Brien arrives, also revealing himself as a Thought Police agent. O’Brien tells Winston that he will never know whether the Brotherhood actually exists and that Goldstein’s book was written collaboratively by him and other Party members. Over several months, Winston is starved and tortured to bring his beliefs in line with the Party. O’Brien takes Winston to Room 101 for the final stage of re-education, which contains each prisoner’s worst fear. When confronted with a cage holding frenzied rats, Winston denounces Julia to save himself, and pledges allegiance to the Party.
Winston is released back into public life and continues to frequent the Chestnut Tree café. One day, Winston encounters Julia, who was also tortured. Both reveal that they betrayed the other and are no longer in love. Back in the café, a news alert celebrates Oceania’s supposed massive victory over Eurasian armies in Africa. Winston finally accepts that he loves Big Brother.
1984 by George Orwell is a dangerous book to review. It encourages the reader to think thoughts about society and the government that could alienate fellow citizens and perhaps land a blogger on “a list” somewhere. It is at once frightening, thought-provoking, and engrossing. The fright comes from various directions – historical parallels, unavoidable present-day parallels, and the delivery of a belief that a real version of “Oceania” could come into being in the near future. The novel forces its readers to think on various forms of philosophy, science and nature, linguistics, the way that existence is perceived by humanity, and how those perceptions could be manipulated. Despite the density of ideas, the book is fast-paced and emotionally impactful. Orwell did not deliver a boring lecture about the dangers of certain types of political ideas. He places his readers into Oceania and asks us to endure it.
Much of the novel is rooted in real history. For example, during the Soviet Union’s second Five Year Plan, the Communist Party adopted the slogan “2+2=5” to encourage the completion of a five year plan in only four years. It was an advertising slogan, and not advocacy for a change to how math works, but Orwell takes the slogan and incorporates it into Winston Smith’s torture. Oceania’s shifting allegiances was intended to reflect the Soviet Union’s change of allies during World War 2. Goldstein was intended to evoke memories of Trotsky. The image of Big Brother, complete with mustache, comes from the way that Stalin’s pictures were placed around the U.S.S.R. A lot of these motifs have subsequently been adopted by authoritarian regimes in the decades since the publication of Orwell’s novel.
As a modern reader, I was most drawn into the novel by the parallels between Oceania and Western democracies (the U.S. specifically) that it continuously brought to mind.
The internet and the rise of digital information brought with it a greater ease in erasing records (a common Party activity in the novel) and that improved ease in our real world has been acted upon regularly. Erasing digital records is an increasingly prevalent type of political scandal (HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, etc.) As the public becomes accustomed to the scandals, though, the interest in them lessens. As a result, scandals that would have been of great import a few decades ago are often now met with a lack of public interest. Perhaps soon people will be able to deny that the deleted records ever existed at all, if the only proof that they did lies in a memory. It is also now common practice for media publications to stealth edit awkward old news articles and for rich or powerful people to purge information about themselves from the internet altogether. You can see traces of The Ministry of Truth in these activities without looking too hard.
Another recent event which was brought to my mind while reading was the great and terrible “mask debate” in the United States in 2020. In March of 2020, the head of the National Institute of Health, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said publicly that people should not buy masks, noting that they do not work to prevent the transmission of viruses. By April, the opposite message regarding masks was put forward, and not only did masks now work, they were soon after required for entry into buildings and public spaces. In the climate of fear and uncertainty, for some people it was as though the March statements never happened. Later, there was a suggestion that people should consider wearing two masks simultaneously. After that, there have been articles published which argued that mask mandates were ineffective after all. The parallel for me, with the novel, is how so many people – scientists, politicians, public figures, and proles – quickly and forcefully accepted each of the new changes as though the previous statements, allegedly backed by “the science,” had not preceded them. To the extent that rapidly changing science was credited for each change in guidance, the guidance given was always provided as authoritative and science itself was never deemed suspicious by large swaths of the population. In fact, the trust in the director of NIH was so strong that panties branded with his own name were widely sold to enthusiastic supporters. You can see hints of the mass practice of doublethink in this history.
In the novel, the “proles” were largely indifferent to changes in who their masters are because their lives were largely the same either way. This is an example of literary convenience. The real world is more complex than Oceania, and oppressed lower classes inevitably rise against their masters. The conceit of Orwell’s book is that people in Oceania are kept in conditions just good enough to prevent widespread dissent from growing. In reality, there are always factors beyond the control of politicians that are capable of spiraling out of control – natural disasters, food shortages, disease outbreaks, a technological innovation by an enemy, etc. In the Soviet Union, whose short existence to that point was a large inspiration for Orwell’s Oceania, there were numerous uprisings throughout its history. Eventually those uprisings led to a collapse of the ruling authority. Orwell imagines a world without outside factors but does not provide convincing evidence that it is possible to actually eliminate those outside factors within his own world. The chilling effect for a modern reader is that we can imagine what Oceania is missing.
EX: “The thing Oceania really needed to work properly, forever, was for Big Brother to be an advanced Artificial Intelligence.”
In the novel, the Thought Police manage to surveil everyone through visual and listening devices planted all over the country. People self-censor due to that fact. With advances in technology, the ability to implement broad invasive surveillance has never been more possible. In fact, most people willingly submit to this for the sake of convenience (internet connected refrigerators, cell phones that can be used remotely to monitor both visually and via audio, hackable transportation, etc.) Within the United States, the tacit acceptance of pervasive and invasive government surveillance is demonstrated in various ways, though my favorite are the multitude of memes on the subject.
Another present-day parallel can be found in Orwell’s description of The Ministry of Peace. Many argue that the United States engages in “forever wars,” just as the three powers did in Orwell’s book. The alleged goal is not to achieve anything, per se, but instead the goal is to use up resources. In a present day setting, the argument might be that military industrialists need wars to linger, to keep the defense budget high. Winning the war is counter-productive to that goal, as is losing the war. This is not a universally held view, of course, and opponents to this negative view of American military influence have numerous arguments to the contrary, on a situation by situation basis. However, the “forever war” view is now held by enough people that the comparison is difficult to miss when reading 1984.
Maybe the scariest aspect of the story is that the government successfully brainwashes Winston Smith, via torture. As the novel ends, Winston thinks to himself that he loves Big Brother. We know that governments in the world today have conducted mind control experiments. Arguably the most famous example of this is the MKUltra program. From Wiki:
Project MKUltra (or MK-Ultra) was an illegal human experimentation program designed and undertaken by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), intended to develop procedures and identify drugs that could be used during interrogations to weaken people and force confessions through brainwashing and psychological torture . It began in 1953 and was halted in 1973. MKUltra used numerous methods to manipulate its subjects’ mental states and brain functions, such as the covert administration of high doses of psychoactive drugs (especially LSD) and other chemicals without the subjects’ consent, electroshocks, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, and other forms of torture.
A suspicious person might ask how often government programs, once well-established, ever really shut down.
Having pointed out parallels, it should be noted that clearly there are differences between life in the United States and life in Oceania. For example, in Oceania, I would be arrested for writing a blog post like this one and that would have happened before I pressed publish. The various government secrets and scandals mentioned in this review would be erased, not kept for search engines to find (unless perhaps, the powers that be here decided that leaving most secrets out in the open creates no different outcome – and is easier – than hiding things.) In the United States, unlike Oceania, sex is not regulated closely in an effort to undermine the traditional family unit (though again, one might argue it is proliferated broadly to achieve that same end.) Perhaps ours is a more efficient version of Oceania. Perhaps free expression and free speech can be held to loosely without those in power loosening its grip on power.
I enjoyed the book immensely. Orwell does a commendable job predicting the future. His dystopia has not arrived in the real world, though, which makes the warnings he gives us in 1984 all the more relevant today. Assuming I am not unpersoned, or cancelled, for this review, I look forward to hearing what you think about the book.
4 thoughts on “1984 (Book Review)”
Good stuff, especially about doublethink/speak and brainwashing. I appreciated your linkage of 1984 specifically to the mask “debate” of a few years ago.
Thanks! I was fishing for something from the present to compare with the book and I was a little worried that putting that comparison in print would get cost me subscribers.
I’ve written a number of posts related to COVID, mandates, and masking; if anything, my subscribership has grown because of it. 😀
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