- Book Review Policy
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
DYSTOPIAN VISIONS : Nineteen Eighty-Four
Dossier: Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four [Martin Secker & Warburg, 1949].
File Under: Statist Dystopia
Executive Summary: Winston Smith, a worker for the oppresive Oceania state, helps in the rewritting of history to support the Party's propaganda. The population is divided into the Proletariat and the Inner Party members, whose iron fist bans any rebellion or sedition, even in an individual's mind. An endless war with the other regions on earth and a constant barrage of misinformation on enemies of the state ensures loyalty to the mythical leader, Big Brother. Smith begins small acts of rebellion which psychologically-coalesce into a secret love affair with a young woman from the Junior Anti-Sex League and discovers what may be the truth behind the Party's lies. Meanwhile mysterious Party official O'Brien and the Thought Police close in...
Dystopian Visions: The Party, and, one assumes, its two counterparts in the other regions, have absolute and immortal power over society, through a perpetual police state which extends its powers to controlling our very thoughts and desires. Family members shop each other in for Thought Crimes, work is unrelenting, a pointless charade, and prevents a private life of any note, culture and fun are replaced by rallies and all jointly staring in pure hate at a face on a big screen.
Utopian Undercurrents: Even the Inner Party officials like O'Brien enjoy no seeming freedom of thought, and although they might go off and enjoy a glass of wine behind the scenes, our only viewpoint is from a prole, and for them life offers no hope or joy (if you don't count a cheeky painting, looking at a field and a few shags before being tortured and beaten for months). Even the gin is crap. Only the human hope in small moments like Julia's note of "I love you" shines through bleakly as a flickering flame of humanity, long after the story is over. I still see Orwell's statist hell as an allegory rather than a real possibility, that humans' individual spirit will out. But then maybe I just need some gentle rat-in-a-cage educating...
Level of Hell: Sixth. Or Tenth. There are no mutants, no everyday threat to life for most, and food (albeit shite) is available. People still hang out washing in the sun. People still make coffee after (illegal) sex. But when thought itself is controlled, does it matter how nice the coffee is or how warm the sun is? Any idea of hope is crushed in the final part, forever. It's almost worse that no physical apocalypse occured, that it was all the result of power-obsessed politicians and the blind nationalism of the masses. So Tenth.
Legacy: I was ready to find a disappointment in me at the end of re-reading this, one of the more astonishingly-bleak and impressive books of my childhood years (and I have read all of William Golding, so...). I based this mainly on its legacy. Endlessly-referenced phrase like 'two and two make five' , 'freedom is slavery', and 'Big Brother is watching you', and lines such as,'imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever', had made Orwell's final novel close to a self-parody in my mind. However, the depth and detail of the discourse here, and political world-building, outshine any senses I had that perhaps its originality was buried under its own subsequent fame. Everything from V For Vendetta to The Handmaid's Tale to Children of Men in our season on Dystopian Visions owe a huge debt to this novel, and I would suggest his warning - initially praised (and indeed marketed as in the U.S.) as an anti-communist one - has influenced us all, even those who who have never read it. The fear of loss of individual thought, the fear of the loss of diversity of culture and country, the fear of dictatorial control, all were ancient notions before Orwell even began writing, yet his masterpiece raised the flag of 'where-never-to-go' over so many minds that it can only be hoped that his vision will never see the light of day.
In Retrospect: In popular understanding, this is the benchmark of dystopian fiction, and this stems partly from the unrelenting grey hell it promises us. Even as the numerical year of the title is left far behind us, the threat of a time where power wins over individuality utterly and forever is a constant fear. ' What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?'. Reading this line again in our current times of false-populism, fake news, revised history and a revival in personality politics, I shudder with that same fear. 'America First', 'Brexit means Brexit', and anything by Le Pen et al. Philosophy of almost calming horror fills the pages that Eric Blair ended his days by filling. He was writing not just from the experience of WW2, Nazism and Stalinism, but of the failure of the British Left to uphold values in the pursuit of power, and his own personal experiences of the totalitarian Soviet machine lying to the people and creating false enemies while fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
On reflection, I discovered a Smith-esque rebellion against the authority the book's renown held over me, an authority ordering me to respect and adore it. I found fuel for this rebellion in its partial, and ultimately slight, failings as literature - the one-dimensional supporting characters, the lack of recognisable everyday human warmth in interactions (which of course is the point, but the film with Hurt and Burton did much to overcome this through the actor's eyes) and the determination in its singular purpose - the scream as hope is crushed. However, like Smith toward the end, but without the need for dials of torture, I found the last gasp of my resistance collapse under the sheer excellence in the piece. It is that rare thing - a classic that should by now bore with obviousness due to its novel ideas rendered into cliche, its fame the killer of its verve, but which flares out at you still, even decades on from your first experience of it. More than this it is greater than merely a dazzling prose exercise, or a political nightmare. It was often mocked as one of those books you 'had to' read at school here in Orwell's home country. Yet like fellow standards of the teenagers' curriculum like Lord of The Flies, it shows our darkest natures back at us and dares us to fight the hard fight to resist the darkness. This is a harsh lesson we would do well to hear loud and clear in the coming years.
For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5, for it cannot help but slightly pale as history and literature catch up and overtake its ideas.
Oppressometer Readout: 9/10.
Posted by English Scribbler, who lives in hope, and in a flat, and has contributed to Nerds of A Feather since 2013.