Author: George Orwell
Genre: Political fiction
There is little I can say that hasn’t already been said about the political and cultural impact of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. Such is the stature of Orwell’s masterpiece that even today, almost 70 years since the novel’s publication and 30 years from the bleak future it depicted, the term ‘Orwellian’ is still routinely used to describe draconian laws and societies. There is much to say about the way this novel, more so than any other in the last century, has shaped the way the layman perceives his government but those essays have been written by authors more knowledgeable and insightful than myself. Yet, in focusing so heavily on the novel’s merits as an anti-totalitarian manifesto, its merits as a literary work sometimes lay forgotten. As a story, 1984 is a simple but unforgiving one; there is scare little optimism to be found in Orwell’s oppressive vision and the then-future world the novel depicts is just familiar enough to be deeply unsettling.
Set in a post-war London filled with public manipulation and government surveillance under the leadership of a semi-mythical figure known only as Big Brother, 1984’s greatest success is in creating a fully realized world. Orwell fleshes this nightmare out masterfully; there are people, institutions and laws that are at once both logical extensions of his world but also recognizable perversions of their real world counterparts. Take for example, a minor character named Tom Parsons; Parsons lives his life never questioning the authority of Big Brother and in that he is the ideal citizen of his world but also a troublingly familiar figure in our own and his fate in the novel indicates Orwell does not consider him to be a particularly exemplary role model. What is absolutely fascinating about some of the themes that 1984 tackles – deception, objective truth and independence – is how Orwell is able to use the novel’s setting to handle them. In a world where the government controls the people absolutely, the meaning of words like ‘truth’, ‘reality’ and even ‘love’ is utterly lost. In a powerful scene, the novel’s protagonist, Winston, is shown how even an objective truth, like the fact that 2+2=4, is really a subjective one – after all, if Big Brother and the rest of the world says that two and two equals five, then it doesn’t matter what the truth really is; all that matters is that Winston is now wrong. The socio-political structure in 1984 is a thoroughly thought through as well; one of the novel’s better moments is when the reader realizes that no one in the novel is fully aware of the kind of wool they are pulling over their own eyes. Even at the highest level, there is a sort of voluntary ignorance being perpetuated where the officials are simultaneously aware and unaware of the fact that the actions they are taking are meant to supress the masses. It all comes together to create a setting where the reader is quickly convinced that no long-term change is possible; the only hope for our characters lies in whatever happiness they can find within their twisted world.
A large portion of the novel’s power comes from its structure as well. The first two thirds of the novel are filled with the characters’ resistance, their small acts of rebellion and their burgeoning independence from Big Brother and the government. It leads the reader into a false sense of security – perhaps there is hope in this forlorn world; perhaps there is a chance that although Winston can’t overthrow Big Brother, he can still remain free in his mind. It seems, for the longest time, that the novel is heading towards an unsatisfying compromise in its conclusion; Winston will never truly free but neither will he ever truly give in to Big Brother; perhaps he can even secure a content future with his lover, Julia. The novel’s final third tears such notions to shreds; while Big Brother had previously seemed powerful but not omnipotent, watching but not omniscient, in the novel’s final section, we see just how terrifyingly all-encompassing Big Brother’s authority truly is. All the readers’ notions of freedom of thought, retaining a core of resistance while feigning outward acceptance, are shattered along with Winston’s mind, body and soul. Few novels feature a character being as thoroughly and irreversibly broken as Winston was and by the novel’s end the reader is just as defeated as Winston – just as Winston is unable to conceive of a way to hold out from Big Brother’s power, neither is the reader. There is no part of the reader that can rebuke Winston for taking an easy way out; Big Brother knows all the ways out, both easy and hard, and has blocked them with lead and concrete.
The novel isn’t without its weaker links though; the characters, while realistic and varied, nevertheless feel dull and strangely lifeless. Of course, this could be a natural consequence of the setting – no dynamic, lively character would remain that way for long in Orwell’s London – but at the same time, it is a little difficult to connect with them on an emotional level. This is not as much of a problem with Winston since we are privy to his thoughts and memories but more so with the other characters who we never really get a chance to connect to. This doesn’t detract from the novel very much though since all the other characters are fairly minor and it isn’t really necessary to empathize with them to appreciate 1984. Apart from that, Orwell devotes a surprisingly large section of the book to pure exposition in the form of a rebel’s instruction manual, which reads more like a sociological essay than anything else. A sizable chunk of the novel’s middle section is given to explaining how the world works, why it is the way it is and why it can be no other way; it makes for an interesting read, no doubt, but it is still a somewhat clumsy way of explaining the setting to the reader.
Ultimately, 1984 is one of those rare instances of a novel that is driven neither by plot nor by character – instead, the setting, Orwell’s vision, remains the most convincing argument in favour of picking this book up. That 1984 is still capable of resonating with the modern reader is a testament to Orwell’s world-building and its timelessness. In almost every conceivable way, our lives today share blissfully little with the characters’. Yet, in some small, niggling ways, there are worrying similarities to be found. When you walk around a corner and see a camera watching you, when you know your messages and email are being watched and monitored, when suspicion is cast on you for having an unpopular opinion, it is hard not to think of what Orwell imagined the future to be and wonder how much, really, has changed.