Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell
Gods, where do I even start with this?
As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.
As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.
This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.
I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.
A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.
Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.
He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?
This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.
Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.
While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.
There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?
Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.
Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.
One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.
There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.
“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four