1984 is probably the most well known book I've written a review for so far. It is a classic novel, published in 1948 by George Orwell, and it is considered one of the best and most important books of the 20th century. Most would say 1984 falls into the genre of political fiction; it presents a dystopian future where an authoritarian and totalitarian government has taken control of the Western world, and the consequences of such a world are relayed through the experience of an average man named Winston, the main protagonist. The book is a staple in high school English classrooms, along with Orwell's other classic "Animal Farm" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" - forming a trio of classic commentary on government overreach and the danger of power. I happened to have read the latter during my high school career, although I do not remember it well so I won't be able to draw many comparisons here.
All things considered, 1984 was an intriguing and well written story. Coming in at a relatively short length of 328 pages, it manages to deliver a potent and concise message. I found the third act of the story to be especially powerful; the character of O'Brien is given center stage to play the role of a power obsessed sociopath. His fervent devotion to his political party and it's ideals is both scary and intoxicating. His character is symbolic of authoritarianism itself, as he explicitly describes how he, as an individual, is insignificant, yet his role as a member of the Party imbues meaning to his existence:
"Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal."
It is through O'Brien's inarguable worldview and motivation that the reader is given an illustration of power in its most absolute form. O'Brien believes this political power actually gives the Party complete command over all dominions, physical, mental and temporal. So much so that he is literally able to provide a coherent argument for the ability to manipulate the laws of nature. O'Brien explains to Winston the power of doublethink, the ability to hold contradictory beliefs simultaneously in the mind without being aware of any incongruency, and by extension also being able to utilize these beliefs at will. I can see how one can debate that this actually is a form of control over physical nature. It's a really interesting idea - if the Party controls all written, spoken, and believed facts, they ultimately decide what is truth:
"When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?"
O'Brien is insistent on making Winston understand that there is nothing outside the party. Winston's credo from early on in the book is that "Freedom is the ability to say that two plus two equal four" and from that axiom, all other truths should be attainable. O'Brien vehemently rejects this idea and punishes Winston for believing so. O'Brien's philosophy is an extreme form of metaphysical solipsism - he asserts that because the mind is all that exists, and the party controls the minds of the entire populous, then by extension the Party controls all that exists and all that is true. Winston, evoking the famous argument of Descartes (Cogito, ergo sum) counters by saying that he knows he exists and the party cannot convince him otherwise. Yet again, O'Brien squashes this line of thought - the Party can erase Winston from history and can also ensure he is never talked about or heard about again. It's kind of like the tree-falls-in-a-forest concept...If someone is killed in the Ministry of Love and no one is allowed to talk about them ever again, did that person really exist?
I found that the third act provided what I'd consider to be the essence of the entire book. The first act is an introduction to the state of Oceania, the country that Winston lives in, and also to Winston's life and his discontent with it. The second act is the development of his relationship with Julia, which allowed him to feel human. By giving in to his sexual desires with Julia, Winston was provided with a way to finally act out against the Party and its ideals. It was the deliberate personal rebellion Winston had always sought, but it would ultimately lead to both his and Julia's downfall.
Thematically, these first two sections were centered around Winston's curiosity and his search for answers. He wanted to know what true love felt like, whether life used to be better before the Party was in power, and the essential question of why... why the Party existed and why they did what they did.
Ultimately, Winston's search for answers concludes when he receives the book, the manifesto allegedly written by the leader of the secret resistance, given to him by O'Brien, who deceived Winston into thinking he was a member of the resistance. Ironically though, this book does not provide Winston with any new information, it only affirms what he already believes,
"He had still, he reflected, not learned the ultimate secret. He understood how; he did not understand why. Chapter 1, like Chapter 3, had not actually told him anything that he did not know; it had merely systematized the knowledge that he possessed already. But after reading it he knew better than before that he was not mad. Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad."
This is also how I felt reading the first two thirds of the story. It was an interesting but ultimately predictable description of a authoritarian government, hitting all of the requisite qualities that such governments normally posess: total surveillance of citizens, socialist ideals, widespread inequality, propaganda, and police brutality. I am obviously not saying that these sections were unnecessary, but I think the true greatness of 1984 lies in its climactic final act. Orwell introduced us to the world of Big Brother in order to set up the delivery of O'Brien's magnificent and terrifying "cleansing" of Winston.
There was one aspect of the story I found slightly confusing, which was the proles, an abbreviation of the "proletariat", or working class. Making up over 85% or the total populous of Oceania, they are generally looked down upon by the members of the Party and even considered to be "less human", or at least that's how Big Brother wants them to be viewed. For one thing, it sounds like the Party is unconcerned with the actions and conversations between the proles, they do not have telescreens in their homes and are not monitored like Winston and other members of the party are,
"Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. [...] The great majority of proles did not even have telescreens in their homes. Even the civil police interfered with them very little. There was a vast amount of criminality in London, a whole world-within-a-world of thieves, bandits, prostitutes, drug peddlers, and racketeers of every description; but since it all happened among the proles themselves, it was of no importance. In all questions of morals they were allowed to follow their ancestral code. The sexual puritanism of the Party was not imposed upon them. Promiscuity went unpunished; divorce was permitted. For that matter, even religious worship would have been permitted if the proles had shown any sign of needing or wanting it. They were beneath suspicion"
To me, it seemed odd that a authoritarian government would only care about controlling 15% of its citizens. I understand that the proles are considered the working class and maybe are too busy working and having enough to eat to have any time to organize a revolt, but I feel that 85% of a population that numbers in the billions is a lot of people to turn your back to.
The other incongruity I noticed was that, along with increase in freedom the proles enjoyed, they also seemed to have access to a number of things that the outer party members like Winston were not, or at least it was highly suspicious if they did. Proles seem to be able to congregate en masse at pubs and enjoy beer, while party members cannot meet in large groups and are forced to drink a fake gin liquor called Victory Gin. Proles also are able to travel throughout the country freely, while Winston worries about taking a single train trip to the countryside without attracting attention,
"For distances of less than a hundred kilometers it was not necessary to get your passport endorsed, but sometimes there were patrols hanging about the railway stations, who examined the papers of any Party member they found there and asked awkward questions. However, no patrols had appeared, and on the walk from the station he had made sure by cautious backward glances that he was not being followed. The train was full of proles, in holiday mood because of the summery weather."
So, in essence, it struck me as strange that Winston's greatest desire in the world is to live with freedom, not under constant fear of Big Brother, yet this is something a large portion of the population already has, and by all accounts they seem to enjoy a similar standard of living, if not even better in some ways. It's also stated that party membership, or class hierarchy, is not hereditary and anyone or their offspring could end up at any rung of society. So I wasn't convinced that Winston was necessarily "trapped" by the Party. May he not have subceded into the proletariat class, and been able to enjoy the simpler lifestyle and greater freedom that they seemed to posses? This is the one question that was left unanswered for me and that detracted from the "believability" of 1984.
Overall, I am glad that I read 1984 and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an important and meaningful story. It would be hard to disassociate the novel completely from its historical context, and the timing of its writing is no doubt a big part of its fame and significance. I didn't find Orwell's writing style to be particularly interesting or unique in any way, and I would be interested in reading more of his work to see if this sentiment holds. However, I suspect that the quality of Orwell's work is rooted in the substance of his writing, not its style. Again, I was thoroughly engrossed by the final act of the novel. It was brilliant and terrifying, and really made reading 1984 worthwhile.