1984 has been on my TBR list for years. It was only after I read it last week that I learned that it’s sales have risen 10,000% because of recent current events pointing to the NSA as a Big Brother-type organization.
Because the book is cited so often, most people know its basic premise: In a futuristic society all people are watched and controlled by a totalitarian government. The first half of the book was surprisingly engaging so I was taken aback by how dark the second half was. The novel was written in 1949 when much of the optimism of man had been dashed by both World Wars.
Winston Smith, the protagonist, works in the government records department where he and his colleagues are constantly re-writing records so that no falsification of the facts by the the Party can be proven. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary” so that nothing that the government officials reported as truth could be verified. (p. 40) Although Winston does his job faithfully and without question, he commits the worst crime possible by beginning to think his own thoughts (thoughtcrime) rather than accept the Party tripe that’s been pumped into him his whole life.
His colleague Syme works in the Research Department where he is constantly revising a dictionary of words called “Newspeak.” He tells Winston, “We’re getting the language into its final shape - the shape it’s going to be when no one speaks anything else... You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words - scores of them, hundreds of them every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.” (51) “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. (52) Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." (53)
It’s impossible to read the book without making connections to our present culture: the re-writing of history books, texting as the new Newspeak, the perversion of sexuality, etc. In the book the government makes a huge effort to erase any traces of “vaporized” criminals. But since most of our lives today (photos, diaries, documents, mail) are online, most proofs of our existence could be erased with a few clicks of a button.
As I mentioned, the book addresses sexuality. Winston has a liaison with a prostitute and an affair with Julia (no unsavory details though). Since love and lust are out of the control of the Party, they are not permitted. Conception and child bearing are done only as a duty to the State.
My favorite (albeit rare) thread in the book was the idea of love. Winston finds hope for living when Julia tells him she loves him. The Ministry of Love is a place where people are forced to recant their beliefs “for their own good” - because the government “loves” them. Winston argues with his torturer, “It is impossible to found a civilization on fear and hatred and cruelty. It would never endure... It would have no vitality. It would disintegrate. It would commit suicide.” (269)
Fascinating stuff! This is a dark, but important book. I could write a lot more about Newspeak, but I’ll leave that for a future post.