By George Orwell
Okay, i’ll admit, this is my second time reading 1984. I first read the novel in high school, though… i don’t remember which grade I want to say 10, but I could be wrong. I remember feeling pretty perplexed, alarmed, and frustrated with it on my first read through, but then again I was in high school and we had an essay to write. So as much as I do love reading the book, there were other pressures on me at the time to get questions right and such that the ‘fun’ of reading it wasn’t really there.
I’ve always wanted to go back and re-read the book, and a year ago or so, managed to purchase my own copy of it. And, let me tell you it was more horrific than what I remembered! I really think I should read more of Orwell’s work, there is so much to this book, so many layers, and insights that even my after second time reading it, I felt I’ve missed, and overlooked certain things. He has woven together a world, that has in some ways, predicted the future.
Let’s start with a quick overview. In 1984, we follow Winston, a Party member working for one of the Ministries, in particular altering past newspaper articles to represent the ideals of the present. He is unsatisfied with his job, with Big Brother, the Party and feels there is more to life than what he has been told. He then goes on a rebellious spiral, starting with a written diary, leading to an affair with another Party Member to joining a secret Brotherhood set to destroy Big Brother and the Party.
To me, the book is split into a three-part structure. The first part we see the world of Oceania through Winston’s eyes, as he writes down random things he’s witnessed in London under the Leader Big Brother and the Party. We learn about the Ministries that keep the order, of Doublethink, Thoughtcrime, and Winston’s job.
The first part of the book is where the horror for me sinks in. I work for a newspaper, I’m a graphic designer, and through my education learned some of the details media outlets deal with and do. Winston, seems to have a similar job, but his deals with rewriting the past. We learn of the new language the Party has come up with, how they continually take out words and replace them with a single word, just changing the prefix. It’s pretty scary, how detailed Orwell goes through this process of deleting words from the english language. It gets even more scary when they began to re-write history.
For instance, there are two other countries in this world, Oceania is always aligned with one, and at war with another. Party way through the story, the enemy is switched and Winston is assigned to go back through the archives, change every instance of the old enemy to the new one. The old paper is reprinted with the correction while the original is burned.
A line is repeated through the story that sticks with me:
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
It makes me think of the media today, of the governments and how events can and perhaps have been manipulated to a certain outcome.
I should probably also talk about Doublethink and Thoughtcrime, the two crimes in this world that is fearful to all. After all, how do you control what you think? Just thinking against the Party, against Big Brother would send you to the Ministry of Love, (not what you think). It makes everyone paranoid, fearful of who they talk to, anyone could be part of the Thought Police, neighbours, husbands, wives… and the children. Children in this world are trained to report any crime, even if it’s against their parents, destroying this bonds that one may think would stand.
Throughout the novel, it’s revealed how the Party works, how they strive to create the fear, hatred, suffering to control the populace. The way to combat this is “Doublethink”, to be able to hold two contradictions in your mind at the same time, believing in both, but neither. It’s actually very confusing to discuss, even reading it, especially in the last part of the book as such details are used to “cure” those in the Ministry of Love.
The story continues on with Winston meeting another Party member, a woman by the name of Julia who, though younger and outwardly seems like a normal Party member, seduces Winston into an affair. Such affairs between party members are illegal and the two hide their affair through careful meet ups. (I’ll be honest, this part of the story is sort of drawn out in my mind).
Eventually the two agree that there should be a revolution against Big Brother and the Party, they even go as far as to ask for help by one they feel is already on their side. O’Brien. Unfortunately for them, that is not the case. O’Brien betrays them, is a Thought Police himself and places them under arrest. Then starts the third part, the torture and to me ‘brainwashing’ of Winston by O’Brien.
This part of the novel has lengthy dialogue, filled with exposition and details into how the Party ‘cures’ those who think against them, how they tell Winston he is insane by thinking this ‘individual’ thoughts and that they are here to help him learn to ‘love’ Big Brother again. I found these chapters unsettling, how they break Winston down, step by step until he is nothing, has nothing, is filled with nothing so that they can make him into what they want him to be. There were so many arguments Winston made that I agree with, that I feel YES! he’s onto something, yes Big Brother and the Party can’t control the mind completely, can’t control the human spirit. But one by one, O’Brien steps on each argument Winston makes for his case, until Winston is just a hollow shell of himself.
It’s depressing, and frustrating. You follow the main character, a rebel, with the hopes of succeeding in his mission, of finding a way out of his life to something else, something better. Instead Orwell gives us harsh reality. The Party never falls, Winston is ‘cured’, and life in Oceania is back to normal.
I remember feeling very dissatisfied with the novel the first time i read it. It was unlike anything I’ve ever read, usually our main characters win the final battle, the enemy is slain, or defeated. I still feel sad about Winston finally caving into the Party believes, but there is more of an understanding of why Orwell did this than before.
Maybe in another ten years, i’ll reread it again and discover new ideas, themes and insights.