The problem with reviewing a book I listened to on audio is that I cannot properly go back and quote for you the passages that made me shudder. Nor can I describe in detail the scenes that horrified me.
1984 by George Orwell is such a book. In some respects, listening to it reminded me of my experience listening to Lord of the Flies recently: as the story progressed, I became more and more horrified and uncomfortable.
And that is, I think, Orwell’s purpose. 1984 is not meant to be a comfortable book.
Note that this post contains spoilers.
Winston Smith lives in a 1984 much different than the 1984 we really lived in. In his society, IngSoc (English Socialism) is the prevailing way of life and Big Brother is always watching for deviations from acceptable behavior via “telescreens.” There is little privacy and no freedoms. Your life is only lived for the party’s needs.
Like both Equality 7-2521 in Ayn Rand’s Anthem (reviewed here) and D-503 in Zamyatin’s We (reviewed here), Winston finds a place and time to write his thoughts, a highly inappropriate act. It seems writing private thoughts is the first stage of breaking free of totalitarianism, for in each book, writing (i.e., given voice to thoughts) seems to prompt rebellion. When Winston then falls in love (by itself a forbidden act), he becomes determined to find a way to gain freedom from the political party he hates so much.
Part of my problem is that I liked this beginning of the book very much, when Orwell develops the society and introduces Winston Smith as a deviant in the society. From there on out, things go wrong for Winston, as we learn the true purpose of the restrictive society: the goal of the Party is to make everyone not just obedient to Big Brother but actually to love Big Brother.
The horrifying part is that the country has ways of making people do so.
I did think about the other dystopias as I read. But even more so, I also recalled the book I read recently about Pakistan in the 1980s. There are people living under such totalitarian rule today around the world. While (hopefully) in real life there are no torture methods as perversely encompassing as those used in 1984, it is horrifying to realize that despotic leaders may still be forcing the untruths on their subjects, not just forcing obedience. It seems to be insanity to me.
In 1984, Winston Smith was expected to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. In Pakistan, one tortured prisoner indicated, using a metaphor, that he was not going to call “a donkey a horse” just because of Martial Law. Is there a difference? Yes. The person in totalitarian Pakistan still had a choice to believe or not. Winston Smith, in the fictional Oceania, lost the freedom to believe in even the most basic truths.
I thought 1984 had flaws as a novel. First, it had a few extended philosophical discussions that honestly bored me (such as the extended excerpts from the book about the history of Oceania). Such philosophical moments weren’t as dull as those in Ayn Rand’s Anthem became, but it still bored me to some extent. Also, Orwell seemed to really enjoy creating “newspeak,” which was the adapted language of Oceania, at the expense of developing characters and describing scenes. I thought he could have focused more on characterization: interesting as the world of 1984 was, I wanted to learn more about what the people thought of that world.
Orwell indicated that 1984 was meant as an extreme example of the dangers of perverse totalitarianism (see Wikipedia). While 1984 had some flaws, it was still a chilling reminder of what “totalitarian” means. In the end, Winston was forced in to a sort of insane half-life: a life in which he could never have any personal convictions.
I hated the ending, I hated the forced betrayal, and I hated the government of Big Brother. And I think that’s the point.
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If you have reviewed 1984, leave a link the comments and I’ll add it here.