Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) by George Orwell

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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.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed 1984, leave a link the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on June 8, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Reviewing an audio book can be tricky – sometimes you’re not quite sure how to spell something or you need to get the timeline right or something. Great review.

  • I agree; audio books are hard to review. For me, I also just don’t have the time to listen to them. I don’t even own a CD player any more!

    I haven’t read 1984 yet. It’s on my TBR list, but I always seem to pass over it in favor of other dystopian reads (Handmaid’s Tale, for example). Actually, now that I think about it, I think I might haven given it away…

  • 1984 has been on my to-read list for years. I actually have the book and have never read it. I’ve tried, but I could never get past the first chapter. While I was in college, I kept thinking that a professor would make us read it…and no one ever did. I think that books that are hard to read, but are classics are great for class room discussion and not necessarily great for “pleasure” as the topic gains more meaning as discussions and opinions from other readers are shared.

    Congrats on getting through it! Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? Another dystopic novel, but one of my favorites.

  • I thought this book was really powerful, except for the drawn out philosophy lesson in that book he receives from the inner party, and for the end. The whole Room 101 or whatever it was felt very fake and short compared to the rest of the “rehabilitation” process. It just wasn’t very believeable. I’ve felt that way about the ending of almost every Orwell book I’ve read. He seemed to have trouble with endings.

    My post is here:

  • Rebecca – I’m so glad you read this. I’m also glad that you seem to appreciate the fact that a book can still be important even when you come away hating things that happened in it. Like you said, that was the point. I think I have a special attachment to Orwell because when I read Animal Farm at age 11 and 1984 at 16, I really started to get the idea of not just accepting everything your government or other governments do at face value. We must question. We must examine. A specific example of how 1984 changed my thinking was the idea of the Ministry of Truth and Winston’s job of editing history depending on who Oceania’s friends and enemies were at the time. As I studied history in college it helped me to keep perspective on the context of not only historical events but on the time, place and personal character of the person documenting those events. Thanks for reminding me of these things with your review!

  • Kathy, With audiobooks, I do review Wikipedia to make sure I’ve got the terms right — like IngSoc: as I listened I thought it was EngSoc.

    Christina, I don’t either! I have one in the car and that’s where I normally listen to audiobooks. But I do have a computer so I can transfer CDs to digital files and listen to it on my handheld device. At first I thought this was rather similar to Handmaid’s Tale (in that Winston remembers the time before the revolution a little bit), but not so much by the end.

    Tracie, some people really love this book, out side of a college setting. I think I did like it more than Handmaid’s Tale — more powerful, I thought. Handmaid’s Tale is powerful in different ways but it irritated me too. My review is here.

    Amanda, I agree completely about the philosophy part and about room 101. I wish Winston could have learned from O’Brien in a less “conversational” way because that ended up being pretty boring. I’ll add your link.

  • I must re-read this again soon. I think it is this book that spawned my appreciation (enjoyment?) of dystopian fiction. Like you, I remember being enthralled with the book early on but gradually coming to like it less (perhaps I became bored from the philosophical asides?)… I only vaguely think I recall the end of the book, but if it is how I remember, it is a chilling and sad ending indeed. Great review – you’ve really whet my desire to read this one again.

  • I read this one back in high school and remember appreciating it very much. I don’t remember much about the plot itself, but this IS the book with the “rat” scene, right? *shudder* Yeah, there are some parts that have stuck with me …

    It is an excellent book for showing the perversity of a totalitarian society – glad that you read it!

  • AK, I can understand this book really relating to people when they read it at the right time. While I didn’t love it or even really enjoy it, I certainly will never forget it!!

    J.T.Oldfield, I only really got bored when Winston Smith was reading from that book about the history of Oceania. And then I was in the middle of something so I thought I might as well keep listening. I have on occasion gone back and found the hard copy so I could quote from it, but I didn’t this time. I’ll link to your review.

    Steph, I thought when I picked it up that it was a reread. But I recalled so few of the details, that I don’t think I can call it that! It is chilly in the end, and in that sense I hated it! But it is memorable and one that should be revisited if you don’t recall the details.

    Heather J., yes, it’s the one with the rat scene. Double shudder. I do think it is about the perverse side of things. Like I said, I really really wish/hope it isn’t like this in modern totalitarian society!!!

  • I read this back in high school and just recently revisited it on audio. (Review at The whole business of thought control as depicted in this book is utterly frightening. That got to me on a second read more than the constant surveillance. I actually thought the newspeak stuff was interesting, but I’m generally fascinated by language. But, oh, that history book–I know the information was important, but it just brought everything to such a halt and was so very, very dull.

  • I think my book club has been apprehensive about my book choices ever since I chose this one! I loved the whole thing, even the historical/philosophical stuff, but the rest of the club felt very much the same as you–unforgettable, but not necessarily enjoyable. I agree with AK’s comments about different sources of historical accounts, I think that’s what has stayed with me the most. And I always think about the language ideas in this book when I see texting “language” and spelling (or lack thereof!)

  • Teresa, I agree about the history book. I really like 1984 until he started reading from that book. Then it became very boring and it barely recovered in the end.

    Shelley, I think this is a love it or hate it book, so I can understand the book club. But at the same time, I also understand how people can love it. I think it’s a good choice for a book club because there is so much to talk about.

  • Try following along in the book. Sit back, relax, and keep the remote (I listen to audiobooks on surround sound in the bedroom- very cool for the special sound effects some use now) and notepad handy.

  • I guess if I had time to read the book, I’d just read the book. I always prefer that to the audio. I only default to audio when I don’t have time to sit down and read it.

  • My senior year of college, I took “Sociology of War” with a Russian professor in his forties (so he’d grown up in the USSR). We had a unit on totalitarian governments, and he assigned 1984, because he said it was better at evoking the feel of living in an absolute state than any of the nonfiction he could find. That was the first time I read it, so it was a powerful experience!

  • I also think audio books are quite difficult to come up with a review. You need some really good listening skills to create a good one. Nonetheless, audio books are great and congrats for the nice review.

  • AudiobookApril, I’m glad you think this review is good! I usually try to capture the themes and whether or not I enjoyed listening to it. Some of the audiobooks are ones I’ll probably read again some day.

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