I just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984. Yes, I know, most of us read this in high school, but I come from Florida, where the standard high school reading includes not much more than My Pet Goat, at least in public schools, which should tell you that I wasn’t among one of these. After knowing the quotes, the ideas, the phrases, the inspirations, the commercials, and the constant societal references pointed out by just about every tech-savvy user on the planet, I figured it was my turn to read the book.
Wow, what I had been missing!
1984 postulates what a totalitarian world would look like, one which succeeded where the USSR failed, one where no one ever really disagrees with the state because all thought of disagreement is purposely being wiped out, where war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance was strength. It is fair to say that this is quite possibly the most frightening book I have ever read.
While written in the future (it was written in 1948), the book is by no real means a science fiction book so much as it is a speculative political commentary. The author, Eric Blair (b.k.a. George Orwell), was a socialist who had fought for the movement, but who then saw and highly disagreed with what he saw happening in Stalinist Russia. Indeed, his Animal Farm is often regarded as being one of the most telling books on the folly of the Russian Revolution as a platform which gave rise to Stalin. But it is here, in 1984 where Orwell envisions a world run completely in the fashion of the totalitarian state; a world where capitalism has been abolished; where continual war and continual peace are the same; where war is waged only so that resources are spent and that people perceiving an outside threat would flock to their government, regardless its inadequacies and cruelty; and where whoever controls the past controls the future, and whoever controls the present controls the past. In this world, truth is what the government says it is, and if they tell you that two plus two equals five, then so it is, and if they should decide that it better suits their purposes that it equals four or three or any other number than truth it is, since what is truth but that which is agreed upon by all minds as true? Where does history exist? If I believe that I floated off the ground like a bubble and you believe I floated off the ground like a bubble, then what truth can there be other than that I actually floated off the ground like a bubble? Where do facts live to tell us otherwise?
It is in the world of these paradoxes that there lives a certain Winston Smith, a member of The Party. Winston begins having thoughts against the party and is soon starting to see things more clearly. He finds people who he believes think like him, but most of them soon disappear and become “unpersons”, people whose histories are erased, and who are essentially plucked out of history. Nevertheless, despite this, Winston starts doing things which are not necessarily prohibited, but are looked down upon by the Thought Police, things like writing in a journal and falling in love: eccentric behaviors which are not conducive towards dedication to The Party. Eventually this path gets him in touch with what he believes is a revolutionary movement. However, soon thereafter he is caught and sent to jail for thought crimes. He eventually gets out of jail, but what happens to him during and after (as well as what happens to the government) is something you will need to read for yourself.
As a writer, one of the most interesting things I found about the book was the idea of language as a shaping of thought. A language in the book called “Newspeak” is being created for the purposes of abolishing all anti-party thought. In the book’s appendix, the author explains that the point of the language is to take a passage as complex as this —
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
— and express it with a single word, in this case “crimethink”. This aspect of the book raises a very large number of questions. For example, currently, the vocabulary for the average person has gone from 50,000 words in Orwell’s time to 10,000 words. In that time, politicians seem to have gotten dumber and dumber. Coincidence? I’m not so sure.
Joking(?) aside, this aspect is among one of many which has caused that I expend a great amount of thoughts understanding the full implications (and warnings) offered by this book. While I’ve never seen any of the movies, I wouldn’t mind seeing them for comparisons. (If anyone’s seen them and can offer some advice, or if anyone reading this knows of any documentaries on the book’s meanings and Orwell’s life, I and hundreds of others would love to know about them.)
Language notwithstanding, the lesson found in the book is more frightening than the language issue, however. The lesson — at least what I took from it, though there are many, to be sure — is that when a governing body can control what you feel as right and wrong, when it can hold so much power over the person that they trust the government’s words more than your own thoughts, that it is then you have lost humanity. Indeed Winston is the last man on Earth at that point.
Moral lessons aside, one thing I found interesting — and this isn’t so much a commentary on the book as it is on what effect it’s had on me — is that I began taking elements from Orwell’s phenomenal writing style, implementing them into my own writing. Indeed, that the tools at my disposal as a writer were as numerous, that my vocabulary were as expansive, and that my powers of observation and the descriptions thereof as full! Whether you call this desire merely an impetus to improve or you regard it as jealousy is inconsequential: his smooth, yet full writing style is one I don’t mind making part of my own.
While I don’t think the human spirit is as weak as Orwell suggests, the fact that governments like this exist, to a certain extent (the most obvious example of which is Cuba) do give credence to his warning. This is a book which should be read by all citizens of all countries, so that they take the lessons therein and remember them when deciding to take on a political ideology as their own. To follow blindly, as I’ve seen too many people do their party, is to invite totalitarianism, for there will always be those who would see power as an end in and of itself, instead of a means. If reading this book doesn’t scare the hell out of you — especially now, when we’re being asked to fight an endless war, our resources are being spent in ways that are really of no benefit to anyone, truth changes from the mouths of our leaders at a pace in which the only reasonable course of action is to adopt doublethink, and we are kept in constant fear of “them” by our leaders — then you may as well begin chanting to yourself “B-B… B-B… B-B…” Big Brother already has is eye on you.
If you have read 1984 and like me like to do research to truly understand what it is that you have read, and play with in your mind all the permutations therein, I recommend The Complete Newspeak Dictionary.