How do I review what could possibly be my favorite book? This review will be a long one, and it will contain spoilers.
Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 after experiencing the horrors of World War II, revolutions, and colonialism. Primarily, the book serves as a warning, showing the worst extension of the evils of man. The book takes place in Air Strip One, a territory of Oceana (which includes the US and the UK, among other places). Air Strip One used to be England, and the novel takes place in what is now London. Winston Smith, the protagonist, is discontent with his life to say the least. He lives in a society with heavily-regulated class systems: the Inner Party (about two percent of the population) follows the will of “Big Brother,” the leader of Oceana; the Outer Party (nearly fifteen percent of the population) follows the will of the Inner Party; and the Proles (at least eighty percent of the population) live their lives in a highly-manipulated world, but they are too focused on bread and circuses to care. Winston works in the Outer Party. His job is to change bits of news from the past to reconcile the Party’s constantly-changing history. The terrifying phrase that the Party clings to is, “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.”
In this world, enemies of the Party are vaporized, meaning they are abducted, their identities washed away. Even family and friends cannot talk about the vaporized, as it would lead them to become vaporized as well. Winston’s job involves removing references to these “unpersons” from past news articles and changing Big Brother’s past predictions so that they align with actual events as they unfolded.
Integral to the Party’s nefarious workings is their control of language. The Party is working to limit the English language through a dialect known as Newspeak. The goal of this dialect is to remove the connotations from language with the theory that if people do not have words to express ideas, eventually they will simply stop having those ideas. For example, the word “freedom” in new speak would only refer to freedom from a cold, for example. The idea of “freedom” as we know it in a political sense would simply not exist. “Bad” has become obsolete, as words are now simply coined as opposites. “Good” exists as a word in Newspeak, so if something is to be described as “bad,” it would simply be called “ungood.” (Thus, a vaporized person is referred to as an “unperson.”)
So why do people like Winston continue to manipulate past history at their jobs? They are encouraged through a concept called “doublethink.” This is the mind’s way of tricking itself: they obviously know they are changing the past, but they are convincing themselves that Big Brother is actually right, and there are mistakes in history that need to be reconciled. Doublethink is both believing and not believing simultaneously, and ignoring facts when they are inconvenient to present purposes. In this world, there really aren’t any formal rules, but everyone knows that if they cross the Party, they will be vaporized. If the idea seems far-fetched, remember the Holocaust of World War II. Men were convinced to send fellow man to gas chambers, or watch them starve to death. Individuals abandoned their moral compasses to follow a terrible dictator. Something like doublethink had to have been at work there.
The government is terrifying. The Ministry of Love (“Miniluv” in Newspeak) is a building used for torture. Any enemy of the Party is taken there, tortured, and re-educated before being released back into the population, broken and likely marked to be shot at some unknown future date. Every Party member has at least one telescreen in his house. These are wall-sized screens that project propaganda 24/7. Outer Party members can never turn off these screens. Life in the Party requires participation in the Two Minutes Hate. During this time, Party members are shown propaganda, most of it about a man named Goldstein, who is the enemy of the Party. He’s been at large for years, supposedly, and he’s got a Brotherhood of rebels whose job it is to take down the Party and Big Brother. Those in control of the Party use the Two Minutes Hate to control the Inner and Outer Party members.
The Party has all but outlawed sex. It is allowed only for the purpose of procreating, but Party members are being brainwashed to believe it is dirty and disgusting. The point of this is to break all human bonds. Coming home to a loving spouse would be detrimental to the Party. Even children (“spies”) are trained to spy on their parents for any “unorthodox” thoughts against the Party. The Two Minutes Hate allows the Party to direct the pent-up rage and sexual frustrations of the Party members in a way that keeps anger alive.
There’s even more.
There are three global superpowers in this world, and they are always at war. The point of the war is to use up all excess material goods to keep the citizens always just fed, but always needing or wanting more. They’ve become used to the perpetual sacrifices of war and are willing to let the government do terrible things because of the gravity of war and the need for the common good. The Two Minutes Hate helps to justify the sacrifices people make. Still, Winston recalls that he was always almost starving as a boy.
In the novel, Winston decides to rebel against the Party in a small way—by keeping a journal. In it, he writes his thoughts against the Party. My favorite of Winston’s observations is that true freedom is the freedom to say that two and two add up to four. If a Party member is given the right to say that, all other rights necessarily follow. This comes into play later in the novel.
Winston is captured after writing in his journal and having an affair with another Outer Party member named Julia. They are both taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured. Before their capture, which they both knew was inevitable, they agreed that they could “win” this if only they remain loyal to each other in their minds. They had both heard of the torture that takes place in the Ministry of Love, and they knew they would be forced (through pain) to say anything the torturer wanted them to, but they agreed they would never betray each other in their hearts and minds.
In the Ministry of Truth, Winston learns that a man he thought was a member of the Brotherhood, O’Brien, was actually an Inner Party member who had been “messing” with Winston for seven years. Winston had dreams about O’Brien and almost became obsessed with the intellect he saw on O’Brien’s face. It’s implied that the dreams were probably the result of the telescreens, which are actually two-way communicators. Not only do they display propaganda, but they can be used to spy on Party members and even speak directly to them. Winston is slowly tortured and made to heal again (numerous times). He tells the Party whatever they want to know, and O’Brien is generous in giving Winston information about the Party and their methods. Winston realizes that he understood the “how” of the Party. He just could never comprehend the “why.” Why would a government go to so much trouble just to control fellow man? O’Brien’s answer is, essentially, simply because it can. The Inner Party members don’t desire riches in excess, only power over others. Their goal has never been to better mankind. O’Brien even suggests that the quality of life might be lowered to the point that 30 years old is senility: that wouldn’t matter. What matters is that the Party has power over the people.
Once this is revealed to Winston, the reader realizes that the Party isn’t done with Winston yet. Even though the man has been nearly starved to death, his teeth all falling out, his body emaciated, they are not finished. They want one final act of submission. Winston has been “recovering” from torture in the Ministry of Love, and he tells himself that he will still be able to keep that which makes him human: right before he is shot (because inevitably, all people released from the Ministry will be shot in the back at some unknown date in the future while they are simply going about their business), Winston will be able to hear the click of the trigger, and he will use his last thoughts to think about how much he hates Big Brother. This last act of rebellion will mean that, in his mind, he died a free man. This is his final act of hope, something he can control in a world controlled by a dictator.
But O’Brien knows this. He tells Winston of prisoners of the past. After being tortured and “recovered” in the Miniluv, they begged for a quick death so that they might die while their thoughts were still pure—in other words, while they still loved Big Brother, and before they had a chance to think terrible thoughts against him. This suggests that to be released from Miniluv, one must give total control of one’s mind to the Party.
They finally take Winston to Room 101, in which prisoners must confront their deepest fears. Winston’s is rats. A cage is affixed to his face with two hungry rats inside ready to gouge out his eyes and eat his face. In a moment of panic, Winston calls out that the Party should torture Julia instead of him. It is his final act of betrayal because in his mind, he honestly believes it. He is so afraid of the rats that he betrays the one person he loves. At this point, he is broken. He’s released into the world, given a sinecure, and kept always drunk. The final scene is the most dismal I have ever read. Winston is watching the telescreen while drinking horribly oily Victory Gin. He’s heard that the war might be lost, and he’s watching the news eagerly (never mind the fact that at one time Winston knew the war was all but a farce and used to control the population). In the end, the news from the warfront is good, and Winston cries tears of joy because he realizes that he loves Big Brother with all of his being.
The book is an obvious hyperbole, but some of the connections to modern society are frightening. “Newspeak” is surprisingly similar to the language of text messages or Twitter, in which we are forced to distill language to its most basic. Politicians engage in a form of doublethink all the time, lying to constituents and denying the truth in an effort to increase power. Like the Party in Orwell’s world, our modern politicians seem less interested in actually helping mankind and more interested in doing thing that will afford them more power (i.e., buying votes). Even today’s citizens seem divided along “party” lines. Not that we have a Two Minutes Hate, but anyone who was on Facebook during the last presidential election can see that rather than engaging in intelligent discussions about politics, citizens were more prone to engage in hateful rhetoric aimed at inflaming hatred against those with opposing beliefs (Big Brother vs. Goldstein—neither of whom existed, in all likelihood).
The book never ceases to amaze me, despite the fact that I read it almost every year. I am in awe of Orwell’s ability to see the worst in mankind, and to make predictions about things that are starting to come to pass. I hope that this book will always be simply a warning, and that humanity will always reclaim that which makes it human against a system of government that always seems to be fighting to augments its own power, rather than to make life better for all it should be serving.