Book Review: 1984
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Dystopia with an appendix of hope.
Given the current ubiquity of video surveillance and manipulative social media, it would be easy to focus on George Orwell’s prescience in 1984. The terms “Big Brother,” “newspeak,” and “thoughtcrime” have become part of our lexicon. There is an atmosphere of public shaming through internet trolls. Every action we take – shopping in a store under surveillance cameras, making a phone call that is recorded for quality assurance purposes, and using our computers where our internet browsing is tracked so that sidebar ads can market directly to you – gives the sense that we are being watched all the time.
I first read 1984 back before the actual 1984, so my classmates and I loved to speculate how many of Orwell’s predictions would come to pass. Our teacher, however, pointed out that Orwell’s novel was published in 1948, so the last two digits have simply been reversed. She explained that Orwell was writing about contemporary totalitarianism, and although the novel is a projected dystopia, it is meant to speak in a universal tone about the dangers of political manipulation.
The last time I read 1984 was seventeen years ago. I have been intending to read it again for a while, but truthfully, given the current state of the U.S., I did not want to bring myself down any further. The details would be hitting too close to home.
Even so, I am glad that I did, because it reminded me of the power of Orwell’s writing. He is a masterful storyteller, capable of creating a palpable atmosphere with a few precise details. 1984 is a gray book, with its pervading atmosphere of despair and resignation. Orwell’s main character, Winston Smith, drinks oily-tasting gin and eats gray, flavorless stew. Food rationing is so normalized that real coffee and butter can only be purchased on the black market. Yet, no one complains, because Big Brother is perpetually watching.
When I first read 1984, I was frustrated with Winston Smith’s paranoia. I wanted him to act. I wanted him to stand up to Big Brother. Eventually, he does join the resistance, but it seemed to me that he was essentially ineffectual in every aspect of his life. He was a drone, a cog in the machine, and he was destined to fail, no matter what.
This time, however, I caught on that Winston Smith is rebellious, albeit it in a cautious manner. His very first act in the book is to purchase a blank notebook. This, in itself, is cause for suspicion. He knows that if he is caught with the notebook, he will not be able to explain why he would buy such a thing. In private, he begins to record his thoughts for a future generation, a daring moment, especially when he writes, “Down with Big Brother.” Smith is aware from the beginning that he is doomed, and yet he persists in his thoughtcrimes.
Eventually Smith meets Julia, who entices him to experience sexual freedom as a rebellious act. For Smith, Julia exemplifies a daring expression of individuality, yet she seems to lack any consideration for why the totalitarian government wants to exert control. He tries to instruct her, but she is more interested in ducking the system in small ways.
Smith feels a connection with a co-worker, O’Brien, who appears to be defying his political position by being part of the resistance. He shares with Smith a book that explains how Big Brother came into existence and how it maintains control by eliminating or altering the past. O’Brien swears in Smith and Julia as members of the resistance. And here Orwell’s language is brilliant:
“You are prepared to give your lives?” “Yes.” “You are prepared to commit murder?” “Yes.” “To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?” “Yes.” “To betray your country to foreign powers?” “Yes.” “You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases – to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?” “Yes.” “If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face – are you prepared to do that?” “Yes.” “You are prepared to commit suicide, if and when we order you to do so?” “Yes.” “You are prepared, the two of you, to separate and never see one another again?” “No!” broke in Julia. It appeared to Winston that a long time passed before he answered. For a moment he seemed even to have been deprived of the power of speech. His tongue worked soundlessly, forming the opening syllables first of one word, then of the other, over and over again. Until he had said it, he did not know which word he was going to say. “No,” he said, finally. “You did well to tell me,” said O’Brien. “It is necessary for us to know everything.”
What is marvelous about this interchange is that O’Brien’s questions could just as easily apply to loyalty to the Party as well loyalty to the Resistance. What he is asking of Smith and Julia is that they engage in the very acts that the Party perpetrates on a daily basis. Yet under the guise of the Resistance, the questions sound rebellious. But Orwell’s point is that control of language is the ultimate political power. When Smith struggles over his final answer, ultimately it does not matter whether he says yes or no; he is doomed already. He knows he is doomed, but he is granted the smallest granule of hope by stating “Yes.” And O’Brien's response about the necessity of knowing everything is exactly what Big Brother demands of all its citizens.
I read 1984 at the same time I was reading Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s stage adaptation of the novel. In their introduction, they make a significant observation: Orwell’s novel features an appendix about the properties of Newspeak, the language of the Party. Essentially, Newspeak is a whittling process to eliminate specificity in vocabulary, which weakens a person’s ability to communicate in any effective way. In the novel, the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary should be completed by the year 2050, at which time language will be minimalized into vague generalities. Icke and Macmillan note that if Newspeak had become the official language, the appendix itself would have been written in Newspeak. Instead, it is written in formal English and most importantly, in the past tense. In other words, the appendix tells the reader that the Party must have failed before 2050; otherwise, the 11th edition of the dictionary would have been completed. Rather, the appendix gives the reader clues that Big Brother must have fallen, and society was able to reestablish itself on a different line. It is a piece of hope at the end of a dystopian novel.
Perhaps that is reading too much into Orwell’s appendix. Maybe it was simply his version of Tolkien’s own appendices to The Lord of the Rings – giving the reader additional information about the construction of Newspeak. Personally, I like the notion that Orwell leaves us a clue that the totalitarian regime could not last forever.