This post has been a long time in mental gestation, as I’ve been mulling over for some time how quite to sum up what has to be one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t even say why I particularly like the novel. However, I did build the book up quite a lot in my expectations prior to reading it, as I put it off and put it off in order to wait until I felt ready to engage fully with the text; I didn’t want to approach it half-heartedly. Despite this build-up, I think that the book managed to work on me on its own merit, rather than on my assumptions of what it would be, in part because the book is actually so much more than I had ever expected. For one, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a love story, albeit one with no happy, fairytale ending. Also, on a political level, it is not so much of a commentary upon what could happen if a political party gained too much power or a nation became an extreme police state, but it is more an exercise in how far the human mind can be stretched before it can too be controlled. In a recent song, Lady Gaga sings that “You won’t use my mind but / Do what you want with my body”, but here, in Orwell’s future, they will use your mind and make you believe whatever they want you to, whether this be that two allies are suddenly at war and have forever been in such a state, or that 2 + 2 = 5. I think that it is this message about the mind that we are presented with here that sticks with me, personally, and which makes the book so much more than mere dystopian fiction or political warning. We know that political regimes can control the information that its subjects receive and the way in which it is presented- Hitler and Stalin did it in the past, and in the present we have Russian government suppressing the voice of those who disagree, the Chinese blocking the internet to stop certain materials reaching into the country, North Korea banning almost everything that speaks of the outside world, and countless other nations that control and censor in order to remain in power. However, it is beyond the reach of any leader to actually control the way in which its people think on a truly base level. Sure, propaganda can brainwash to an extent, but not in the way that we see Winston’s mind turned at the end of this novel, and it is this that is truly frightening- the idea that people may be able to be reprogrammed in such a way as they carry out ‘double-think’ on a daily and continuous basis, and indeed believe that 2 + 2 = 5, despite also being able to see that it logically and mathematically can never be the case. (I’m sure that there are many ways in which it could be argued that people can be made to think exactly what someone else wants them to, and examples that can be given such as Nazis carrying out the atrocities of WWII, but no example can be given where the way that someone thinks is overridden to such an extent as it is here. There were several times during Winston’s torture and interrogation by O’Brien that I gasped aloud due to the latter’s ignorance and frightening acceptance of party lies, such as those detailing Big Brother’s role in science and the works of nature. However, such scenes also work well to show the party and the entire concept of double-think and thought control to be preposterous and something of a hyperbolised distortion of what really goes on.)
Another aspect of the novel that I found frightening was the concept behind ‘Newspeak’- if the langauge is reduced to its barest form and the words for ‘thought-crimes’ are removed, then people will not carry out ‘thought-crimes’, as the words to express the thought will no longer exist. The concept and idea makes sense- for example, I am limited in the amount of French that I can speak, and so if I do not know the word or words for something in French, then I cannot discuss it in that language. However, for a lover of literature and language, such a destruction and reduction of an entire lexicon is a terrifying thought, with the translation of existing works such as Shakespeare and Dickens into ‘Newspeak’ tantamount to sacrilege. Here we can see the way in which the Party attempts to control thought, by changing the very vocabulary that people use to think and therefore the way in which thoughts present themselves and can be ordered in the mind.
I was also surprised and impressed by the way in which the Ministry of Love was made out to be a place where political dissidents were killed, when in actuality it was a place where people were re-educated and taught how to think afresh, with those who were believed to have disappeared simply being reintroduced into society as a different person. This for me managed to place the Party on a different level to actual regimes that are fuelled by oppression, and showed a fate that is almost worse than death. However, the torture scenes were surprisingly effective, and shocking in just quite how graphic they were, considering that the novel was published in 1949. It was also in these torture scenes that I was reminded of Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (see here for my ‘Thoughts on…’ regarding this novella), and only at this point that I realised quite how much Burgess was influenced in the writing of his book by Orwell and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Burgess’s debt to Orwell can be seen clearly in the former’s book ‘1985’, which uses his ideas and style to produce a more modern echo of the novel, and which begins with an extended interview with Burgess talking about ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. However, this book and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ don’t just share torture scenes in common, but both stories are ultimately concerned with the nature of human agency and free will, and the ability of the individual to be in control of their own thoughts. It is this shared theme that I think makes these both such fantastic and thought-provoking works, but for me ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ triumphs over ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for several reasons. Whereas the latter concerns itself with the re-education of a teenager who is seen to need altering and correcting before he becomes an adult, Orwell’s story is more frightening, as it does not take an individual susceptible to influence (i.e. the teenager), but a middle-aged adult who is already educated, and so should be already able to think for himself. It also takes the idea of individual control, and extends this to an entire world (or at least an entire country. It is my personal theory that ‘Airstrip One’ is actually the only such controlled nation in the world, and that the rest of the world is actually as we know it to be. All ideas of ‘Eurasia’ and ‘Oceania’ and the endless wars are actually fabrications of the Party, and the world continues as usual beyond the country’s shores). There were many occasions whilst reading the novel that I was genuinely frightened by what I read, and was fearful for the world that was envisaged and the similarities that can be seen between the novel and our world, as well as the potentials that the story offers. To see the book as simply one commentating upon the surveillance and spying of governments is to not get under the skin of the text, and it holds messages and ideas that run deeper than this. I haven’t really touched here upon the love story between Winston and Julia, which forms the axis around which the novel revolves and around which Winston is finally destroyed, but this too should be seen as a further key to understanding the novel. It is love that helps to hold Winston together, as well as the weapon with which he is ultimately defeated.
These ‘Thoughts on…’ have been difficult for me to write, as I have been unsure quite how to explain this novel, its themes and the reasons why I like it so much, but I hope that I have gone someway to explaining my ideas and thoughts. I would not hesitate to recommend this book, and think- as with ‘Animal Farm’- that it should be required reading for everyone; I will certainly be re-reading it, but don’t think that I could cope with it too soon due to the sense of deflation and mental exhaustion that I felt upon completing it.