George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was a giant of 20th century writing; across novels, essays, journalism and criticism, he saw through bullshit in all its forms and wasn’t afraid to call it out.
He is best known for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which exposed the dangers and hypocrisy of communism and fascism, respectively. Of the two books, Nineteen Eight-Four (to give it is proper title, but for the sake of brevity I will refer to it as 1984) is the more sinister and nuanced, and the more powerful.
Orwell was educated in the best English schools, served as a policeman in British-controlled Burma, fought against the fascists in the Spanish civil war (all experiences from which he developed a lifelong disdain for authoritarianism in all its forms), and spent time amongst the working classes of England and Paris. He talked the talk and walked the walk. Luckily for us today, he also wrote about it.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” It’s one of the most famous opening lines in English literature, and deservedly so; it suggests that all appears normal but something – a clock striking “thirteen”? – is not quite right. It sets up the tone for the whole book.
1984 is set in a dystopian (i.e. pessimistic) future in which the world is divided into three superpowers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia) who are constantly at war with each other. The main character Winston Smith lives in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain) which is part of Oceania. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, where his job is literally to rewrite the history books every time these superpowers change sides.
Everything Winston does or says, at home or work, is monitored by the Thought Police (just one of the many terms Orwell invented, including most famously ‘Big Brother’). People can even be arrested for having subversive thoughts against the government (‘thought crime’). Winston watches as his neighbours and co-workers disappear and are instantly forgotten, as if having never existed. Winston believes it is only a matter of time before he too is taken away.
There’s a great subplot which involves a secret book – essentially it is a book within a book – which is a literal how-to manual on how wars are really conducted and how to suppress the population through propaganda. It could be as easily applied to the current media climate of wild conspiracy theories and fake news. You will never look at these the same.
It’s not spoiling the plot to reveal that eventually Winston is arrested and interrogated (though the manner of his betrayal is one of the most shocking in modern literature). Now the book really ramps up the intensity as it begins to explore the concept of free will. Winston is taken to Room 101, an interrogation room which focuses on a person’s unique fears. I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens to Winston. The ending may surprise you.
It’s easy to overlook that technically 1984 is a work of science fiction. At the time of its publication (1949), the year 1984 was thirty-five years in the future. In that time, we have witnessed large-scale totalitarian regimes in the USSR and China, not to mention countless smaller examples in Africa, Asia and South America. Orwell, who died in 1950, would not have been shocked to see his fiction become fact. Somewhat neatly, we are as far ahead today of the year 1984 as when it was first published. And yet the scourge of totalitarianism still exists. Orwell is telling us that it will always exist.
We may look with disdain at the blatant propaganda of places like North Korea and wonder how their citizens can be so fooled. But 1984 challenges us to ask ourselves how we would react under such circumstances. Would we give in or rebel? How would we rebel, and how long for, before we too eventually succumbed? And would we succumb in the knowledge that we were being manipulated, or would we truly believe, against all logic, that “2 + 2 = 5”?
Orwell was a master of the English language, yet he never shows off or talks down to his reader (‘Never use a long word where a short one will do’ was one of his six rules of writing). He is that rare writer who lifts you up to his rung on the ladder so that you may see above all the lies and bullshit.
The film version (released in 1984) starring John Hurt and Richard Burton really captures the bleakness of the book. It also has a soundtrack by the Eurythmics: whether this only adds to the bleakness of the movie depends upon your opinion of eighties synthpop and androgynous lead singers. No doubt there’s a Room 101 for someone with them in it.