Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I wish I could transmit the intensity, quality and flavor of my feelings in response Orwell's 1984.

The admiration and envy I feel towards great writers increases in direct proportion to my desire to write something that is good and important. Oh! to have the ability to teach influential lessons about good and bad, political theory, virtue, the human condition - all the big issues - through a gripping, fascinating story!

I recall reading the book in high school. "Big brother is watching you," is about all I remembered. Lesson? Big government = bad. This time, I checked it out for ARG, and read it in order to be able to discuss it with him. I didn't think it would be any big deal.That was two days ago. Every spare moment between then and now has been spent following the hope filled but ultimately tragic tale of Winston Smith.

A frail, sickly man, he lives in the nightmarish collectivist society ruled by Big Brother. His physical mediocrity contrasts with his almost Herculean mental efforts to resist the thought control of "the Party". He symbolizes the intellectual aspect of the human spirit, while his young lover, Julia, represents all that is instinctive, natural and innocent. Together they defy the crushingly repressive Party not just by freely making love (which is punishable by death), but by falling in love and pursuing a loving relationship. Love is not tolerated in their world, because it can not be controlled.

The Party uses every imaginable heinous method (control of all media, torture, unending war, propaganda, killings, privations of food and necessities and more) to control the populous and maintain a permanently stratified and unequal society. The goal of all this insanity is an unending quest for power, the power of the collective over the individual. When Smith is caught, beaten and tortured for "his own good" his captor shares the image of a huge boot eternally crushing a human skull to illustrate the kind power the Party is seeking.

Orwell obviously went to extremes in describing what could happen to the future of humankind if we head down the socialist road. It is difficult to believe that such a world as he describes in 1984 could exist. But the crux of his point is that socialism could actually change human nature. While one may or may not agree that human nature is alterable, Orwell's story argues that an oligarchical collectivist society could succeed in denying objective reality, by insisting that reality is only what exists within the human mind, which can be controlled and altered. Freaky.

The parallel between Winston Smith's world and ours that struck me most was the unending war. In 1984 war fever is used to whip the people into a state of frenzied fear and hatred, a way to discharge repressed sexual energy as well as to distract them from their impoverished conditions. Is our government using war in order to distract us from something? I don't know the answer but I think it is good to ask the question. It is always good to question power.

Newspeak, the contrived language used in 1984 as a way to change people's thought patterns (if you don't have words for it, how can you think it?) reminds me of the lingo used by some of our politicians and military folks. "Collateral damage", "economic justice", "American interests abroad", "nation building", "peace keeping" are a few that come to mind.

What is truly terrifying about Orwell's vision for the future is the complete invasion occupation of the state into individual minds and hearts. Thought control is the final destination on the road to the annihilation of individual freedom. Winston doesn't learn this until the end.

"'They can't get inside you. If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can't have any result whatever, you've beaten them.' He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking....They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable."

The ultimate tragedy of the book is that despite Winston's epic battle to save his soul, he was wrong. Through torture and other nefarious means, the Thought Police successfully breached the wall of Winstons inner heart. He committed an act of supreme evil, willingly betraying his love for Julia, and was destroyed. As an individual, he was gone. What was left ended up loving Big Brother.

A sad ending, yes. But a warning we would be foolish to ignore.


Mike said...

I don't recall reading 1984 in high school, but do remember Animal Farm.

Regardless, 1984, like the Y2K debacle, should no longer be a concern now that we've passed the year in question. All clear!

Sue said...

You've never read 1984? Dude - better get busy.

Oh, but you're right. The year has passed already...never mind.

Meg S. said...

Animal Farm I remember some are more equal than others. Four feet good three feet annoying or something like that. Lord of the Flies made me cry. I think 1984 was one of the last assigned books I read in high school. I hated that all the books were sad, so I sort of just figured it out with the class discussions, and general smartiness :) Still got an A. Or B. I never really cared.

My daughter LOVED 1984. Read it many times and is desperate to talk to someone about it. Maybe I'll send her to your blog. We went to Disneyland last spring, and I have a great picture of her sitting on a bench deep into it while a parade goes by.

Won't 1984 come again when the cosmic odometer rolls over?

Sue said...

Meg - I suppose I'll have to read Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies again too at some point.

I'd love to hear your daughter's thoughts about 1984.

Beth said...

Oooooo. Another book to reread!! Thanks for the summary.

If you want to read a dystopia story with a happier ending, check out Anthem by Ayn Rand.