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1984, George Orwell, Penguin, 1984, 268 pp. (originally published in 1949)
"'If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- for ever'" (230).
1984 is one of the most famous dystopias ever written (along with a predecessor like Brave New World or a successor like The Handmaid's Tale). And with good reason -- this book is incredibly intense. Orwell's picture of the future describes the boot and its stamping of a human face in all the detail necessary to frighten everyone from the pessimistic misanthropes to the idealistic optimists. Which camp would Orwell himself belong to? Perhaps both. The book could only be written from the most profound conviction that such a future could indeed happen, a conviction motivated by societies where Big Brother already existed in large part when Orwell wrote the book. But 1984 has become a touchstone of our culture in the way that it functions as a warning. Can we prove the optimist in Orwell correct, and proceed to take the book's warning as a corrective for certain tendencies in our own society? We have survived the bloodiest century in human history without the final annihilation of nuclear war, and without the kind of Big Brother society envisioned by Orwell (although that is debatable). Frankly, that's not much of an accomplishment to brag about, and a fresh re-reading of 1984 for everyone on the eve of the new millennium might just help make a few things turn out differently.
My comments so far have been based on the assumption that a book can change society. 1984 certainly takes itself seriously, and the possession of a book like Orwell's in the Big Brother society it depicts would be a thought-crime of the first order. At this point, I would like to say that a self-righteous society that ignores warnings like Orwell's in 1984 frightens me. Perhaps more so than Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. Is this descriptive of Western culture at this juncture in history? If we do not have Big Brother as such, there might be other, more subtle things to worry about. As I was reading 1984, I was struck by many echoes of Foucault, and his theories of discipline. And Foucault makes it clear that he thinks power and discipline permeate all areas of society, whether totalitarian or democratic. In another parallel, I think that Orwell's idea of doublethink is not restricted by any means to the fictional society of Oceania. An example from the book deals with the Party's claim that the revolution happened to liberate the proles: "But simultaneously, true to the principles of doublethink, the Party taught that proles were natural inferiors who must be kept in subjection, like animals, by the application of a few simple rules" (65). I see doublethink in the way that European powers colonized the rest of the planet, and in the continuing economic domination of poorer countries. I see doublethink in certain attitudes towards women, where the double standard is alive and well. These ideas raised by Orwell are more than a little disturbing, if all of the implications are examined.
However, the book's lasting power lies not in all of this social theory, but rather the concrete details of its story. From the smell of boiled cabbage in the hallway of Winston's apartment building to the political architecture ensuring that the powerful stay in power -- the entire range of human experience is here. And Winston Smith is a strong centre for the novel. Like many dystopias, we don't find out how the main character becomes rebellious. Winston Smith is a thought criminal when we first meet him, and his story is premised on that leap. We follow him in his job, where he alters history according to instructions. We follow him through a love affair with the woman named Julia, and it's a strange romance. Winston says to Julia, "I hate purity, I hate goodness!" (112). And possibly with good reason, if such virtues are associated with the Party and its attempts to channel sexuality into avenues less destabilizing to society. Winston and Julia still participate in the Two Minute Hate, another effective form of catharsis and social control.
Unfortunately, the last half of the book is not very interesting. Yes, Orwell continues to use many fascinating ideas, and the images of Winston under torture are indeed horrific. But the story comes to a crashing halt. First, Winston reads chapter after chapter from a rather dry book of political theory -- and no one is terribly surprised when we find out that the author is not who Winston thought it was. And when Winston is under torture, the book also bogs down, dramatically speaking. Perhaps the story has become too familiar, but we know that Winston will break when confronted with Room 101. This Big Brother society is too well-constructed to break apart in the face of one man's resistance. I found my interest picking up again when Winston was released, and his meeting with Julia might be some of the best writing in the novel.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of the last half of the novel is Orwell's blunt answer to the question of why. Winston has read a book describing how the Party stays in power, but he is plagued by the question of why. When he asks O'Brien this question, the answer is as blunt as could be imagined: power for the sake of power. And we are confronted, not with some abstract homily about absolute power, but the reality of complete and utter social power perpetuating itself, confident of its own immortality. There should be tears in our eyes at the ending, for different reasons than Winston's tears, as Winston sits in the Chestnut Tree, thinking about how much he loves Big Brother.
Also see the review of the movie based on this book.
Last modified: March 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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