01 July 2007

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

Banned Book Challenge #4

Yes, the challenge finished yesterday. But I finished the book yesterday, so technically I did complete the challenge in time.

1984 In 1984, the world is divided into three superpowers - Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia - and constantly at war in a succession of shifting alliances. In Oceania the Party reigns supreme, headed by the mythical figure of Big Brother, whose larger-than-life-size gaze follows citizens from myriad posters. In London, capital city of Airstrip One, Winston Smith spend his cheerless days toiling in the Ministry of Truth, helping the Party perpetuate its lies by editing past editions of The Times to reflect the current facts. Predictions are changed so that the Party seems to be always right, and references to persons since vaporised are removed so that they appear never to have existed. The process is so efficient that no evidence ever remains - usually. Just once Winston held proof of the Party’s lies. Not that there was anything he could do; as a member of the Inner Party his life is under constant scrutiny. Telescreens transmit as well as broadcast information, involvement in community activities is monitored, and only in the dark can you be sure of being safe from the Thought Police - and then only if you’re utterly silent. Nothing is your own except your mind, and even that had been marked for takeover via the development of Newspeak; a stripped-down version of English so minimal that unorthodox thought will be impossible for the simple reason that the words won’t exist that are capable of expressing it.

So Winston puts his hopes in the thought that one day the proles - the downtrodden working masses largely overlooked by the Party on the grounds that they have neither the education nor the intelligence to cause trouble - will rebel. It might be in one year, it might be in a thousand, but one day the Party will be overthrown. Then he notices that he is being followed by a young woman he suspects of being a member of the Thought Police sent to watch him for signs of unorthodoxy. But Julia is no more a supporter of Big Brother than he is. Unlike Winston, however, she has no faith in the proles or in the defeat of the Party; her idea of rebellion is to maintain an appearance of orthodoxy while finding ways to get around the system. Together they enter into an underground network of conspirators, knowing that it is now only a matter of time before the Thought Police vaporise them - or lead them to a fate worse than death.

I’ve had this book lying around for years; I think I assumed that something so political would be boring. But it wasn’t - well, except for a lengthy excerpt from the book of the resistance, explaining the political and military manoeuvrings of the superpowers, which did begin to drag. I was interested to note that Oceania was formed by the massive expansion of - who else? - the United States. The Party’s success was based in part on the accomplishment of doublethink, a Newspeak word meaning to simultaneously hold two opposing beliefs, and reading the book almost created its own version of doublethink. One the one hand such a future seems impossible; surely no population would stand for such a thing and the concepts of Big Brother and Orwellian society are so well-known that any attempt would be seen at once for what it was. But then ... totalitarian states can and do rise, and the background of the Party’s history was so plausible that you could see how such a regime could hold power indefinitely. So given the right circumstances - who knows? Certainly things are not always as benign as they seem; I’m reminded of a recent report rating countries on their level of press freedom, in which Australia was ranked lower than El Salvador. So even in one of the world’s great democracies there’s a certain lack of transparency; who knows what they’re hiding?

Yes, there’s plenty of scope for paranoia here, especially with the telescreens and the Thought Police. The dystopian society and its workings - given an extra dash of realism by an appendix article on Newspeak - was often more interesting than most of the characters. Except for Winston and Julia they were mostly just well-drawn bit players. I would have liked to know a bit more about what life under the Party was like for the proles, but the story never strayed far from the lives of the members of the Inner Party. But I did like the protagonists; they made it seem that it was not so much the regime as the inability to oppose it that was the real horror - that, and the fate of those who tried. Room 101, anyone?

Rating: B+


Grominou said...

I have seen and liked the movie, but haven't read the book. Have you seen it? If so, how does it compare with the book?

I'm with you on the spiders. Or moths, I can't stand them.

Amat Libris said...

I didn't even know there was a movie!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776