Ah yes, 1984. The stuff of nightmares. (And I've read Stephen King!) Book 13 on my list is this classic by Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell. Published in 1949, 1984 is as relevant as ever. Let's get into it.
1984 tells the story of Winston Smith, a member of the Party, living in the superstate Oceania. He works in the Ministry of Truth, ensuring that all historical facts always align with the Party's current propaganda. His life is ruled by the Party. Everywhere he goes, he is watched by telescreens, just like everyone else. No one is allowed any free time, or free thoughts. There is no escaping Big Brother's gaze. How very communist.
The story starts with Winston doing a little bit of thinking for himself, and of course, that's the beginning of his troubles.
Even though I already knew how this story ends (I'm sure most people do), it was still a great read that gave me a lot to think about.
1984 is famous for its depiction of the very communist Party and Big Brother, as well as for the concepts of the Thought Police and doublethink. I'd argue that these concepts are the most important in the novel, both for understanding the world Winston lives in and for driving the story.
The Thought Police are exactly what you think when you hear that term: the police of your thoughts. In the world of 1984, everyone must love the Party. But it's not enough to just act like you love the Party or agree with all of its propaganda. The Party wants you to really believe that everything they say is true, even when there is concrete evidence to the contrary. As such, the Thought Police monitor everything through omnipresent surveillance and the inculcation of children, who frequently turn in their parents for thoughtcrimes.
In the beginning of the story, Winston procures a diary and starts writing down his own thoughts about the Party and Big Brother. After he does this, he knows it's only a matter of time before he is arrested and probably executed. It might take a while, but he is certain of its inevitability. Even still, he continues writing in his diary.
The idea of the Thought Police is perhaps the most sinister aspect of 1984. It's downright terrifying knowing that you can never have a private thought. It's not like the Thought Police can literally read your mind, but because they watch everyone through the telescreens and because children often turn their parents in, they can very quickly ascertain who is thinking illegal thoughts.
The mind is man's last refuge. (I just thought of that.) Or maybe only refuge? In any case, the mind is a place of freedom. Here's a line from Winston's diary,
"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows."
And what goes on in our minds, from our deepest thoughts to our most precious memories, makes us who we are! So the idea of the Thought Police is not only scary because you can't have a private thought, but also because you basically can't be yourself! The Party doesn't want individuals. It wants to preserve itself, and it can only do that if the people really truly believe in its power and propaganda.
This is the world Winston lives in.
Doublethink is the idea of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously and accepting both of them completely.
The act of doublethink by all citizens is necessary for the Party to maintain its power. The Party is not infallible, nothing and nobody is. This is the main reason doublethink is necessary. For example, Oceania is always at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia. For many years the war will be with Eurasia and then all of sudden it will switch to Eastasia, and on and on. But when the switch occurs, the Party then proclaims that they've always been at war with that state. All historical documents must be re-written (that's where Winston works), and everyone must now believe that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, even though two seconds ago they were at war with Eurasia.
By the powers of doublethink and re-writing history, the Party makes itself seem infallible because everything it says and has said has always been true.
Of course, with such a firm grip on history, there is no reality other than what the Party proclaims. If the Party states that 500,000 boots were manufactured in the last quarter, for example, Winston, or someone else in the department, will get a notice telling him to destroy all newspaper articles that state that the Party predicted 400,000 boots would be made and write a new article, backdated, stating that the Party predicted 500,000 boots.
With this constant re-writing of history, the Party is never wrong. Even if you remember that they predicted 400,000 boots, by the process of doublethink, you must not remember that prediction and actually remember the prediction of 500,000.
This is how the Party keeps its power.
It's absolutely terrifying.
Strengths & Weaknesses
1984 is an amazing work of fiction. Orwell describes the world so well, from the philosophy of the Party to the physical details of the environment. And Winston's actions clearly drive the story forward. This is a well-written novel. And of course it really gets you thinking about the value of all the freedoms we take for granted in the Western world.
One thing I'm astounded by is how Orwell was able to write a story in which the protagonist loses. In the end, Winston is not executed, but due to the torture he endures at the hands of the Thought Police, he submits completely to the Party, to Big Brother. They break him, and they win. Of course, it couldn't have happened any other way. That's the point. But we certainly aren't used to such stories (until George R. R. Martin came along, of course.)
Similarly, there is still a story here, despite that fact that the Party is an omnipresent, omnipotent presence/character. In my own novel-writing endeavours, I too created an all-powerful character and found it near impossible to write the story in such a way that the protagonist's actions moved the story forward because I kept thinking, "Well, this all-powerful character is so powerful they would never allow this to happen." In 1984, that's just the thing. The Thought Police do allow Winston to make his own choices for a little while before arresting him. This is really the only way to deal with an all powerful character. You must give them a reason to allow what is happening to happen, otherwise, of course, there wouldn't be a story.
I'm not sure I can think of a weakness in 1984. Orwell tells the story very well, and even though we all know how it ends, I still wanted to turn the page and find out what happens to poor Winston. The set up certainly makes us feel for this character.
Let us all remember that 1984 should serve as a warning and not as a manual.
Up next, Red Planet!
Author: George Orwell
Publisher: Secker & Warburg
Quotations: Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin Books, 2008.