By George Orwell
1984 by George Orwell features only nearly every ‘Books to Read Before You Die’ list that I have ever seen, and for good reason.
Winston Smith is an employee in the Ministry of Truth in London. Every aspect of his life is dominated by fear of those in charge and when Big Brother is watching you at every moment he is afraid for good reason.
Then Winston falls in love with Julia and begins to question everything and to believe they can beat the system after all.
1984 by George Orwell features only nearly every ‘Books to Read Before You Die’ list that I have ever seen, and for good reason. I first read this chilling book when I was in school. I can remember an overwhelming feeling of dread throughout the book, I just knew it was leading somewhere very bad indeed.
This week I reread 1984 for the first time in 16 years and once again I was struck by the bleak reality of the reality created by Orwell, of the pervading sense of hopelessness. Everything about the book oozes with the futility of trying to resist. Even the ‘hero’ of the story is more of an anti-hero than anything else.
Winston Smith is an ordinary man, even his name tells us that he is nobody special, plain and commonplace. Winston as a character, is certainly not the obvious choice for a hero.
“Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle.”
Winston lives in a place called Victory mansions but everything about it is the antithesis of victory, in a world where almost everything contradicts expectations. Everything about the scene set by Orwell is bleak.
When he enters the building a swirl of grey dust follows him into the corridors which overwhelmingly smell of boiled cabbage. A building where the lift doesn’t work and on every corridor the occupants are watched over by a poster of the all-seeing big brother. The poster reminds them ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.’
1984 has one of the most memorable opening lines I have ever read. The reader notices immediately that something different but that something is almost imperceptible.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Another thing that highlights that something is off is the presence of ‘telescreens.’ They look like televisions that cannot be dimmed or switched off and provide a constant stream of propaganda. It is a device via which individuals can be spied on at any time without their knowledge.
“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it.. There was of course no way of knowing whether you being watched. “
As if the telescreens are not bad enough the citizens have to content an organisation called the Thought Police. The Thought Police are initially only mentioned in a vague sort of way but one that always hints at a massive sense of terror.
Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, one of the four ministries that make up the government. The Ministry of Peace deals primarily with matters of war, The Ministry of Truth deals with news, entertainment and the fine arts. The Ministry of Love deals with matters of law and order and the Ministry of Plenty deals with the economy.
The 3 slogans of the party are complete oxymorons. ‘WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.’ This highlights one of the eerie things about the world created by Orwell, the way those in authority, the way they control every single aspect of the society right down to the meaning of words. They twist them until they mean the complete opposite of what they should making them doubt everything they know or should know.
Initially, Winston is scared to question the system even in his own mind but then he meets Julia and before long he is openly questioning everything. Together they go to O’Brien, a man who Winston believes holds the key to the resistance.
1984 is a masterpiece simply because Orwell is able to make the reader doubt everything. Can he trust Julia? Is O’Brien friend or foe? Can Winston beat the system?
I think one of the reasons it stands out for me is that it was one of the first books I read where everything doesn’t turn out all right in the end, where there is no happily ever after.
After re-reading it I think one of the things I like about it the most is that it can be analysed from so many different angles: the role that class plays in the novel, the perception of women and the ways the novel compares to real life. Each time I read it I find something new to take away from it.
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