1984 by George Orwell

Man reading `1984

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In the country of Oceania, Big Brother is always watching. Even the tiniest twitch in one’s face or a blink of recognition from one person to another is enough to condemn one as a traitor, a spy, or a thought-criminal. Winston Smith is a thought criminal. He is employed by The Party to destroy printed history and recreate it to suit The Party’s needs. He knows what he does is wrong. One day, he purchases a small diary, which he keeps hidden in his home. In this diary he writes down his thoughts about Big Brother, The Party, and the daily struggles he must go through just to appear “normal”.

Unfortunately, he takes a step too far and trusts the wrong person. He is soon arrested, tortured, and re-indoctrinated. He is released only after committing the deepest betrayal imaginable, his soul and spirit completely broken. How can there be hope in a world where even one’s children will spy against his parent? Where lovers will betray each other to save themselves? There is no hope—there is only Big Brother.

Winston Smith’s development over the course of the novel is brilliant. The mindset George Orwell must have been in—the steel he would have needed in his bones—to write about this one lone character’s struggle for individuality and independence, like a gnat battling against an ocean tide, is incredible. Winston’s slow-developing confidence, his minor decisions which move him closer and closer to large decisions, and the methodical way in which Orwell allows Winston to come to realizations and make choices are all very natural and thus very exciting to witness.

The minor characters as well, such as Winston’s mother (who appears only in memories) or O’Brien, one in possession of “the book” of rebellion, are crucial to understanding Winston and the dynamic between what is good and what is evil, what makes a person a person or an animal. 

Winston and Julia’s relationship and Julia herself are also imperative to the final resolution. Julia’s youth and dismissive attitude of Big Brother and The Party in contrast to Winston’s defiance of it show two interesting viewpoints—two hatreds of the power structure, but hatreds which developed for very different reasons (Julia has never known anything different, so hates it without any hope or understanding of things being different while Winston knows another time and so hates with a hope that Big Brother can be defeated). Julia’s use of sex as a form of rebellion is also fascinating, particularly in relation to Winston’s use of writing/journaling.

George Orwell was not just a great writer, but a masterful one. His writing is smart, creative, and thoughtful. His prose is almost cinematic—the words flow in such a way as to create flashes of images in one’s mind. He connects his reader to the story through the language. 

When moments are tense, the language and prose reflect it. When people are being secretive, deceptive, or easy-going, the style mirrors this. The language he creates for this universe, Newspeak, is incorporated naturally into the story in a way that makes it understandable but appropriately different, and the appendix which explains “The Principals of Newspeak”—its development, mutations, purpose, etc.—is genius. 

George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic and a “must-read” on nearly every literary list imaginable, and for good reason. Lord Acton once said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 1984 is the quest for power, in print. Big Brother is the symbol of absolute, near-omnipotent power. It is the figure-head or symbol for “The Party,” a group of humans completely obsessed with wielding unlimited power through the oppression of all other people. To gain control, The Party employs people to alter history, making Big Brother appear infallible and keeping people in a state of fear, where they must always doublethink rather than just "think." 

Orwell clearly held misgivings about the advent of electronic media and the potential for it to be misused or altered to suit the party in power’s needs. The premise is similar to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in that the primary themes are destruction of the self, blind loyalty to government and the law, and elimination of creative or independent thought in print. 

Orwell fully commits to his anti-utopian vision. The Party’s control and methods, crafted over decades, turn out to be resolute. Interestingly enough, the follow-through and lack of happy ending, though difficult to bear, is what makes 1984 such a stand-out novel: powerful, thought-provoking, and terrifyingly possible. It has inspired other popular works in the same vein, such as Lois Lowry's The Giver and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale