Classic of the Month: George Orwell’s 1984

Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, doublethink, 2 + 2 = 5, Room 101. I’d never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four until this month, but so many of its concepts and catchphrases were familiar to me; they’ve entered into popular culture to a remarkable extent. I found that the basics of the plot, and even the specifics of the horrifying climax, were already somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s how much of a household story this is. And, given the recent rise of authoritarian regimes, 1984 is back in style – if it ever went out.

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Published in 1949, just four years after Animal Farm, the novel imagines a post-Revolution future in which Oceania (England) is alternately at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. It’s a dystopian vision of bombing raids, public hangings and triumphant film reels of refugees drowning. Absolute loyalty to Big Brother and his Party and total hatred of dissidents are required. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth – an ironic name if ever there was one. His job is to doctor newspaper articles to ‘rectify’ the past. Scrutinized constantly by a telescreen, he ‘corrects’ the written record and burns the evidence in memory holes.

But Winston can’t forget that he once saw a photograph proving that several scapegoats who were executed were actually innocent, and ever since he has been unfaithful to the Party in his heart. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” He makes two bids for freedom: his thought life, as revealed in his diary, and (in Part II) an affair with Julia, a fellow rebel he meets in a rented room above a pawnbroker’s. They join the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein’s anti-Party movement, and read from his manifesto. Impossible to forget, though, that there’s a Part III to come, and their happy nonconformity is unlikely to survive the Thought Police’s vigilance.

A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.
A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel exactly. It was more a case of recognizing its cultural importance and prescience about perennial political trends. What I most liked was the irony of the Party’s rebranding: the Ministry of Love is the torture headquarters, for instance, and the propaganda is rife with oxymorons (“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”). I also appreciated Orwell’s efforts to humanize Winston via his memories of his mother and sister, his estranged wife, and his simple love of beauty – as when he buys a glass and coral paperweight on a whim. Reassuringly, the relationship with Julia isn’t just about sex but is an example of true love against the odds: when Winston tells her “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth,” she replies “I couldn’t care less.”

And yet there are parts of the book that are truly tedious, like the extracts from Goldstein’s manifesto and the appendix on Newspeak. Like many dystopians, this somewhat sacrifices story in the service of ideas. It certainly could have been cut by up to one-third. However, it’s still full of potent reminders like these about resisting misinformation:

I don’t imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime. But one can imagine little knots of resistance springing up here and there—small groups of people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave off.

At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. … We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.

If he [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

I found it rewarding to follow this with Margaret Atwood’s 2003 essay on Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the direct model for the feminist dystopia she started writing in the real 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale. She helped me realize something I hadn’t due to my eyes glazing over during the appendix: it’s in the past tense, looking back on a repressive government. In other words, she writes, “the regime has fallen … language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. … Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.” In homage, she ended The Handmaid’s Tale with a section set hundreds of years in the future, when Offred’s world is studied by academics.

That’s important to remember: one day our current situation, horrible as it might feel to live through, will be nothing but a brief chapter in the history books. It’s up to us, though, to help ensure that whatever succeeds it is much better.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Next month: I plan to choose a short classic from “The Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure; my options are The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë), The Rector’s Daughter (F.M. Mayor), and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), all of which I own. Let me know which would be your pick.

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17 thoughts on “Classic of the Month: George Orwell’s 1984

  1. I take your point about the Goldstein manifesto sections, but the appendix on Newspeak (which seem to suggest that Big Brother is no longer watching us) is really important in understanding Orwell’s ideas on language. I have often referred to it when arguing that there is no such thing as a true synonym, which happens more often than you would think!

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  2. Great post! Honest review! Love these classic reviews! Oh I would read the tenant of wildfel hall next – and then Sam baker’s modern reimagining called the woman who ran! Have always meant to read the rectors daughter…..

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    1. Thank you! I do think it’s time to read another Brontë book, and Anne is the one sister I’ve never read anything by. Samantha Ellis has a new nonfiction book out about Anne as well; I’d be keen to read that.

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  3. Great review Rebecca! I only read ‘1984’ for the first time a year or so back and felt I knew so much of it already from the cultural appropriation of so many phrases and concepts from the novel. It was good to finally see their original context although I was shocked at how utterly tedious I found the novel as a whole – yawn! However, I’m planning on reading ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin soon, which apparently inspired ‘1984’, and is meant to be brilliant!

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    1. Thanks, Sarah! I had trouble rating this one: my first instinct was 3 stars, but then I thought how can I give such an important book only 3 stars?! Like you, I found it pretty tedious in places, and had to set myself reading goals, even of just 15-20 pages a day, to try to get through it before the end of the month. Otherwise I would have picked up any number of the other, more exciting books I was reading at the time! More of a ‘glad to have read it’ than ‘enjoyed reading it’.

      I’d never heard of the Zamyatin; I’ll be interested to see what you think.

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  4. The comments about maintaining records and a small pool of sanity for the next generation reminds me a little of Fahrenheir 451: you know, the guys who each memorise one book and pass it on, so that literature can continue… It gives me chills to think about. And I had never considered Atwood’s idea about the past tense, but I like that a lot.

    (I also very much enjoy the Blackwell’s window: “PURCHASE UNOPTIONAL” is excellent.)

    Oh, read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall! Definitely.

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      1. Fahrenheit 451 is pretty great – probably better as a novel than 1984, since it’s more focused on a character’s development and there isn’t the same kind of info-dumping. Animal Farm is the sort of novel I think it should be illegal to teach children; it’s so utterly one-to-one in its allegory that it makes kids think books are boring.

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  5. I wish I could say that all the things Orwell ‘forecast’ in this novel never came about. But double speak is here to stay and is getting worse all the time now that we have this completely spurious idea of ‘fake news’.

    By the way did you know that Orwell originally set the novel in 1980 – then moved it to 1982 and at the third go, moved it out further to 1984 as a reflection apparently of the year in which the wrote the book.

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    1. You’re quite right: it’s startling how widespread ‘alternative facts’ can be. I didn’t know Orwell played around with the year. It’s funny to think we might all be talking about “1980” nowadays instead.

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  6. The connection between The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 is interesting. I hope to read 1984 someday, but now I’m thinking I might wait until it’s gone back out of style again. 🙂
    I vote for Anne Bronte!

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  7. I would love to hear your thoughts on Wildfell – my favourite Bronte novel – so I’m pleased to hear it’s moved to the bedside pile 🙂

    Thanks for this review first though. I resist dystopian novels, yet their profile flies high at the moment and I feel I should make an effort. Hence I’ll be re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale, which I didn’t enjoy first time around but I may find easier to appreciate now. The links you’ve highlighted between this and 1984 will be helpful – thank you 🙂 And perhaps I’ll push myself to try 1984 before too long!

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    1. I don’t naturally gravitate towards dystopian novels, but you’re right, they are increasingly popular and that doesn’t seem set to change any time soon. Atwood has written a number of interesting ones now, though they are not among my favourites of her books. The dystopians I’ve liked best so far have been The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber), Gold Fame Citrus (Claire Vaye Watkins), Speak (Louisa Hall) and Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel).

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