For most high school students across the United States, 1984 by George Orwell is assigned reading at some point in some English class or another. However, in smaller sized schools in more rural areas of the nation, English curricula tends to fall a little behind the rest of the country. As a possessor of a literature degree, it upsets me significantly to have been subjected to such a sad excuse for an English curriculum, losing out on the discussions of the greats like The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter (which I read by myself over Christmas break one year because I wanted to, actually). We read weird, unchallenging books like Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick and its sequel, every friggin’ S.E. Hinton book ever written—okay, so not really, but at the time it definitely felt like it—and, in a stunning case of delayed development, we read Lord of the Flies as seniors in high school.
That said, following the conclusion of my literature degree, I have decided that I cannot carry on being securely pretentious about my lit degree without having read a particular set of books considered Great American Classics. Or… maybe just books that are considered Required Reading to be an Informed Adult. Or… whatever. I don’t know. But I’m taking it upon myself to read books like 1984 and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, An Unbearable Lightness of Being, etc. Although some would argue that I’m only reading this stuff to insist that I’m pretentious, and they wouldn’t be 100% wrong, I am genuinely interested in the literature and feel like it will benefit my experience of humanity.
As an adult in 2015 reading 1984 there are things about the novel that strike me a bit differently than they might have struck me as a teenager in 2010 (for example). The book opens and is, for lack of a better word, eerie, as well as bleak. The book belies imagery of a flat, gray wasteland functioning as the remnants of London, wherein the government, the Party, has taken over all aspects of life.
While the Thought Police are certainly a frightening vision in a world wherein dissent is the force which propels us–it’s no secret that conflict is the only thing which causes growth. Change is an inherently messy, chaotic, sometimes/often painful process, and it does not happen without a fight of some size or another–perhaps what is the most terrifying notion (for me) at the open of this novel is Newspeak.
Newspeak is the in-novel “progression”—or rather regression—of language from the broad expanse of everything down to a very finite set of words which would so limit one’s ability to think that “thought crime” would become an impossibility simply by nature. If the Party limits one’s vocabulary to words that they’ve deemed “safe” or, at the very least, inane, then nobody can think anything they have not already allowed.
The main source of conflict for the protagonist, Winston Smith, is that he is too smart to buy into the propaganda. He remembers a time when they were not allied with Eastasia against the enemy Eurasia, when suddenly overnight the alliances switched and the people were asked to accept that the truth was, and had always been, as it was this minute. Furthermore, he enters into a sexual relationship with another government worker, Julia, which is strictly forbidden, and ends up on this journey to learn the truth about Big Brother and the dissent group that has been secretly undermining the Party for years, the Brotherhood.
As the novel progresses along, readers are left floundering for a notable change, for this ripple in the surface of the water to turn into some kind of tsunami-strength wave which will cause mass chaos and change, but that frustration mounts when that change never comes. Not only does it not come, but it is tossed on its head and the very motions of dissent are motions ensuring the continuation of the norm.
Winston is tortured until he is so thoroughly broken that he not only accepts what they tell him as truth, but decries Julia, begs for his torture to happen to her, and has no inner voice of dissent. It is gone. The Party wins. In the end, that is the most infuriating part of all: The Party wins.
Moreover, the book leaves readers feeling ultimately stranded and dissatisfied, as well as vaguely fearful of a thing they cannot name. Perhaps that was just me; I’m not sure. Nonetheless, the concept of being perpetually watched and tracked is one that isn’t difficult to imagine:
Smart phones are equipped with GPS tracking—and you are tracked even if you turn off your GPS because that’s what cell signal does—and there are cameras of every nature everywhere. You are requested to sign into places, you willingly check into locations on social media. We take pictures of ourselves and our friends and our surroundings and we continue to adopt all of these conveniences that further and further invade our privacies because they are, after all, ultimately convenient. Our devices know all of our passwords, have readings of our fingerprints, our secrets and schedules and networks. And not only have we allowed it, but we have welcomed it. These are not the only things.
The point is that 1984 seems scary because it is scary. It’s what the world can become if we allow it to do so. There are a lot of factors that play into these processions of fate, and they are arguable and fightable, and we are not there yet. Nor, I think, are we necessarily actually heading to the bleak wasteland depicted in 1984, although we are, in some manners, already living it.
It’s been months now, since I finished reading 1984, and my memory has grown foggy*, but I can tell you now that it has stuck with me and had an effect upon my perception of politics and reality. If you have not read it, do so. If you are not sure you are understanding it, use a reading guide available online to help you pick up subtext and implications. They are vast, and they are uncomfortable.
*I had forgotten that I was writing a review of this novel. Upon its completion, I decided I wasn’t going to do so because everybody and their mother has read this book and everything that could possibly be said about it already had been said. But nonetheless, we are here, and the draft was open.