It was inevitable. We had to cover George Orwell’s 1984. Not only because we discussed Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World two months ago, but also because it seems that you can’t have a proper analysis of one without mentioning the other. Why is that?
Both novels were published following a great world war and just before another conflict engulfed the world. Huxley presented his vision of the future a decade after the end of WWI and soon after the Great Depression. I believe it’s only natural that Brave New World focuses on a consumerist world, where there’s an abundance of clothes and food; entertainment and pleasure are society’s prime concern; and diseases and death are a myth.
On the other hand, Orwell published his work a few years after the end of WWII and at the precipice of the Cold War. Gradually, the conflict of the day shifted from Nazis vs. Communists to capitalists vs communists. Thus, communists being the prevailing power, one could not help but wonder if communism had remained the status quo, what would the future have looked like.
In the short span of 50 years, the world had been through two World Wars, as well as other significant economic and political crises with lasting effects. As a result, people had to adapt rather quickly. Part of the process is to predict and prepare for any potential difficulties. I think this is one of the reasons for the rise and subsequent popularity of the dystopian genre.
The Need for Prophets
I’ve found that dystopian literature is some form of mental gymnastics. More specifically, an attempt to fight against all perceived current and future dangers, which may have significant consequences to our way of living or to our lives.
Some are very good at this sort of mental gymnastics, others barely cope. But there are those who become overwhelmed by everyday life and eventually succumb to the pressure – the pandemic is the most recent example.
You have probably heard the saying:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.– George Santayana
That’s why in times of great turmoil, people usually turn to past knowledge or embark on the search for the one who seems to make sense of what’s going on at the moment. Be it academic, religious or fictional literature, many go in search of explanations and prophetic predictions. Any similarities with real-life events are suddenly scrutinised, magnified and usually distorted to fit ongoing events, until the next Prophet of the Day has been found. Afterwards, it’s very easy to fall into the rabbit whole and relinquish your freedoms in the hope of achieving security.
But what happens when that knowledge is distorted to serve the present needs of a select group of people?
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”George Orwell, 1984
These words sound very ominous, but when you start to unpack them they become even more uncomfortable and mortifying. How can you control the past, the present and the future? I remember my high school history teacher always liked to point out that history was predominantly shaped (and told) by the victors. Therefore, whenever someone speaks about past or current events, you need to take into account their perspective.
In the case of 1984, the Party is the beginning and the end. They control your life from birth to death; they set your expectations, they tell you when to work, when to exercise, when to love, when to hate; they even predict when you will go against them and set you up to atone for your sins against the Party. A very grim form of existence indeed.
You may be asking yourself how that relates to real life? After all, the Cold War ended a few decades ago, the USSR has crumbled into smaller pseudo democracies and more people are seemingly enjoying a better life.
While this may be the truth for many, the Cold War was the catalyst of scientific proliferation. Multiple discoveries and innovations, which are widely used today, have eventually become double-edged swords.
With the rise of mass surveillance (telescreens), cancel culture (vaporisation), televised war conflicts and political scandals (hate week), trying to fit into a normal middle class life (not straying from Party standards) and the production of myriads of reality and entertainment shows (the life of a prole), you don’t actually need a totalitarian regime for these social constructs to exist.
You may be wondering what the words in the brackets mean, but rest assured these are only the 1984 terms for the mentioned concepts beforehand. And actually, many of the terms used in the book have become commonplace words in the following decades. Take telescreens for example. These are screen devices, which transmit information both ways. So, instead of just you watching the television screen, it also watches you. Nowadays, you have CCTV cameras and your phone applications doing that for you.
As mentioned in Goldstein’s book (a very revolutionary and very illegal piece of fictional work in the 1984 world), it is easier to control large masses of people when you instill a sense of urgency and demise outside the borders of your area of control. Whether it’s a virus, a terrorist attack or a cyber threat, people usually get more willing to discard their freedoms before taking time to access the situation and model their own solution to the problem. Moreover, if you focus people’s minds across the border, there won’t be any time for civil unrest.
A very recent example that comes to mind are the massive anti-government protests in Sofia, Bulgaria, which spawned soon after the first national lockdown. The pace of everything slowed down because people were locked away at home. Many of my friends had the chance to sit down, rethink their way of life and make the changes they’ve always wanted to make or pursue life-long dreams. Some of us even took part in the above-mentioned protests.
I decided to let Vel speak more about the book because I was the one who suggested it. Needless to say, 1984 is one of my all-time favourites and I had a blast revisiting it ten years later. I am one of those fans with a “mad glint in their eyes”, as Vel described them.
I wholeheartedly recommend the book because it is a great political analysis of the fears and expectations of people in the last few decades. Orwell’s observations are thought-provoking and are as valid as they were decades ago. Regardless of your political affiliation, I think it’s better to engage in this sort of mental gymnastics at one’s own leisure and when times are rather peaceful.
Finally, I would like to once again recommend Steve Parker’s dramatisation of 1984. He has issued two versions – one with sound effects and another without. I listened to the first one and it felt like watching a film, only without the visuals. Very masterfully done and it fully conveys the magic of the story.
George Orwell’s 1984 is one of those books everyone recommends, and is towards the top of any “read before you die” lists. It has served as the inspiration for so many other types of literature, films and music. Many would tell me how this is their favourite book with a mad glint in their eyes, and soon after making that statement they would start to debate how close we are to achieving this particular version of a dystopian future – as if having read the book gives them an advantage into surviving, or even excelling, at this version of the slow and steady decline of the human race. The term “dystopia” is also linked in my mind with notions like “depressing” and “difficult”, and as a one of the foundational titles in the genre, 1984 just has to be extra “depressing” and “difficult” (right?), so until now I have mostly ignored it on my bookshelf.
I am glad I overcame this, with the aid of this year’s reading challenge, as I found 1984 neither depressing, nor difficult to read. In fact, it was an absolute pleasure to read something so well thought out and so wonderfully written. It was exactly the style of writing I enjoy reading – rich and evocative, but without repetitiveness or fluffing up of unnecessary details. Minor spoiler alert – the book does not have a happy ending, and yet I am feeling strangely calm and even optimistic about the whole thing. I’d like to discuss some of the themes in the book which made a big impact on me, without giving away much of the story, not only to avoid further spoilers, but also because the plot itself wasn’t the most valuable or engaging thing for me.
Language and it’s changes
One of the recurring themes in the book is the use and change of language. A new way of speaking and writing is introduced in the book – brief, with hardly any punctuation, with severe cuts on adjectives and adverbs, and with fewer verbs and nouns as well. It’s called “Newspeak”. Its introduction seemed entirely pointless to me – it was quirky, and seemed more like a fad, as I couldn’t appreciate its purpose. So many people were employed in the enforcement of its usage – compiling dictionaries, arguing semantics in punctuation, rewriting existing literature, etc – and for what? The answer became apparent to me in stages, or “by degrees”, if you will.
On one hand, complete thought control is achieved in a subtle and gradual way – the richness and vibrancy of a language is used to express the emotions, thoughts and opinions of the wielder of the language, so the more words in all their nuances one has at one’s disposal, the more articulately one can define and share their thoughts. When one can only choose between “good” and “ungood” to describe one’s feelings towards an idea or a concept, there is very little one can elaborate even in one’s own head. It’s not that people are less literate in 1984, it’s that the language they work with is deliberately dumbed down so that complex ideologies and desires are made quite impossible to think of.
On the other hand, the rewriting of historical sources into newspeak eradicates any possible sources of “oldspeak” to enter a child’s vocabulary. The Party is not seeking to suddenly overwhelm or instantly convert one’s soul – the Party is in for the long game, by gradually and systematically turning the very language its members speak into something so washed down and vague that rebellion and confrontation become impossible notions, perhaps not for the current generation, but for the ones to follow.
The stark difference between “newspeak” and the language which Orwell writes in demonstrates in practice how much needs to be lost for humanity to reach that point of mental helplessness. Orwell’s position on this is quite clear, really, either through Winston’s thoughts or through the narration itself – it is clear the author himself feels the degradation of language as a whole very deeply and personally. I wonder what he might have to say about modern text speak and emojis. Though text speak evolved through the 100-250 char limitations on old SMS and Twitter, they are firmly established in the vocabulary of any child now, and I will lie if I say I don’t finish most of my texts with “lol” rather than a full stop.
The better “now”
Another overarching theme in the book which is revisited multiple times throughout the book is that of the statistics shared with the common Party members on how much better this year, this month, or this year have been compared to a set of expectations as well as to the previous year, month or week. Who sets up the expectations? The Party. Who announces the statistics? The Party. Who measures the statistics, who double checks them, who keeps records of them? Yes, the Party does. The Party knows very well that the people as a whole have a desire to live well, and not just that, but to live better than they used to. This is an instinct – to make sure you have better food, better shelter, better opportunities one is always on the lookout for improvements. And the Party delivers in bunches – so many more shoelaces were produced, or kettles, or boots or anything else.
Winston, as well as anyone reading, wonders if that is really the truth – after all no one has been able to procure a shaving razor in quite a few months now, the black market is well overall and even thriving. But one can never prove any deficit of goods, after all the Party says there are such a number of boots, they have taken the statistics, and keep the records, there can be no argument made against the Party. Winston makes sure of that, by the minute amendment of any newspaper to have come out so the past is at all times correct with the present and the present is made by those who control the past.
The class divide
The final theme I’d like to briefly discuss here is that of the class divide. It was very curious to me as to how Orwell will handle this – we’ve already commented on the genetic modifications of the Deltas in Brave New World, of the Degenerators in The Slynx, and will be writing about the sexual divide in The Handmaid’s Tale in a couple of months, so who supports the system in 1984? The proles. The inner party members are the elite, the aristocracy on this new system, the outer party members, like Winston, are the bureaucrats, the propaganda machine – educated and on Party payroll, and the bottom tier are the countless masses who breed and work in factories to achieve the aforementioned statistics of over abundance of shoelaces and boots. But rather than taxing them to revolt, or restricting them in any way like previous dictatorships have, the Party has wisened – so long as the proles are left to their own devices – work, drink, play the lottery, have unprotected sex resulting in as many pregnancies as possible, the proles will be in a state of intellectual slumber. Winston remarks very early on that the proles are the only ones who could ever challenge the rule of the party, but so long as they are kept in a content state – not outright oppressed, but severely limited in opportunities they will never wake up to know their power or their unjust position in society and revolt.
At every turn, the party which seems clumsy, silly and random is always one step ahead. It is the purpose of the Party to appear slow and dull, too – so people like Julia have an outlet of their anger and frustration, without really damaging the overall structure.
I definitely felt like I was reading about an elaborate social and ideological machine designed by a mastermind, or perhaps several masterminds, the inner workings of which was slowly unveiled before me. There were some points at which I even thought our modern capitalism was benign. Needless to say, 1984 was very thought provoking for me, and Nelly and I have since had multiple discussions around it. I would definitely recommend it as the next book you pick up, and will certainly place it very high in a “must read before you die” list. Perhaps as I write this article, I have a mad glint in my eyes due to knowing an additional possibility of how the world – as it is worth living – comes to an end, though I sincerely doubt this gives me any advantages when it comes to surviving it. I feel there will be a lot of value in rereading this book in later years to see how much my understanding of it has changed, but also to use it as a yardstick to see how further down on the path of destruction of the human soul we’ve gone. We already have text speak, telescreens in our pockets, unconfirmable statistics, and a number of outlets for our rage, which far from ruin the established social structure. 1984 is an almost positive read, I promise.