Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review: 1984, by George Orwell

These days the popular dystopias are written for teenagers. With the exception of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the dystopias getting the most attention (and movie deals) are the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. These teen stories tend to focus much more on romance issues than they do on the larger social issues. Not that romance is irrelevant in a dystopia, but what should make it compelling is how such a romance is affected, or made dangerous by, the oppressive society the people live in. The Hunger Games only takes a shallow look at this, with poor Katniss moping over whether she should show more affection to Gale or Peeta. Despite being over 60 years old, George Orwell's 1984 manages to top the teen dystopias both in terms of social criticism and romance. It offers plenty of lessons not only for modern authors jumping into the genre, but also to modern society, as technology has advanced to the point of potentially making Orwell's warnings come true.

Where Suzanne Collins chooses her heroine, Katniss Everdeen, to have extraordinary athletic ability and Legolas-like skills with a bow and arrow, George Orwell provides his hero, Winston Smith, with varicose ulcers in his ankle. Winston has spent his adult life as a member of the Outer Party in London, in the nation of Oceania, which consists of the Americas and Britain. Under the watching eyes of Big Brother, Winston, like the rest of the party members, lives under constant fear that he will be accused of harboring thoughts against Big Brother. Telescreens keep an eye on citizens even in the comfort of their own homes. Thought Police detect rebellious thoughts by reading facial expressions. People often disappear without warning. Those who remain are left in terror.

Language itself has even undergone serious changes. This language is called Newspeak. Its purpose is to make speech more efficient by cutting out unnecessary words. Why have ten ways to say something is good when one will suffice? If you think your food is excellent, you would say it is plusgood or doubleplusgood. The purpose is to prevent thoughtcrime by eradicating the vocabulary required to think against the party. As one of the party mottoes goes, "Ignorance is Strength:" it is better that citizens are stupid in order that Big Brother stay in power. And as our government continues to make cuts to education spending, one must wonder whether some of our politicians haven't adopted this motto for themselves

Winston, as is required of heroes in the genre, despises the oppressive system he lives under. Nonetheless, he sees no choice but to continue to act as a tool of Big Brother in order to stay alive. He works in the Ministry of Truth, where, instead of truth, lies are told. And, ironically, Winston enjoys his work. He rewrites history to always make Big Brother look good. If Big Brother had made a prediction that turned out to be inaccurate, it's Winston's job to rewrite old articles so Big Brother was actually right. The ability to control history is a powerful one. One can turn the tide of opinion for or against a person by erasing a mistake or creating a narrative of horror. History, really, is only what is written and what is passed down, not what really happened. Nobody can go back and prove what really happened because the past no longer exists. It can easily be changed if everyone is convinced of an alternate version. Even in our internet era of surplus information, truth and fiction can easily become mixed up.

The novel's first third sets up much of the background on the society. It establishes characters, none of whom Winston is very close to. It's dangerous to be close friends with somebody because that person could just as easily turn you in. However, the novel turns to romance after the initial introductions, exciting romance because it is dangerous. It is also an adult romance. Winston and his love interest are physically attracted to one another, and they do more than just make out. Sex for pleasure is an act of rebellion in a world where scientists are working to abolish the orgasm. The portrayals of attraction in The Hunger Games are less realistic because they remove the element of sex. In its PG-13 world, the kiss is the major payoff. Humans have a biological need to act out on sexual urges, and in times of oppression that urge can become stronger because it is repressed.

While 1984 is certainly more for adults than The Hunger Games, it is, nonetheless, still widely taught in high schools. Part of me wonders whether its inclusion in the curriculum is due to a continuing influence of anti-communist thought from the Cold War era. It has some important ideas to consider, to be sure, and is very imaginative and frightening, but at the same time it's not particularly great writing. Orwell spends large chunks of time wading through dull ideology, much of it anti-communist, particularly as we read the sections from the book of Emanuel Goldstein, the leader of the rebellion against Big Brother. If Orwell had reduced or removed a lot of these passages, the book would be vastly improved. I'm also concerned by the way the book is taught in schools. It seems less importance is placed on the ideas in the book and more on minute details. When a test question asks how old Winston and Julia are, our literature education is sadly missing the mark.

1984 truly stands out in its feeling of hopelessness. In this world created by atomic destruction, power was taken by those who most wanted to hold onto it, at any cost. There's a sense that this lone man, Winston, can do nothing against such a power as Big Brother and the Thought Police. The reader has hope, to be sure, that he can. There's a belief that he can. Our culture perceives that the hero always wins. In movies, in books, in video games, the good guy wins the day, no matter how grim the situation. That's why 1984 is so terrifying. The best hero it can come up with is a man with varicose ulcers in his vein. As it begins to hurtle towards its conclusion the terror grows greater. While I do have some misgivings about the book, I can't help but admire the way Orwell mercilessly crushes our hopes. If society does go the way of 1984 (a big "if," admittedly), there's no guarantee somebody will be able rise up and do the right thing. That's what's frightening. The heroism of the individual is merely a myth.

1 comment:

  1. Finally read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Incredible vision George had. The book is darker than I expected for some reason, but a great story.
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