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Review: 1984

Review: 1984

Title: 1984
Author: George Orwell
Published: 1949
Length: 9 discs [audiobook]

My star rating: ★ ★ ★

Winston Smith is a low-level bureaucrat and a member of the Outer Party. He lives in London, which is now part of a vast superstate called Oceania. The Party, headed by the mysterious, mustachioed Josef Stalin Big Brother, has controlled Oceania for some thirty years, since the Atomic War and then the Revolution some time in the 1950s. Oceania is also at war with another superstate, Eurasia (Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia), and allied with the third, Eastasia. But Winston, who was born before the Revolution, has begun to doubt the Party line. He cannot properly engage in doublethink–the acceptance of two contradictory ideas or facts as true–as is expected of Party members, and he is dissatisfied with his mundane, controlled life. He has therefore doomed himself by committing thoughtcrime even before he writes:

DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER

As a political statement, I’d give 1984 4 out of 5 stars.

As a novel, I’d give it 3 out of 5.

As a work of science fiction, I’d give it 2 out of 5.

Therefore, while I’m sure you could argue that 1984 is greater than the sum of its parts, I’m giving this one three stars.

Fair warning, this may not be a very coherent review: I’ve spent a week on it, and I still can’t seem to articulate my thoughts very well. But here it is.

1984 is certainly an Important novel. Or rather, it has Important ideas behind it. It is well-written–a bit dry, perhaps–which may sound like a given. Perhaps it is fear-mongering; so be it. I’d rather have people be too paranoid about the government invading their privacy than have them ignore such things, especially in the era of smartphones.

I also think that 1984 requires some historical context. If I had read this before I went to college, most of it would have gone over my head. But Oceania is modeled after Stalin’s Soviet Union first and foremost (with a sprinkling of Nazi Germany): purges of political prisoners, forced labor camps, government surveillance, production quotas… Oceania does, of course, make the Soviets look like boy scouts, but nevertheless, Orwell did not come up with the basic building blocks of his negative utopia on his own.

Should you think that telescreens and microphones everywhere monitoring everyone’s movements and speech is a stretch–and in 2016, you shouldn’t–here’s a story my Soviet history professor liked to tell: one of his American friends in Russia was a marriage counselor, and he ended up meeting with couples in his car so that they could maintain confidentiality. Eventually, however, he found out that the Soviets had even bugged that. There was nowhere for them to go that would not almost certainly be monitored. And Stalin was very much Big Brother: people feared him, absolutely. But when he finally died, people also wept openly. They loved him, hated him, and feared him–all at once.

In 1984 (if it was 1984)

Orwell’s London is a bleak, grey, and hopeless place. It puts one in mind of the sort of shoddy apartment complexes that went up across the Soviet bloc: shabby and dreary.

But what makes the work Important is also what makes Winston’s world so terrifying. It is not enough to avoid saying or doing the wrong things. You can be arrested, tortured, and killed for merely thinking in the wrong way:

Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference. Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed–would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever.

And because “Big Brother is watching you” at all times, you must also control your facial expressions and all your interactions with other people. Love affairs are not permitted, even in–especially in–marriages.

I could go on, but most of the political ideas Orwell lays out in 1984 are fairly well-known and, though frightening, are fairly basic. Anti-totalitarian, anti-censorship, anti-government surveillance, etc. The most chilling concept to me was the Party’s control of the past (after all, asks O’Brien, where does the past exist? Is it tangible? Is it concrete?). “Who controls the past controls the future.” It’s all quite thought-provoking, and that is unquestionably a good thing.

We Are the Dead

The major characters are bland. That is, I know, intentional but it did have a rather negative effect on the story. Winston Smith is Everyman, a Party pawn, redeemed as a character only by his curiosity (such as it is) and his limited inner life. Readers are given tantalizing hints of the latter, namely concerning Winston’s mother and baby sister and the time before the Revolution. A few small things did endear him to me, such as his fascination for all things old. So yes, I rooted for Winston, but he never failed to disappoint. Most people would when put in his shoes, no doubt, but it did make him a rather frustrating as a protagonist.

Julia, his lover, is less compelling still. Not on the surface, perhaps. She risks her neck to tell Winston that she loves him. (You want to talk about instalove? THIS is instalove.) And when compared to the emotionally dead world she inhabits, Julia seems vivacious; she is as disdainful of the Party and as eager to rebel as Winston, but does so with her body. She is in it for her own satisfaction, however. Unlike Winston, she has no interest in the past or the future, nor is she concerned with the Party’s hypocrisy or cruelty. She has little patience for Winston when he reflects that they are both doomed, which is understandable enough. But all this–Julia’s rebelliousness and her apparent zest for life–cannot hide her utter lack of personality.

Inner Party member O’Brien wasn’t much of a character at all. He made for an excellent plot device, though. Winston’s unshakable, almost childlike trust in him–both heartfelt and totally unfounded–had me constantly questioning O’Brien’s role in the story. All that set-up for so little payoff. I’m still unsure if my confusion was what Orwell intended or not.

Again, I have no doubt that Orwell was making a point by peopling his story with such two-dimensional characters, people either so mindless or so fearful that they lost any real identity. Such are the people who inhabit this hopeless world. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that he could have spun a much more interesting tale if 1984 had been told from the point of view of the proles, the working-class people “beneath suspicion” of the party who still made love, sang, danced, had friends, went to Church–who still lived in spite of everything.

“I’m not literary, dear”

As a novel, 1984 is passable.  It was not meant to entertain so much as to alarm, and that’s fine; it was Orwell’s prerogative. That said, the narrative drags through the first two parts. Part One is devoted to what you could, I suppose, call world-building. Between Winston and Julia’s love affair and the interactions with O’Brien, the pace briefly picks up in Part Two…only to slow to a lull when Winston gets his hands on a forbidden book that merely elaborates on what the reader and Winston himself already know about Oceania. I thought this a clever, but also rather tedious, way of Orwell giving himself a purely political soapbox in his own novel. Unfortunately, The Book passages go on for a long time (thirty pages in the written text). I kind of forgot that I was even listening to a novel.

Part Three is unpleasant, to say the least. Everyone suffers–Winston, Julia, and readers–and it seems to go on forever. By this point in the novel, everything that was hinted at or suggested by the rest of the narrative is twisted or merely falls away. And after all that, Winston’s story just putters out and ends. I was hardly expecting any kind of happy ending, but I was expecting…more. There were endless plot threads that were left unaddressed.

But as a science fiction novel (which 1984 is, if only in small part)? Orwell left a lot to be desired.

Supposedly World War II was followed by the Atomic War in the late 1940s or early 1950s. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: while writing this in 1948, he couldn’t have known that such a war would have been totally cataclysmic. The nature of atomic weapons was still not fully understood. But if that war had been carried out on any kind of global scale, vast swaths of the earth would be uninhabitable, and Julia and Winston would (or at least should) not be meeting in “an almost-deserted stretch of country where an atomic bomb had fallen thirty years earlier.”

The sticking point for me, though, was the Thought Police. The concept is a solid and chilling one, but it was also vague and remained so. If Orwell was going to devote thirty pages to flat-out feeding his points and themes to his readers via the Book, couldn’t he have added something about the Thought Police?

How can they detect thoughts? How can they control thoughts? How can they control–or even implant, it isn’t clear which–dreams?  And how can they pull off plastic surgery so quickly, easily, thoroughly?

These may not be very important details, but they made for small enough plot holes that they were somewhat distracting.

Overall, I would call 1984 valuable–for its ideas–and very well-written, but not a very entertaining or wholly coherent or successful story. Certainly, if you’re just looking for a romp, you could read the myriad of YA dystopia novels that have sprung up since The Hunger Games, but I tend to prefer my novels with just a touch of hope (as in Fahrenheit 451, for example).

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