1984 by George Orwell Review and Book Notes
1984 by George Orwell
1984 is one of the most Influential Books of the 20th Century. A warning to the human race in which a society founded on hatred is created.
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
1984 was written mostly during 1948 by George Orwell set in a future in which a totalitarian state completely controls the lives of its subjects. The book went on the become a kind of touchstone with which to criticise totalitarian ideas on both right and left.
It’s immense influence is easy to show by reference to the number of terms it coins which have come into common use in the English language;
- Big Brother
- Thought Police
- Room 101
Orwell probably is responsible for the the term Cold War so he is a keen observer of post war politics and in many ways predicted the shape of the second half of the 20th century he is an important figure and the book 1984 is a key reason for this.
A child of the Empire Eric Arthur Blair was born in India in 1903. He attended Eton school, and was taught French by Aldous Huxley who would later write Brave New World. Instead of going up to University Orwell took a post with the Burma police, but after a few years Orwell broke from that path and returned to the UK.
He lived with the poor of Paris and London and wrote about his life there. When Down and Out in Paris and London was published Eric Blair adopted a pseudonym to spare his family embarrassment and George Orwell was born. He also started writing novels, Burmese days being the first of these.
Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy in 1936 the same year he went on to fight in the Spanish civil war and wrote Homage to Catalonia based on his experiences there.
At the beginning of WWII he is working for the BBC and starts writing for The Observer In 1943 he resigned from the BBC and by 1945 Animal Farm is published which along with 1984 is his best known work. But 1945 saw the death of his wife.
To start writing what would become the novel 1984 he left London went to stay in an abandoned farm house called Barnhill in Jura an island off the Scottish Coast.
Already ill, a single parent of his son in a place that was as far from luxury life as possible he wrote his dystopian book 1984. Published in 1949 it was not even a year old when Orwell died of Tuberculosis in 1950.
1984 A Short Summary
From the Film 1984 Michael Radford Version
1984 is split into three parts with an appendix
Part One introduces the world of 1984 to the reader through the eyes of Winston Smith the middle aged protagonist of the story. This part of the book is where most of the world building takes place and the set up for the rest of the book. Winston starts a diary.
Part Two sees Winston start an affair with Julia. The two talk about the state of the world they are in. Winston and Julia are drawn more and more into active opposition to the state. They join the Brotherhood and the rebellion against Big Brother.
Winston declares himself against Big Brother to O’Brien who invites him to a meeting and gives him THE BOOK which details the real history of Oceania. The end of part two includes a lengthy section from THE BOOK.
Part Three. Winston and Julia have been caught by the party and are taken to the Ministry of Love. Winston is tortured and brainwashed and broken completely in room 101. Later Winston is released as is Julia, he has a higher paying job with few responsibilities but is a broken man.
Appendix. A good test of the careful reader. The appendix sets out is some detail the structure of newspeak. It also implies its failure. Newspeak was not able to properly eliminate free thought after all, the example given at the very end of the book is The Declaration of Independence.
The Setting of 1984
Orwell stated writing the book thinking he would set it in the present day but thought better of this and projected it into the near future. Less than forty years in the future for someone just fresh from their war posting it presented the world that would be so to speak the ‘fruits of their labor’ the world they were about to build.
It has been widely praised and criticised as being both prescient or out of touch by different writers. The setting is interesting as it basically is post wartime London with barely any differences.
In this world war has never stopped and London remains in a kind of blitz-London frozen in time. Only the four new Ministry buildings are new impositions on the city. Everything in this world is rationed and badly made and things are only getting worse.
Technologically the advances made in the sense that everyone has a Telescreen which you can watch but that can also watch you and which you cannot turn off. The science-fiction aspect of the novel is only a means to an end a way to show with as little advance in technology as possible how a Totalitarian state could control its people.
This world constantly rewrites history and constantly is updating its new languages newspeak so as to actually remove the possibility of free thought from within language itself.
This project to become the complete totalitarian state is really the point of the world Winston Smith lives in. It’s not a book about the future at all really, its a possible world enabled in the future but perhaps always a present possible future, always a danger to freedom by a society built on hate.
George Orwell made no secret of the fact that his novel 1984 was not really about the future but about the very time he wrote it in, the bleak years after World War II when England shivered in poverty and hunger.
From the Film 1984 Michael Radford Version
I want to draw out a few themes I am interested in from the book. I don’t think its an exhaustive list but covers many of the key ideas in 1984.
There are no laws in 1984. Julia and Winston know that their affair is ‘illegal’ but the greater point that Orwell gets across so well is that in a totalitarian regime there really is no legal or illegal act. Only acts against or according to the party. There is nothing you can do that is legal no legal framework to hide behind, no system which sits above the actions of the party. This is the logical end point of the abuse of state power authoritarian regimes drift towards.
The Class struggle is present and the totalitarian state is the enforcer of it . Maybe its in a slightly different form from British colonialism, Russian Communism or Western Capitalism, but there it is.
Probably Orwell believed he would die while writing the book. It’s a supremely fatalistic book and the motif of death comes up again and again. A fascinating part of the book and worth a deeper look.
- Winston observes him and Julia are ‘already dead’ in this system he isn’t referring to their future but their present.
- When O’Brien asks them to join the Brotherhood he tells them
We are the dead.
When they are caught;
‘We are the dead,’ he said. ‘We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully. ‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them.
Most people draw a straight line from Orwell’s imminent death to that of the protagonists in the novel. This is probably true but it’s also worth looking a bit more.
A condemned prisoner is often called ‘dead man walking’. In WWII some army corps called themselves the walking dead. This is explained by the character Rick Grimes in the TV series The Walking Dead in which he obliquely explains the name of the tv series to everyone.
When I was a kid… I asked my grandpa once if he ever killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn’t answer. He said that was grown-up stuff. So… so I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. But he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped in to enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, rest in peace. Now get up and go to war. And then after a few years of pretending he was dead… he made it out alive. That’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then, we get to live. But no matter what we find in DC, I know we’ll be okay. Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves… that we are the walking dead. - Rick Grimes in episode Them
In 1984 both are true Julia and Winston in order to survive need to think of themselves as being dead. But it is a double edged sword, they are dead in their lives and about to face death from the party.
The three states Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are always at war with each other.
At different points the War is thought of in different ways. Winston thinks there is a War with Eurasia or Eastasia, but Julia thinks they aren’t at war at all, that Big Brother wants them to be at war so its staged .
The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought.
This is actually partially true, both are partially right. They find out from THE BOOK that War is continuous but cannot be won all sides are too big and too equal. They change alliances frequently hoping to take advantage of their deceptions but never can.
But this continuous war is desirable for big brother. Because war is continuous reality can be denied.
War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair.
The very word ‘war’, therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist.
This is why ‘War is Peace’ is literally true. A third form of war has been proposed. This is different from war or from the forgery of war even from the post wartime Cold War. It looks like a war and war is happening but its limited in its ability to effect any change in power.
Furthermore the state of war is desirous by the dictatorships as it keeps their populations down and consumes production that would otherwise enrich people. It’s a sort of ‘unwar’ a war not to decide a winner but to evade equality.
Its not really a theme in the book but as an architect I thought I’d quickly cover it. Only music and poetry really make an appearance in the book and that is often for plot reasons, or foreshadowing. I think with newspeak and the destruction of books and free thought, there is the implied destruction of all art forms. Architecture if we define it like this…;
Architecture is not the buildings themselves but rather a comparison of buildings, their criteria, their meaning and of their culture in the context of the building. -ref
…is basically dead in Oceania. The only new buildings are the Ministries which are huge tower blocks dominating the broken city;
The Ministry of Truth contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below. Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously.
There is no reality outside of the One Big Brother has created
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’
From the Film 1984 Michael Radford Version
1984 has problems with pacing - for instance the book plot is entirely paused while you must read a long tract from Goldsteins’ BOOK about the real history of Oceania.
1984 problems with plot - the whole book has the feeling of the inevitable for both main protagonists. There really is no chink of light. Even with the introduction into The Brotherhood there is a warning there is nothing but death ahead.
But this book is more an apocryphal story, not a very exciting or well structured novel, rather a theory about power and its abuse which has been mostly novelised.
All three surviving superstates in the book appear to be evolved from Communism. Where is the criticism of the Fascist states that the West went to war with only a few years before the book was published? I think that is a fair question but also fairly easily answered. The fascists had been roundly defeated, their war crimes now widely known it probably seemed then that fascism was vanquished. The threat at that time was from the left. But Totalitarian states arise from extreme right and left positions, Orwell was really clear about it at the time;
“My novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.- Letter to F. A. Henson, l6 June 1949. _CEJL,_Vol 4, p. 564, via)
The world has changed but its also very clear from a few passages in the book it was meant as a criticism of all totalitarianism. O’Brien states when he is torturing Winston that the Nazis and Communists were the same…inferior versions of Big Brother.
Another criticism is that its anglocentric. Oceania seems a little too English although it’s a third of the world. Again the quote above shows Orwell planned the setting in the allied camp to show these dangers were universal, not just to countries that had previously succumbed to totalitarianism.
The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.
The Book appear to end with Winston and Julia utterly broken by the system, a metaphor for the utter defeat of freedom even for love. But the appendix hides a happy end or perhaps just hints at one. Hiding in the appendix we learn that newspeak failed to translate the old texts. Perhaps its Orwell’s belief that these things are so deep they can’t be excised in any language completely and that there will always be a spark which will oppose hate.
Rereading this book made me appreciate it again in new ways. As a novel its flawed, it doesn’t exactly help that its not very exciting and its plot is really linear. But the prose is well written and edited, Orwell is a naturally gifted writer, and as an illustration of a sort of totalitarian mindset it’s a brilliant exposition.
- Check Umberto Ecos essay Ur-Fascism and the fourteen features of fascism. Ur-Fascism are well worth a read.