Travelling back to 1984

“In moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against ones body.”

So as a bit of a cleanse from Atlas Shrugged I had a reread of 1984 (my birthyear coincidence or….). I haven’t read Orwell’s work since high school and it was actually pretty interesting to absorb the book as an adult and in such turbulent political times.

Summary

For such an intriguing and high impact book the plot is actually fairly simple:

Part One introduces us to Winston Smith, a relatively insightful but benign, presumably middle aged, man who explains the basic premise of the world: the telescreen monitoring, the various Ministries, how The Party manages language and history. Most importantly the existence of “thoughtcrime” and how everyone is at relentless risk of being detained by the ‘thoughtpolice.’ The main event of Part One is Winston deciding to start writing a diary – a major thoughtcrime in this world.

Part Two begins when a young woman that Winston originally thought was thoughtpolice, slips Winston a note stating that she “loves him.” Part Two largely details the pairs affair and efforts to evade detection as, you guessed it, affairs are not acceptable either. Part Two escalates up to an apparent reaching out from ‘O’Brien’ who Winston believes is a member of The Brotherhood a resistance group. However this positive change does not last long as both Winston and Julia are abruptly captured by the thoughtpolice.

Part Three, deals with the harrowing process of The Ministry of Love. Where we are effectively shown The Party’s method for breaking down a person and turning them into the ideal Citizen. We witness both the physical and psychological torture of Winston until he becomes a completely loyal and loving citizen of Big Brother.

Impact

I don’t really intend to capture all the impact this story has had, mostly because its sooo broad that it could possibly fill an entire book. Published in the era following WWII 1984 was largely seen as an anti-communist work, however has continued to be applied to many different political situations, sometimes used as a cautionary tale, sometimes used as a political insult/tool against various beliefs. I’m not sure if its always been a high-school fixture, but it seems to me like this book has and will be studied in school forever.

While typically the focus is on the political system and ramifications of Big Brother and The Party, there is also considerable depth in the book examining the impact of the system on individuals and also IMO the metaphoric links between The Party ideology and individual traits.

For this post I mostly wanted to discuss somewhat random bits and pieces of 1984 that stood out to me, and piqued my interest as I re-read it.

The Character of Winston Smith

When I first read 1984 I sort of interpreted Winston as a sort of ineffectual everyman, a somewhat perceptive but not particularly outstanding MC, really just someone to show us the world.

But on rereading I sensed something a little ‘off’ about Winston, while at a lot of his criticism of others could be seen as his general frustration at their acceptance of the world as it is, there is an air of arrogance about Winston. He often derides others intelligence, and he dehumanizes his workmates saying they look like bugs etc. He also recounts a strange story about his early years. Its very ambiguous but he tells a story about how he straight up steals chocolate from his baby sister, a baby sister that he realizes is starving.

Even though Winston is anti the dystopian world he is part of, and longs to be part of The Brotherhood that rebels against The Party he also takes pride in his work in the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites newspaper articles to fit with The Party’s desires.

I’m not sure if this is a bit of a stretch but I think part of the ‘lesson’ of 1984 isn’t just about the horrors of the controlling state, but also a character critique of Winston. Despite his ire about The Party he does ultimately fall to loving Big Brother. An initial brush might interpret this as simply being a statement that ultimately any individual will fall to horrible torture, however I wondered if part of the story is that Winston’s pride and judgement, his foolishness in running head-first into what he thinks is a legit rebellion. I think part of what Orwell is saying is that Winston is the ideal candidate for making Authoritarian Dictatorships thrive – sensible, but also cruel and judgemental, and at risk of selfish foolishness.

Unreliable Narration

Except not in the way usually presented. Something infinitely confusing is that we know that The Party rewrites history, and despite the story being called 1984 Winston realizes he doesn’t even know for sure it is 1984. As well as being a shocking example of the control of information The Party its also an statement of how even the whole book could be a piece of Party propaganda, the entire book meant to shock and terrify citizens into not defying the party.

More so than that something even more confusing to me is ‘the book.’ When Winston talks to O’Brien and believes himself to finally be joining The Brotherhood he is delivered ‘the book’ which explains the operation of The Party in a surprisingly detailed description of using War as an excuse to deprive citizens of resources, and the fact that the three mega-nations keep switching sides is that there is barely any unclaimed land left, and essentially a small part of Asia just keeps getting switched between the nations. The part of all of this that is confusing is that ‘the book’ is a work delivered by The Party to would-be rebels and one has no way to ascertain whether any of it is true or again more propaganda.

For my part I think that the whole thing is just more propaganda and at the time of the story the entire world is conquered by The Party or at least is an empire so wide-spread there is no actual war. On that note:

The War and Information

I never quite clicked when first reading that the whole control of information thing of The Party isn’t to deceive citizens into supporting and mythologizing The Party and Big Brother – its essentially to disorientate and power-play citizens, almost daring them to defy The Party. It always confused me that Winston seemed to be well aware of all the manipulations of the Ministry of Truth and everyone else seemed aware of it too.

This is most glaring in a sequence during ‘Hate Week’ when the nations at war literally changed in the middle of a speech – and not in a ‘a new announcement everyone we are now at war with Oceania’ the orator literally starts mumbling and then just changes to whichever nation they are at War with. Point being is the deception is almost absurdist, its not ‘cover ups’ or misinformation so much as destruction of information. This is reflected in the overall plan for ‘Newspeak’ which is effectively to destroy language to destroy individual thought.

In a similar vein, 1984 is often described as an ultra-controlling rule based society, but strangely there are almost no rules, simply ‘crimes’ (thoughtcrime is the most commonly cited, but also facecrime where you literally don’t have the right expression on your face) in fact the idea is not so much that there are endless rules, rather that The Party can accuse you of anything unorthodox, there is even a part where O’Brien criticizes Winston for using a couple of ‘Oldspeak’ words in an article rewrite, even though the dictionary that would have told Winston that wasn’t even published yet. It’s an intriguing paradox but actually common in authoritarian practices because obviously the idea isn’t to follow the ‘rules’ its to follow the ‘leader’ who can do whatever they like.

Who is this book criticizing anyway?

As a political insult being considered like 1984 is generally pretty bad. Funnily enough its typically been used as a criticism of leftist ideology either through being linked to Communist Regimes or (apologies for the rant) a very common attempt to link political correctness with thoughtcrime.

If you’re unfamiliar with this particularly annoying argument (it is a little old-fashioned now) but because a common progressive cause has been to remove offensive terminology, usually from various groups of people and use more acceptable terms, opponents often try to smear this by suggesting its thought control akin to 1984.

I would just like to take this chance to rebut this by pointing out that the purpose of inclusive language isn’t to manipulate thought (although bigots would feel this way because of their prejudiced thinking) but to remove harmful and disgraceful use of language. For example referring to indigenous peoples by the terms they identify with and not the labels that, usually colonists, gave them, is not an attempt to manipulate people’s thinking but to reduce the evidence based harm that labels cause (e.g. ‘othering’ people, promoting stereotypes, being used as slurs)

Back on track though – 1984 does have some heavy communist themes. The citizens call each other comrade, the lower classes are called ‘Proles’ the former society that is hated on in 1984 are referred to as the ‘capitalists’. That said there other themes and practices from other regimes that I think Orwell was riffing off. For example when mentioning capatalists, the propaganda does sound awfully true of highly classist society, people were stated in being required to tip their hat to the rich.

Also their are elements of 1984 which I think are critical of religious fundamentalism. When being tortured one of the key beliefs demanded of Winston is to believe that 2+2=5, also O’Brien tells Winston that if he wants Winston to believe O’Brien can levitate than O’Brien can. This sort of belief over reality seems almost fanatical religion to me than political.

The origin of The Party, Big Brother and such is also ambiguous, throughout the book Winston refers to invasion, revolution, and also implies that the country drifted into the state its in. ‘The Book’ suggests that Britain was absorbed into the USA either through conquest or necessity which kinda fits with the UK being renamed Airstrip One, but like everything in the book we’re unsure what to believe.

One final point in Orwell’s work is the strange nature of The Party itself. Rather than say Animal Farm where Orwell describes a situation where the ‘Pigs’ basically become ‘Human’ (e.g. that the rebel leaders effectively become the oppressors straight after rebelling against said oppressors) In 1984 The Party almost exists leaderlessly. It’s never fully revealed but the way O’Brien describes it The Party acts almost like a self-sustaining organism rather than political leadership. One almost has the sense that no-one is in charge and everyone just behaves in line with ‘NewSpeak’ and people are disappeared and everything just in line with a deranged natural selection.

There is an odd part in the book which supports this. Despite all the control and fake-news of the system there is an unusual sequence where Winston has to rewrite a prediction that The Party made about an impending invasion. According to Winston the prediction was wrong and thus the rewrite. Now, here’s what’s weird – the war and invasion are all probably fake anyway, so how did The Party make an inaccurate prediction? Either there is a genuine war going on and its unpredictable OR The Party is just a chaotic mass of people just as terrified and deluded about Big Brother as everyone else and its hard to act to keep stories straight – I’ll leave that one for you to decide.

Summing up

So 1984 remained a terrifying read especially in a “post-truth” world. It’s hard to say whether we really edge towards 1984 or some more concerning scenario but its worth studying up on this one. Personally I think that Orwell gathered all his worst nightmares and ideas about totalitarianism to craft 1984, I don’t actually think its a prediction or likely occurrence (but doesn’t mean a worse situation could arise).

Just to stir the plot further I have several questions that were not covered by the book that I would love anyone else to weigh in on:

  • Was Julia ever genuinely in love with Winston or just a trap from the start?
  • Does The Brotherhood even exist?
  • Whats scarier 1984, or Brave New World?

Anyways – would love to hear others thoughts on this classic!

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