- Continuing my exploration of critically acclaimed books, this one the top entry on the list, ‘1984’ by George Orwell.
I approached this book with a great deal of trepidation. Not only is it number one on the list (deservedly so) but it’s a ‘classic’ that I felt I have to / ought to / must like, treasure, revere, etc. as so many people hold in such high regard. Whilst I hadn’t read any of the book before much of the story and the world Orwell creates is already known and treasured – Room 101, the Thought Police, Newspeak, Big Brother, and the grim future.
So what is it about 1984 that has endeared it to so many for so long? I can’t deny that the dystopian future Orwell constructs is depressingly fascinating. Reading about the absolute control and monitoring state of Oceania (one of three ‘states’ left in the world, the other being Eurasia and Eastasia, with which Oceania is reportedly at war with at some point or other in the book) and the main characters Winston, Julia, Goldstein (if he does indeed actually exist), O’Brian, and indeed Big Brother somehow makes it all the more real for me – we don’t have a huge mix of characters and sub-plots to content with.
Everything happening in Oceania and across its borders seems so far away and yet so close to the events in Winston’s life. From the dangerous memories and even more dangerous thoughts, the writing in the diary, the reckless actions he undertakes bit before and after meeting Julia in the wood. Everything is headed for a very bad end for Winston, and for Julia when she enters the story – the blissful joy and love they hold so dear, yet acknowledge as being so fleeting, and the abandonment of care and attention at trying to remain hidden and covert.
Their eventual capture is a shock, but not a surprise. The treatment of Winston is a shock, but again not a surprise – Orwell prepared us for it right from the first pages, and again many many times over throughout the book:
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
Orwell famously wrote the book in 1948 and reversed the year to make the title, and year of the story, to 1984. Writing as much about observations and fears of himself, friends, and the general public in the post-war 1940’s, times heavily influenced by the years of control by government forces, backed by military might.
“Nothing holds it together except an idea which is indestructible.”
For me this has been as much about the worrying turn of events and one possible direction our monitoring state could take, as well as the level of endurance each of us can undertake under trying circumstances. Winston is subjected to an alarming level of torture and conditioning, yet still retains something of himself, his rebellious thoughts. When he meets Julia again I was a little unsure as to whether it’d be enough to break his programming, perhaps it would have been if Julia had been her old self, but the feelings were still there, even if the passion wasn’t.
I can’t help but wonder if Julia was a set-up from the start? She’d had previous (illegal?) relationships, the nature of which weren’t fully explored or explained, but considering Winston’s original thoughts and worries it could be plausible? I’ve read a few reviews of 1984 which seem to peg the book as a love story, which I’m not so sure about – yes, the relationship between Winston and Julia is all-encompassing, their love is portrayed in a way that they understand what capture and torture will make them do, and they wholly expect to betray each other.
For me, however, this is ultimately a book about the powe of the self, about our individual strength and awareness. What would we do if we were living in a world controlled by a mythical Big Brother – would we bow down and survive or explore and rebel? It’s quite easy to say we’d do the latter, but would we if faced the Thought Police and certain torture / death?
Amazingly enough, as I was finishing 1984 I found this story reporting on a letter sent to George Orwell, congratulating him on the deserved success of his recently published 1984. From Aldous Huxley, the author of the 1931 classic, and listed 14th on my book list – Brave New World.
In the letter, Orwell’s old French teacher Huxley praises him on the dystopian future of 1984. What begins as a letter of praise soon becomes a brief comparison of the two novels, and an explanation as to why Huxley believes his own, earlier work to be a more realistic prediction. Well, he would, wouldn’t he!
I’m really looking forward to reading Huxley’s Brave New World now! But first I have to explain my failure at trying to read Heller’s Catch-22.
Held my interest: 7/10
Captured my imagination: 8/10
Worth reading: 8/10
Image souce: Silvision (CC BY 2.0)