Sunday, January 30, 2011


My Dad is an avid reader, and over the years I have become more and more interested in the books that he recommends. While I was in my teens, I tried to appreciate the books that he had convinced me to read, but it has just been in the last couple of years, as I have made my way into adulthood, that I have sought recommendations from him, and not only enjoyed the read, but also the long conversations that we share after the final page.

This week while looking for a book, I once again found myself asking my Dad for suggestions. He had mentioned the title 1984 several times, so I decided it was time to find out why he kept coming back to this book. 1984 is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life, the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language, and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell.

This is the story of the down trodden and destinctly average Winston Smith who lives in post war London. Set in an imaginary future world that is dominated by three perpetually warring totalitarian police states, we accompany Winston in his attempt at subversion, and are unwilling witnesses of what that attempt brings about. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth altering documents that contradict current government statements and opinions, but when Winston begins to remember the past that he has worked so hard to destroy, he begins to turn against The Party. He begins a relationship with a woman who works for the Government, and though boyish and brash, she is still an attractive and likable character who compliments Smiths innocence beautifully. Even his quiet, practically undetectable form of anarchism is dangerous in a world filled with thought police and the omnipresent two-way telescreen, the ensuing imprisonment, torture, and reeducation of Smith are intended not merely to break him physically or make him submit but to root out his independent mental existence and his spiritual dignity.

1984, George Orwell's final novel, was written amidst the anti-communist hysteria of the cold war. But unlike Orwell's other famous political satire, Animal Farm, this novel is filled with bleak cynicism and grim pessimism about the human race. Orwell made in this book many observations that are no more merely fiction, but already things that manage to reduce our freedom. This is a book that only gets better with the passing of time, as you can read in it more and more implications. One of Orwell's main reasons for writting this "negative utopia" might have been to warn his readers against communism, but many years after his death and the fall of communism with the Berlin Wall, we can also interpret it as a caution against the excessive power of mass media, data mining, and their harrowing consequence, as well as the immoderate power of any government, even those who don't defend communism.

Technological innovation should be at the service of men, and allow them to live better lives, but it can be used against them. 

The people of Oceania are in the process of stripping down the English language to its bones, creating Newspeak. One of the new words created is doublethink, the act of believing that two conflicting realities exist. Such as when Winston sees a photograph of a non-person, but must reason that that person does not, nor ever has, existed. Some inspiration for Winston's work may have come from Russia. Where Stalin's right-hand man, Trotzky was erased from all tangible records after his dissention from the party. And the fear of telescreens harks back to the days when Stasi bugs were hooked to every bedpost, phone line and light bulb in Eastern Europe.

Orwell has created characters and events that are scarily realistic. Winston's narration brings the reader inside his head, and sympathetic with the cause of the would-be-rebels. There are no clear answers in the book, and it's often the reader who has to decide what to believe. But despite a slightly unresolved plot, the book serves its purpose. Orwell wrote this book to raise questions; and the sort of questions he raised have no easy answer.

1984, is not a novel for the faint of heart. It is a gruesome, saddening portrait of humanity, with it's pitfalls garishly highlighted. Its historic importance has never been underestimated; and it's reemergence as a political warning for the 21st century makes it deserving of a second look. Winston's world of paranoia and inconsistent realities is an eloquently worded account of a future we thought we buried in our past; but in truth may be waiting just around the corner.