George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four

I finally did it!  After seeing that I could order one of the new Penguin Modern Classics editions from The Book Depository (free international shipping) for even cheaper (despite exchange rate) than I could on Amazon (free two-day shipping for Prime Members; highly recommended), I finally possess what I’ve been pining for.  I have been envious of all of you in the UK who can just go to a bookstore and browse through these editions.  Browsing is even a pain online since Penguin doesn’t appear to have all of these titles in one spot.  (You’d think there’d be some small bookstore in Manhattan that imports these book for sell, wouldn’t you?  Everything else is available there.  Anyone know?)

I bought Nineteen Eight-Four (1949) (1984 in many American editions, and for all of you googlers) because my wife chose it for a family bookclub read.  We had read it before, me something like fifteen years ago, and I didn’t think it would live up to my fading memories.  I thought it might be dated, better suited to the typical highschool reader than to readers of modern and contemporary fiction.  I thought the book would be heavy-handed, basing my opinion on one of the heaviest images from the book: Big Brother’s face on the telescreens.  I also thought that, like many futuristic tales from then (and now) the image of the world of the future would be annoyingly populated with tacky technology.  After all, most depictions of futuristic technology holds on to contemporary form and changes the technology; thus you get a television that looks just like a 1950s television but now it serves you dinner.  Typically, the technology remains basically the same while the form changes around it (telephones, mobile phones, cars, airplanes, televisions, etc.).  But I was very wrong about all of my preconceptions preceeding my second time reading it.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is much subtler and undertoned than I thought, and I enjoyed it as if reading it for the first time.

1984-for-blog

Apparently, more Britons lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four than any other book, even The Bible (here’s the article).  I think part of the reason for this is that one hears so many references to the book that one feels they have read it.  Big Brother, telescreens, crimethought, doublespeak, newspeak, “abolish the orgasm,” are all parts of the book so ingrained in contemporary dialogue that, for many, actually reading the book might appear redundant. 

Most people also know about the basic way the government controlled members of its party: fear brought on by totally invasive government that punishes any appearance of dissent. 

You had to live—did live, from habbit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.

Winston Smith, our protagonist, has lived in fear for years.  What if you talk in your sleep?  What if your eyebrow gives away a bit of your hesitation to accept a blatant lie?  At forty he’s just old enough to vaguely remember a life before the Revolution that put Big Brother and the Party in power.  This has caused him to always have the feeling that life could be better, despite propoganda stating otherwise.  As the book begins, Winston is committing high treason, and he knows if he is caught he will be killed—truly, he knows he will be caught and killed, just not when.  He has purchased a pen and paper and has commenced writing in a journal.  That alone is a death sentence.  Independent thought is not tolerated.  To make matters worse, however, Winston has written DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER! 

Basically, Winston is giving up.  He has hope that awareness of a better time would stick in posterity, but he feels powerless to do anything in his time.  Then he meets Julia one of the most actively involved Party members, devoting plenty of time to such endeavors as the Junior Anti-Sex League.  Julia is fifteen or so years younger than Winston, but she was born when the Party was already in power, actively working to rewrite history so its members could have no past with which to compare the present.  The Party has not succeeded in stamping out her natural desires.  She and Winston commence a secret affair, giving Winston a bit more of a desire to live and a bit more of a desire to expose the Party.

So the plot is exciting and definitely what I remember best from my first read.  This time, however, all the rest stood out to me.  I have always admired Orwell’s ability with the essay; “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” are two of my favorites.  I thoroughly enjoyed some of the more essayish segments of Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Orwell seeks to describe the Party structure and its ideology:

In the Middle Ages there was the Inquisition.  It was a failure.  It set out to eradicate heresy, and ended up by perpetuating it.  For every heretic it burned at the stake, thousands of others rose up.  Why was that?  Because the Inquisition killed its enemies in the open, and killed them while they were unrepentant: in fact, it killed the because they were unrepentant.  Men were dying because they would not abandon their true beleifs.  Naturally all the glory belonged to the victim and all the shame to the Inquisitor who burned him.  There were the German Nazis and the Russian Communists.  The Russians persecuted heresy more cruelly than the Inquisition had done.  And they imagined that they had learned from the mistakes of the past; they knew, at any rate, that one must not make martyrs.  Before they exposed their victims to public trial, they deliberately set themselves down to destroy their dignity.  They wore them down by torture and solitude until they were despicable, cringing wretches, confessing whatever was put into their mouths, covering themselves with abuse, accusing and sheltering behind one another, whimpering for mercy.  And yet after only a few years the same thing happened over again.  The dead men had become martyrs and their degredation was forgotten.  Once again, why was it?  In the first place, because the confessions the they had made were obviously extorted and untrue.  We do not make mistakes of that kind.  All the confessions that are uttered here are true.  We make them true.  And above all we do not allow the dead to rise up against us.  You must stop imaging that posterity will vindicate you, Winston.  Posterity will never hear of you.

And this great bit of play:

But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.  The command of the old despotism was “Thou shalt not”.  The command of the totalitarians was “Thou shalt”.  Our command is “Thou art“. 

It might sound strange that my absolute favorite part of this book was the appendix where Orwell, in essay form, explains Newspeak, the language of the Party, the language to do away with English within a century.  Though exaggerated, Orwell’s insights into rhetoric are fantastic as he discusses how the Party seeks to control human thought by reducing the ability to express thought under the guise of reducing linguistic baggage.  Do away with all synonyms.  Do away with all opposites: to say the opposite of “good,” “ungood” is just as good—no, even better—than “bad.” 

Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive.  Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

. . . .

In Newspeak it was seldom possible to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical: beyond that point the necessary words were non-existent.

In the negative, Orwell’s appendix provides an excellent love letter to language—its variety, its movement, even its baggage.  Though I’ve read and reread Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” time and again, I did not know this little fictional gem of an essay existed.  Did I even read it fifteen years ago? 

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the main text and in the appendix, Orwell has provided us with a framework and a language we can use to discuss political and rhetorical phenonema that happen all around.  And the book succeeds, then, in using the framework and language to delve into human nature.  Is it possible to use language to change and control an individual?  This is the book’s true value, and Orwell’s fluid writing makes the lessons go down easy and with pleasure.  Thankfully, though I may have been a lowly prole the fist time I read this novel, I’m proud to think that this time through might I might have developed intellectually enough to prove a legitimate threat to the Party.

28 thoughts on “George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four

  1. _lethe_ says:

    Although I love the main text, my favourite part is the appendix as well. I have always been very interested in language and the idea that (and how) it shapes the way we think is fascinating.

  2. Mrs. Berrett says:

    and I didn’t think it would live up to my fading memories. I thought it might be dated, better suited to the typical highschool reader than to readers of modern and contemporary fiction. I thought the book would be heavy-handed, basing my opinion on one of the heaviest images from the book: Big Brother’s face on the telescreens. I also thought that, like many futuristic tales from then (and now) the image of the world of the future would be annoyingly populated with tacky technology.

    Glad to see you have such faith in my book choices. Even after I promised you your high school reading experience was too premature! Gracious Trevor! I believe you owe me an apology! Preferably the children’s book “Iggy Peck, Architect.”

    I’m proud to think that this time through might I might have developed intellectually enough to prove a legitimate threat to the Party.

    Maybe I’m a legitimate target of the mafia as well.

  3. Trevor says:

    Some of you might remember that I used to do an “After You Read the Book” segment on my posts. I don’t do that anymore, partly because no one ever responded, and partly because it was often difficult to write that segment.

    But here I have an “After You Read the Book” question. So beware of spoilers!

    I’m not sure I followed Winston’s emotional conversion to the Party in the very last section. Why did he suddenly love Big Brother? He’s been released, he is completely a nonissue for the Party now, and moments ago he was following the newscast hoping somehow that the Party would lose the battle in the war. But they won (as they have done many many times), and he changes. I love the ending, but I just didn’t catch the implication here. True freedom is to die hating the Party. So what happens here to change Winston?

  4. Boy I’m doing a lot of commenting today. As you might have guessed, it means that the book I’ve just started is not very good (hence, I won’t say what it is) and I am guilty of “reader avoidance” behavior.

    Anyway, here is a layman’s comment on your Penguin Modern Classics issue.

    Penguin has Classics series in the U.K., U.S. and Canada (there might be one in Australia too — I haven’t checked). As you grumpily note, they are all catalogued separately. While the majority of titles are in all three series, some titles are only in one or two — hence the need for country-specific catalogues.

    The reason is copyright. A quick scan suggests that Orwell’s 1984 (note American title style) is a Plume publication in the United States. While Plume is a Penguin imprint, I’m pretty certain there is no way the U.S. Classics publisher could head down the hall or across town and grab the title — to sell at a lower cost. I think all of the Canadian titles are part of the U.S. series but some don’t make the U.K. as copyrights belong to other publishers.

    We buyers in Canada, get a mix of all three when we order a Penguin Classic. The Bellow titles, for example, that have been reissued in the new U.K. covers come in that form. Most titles are from the U.S. series. And then there are the Canadian titles that we export to the other two.

    Because the U.S. market is so big, my layman’s guess would be that Penguin Classics U.S. management wants no part of a re-branding exercise that would involve hundreds of titles from a well-established brand (one actually wonders why the Brits decided to re-brand — and maybe if it works there, the U.S. rebranding will occur). So you (and I) will probably have to live with what we’ve got in bookstore purchases.

    As for a Manhattan bookshop carrying the British new cover titles you like so much, I doubt that one exists. For those books published in a different version by Penguin U.S., you would be shipping exactly the same book across the ocean, just for a different cover. Those not available in the U.S. couldn’t be bought from Penguin (they would be hearing about copyright issues from their competitors) so the bookseller would have to find some other source, thus paying close to RRP even before shipping.

    All of which means that you’ll have to indulge your tastes in the manner that you have with Nineteen Eighty-Four. Given the fact that by definition these are classics (and hence you should know about them — or at least be able to do your own research) and the Book Depository’s record on price and service, it is a relatively minor hardship to order from them online and await the package delivery.

  5. Trevor says:

    I guess my main concern is that there are many titles reissued in the UK (like Sam Selvon) that I wouldn’t know about were it not for my interest in Penguin Modern Classics.

    Also, I’m interested in how long ago Penguin rebranded their books in the U.S. When I was in college, I think most Penguin Classics were in that pale green-blue spine (which I didn’t like), and now they are mostly black spine with orange author’s name and white title. I like the new one much more, but not quite as much as the UK line. It’ll be interesting to see the next line of Penguin style. I love their work and consider them a service enterprise.

    I hope your book gets more interesting!

  6. I have some of the same issues, although I do find the blogging world sends me off on enough tracks to keep the TBR pile stacked quite high. I also suspect you have more problems with this in the States than I do — when most of these older but still modern titles were published, Canada was just an automatic add-on, so I have fewer copyright issues except with books first published here and the two links in my essay pretty much capture all of them.

    I do occasionally spend an hour or two just bouncing around publisher websites over there (and in the U.S. for that matter) — given the centralization in the industry it is amazing how few you have to look at (and sites like amazon and the Book Depository are good at identifying publishers which also provides some other leads). And I have signed up for a few email newsletters that they all offer (e.g. Borzoi in the States, which includes Everyman’s Library there — Penguin Classics U.K. does have one).

    On the design front, I suspect Penguin U.S. Classics may be pretty independent — while I remember the green colors most of the volumes I bought years ago in Canada were the UK orange version, although I’ll admit I wasn’t paying much attention then.

  7. Isabel says:

    KFC – the US never does anything to be like the rest of the world, even if it works and is more efficient. (Case in Point – the GSM backbone for mobile phones.)

    Trevor – I read 1984 in high school and about 8 years ago. I need to revisit it. Everytime I read it, I get new insights.

    If I remember correctly, the people live in drab homes.
    That would depress me also.

  8. Trevor,

    Room 101 changes him. He is broken, spiritually as much as in any other way. The party is stronger than Winston, than any individual, to be captured is to lose therefore the only freedom is in death or in being a prole.

    It’s a profoundly bleak ending, torture will in the end break people, which is true as best I understand, Winston is tortured and interrogated and ultimately broken and so he comes to love Big Brother. It is a refutation of the idea that although they can take your life, they cannot take your dignity. To the party, that is a challenge, they can and do take his dignity. The Soviets may have failed in that goal, but Big Brother does not.

    The ending of 1984 is essentially hopeless, if change is to come it will not come through the Winston’s of the world, there is no particular prospect it will come at all.

  9. Trevor says:

    I agree that Room 101 irrevocably changes Winston. But I’m not sure that is what makes him love the Party on the last page.

    The only thing that makes me hesitate in accepting that view, Max, is that when Winston is released from Room 101, and for some time after, he still hates the Party. He is playing chess and viewing the war, and hoping they will lose. I agree that they break him by torture and that is where he intellectually accepts them, but for some time after he is free to roam about, even to meet up with Julia again, though they are both so changed by Room 101 they would never recommence an affair. They no longer want to because they no longer feel the same toward each other. And though Winston lost his dignity in Room 101, he is getting healthy again.

    Winston is no longer a threat to the Party, yet they won’t kill him because he still despises them. It is close to the end, after he is released from Room 101 and what he did there, when he says that to die hating the Party is true freedom. If Winston had changed soon after Room 101, I would think the torture was what did it (but that it was a bit of a facile ending), but Orwell seems to suggest that something else is the cause, or at least that something else is the tipping point. I’m not sure what that something else is.

    I could be thinking about this all wrong, Max, and I definitely appreciate your view on the matter. Does my stretching toward something else make sense?

  10. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I don’t actually believe Winston changed his mind. I agree he turns to love Big Brother, but it wasn’t a change of decision so much as the rhetoric breaking through his subconscious.
    At the beginning of the book we read a lot of the Newspeak and Winston seems to be aware it’s propoganda, either because of his memories from his early life or through the open thoughts the journal encourages. For whatever reason, Winston is not absorbing the rhetoric.
    Once Winston goes to room 101 his will is broken. The idea of loving the party is preposterous, but we know that they’ve left Winston as a shell. Without the will and strength he had before he’s unlikely to be able to withstand the overwhelming brainwashing and rhetoric strategies. Hence he reaches the point where he really does believe “Love is hate” (or is it the other way?).
    I don’t think he decided to love the government at all, just that their efforts finally succeeded on him and he is unable to distinguish between the two emotions. The government succeeds.
    Orwell is careful to make Newspeak an important part of the book though it never becomes a major aspect of the book. I think that works to his favor as a way to show how repetition can become subtle. But I also think he emphasized the newspeak so you could see the impact it has on Winston. Otherwise it’s a cool idea, but really not necessary.

  11. Trevor says:

    Very interesting thought. Goes along with the “War Is Peace,” “Slavery Is Freedom,” “Ignorance Is Strength,” and Ministry of Love idea too. I think you’re on to something here! At least, it’s an interesting idea that deserves some thorough analysis!

    That’s what I love about this work. Though it’s very violent, Orwell seems to go beyond the physical realm and into the mind to show how the Party uses rhetoric to effect its revolution and keep its power. So much more subversive than violence.

  12. Mrs. Berrett says:

    “That’s what I love about this work”

    Somehow I thought you were going to say “about you.”

  13. I think Mrs Barrett has it. Room 101 breaks his will, he makes no decision to love the party, the mere making of a decision would after all be itself a form of victory, he is hollow and the party fills him with its dogma.

    That’s my take anyway, but as with any novel I’m sure it’s not the only one out there.

  14. Oops, that should be Mrs Berrett, above.

    Trevor, I think there certainly is a goal to show how the rhetoric, the mental violence, is ultimately worse than the physical kind.

    Now, have you read the rest of the dystopian holy trinity? Brave New World and, the grandaddy to them all, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin?

  15. Trevor says:

    I have read Brave New World (at about the same time I read Nineteen Eighty-Four the first time, so nothing but generalities remain), but I have not read We. I don’t think I’ve heard of We, but I’m about to find out!

  16. I think most of us read BNW and 1984 at the same time originally Trevor, schools love those books, literary and with real depth but also some SFnal ideas that can help hook the young.

    We is interesting, it was the precursor to both BNW and 1984, views on it are mixed though personally I’m a big fan. As I’m fond of saying, if nothing else it has the advantage of brevity!

    And thanks for rereading this Trevor, so often we don’t go back to books we read years ago, but sometimes the reality of the book is much better than our memory would suggest. On a quite different genre note, when I reread William Gibson’s Neuromancer last year I was surprised by how fresh and relevant it still seemed (probably because all the science was wrong in the first place anyway, so didn’t date, that and it was never of course about the science).

  17. Trevor says:

    Interestingly, Max, I was just looking at a sort of Russian literature in historical context, like those spreadsheets they provide at the beginning of the Everyman Classics editions, and We was right there. Strange how once an awareness of something is created, that thing pops up all over the place.

    On to another question about Nineteen Eight-Four, though: Why does the Party watch Winston for seven years and then almost play games with him before bringing him in? Why not just terminate him from the get-go? Is that part of the grand plan of thorough humiliation, to let someone build up hope only to watch it go out the window, that, worst of all, the bad guys knew all along?

    Just a question, since the Thought Police seemed to be on top of anyone the moment they even had a suspicious pupil dilation.

  18. Hm, it’s been years since I’ve read it, I’m not sure. I can speculate, perhaps that part of the exercise of power is the sometime choice not to exercise it, that the thrill of power could lie as much in not using it as using it, but whether that’s my putting something on it or actually in the text I’m no longer sure. Does Mrs Berrett have any thoughts? I’ve found her commentary so far quite enlightening also.

    Trouble is, I loved Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Homage to Catalonia, so if I go back to Orwell it probably won’t be this one for a while, but now you have me curious.

    Interesting how much more there is to question in these books, reading them as an adult as opposed to as a young adult when most of us first encounter them.

  19. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I have two separate thoughts on this. The first (which comes from my social experimenting side) suggests that Winston may have been conditioned for this. Isn’t it odd his telescreen is in the wrong place? I just have to wonder if that was intentional. Certainly to feel that slight privacy would give anyone a little thrill. So more than just watching him the party was actually guiding him. They’d certainly learn a lot that way and a government like that would have to be savvy on social deviation.
    My second thought is that Winston was in a position to need to be watched. He’s quiet, he’s from the past generation, he works in an area where he changes facts. They obviously know he’d at some point realize something was up. Watching Winston may not have been unique, but the fact that he began to be affected made it necessary. But just from a control point of view, you’d have to be more aware of those who could know the truth. However, I wonder if knowing he had the potential to be a threat would have then caused the party to push him to be a threat. Dealing with the black and white is much easier than trying to deal with the gray areas. Streamline it to threat, no threat and governing gets a whole lot easier.
    I don’t know that there is any literary backup for these thoughts in the book. But if I was running the party I would do it this way…

  20. I can only hope, Mrs. Berrett, that with thoughts like that you never run for high office…

  21. Trevor says:

    But if I was running the party I would do it this way . . .

    If only I had known that before!

  22. Trevor says:

    Here’s an interesting piece by James Wood about Orwell in this weeks The New Yorker. You have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but you could always try their free trial where you get four onlines issues.

  23. hedy says:

    about nineteen eighty four, i think that i can’t figure out the idea that the whole society due to the Party’s power could easily alter its language,a language that has been used for thousands and thousands of years, well, there is something else which is so complicating too, is that how can the party have that powerful position over people while certainly that countries and empires all over the world contain rebellions and finally , historically speaking they win at last… well, that’s what i wanted to say for now. hedy from tunisia.mail:cath_hedy@hotmail.com

  24. Trevor says:

    There definitely are some gaps in the logic, hedy, but I wouldn’t let them get in the way. What Orwell describes is a real phenomenon. And even a language that’s been around for thousands and thousands (you can’t be talking about English here, though) of years changes constantly.

    On the rebellion front, I’m not sure it is correct to say “they win at last.” That has only happened a few times in history, and, if we go by history, most rebellions fail. Those that win don’t last long, relatively speaking. We live in a unique time, but who’s to say things won’t revert to the more complacent society that won’t accept a government like this for thousands of years? I certainly hope not, and I’m not a doomsdayer who dreads this on a daily basis.

    In fact, to me, all of that is beside the point. I really like how Orwell describes a government who uses rhetoric to quash the possibility of a rebellion. Here the government is trying to eliminate words that would allow its subjects to think abstractly enough to rebel. Possible? Perhaps not to the degree in the novel, and perhaps not in the same way. But we see this rhetorical phenomenon happening all the time . . .

  25. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I think the real tool for change is security. When a people are convinced they are no longer secure they’ll give up virtually anything to return to that feeling of safety. I think a lot of it is psychological (using language and symbols to reference the levels of security). Most of the time the actual level of security doesn’t change, just our feelings.
    This is definitely something that we see happening right now. I’ll give the masses the benefit of the doubt and assume they give up freedoms with the hope it’s temporary. But as in Orwell’s society, the people just have to be convinced that security can only exist within the government to turn over control.
    Thinking of the U.S., there were a lot of personal freedoms taken after 9/11 in the name of protection that never could have been taken had people not been so afraid. It was pretty immediate.

  26. Joshua Loveless says:

    I believe the reason why Winston in the end loves Big Brother is because he hates himself. He hates himself for having betrayed Julia. He hates himself for not being stronger. He hates himself for weakness. His love of life, of self, of Julia is totally taken from him in Room 101. The point of Room 101 is to turn the love of self and others to the Party and turn the hate of the Party to oneself. He loves Big Brother because he is alone, he is half mad, but he is still human. The party has turned the last two remaining human emotions love and hate, emotions that can change the world for better or for worse, and has reversed their flow. Victory for the Party is not over any enemy victory is over the human spirit. Ultimately it is a very hopeless tale that has a great lesson to teach all of us…

  27. Trevor says:

    Josh, welcome! I can’t remember if we read this book together or not, but glad to have the benefit of your thoughts again after all these years!

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