Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) Penguin Modern Classics (2004) 355 pp
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 U.K. 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 (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.
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 beliefs. 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.