This book is #77 on my Classics Club List.
Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship … His [mother] had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today.
(Part One, Chapter III)
Almost everybody knows that chilling phrase, ‘Big Brother is watching you’. At some uncertain age, we all inevitably grasp the significance of those words, even if we have never read the book which gave birth to it. What’s more, the phrase seems even more apt today than it was when the book was first published. Though the year 1984 has long passed us by, Orwell’s novel is still hugely relevant to its readers.
I’d long been familiar with the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’. I understood it. I used it in conversation. I thought it expressed something about the digital age in which we were living, the age of cameras in supermarkets and personalised advertisements in the mail. What I didn’t fully grasp was, of course, its origins. This led me to seek out Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to try and get to grips with why the words ‘Big Brother’ send such a chill through the spine.*
In Orwell’s novel, set in England in (yes, you’ve guessed it) 1984, the country is controlled by The Party. Also known as Ingsoc (or English Socialists), the Party monitors their citizens constantly, observing the way they work, act, and even think. Of course, the implications of this scenario are disturbing enough. But what’s more, the Party’s ministries are giant propaganda machines, constantly re-writing history in order to ensure that the Party appears all-knowing. The main character of the novel, Winston Smith, works in one such ministry. He spends his days re-writing newspaper articles and speeches, manipulating truth and history for the benefit of Ingsoc.
As with most dystopian novels, the plot centres around Winston’s dissent against the party, and eventually his desire to be a part of the shadowy Brotherhood, which is determined to destroy the Party. Winston first has an illicit affair with another Ministry worker, called Julia. She, too, dreams of bringing down the system. She works in the fiction department of the Ministry, where she is a mechanic responsible for repairing the machines which write books. Which reminded me of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, where book-writing and book-reading machines are also a reality. It was just one of the disturbing scenarios which inform this book.
So far, so good. The plot feels familiar to me, something I have read and seen in countless books and films. But then it takes a strange turn. I won’t say more, lest I spoil the ending, but it is not the happy, life-affirming conclusion we have come to expect from our dystopic books. It is bleak and dark, and I found it disturbing even as I found myself liking it.
When this book was first released in 1949, many people were quick to draw parallels with Stalinist Russia. The Thought Police, the propaganda, the moustachioed image of Big Brother; it certainly doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to make the link. I’m sure that many of the book’s initial readers were only too happy to look no further than a denunciation of socialism. But there is a clear criticism of European and American practices as much as of Russian. And Orwell’s examination is still very pertinent today, when we are daily bombarded with so many different versions of truth on the internet (or consider, for instance, a recent ruling in a European court that ordered Google to delete links to some personal information about an individual, which led to the company being flooded by requests from criminals to remove information of their past crimes). This particular quote is quite telling: “Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards. Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance” (Part Three, Chapter IX).
Naturally, the reader wonders what has happened to Ingsoc; does someone eventually overthrow it? Or does the Party’s dream of total and everlasting power eventuate? Orwell certainly concludes the novel in a way that seems to suggest that, at least for the moment, the Party is all-powerful. Strangely, though, at the end of the book is an appendix with an essay about Newspeak, the ‘language’ Ingsoc has invented to stamp out ‘thoughtcrime’. The reader is invited to turn to this appendix at an earlier point in the book, but I decided to leave it until last. Interestingly, the article adopts a scholarly tone, speaking about Newspeak in the past tense, analysing it as though it is a part of history, in a manner similar to the conclusion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. To me, this suggested that at some point, the Party was overthrown, or perhaps changed form. In either case, the fact that the article is written in regular English certainly implies that Newspeak failed. Possibly the Party failed as well.
Of course, in the end we can’t be sure what happens. Rather than ending the book on a positive note, Orwell leaves us with a bleak ending which reminds readers how serious his vision of the future could be. I’m going to finish this review with a passage which I found particularly chilling; it describes the Party’s vision for the future:
In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything … There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother… There will be no art, no literature, no science… There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life … If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
(Part Three, Chapter III)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
*Apart from the very real fear of accidentally stumbling across the reality TV show while channel-surfing, of course.