As I mentioned in my Animal Farm post, I studied Nineteen Eight-Four last year as part of my major independent study. I compared it to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and looked at the importance of hope, and how that relates to humanity. So I’ve read this twice and with some detail in that second reading, making all manner of notes of what I thought was important. And it was a fascinating novel, and definitely a classic, and one which I actually like. Of course this is one of most well known dystopian novels out there, and it’s well known for a reason. I actually think that this is one of those books where in reality the writing may not be the best. It isn’t stunning or evocative, and it doesn’t have a unique way with words like The Book Thief does. The writing can be confusing at times, it can be a little clunky, and parts can be dull. But the main point of this novel, isn’t really the writing style, it’s the message and themes behind it all. The themes about freedom, about the past, about governmental control, about hope.
This book is the origin of Big Brother, doublespeak, telescreens, 2+2=5, thought police, and potentially is the masterpiece behind North Korea’s propaganda ideas (honestly the similarities are striking). It has become a pretty ingrained novel, it ranks highly on book lists, there’s been multiple adaptations, and it has been the target of countless popular culture references. And I wonder why that is? Is it really that widely read? Is it because it resonates with people? Is it because there was an Apple advertisement? I’m not overly sure.
The story follows Winston Smith, who works at the Ministry of Truth, whose name is a misnomer, as really they work to alter the truth. Winston along with countless other employees alter history (photos, newspapers, speeches, books, films) to ensure that it aligns with current doctrine. So that means if Big Brother (the head honcho) said they were going to make 20,000 boots and they only made 18,000 well the records are changed to show that he said they’d make 16,000 and actually made more than expected. Or if someone became a traitor, all evidence of them would be obliterated, something which happened in reality in Nazi Germany. The main purpose of the ministry is to seem like they never change their mind, never alter their message, they are always right.
And it goes back to a repeated sentiment, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” And I think that most certainly holds true in reality. When it comes to ‘controlling the past’, whoever was victorious in a war was the one who got to write the history, they got to glorify themselves, and denigrate their opposition. And if you have total control of the past then eventually all that anyone remembers is your version of events. And that’s another pertinent idea, what is the past? How can you prove something happened, if nobody else believes you? Has anything ever happened or was it all in your head. This means that anyone who tries to say otherwise won’t be believed by anyone, and that will quite possibly send them into mental distress. The mental control of the populace starts when they are children, who are brainwashed so much that many turn in their parents as traitors, and the parents feel proud!
Winston realises that things aren’t that great in the world, and has heard rumours of a resistance, the Brotherhood, and eventually he ends up coming into contact with these ‘rebels’, but it turns out that it’s all a ploy by the government. It really starts to mess with your own head that it seems like a completely elaborate, very lengthy, trap, to ensure that there is absolutely no deviation from their control. There are two quite long excerpts from the manifesto of the rebels (which is created by the government – which makes you think about whether or not what they said is the truth at all) which I found quite interesting. It describes the greater context of the world, with its three competing superpowers, who are always at war with one other superpower and in alliance with the other (though the allegiances change every so often, but nobody admits that). But the war is just really a way to keep everyone in check, and all superpowers have no intention or ability to win the war. There’s a whole long section about equality between classes, and how whenever the middle class rises up to take down the upper class, all they do is replace those at the top, and everything returns to how it was. I found it really fascinating.
The book does not have a very hopeful ending, everything seems futile and unchanging in the world. So it’s not the sort of book you should read to feel warm and fuzzy, or that overly enjoy. It’s a book which will make you think, and make you question. And is a fine example of a dystopian novel, which is something I can’t really say about some current YA novels. What are your thoughts on Nineteen Eighty-Four? Did you like it? What did it make you think about?