Novel * George Orwell * THE Dystopia * 1949
You know this book. Maybe you’ve read it in school, maybe you haven’t, but you know this book. This is one of those monumental works of art that have permeated the culture so completely that whether you realize or not, you almost certainly have a clear understanding of what 1984 is all about. After a certain point, the particulars of the plot and characters become unimportant next to this cultural understanding. For instance, when I hear the name “O’Brien,” I immediately think of Star Trek and not this novel. But there is only one Big Brother (unless you’re into reality television, and then you’re the reason the dystopian future is happening). The sheer amount of concepts this book unleashed upon the world is impressive. Ideas like doublethink, quotes like “he who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past,” and of course the all-encompassing adjective “Orwellian” all spawned from here. Moreover, nearly every piece of dystopian fiction that has come since owes something to this novel. 1984 is every bit as monolithic as the Ministry of Love.
Yet there is a story here which is often overlooked. Granted, Orwell was far more interested in examining the fallacies and danger of totalitarian governments run amok than he was in crafting a character-driven narrative, but it is still the human element that sells the concept. The world of 1984 is a vast nightmare comprised of concrete and hopelessness. The Earth is split evenly between three super-nations: Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania. These three are always in a state of war with each other, but ordinary citizens are rarely involved. Rather, the average person lives in a savagely oppressed society. 1984 takes place in London, the principal city of Airstrip One, Oceania. While everyone lives under the repressive government of INGSOC (English Socialism), society is split into three distinct classes. On top are the Inner Party, who run things. Below them are the Outer Party, who do most of the bureaucratic work. At the bottom are the vast, unwashed masses of the proletariat. Party members are under constant surveillance, and any deviance from Party expectations (which is to say anything less than full support for the Party and anything the Party says or does at all times with no exceptions) is punished by a visit from the Thought Police and a trip to the Ministry of Love. Winston Smith is an Outer Party member who is worn out, beaten down, and above all dissatisfied with life in Oceania. In other words, he’s guilty of thoughtcrime, and this is his story.
Orwell peppers in his endless supply of horrible concepts while following Winston throughout his struggles to fit in. Remember, to stand out is to become an unperson, so being able to govern your entire outward appearance is of the utmost importance. In a world where a single facial expression can give you away, strict self-discipline is required. The novel begins with Winston at his horrible flat, drinking horrible gin, and embarking on a potentially suicidal activity: starting a journal. He has to do this in a (hopefully) secret corner of his room, out of view of the telescreen. These are like normal televisions, except they can send and receive, and are used to monitor citizens. They cannot be turned off and are primarily used to spout propaganda while keeping the population under constant surveillance.
After Winston begins his radical action of writing in a diary, he returns to work. Winston’s job consists of changing the past to suit the whims of the Party. He sits in a cubicle and receives bits of paper with random information on it. He then changes that information so that it is compatible with whatever version of the truth the Party demands at the moment. Sometimes this only consists of changing numbers around, sometimes Winston must contrive entire false histories to account for disgraced Party members disappearing. Once a day, work is stopped so that the entire workforce can enjoy a quick Two-Minute Hate. Everyone gets together and watches a short reel of vitriolic propaganda against “The Brotherhood,” led by the traitor Goldstein. Citizens are encouraged to yell and hiss and throw things during the two-minute hate. It is during this time that Winston meets the other two important figures of the novel: Julia and O’Brien.
Winston hates Julia. Nobody in this grim, gritty future is especially attractive (in my mind everyone looks like a character from Fallout), but Julia is at least young and fit. She’s also an enthusiastic member of the Anti-Sex League and is extremely active in all kinds of extra-curricular Party activities. Winston hates her on sight, as she represents everything about the Party that Winston has come to despise. Meanwhile, O’Brien is a member of the Inner Party who Winston has crossed paths with maybe five or six times. The last time, a certain something tipped Winston off that maybe O’Brien would be sympathetic to Winston’s rebellious feelings. There’s no real basis for this other than a tic of expression, but in this world that’s pretty much all one needs to be led to these kinds of conclusions.
1984 is heavy on concepts, and each aspect of the society of Oceania is important to Orwell’s overall critique of society. Every single characteristic found in the world serves to reinforce the dystopia that Orwell has created, and as such it’s important that Winston is able to experience a wide range of activities that bring him into contact with these societal structures. He must be familiar with Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. He must at once be cognizant of the rules of society while being willing to break said rules in order to present the reader with a surrogate. Orwell understands that the first reaction to all of this should be along the lines of “this could never happen,” and needs Winston to underscore how these things not only could happen, but if certain trends are followed to their logical conclusion, they will happen. After all, that’s the whole point of the book.
World War II was fucked up. As we get further and further from that event – an apocalypse on the scale humanity has never experienced before – it gets easier and easier to forget this fundamental fact. During the decade leading into the war, Europe was a smoldering mess. World War I – an apocalypse in its own right – was over, but the repercussions were manifold and devastating. Despite being equally complicit in the wholesale, mechanized slaughter of millions, the Allies used their victory to basically put Germany in the corner. They stripped the relatively new nation of its economic and military strength and cast the entire country into poverty and chaos. As one might imagine, the Germans did not like this. So when a loud, persuasive man came along with some hard opinions, the nation was ready to embrace him with ruthless efficiency. Germany became a fierce superpower in a matter of a few years. Meanwhile, Russia was busy doing some horrific things to its own population in order to centralize and solidify its own power. While these two European powers were supposedly separated totally ideologically, Communist Russia under Stalin and Fascist Germany under Hitler were very similar when it came to tactics.
It’s the speed with which these two totalitarian states came to wield total control over its citizens that is especially alarming. In both instances, the populations were ready and willing to essentially sacrifice all personal freedom in order to be part of something greater. Of course, once the reign of terror was well and truly in place I would imagine that most people had some amount of buyer’s remorse, but that kind of hindsight doesn’t really help anyone in a police state. Orwell was watching all of this happen, horrified. He saw entire vast nations succumbing to the will of a single, charismatic tyrant and assembling massive fighting forces. Nothing he wrote about in 1984 is a new concept. Orwell saw it all in Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The publication of this novel in 1949 is as loud a warning as Orwell could have possibly issued. Yes, Hitler lost but Stalin won, and after the Soviets claimed victory they only doubled down on their totalitarian power with an eye on the rest of the non-Allied world. Part of the fear was that, in a newly devastated Europe, the populations of a bankrupt United Kingdom and a formerly conquered France would turn to a new fascist super-state to counter the Russian threat.
Orwell understood how quickly that fear could become a reality. Even more frightening was how if such a state came to power, how unlikely it would be to fall apart:
“After the revolutionary period of the Fifties and Sixties, society regrouped itself, as always, into High, Middle, and Low. But the new High group, unlike all its forerunners, did not act upon instinct but knew what was needed to safeguard its position. It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are the most easily defended when they are possessed jointly…. Individually, no member of the Party owns anything, except petty personal belongings. Collectively, the Party owns everything in Oceania, because it controls everything and disposes of the products as it thinks fit…. Ingsoc, which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist program, with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.”
Orwell goes on, at length, about how once in control there are conscious and purposeful safeguards set into place in order to maintain the status quo. This entire section comes from a secret book obtained by Winston after he and Julia hook up and start playing at revolutionary. The secret book essentially lays out Orwell’s reasoning behind the creation of Oceania, and how it continues its power indefinitely. As the above excerpt notes, it’s socialism run amok. When citizens willingly submit to having their right to property taken away, they are allowing the state to take control over their very thoughts. That’s… a bit of a leap, but taken to the extreme you get what we see in 1984.
Once in power, the Party ensures its continued dominance in a far more ruthless and interventionist way that the kind of situation you see in previous dystopias. Brave New World also featured a world in stasis, under the total control of a ruling class. However, that world relied on genetic technology and conditioning to perpetuate its dominance. Oceania relies on old-fashioned repression to achieve its aims. In 1984, the Party intrudes upon and controls every aspect of life. The Party is creating a new language which reduces vocabulary and thus reduces the very way people can think. The Party controls the past, ensuring that history always vindicates the Party’s present. The Party controls the children, and in a similar manner to Brave New World conditions them to become ideal Party members. The Party controls sex. It controls your actions. It controls your thoughts. And if it doesn’t, you will get so much torture.
Back to the story. Shortly after they meet, Winston discovers that Julia is actually into him. They eventually figure out a way to meet, and they get it on. Their sexual encounter is an act of rebellion at first, but after a while this turns into genuine affection. Their love story is clumsy (Orwell is not cut out for romance writing), but it feels genuine. It’s the one moment of true human emotion in a desert of apathetic repression. The citizens of Oceania have had feeling burned out of them by the Party, which keeps them docile and unable to revolt. Winston and Julia’s love is a true thing, which awakens them to greater awareness about society at large, which of course is the exact kind of danger the Party can’t handle. Since their love is such a bright spot in an otherwise grey hellscape, it obviously cannot last.
O’Brien, somewhat predictably, is a member of the Thought Police. It was all a setup. The journal, the discovery of their safehouse, their introduction to The Brotherhood. The only thing that remains real is the love between Julia and Winston. Eventually, such a thing is no longer allowed to exist, and O’Brien pulls the trigger on his seven-year-long trap. In come the jackboots and the couple is forcibly separated and held in the Ministry of Love. Here, between beatings and torture sessions, it is learned that The Book was in fact written by The Party, and everything is going to be awful forever and ever. The goal of the Party is to seek out and squash every instance of thoughtcrime. It’s not enough to simply kill these people, they must become true believers. In order to achieve this, they use immense suffering. Until the Party can actively kill love, they cannot turn Winston. Once they accomplish this, once Winston turns on Julia in his heart, it is done. The only love that is left, the only love that can even exist, is that of Big Brother.
Like Brave New World, I’m unconvinced that a total world order like this is possible. I tend to agree with Winston that if there is to be hope, it is with the proles. I mean, you have 80% of the population just hanging out with very little in the way of repressive control. Eventually, someone is going to be smart enough to evade detection and start chipping away at the monolith. Humans are squirrely, and human actions are inherently irrational and unpredictable. After enough time, something will give and everything will collapse. Further, I don’t know how much I’m supposed to trust Orwell’s “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” which comes across as an earnest attempt at explaining his rational behind 1984. It’s very didactic, and pretty much kills any momentum the story has built up to the point where it is introduced. It’s clear that Orwell found it important and necessary for understanding his purpose in writing the novel. However, revealing that it was in fact written by O’Brien and other Party members throws its authenticity into doubt. They lie about anything and everything as a matter of principal, so how can I trust their document about their purposes?
That little bit of intertextual quibbling aside, 1984 remains an immensely important work. The world has, thankfully, seemingly shied away from the totalitarian states of the early 20th century. Yet the danger of succumbing to authoritarian rule is always present. When things get truly bad (and despite appearances, the troubles of 2016 have nothing on 1936) people can and will embrace leaders and systems which are objectively bad for them. Make the trains run on time and people will forgive all kinds of heinous shit. Orwell’s strongest warning is that against giving away freedoms heedlessly. In this sense, 1984 is like a very eloquent slippery-slope argument. I don’t mean for that to sound like a criticism, as I think this was rather his intention. After all, he watched the slippery-slope occur in real time not ten years prior to the publication of this novel. So far, the world has heeded his warnings and the real 1984 was only five years removed from the collapse of the last true dystopian super-power (only in its fervid imaginings is North Korea a power, let alone a super-power). However, so long as there is struggle, strife, and despair in the world, authoritarian rule will always be there to threaten humanity. Orwell implores us to be vigilant.