1984 has to be one of the most disturbing books I’ve read, between the creepy parallels with our current political situation, and the torture and brainwashing. Animal Farm has always been one of my favorite books, for its basic but powerful allegory about political corruption. 1984 takes this idea to a very different level.
Written in 1949 by George Orwell, 1984 takes place in a dystopian version of Great Britain now called Oceania. There are now only three countries in the world: Oceania (the Americas and Great Britain), Eurasia, and Eastasia. Oceania is run by Big Brother and The Party. No one actually sees Big Brother except on the posters that are displayed everywhere. The Party governs by watching all citizens through telescreens, and by promptly making offending citizens disappear and then “erasing” them from existence. It also governs by stirring up hatred for the Brotherhood, a small (possibly mythical) faction that opposes The Party.
It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth (each of the government agencies is named ironically). His job is to go back through news reports and change any facts which are now “untrue” according to The Party. For example, one month Oceania is at war with Eastasia, but the next month it might be allied with Eastasia and at war with Eurasia. Therefore the news must be changed to reflect that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. The Party eliminates any documents that disagree with its current version of reality, and it even erases potentially ambiguous words from its vocabulary.
Winston becomes frustrated by the constant surveillance and truth-changing of the government. He longs to know what’s real, but he knows that questioning reality is “thoughtcrime” and considered treasonous. He starts looking at the people around him and trying to figure out who’s loyal and who will soon be “erased”. He begins taking tiny steps towards rebellion, like sitting out of range of the telescreen and writing his thoughts in a journal (any kind of creative writing is expressly forbidden).
The parallels with today are frightening. One is the slanted, untruthful news that the public seems to blindly consume. Trump and the GOP and conservative news media have managed to make most of the population think there is no such thing as fact or science. Everything is opinion, and their opinion must be the right one, whatever it happens to be today.
In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.
Another parallel is our lack of privacy, which we’ve given up willingly with social networking and phones that track our every movement. Now that I work for a government I disagree with, I have reason to be nervous about expressing my political viewpoint. Add to that the growing sense that we’re not really sure who we’re being governed by. Trump exists, but is he actually making any decisions or is he just a prop for a coalition of extremists?
Also there’s the widening gap between the lower class (the “Proles”) and the white-collar or upper class, which in 1984 consists of Inner Party and Outer Party. The Proles are 85% of the population, while the Inner Party is 2%. Winston is Outer Party, but he views the Proles with a sense of envy; despite their poverty and difficult lives, the government doesn’t perceive them as a threat, and they are actually more free. But at the same time, they will never advance and their lives will never change.
I’ve told you more than enough about the book, although I’ve barely told you anything. This is a book that gave me nightmares while reading it, and is still haunting. Like a lot of classics, I thought I knew what it was about but I really didn’t. I remember when it actually was 1984, and I remember the vague sense of relief that Orwell’s vision was nowhere near our reality. But 33 years later, here we are, and 1984 suddenly feels shockingly real.
I’m glad people are rediscovering this book, and I’m glad I took the time to read it. But be warned: this book won’t make you feel better about what’s happening around us.