Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a province in Oceania in a time of endless war where widespread government surveillance is commonplace. Society is ruled under a political system known as Ingsoc, or English Socialism enforced by the elite Inner Party which enjoys special privileges. The laws they enforce include the prevention and discouragement of individuality and independent thought.
Part of their arsenal include the Ministry of Truth, which the main character Winston Smith works for. The Ministry of Truth is a contradiction in terms since its main purpose is to generate propaganda and constantly revise history.
Winston, whose job is to rewrite past news articles to make sure the Party never appears incompetent or incorrect in its promises or assessments. Winston, though skilled (perhaps overly so) and efficient at his job, hates the government and fantasizes about a rebellion. Yet, his fantasy clashes with his fascination to learn the truth behind all the rewritten historical articles he’s been writing. Such desires are dangerous, especially if they were to be discovered by the Thought Police, who’s been known to punish defiance with death. Nonetheless, Winston can’t resist his yearning and so begins a chilling adventure that promises romance, mystery and misery, but what truths will he uncover?
Like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four is definitely one of the books that stayed with me the most. I occasionally think about it when seeing how technology divides as well as connects. Some critics lambasted the cruel and sexual elements included in the novel and I can understand why this would have been challenged in the era in which it was written. I believe it was Orwell’s intention to disturb readers by underscoring humanity’s most primitive instincts that arise when faced with the deprivation of individual choice; instincts that spark the desire to rebel and seek out methods of self-preservation. Just as disturbing, perhaps even more so, is the government’s way of dealing with individuals whom are bold enough to act out and how easily it rationalizes its extreme measures. This becomes evident in the heartbreaking conclusion, the culmination of a series of cruel mind games.
Still, there is no denying the grander prophetic message beyond those elements; that message being how the media manipulates public opinion and creates a social dichotomy that includes friends and family. The public is brainwashed to form a greater loyalty to the powers that be than to their own loved ones. Furthermore, they are manipulated into hating a certain political party’s enemies and their affiliates, namely a man named Emmanuel Goldstein, in a ritual called the Two Minutes of Hate. During one such session, Winston finds himself unable to rationalize why he hates Goldstein, but nonetheless spews his hatred as a contagious reaction from the crowd. Furthermore, he finds another target for his hatred and imagines committing a heinous offense, but he doesn’t act on it.
Orwell brilliantly depicted the disturbing human nature of pack mentality. A recurring theme is how citizens sacrificed their own convictions, among other things, in exchange for compliance. For the most part, citizens have learned to ignore their human instincts and desires so they can continue their existence. But Winston soon realizes that merely existing isn’t enough. He takes chances for the opportunity to live. Through his defiance, he’s able to sample the sweet taste of humanity, but it comes at a price that threatens his survival and the woman he grows to care for.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe this book was written back in 1948. Many elements of the story are prevalent in our society today; the confusing spin of propaganda, extremely unruly and downright horrible children whose parents are afraid of due to government interference regarding discipline. For this reason, children are among the most allegiant to Big Brother, Oceania’s mysterious leader, since the government gives them liberty to rebel against their parents. And who could forget Big Brother’s oppressive eye; the omnipresence of cameras, watching every minute detail of the citizens’ lives. Any sign of deviation from the law could lead to the torture or death of the offending citizen. One of the most disturbing parts of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how one’s own independent intelligence could lead to their undoing. It’s one of the tactics that has led to the establishment’s success; getting people too confused and too afraid to think.
Have you read Nineteen Eighty-Four? If so, please comment below. I’d love to read your opinion.
Join me as I highlight my next banned/challenged book selection, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.