Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: 1984 by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is yet another book I read initially in high school, but that I'm revisiting as an adult. This time, I reread it for a book group, where we compared it to
  Brave New World

. Both are dystopian, though their approaches are different. Aldous Huxley imagines a world where people are controlled through pleasure and a capitalistic society, which he came up with after a visit to America. Orwell, on the other hand, imagined a socialist government keeping people in line through fear.

1984 is about Winston Smith, an Outer Party member who works for the propaganda department, called here the Ministry of Information. He edits old stories to bring events in line with predictions made by Big Brother, the all-knowing, all-seeing entity who oversees the efficient operation of Oceania. Winston also makes people disappear from history, or modifies old reports to make current production numbers look better. Doubt is sown in his mind when he sees a photograph that shouldn't exist, according to everything he's ever been taught. He's on the lookout for others who see through Big Brother's lies, but doesn't dare approach anyone openly, for fear of being picked up by the Thought Police.

He starts an affair with a younger woman named Julia, who rebels in small ways without imagining the overthrow of the government, as Winston does. When Winston finally reaches out, we learn just how futile an overthrow from within the Party is, and why the Ministry of Love, where prisoners are held and tortured, is so feared.

The story is chillingly believable, and that's because George Orwell is drawing from true events. He exaggerates, but not by much, and imagines monitoring technology both beyond that of the time period in which he wrote this and the real 1984, yet far short of what we're capable of today. He makes several political remarks about keeping the lower classes down, in ways that are still in practice today, while demonstrating the greed and violence those in power are capable of.

I can see why I liked this book so much as a teenager. There are shades of Holden Caulfield in Winston. He's the only one who sees through the phoniness of the world, and everything rests on his finding a kindred soul, at which he's frequently thwarted. Granted, Holden isn't threatened with room 101, but the notion of the protagonist's seeing through the lies isn't new in literature, and it's one that appeals to disillusioned teens.

1984 was written 17 years after Brave New World, and was certainly informed by Huxley's earlier work. That both novels have current real-world comparisons says, to me at least, that we still have some growing up to do, as a society.

I think what makes 1984 so much more frightening and visceral for people is not the view of violence, nor its historical context. I think the fact that Orwell set it during their lifetimes, making it far more within our grasp than Huxley's 26th-century dystopia, takes away any distance the reader might've gotten.

Once again, I'm surprised how much differently I'm viewing this book as an adult than as a teenager reading an assigned book. This one definitely needs to stay on required reading lists for anyone who graduates public school. We need to see where our actions can take us, if we stop questioning and demanding better of our government.

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