Nineteen Eighty Four (now known as 1984) was first published in 1949. The book, by George Orwell, is a very sobering comment on Communism and its possible derivatives. Orwell has written many books:
Orwell was a very active political commentator, and actually wrote a political column for the Tribune in England. He also wrote on social issues - Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier are about poverty - and war - Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia are books on this subject. Orwell wrote Animal Farm and 1984 on politics.
He was 14 at the time of the Russian revolutions of 1917, and was 40 and writing hard at the time of the Stalinist purges of the 40's. To cap it all off, China became communist in 1949 - the year of publication. Orwell was influenced dramatically be these events in history, and expresses his fears of what living in a country like the U.S.S.R. during the Purges would be like. 1984 is a very strong political comment on communism and despotism.
1984 is set in a country called Airstrip One, in a political area called Oceania. Oceania is not a country; nor is it a definable land mass; hence the phrase "political area". Oceania is controlled by The Party; an extremely right-wing political faction that practices despotism with great success. Airstrip was once called England, but with the revolution its name was changed; however, the capital, London, has NOT changed its name. The year is 1984. (!)
There are really only three well rounded characters in the book. They are Winston, about whom the plot revolves, Julia, his girlfriend and co-conspirator, and Big Brother. Big Brother is not really a character; instead, he is used to typify the whole governmental movement. However, the government attempts to use B- B, as he is called, as a front to their actions, and he becomes an integral part of the plot (because the government does). It is for this reason that I have included him. Other, more minor characters, are O'Brien (an important official who is also a subversive), Mrs Parsons (one of Winston's co-tenants in the flats where he lives), and Mr Charrington, a "landlord".
We learn about the characters slowly. 1984, unlike other novels, does not go into detail deeply about the characters early in the story (we don't meet Julia until page 101); nor does it present a situation in which we can learn about the character from what they do. The characters are revealed slowly, almost grudgingly, as if it is "not the done thing". I think that this is a subtle way of emphasising the book's theme - despotism and suppression. 1984, again unlike other novels, does not concentrate on the characters, or even on the plot. It is more concerned about the concepts and attitudes that are present in the setting. This makes it more a book about hardcore politics than an action- packed thriller, or a deep and meaningful romance, although it does have its moments. Consequently, even the most well done of all the characters, Winston, is remarkably shallow when compared to someone like Blanche or Stanley in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
The plot in the book, as already mentioned, does not really have much substance to it. In a nutshell, we learn about Winston's subversive attitudes, and see that he is in an almost impossible situation - he cannot trust anybody with his secret, and to add to that he is almost constantly under the scrutiny of a "telescreen" - something akin to a security camera. The plot is about how he breaks out of this cage, finds people he can trust, and finally, inevitably, meets his downfall.
The atmosphere in 1984 is one of highly-strung tension, of patheticness and suppression. "Bad" is emphasised everywhere. A classic example of this is the very first line of the book:
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Thirteen is a supposedly "bad" number in that it is bad luck - it has superstitious overtones and no matter how cynical you may be you cannot escape the implications that this number has. It is almost a warning sign that all the items mentioned in the book, people, places, buildings, ideas and all, are destined for doom. 1984 is also full of paradoxes, as well as many hints and allusions to them. The first line again - "bright cold". To many people around the world, "bright" and "cold" do not go together. There being such a weather condition in existence is a paradox. Orwell has even coined a name for such items; doublethink. Doublethink is the act of remembering something, forgetting it when necessary, remembering that you've forgotten and then remembering the original detail. It is the act of being consciously unconscious - a paradox in itself. In fact, The Party's three slogans, which are repeated with frequency in the book, are
War Is Peace Freedom Is Slavery Ignorance Is Strength
- all paradoxes.
The theme of 1984 is quite clear - the dangers and consequences of communism, dictatorships, autocracy and despotism. Big Brother is all of these, and is depicted as such. In fact, Big Brother is so well depicted as the all-knowing, but paranoid, nasty but good, "meanie" that he has gone not only into literature but into common use; "Big Brother is Watching You" (the caption used always in connection with Big Brother) is used today under the context of a omniscient viewer, sort of like the feeling you get when you know you are being scanned by a security camera. This is no mean feat of Orwell's to put a phrase into the English language - it puts him in the league of Shakespeare with his "washing of the hands" (commonly used today, alluding to distancing oneself from something) from Macbeth. 1984 shows the reader the scenario of life under this sort of ruler - constant surveillance, secret police (the Thought Police), parent-hating children, poverty, suppression and misery in all its detail. The book is so thorough that it is impossible to list all the concepts and ideas expressed.
Orwell's purpose is to illuminate the world on the real, darker side of this sort of political climate. The rights of freedom of speech, assembly, sex (!), the press - even freedom of thought - have been revoked. In Oceania, no one is allowed to do anything unless it is approved. Moreover, anyone who does step out of line is "vaporised". His name, job, achievements, living quarters and possessions are erased - his very existence is denied. Orwell's aim was to present a view on this sort of life, and at the time was very topical; in 1949 China went communist and Stalin was in the middle of his purges. The Cold War was nearing its height and all over the world people were worrying about the "communist invasion" that they felt sure was coming. Orwell's book is a public expression of his views, doubts and fears.
1984 is written as a factual account of life under The Party. It is written in 3rd-person omniscient, and consequently we often know much more about what is happening that the characters. Orwell also presents much of the real ideas behind 1984 through the central character - Winston. We often slip into a description of what he is doing, and then suddenly he is explaining what happens, how this works, what goes on... We also learn a lot from conversations and people's behaviour. Winston avoids looking at other people's eyes as much as possible; this is because he is afraid that his will give him away as a thoughtcriminal - one who thinks bad things about the state. Conversations are also revealing: a classic between Winston and one of his fellow workers at the Ministry of Truth:
"You haven't a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston. Even when you're writing it you're still thinking in Oldspeak. In your heart you'd prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all it's vagueness and useless shades of . You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction words. Take 'good', for instance, If you have a word like good, what need is there for a word like 'bad'? will do just as well, only better, because it's an exact opposite. Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. We're not far from the point of all words being expressed by one word. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. It's merely a question of self-discipline and thought-control. Do you realise that by the year 2050 there will not be a human being capable of understanding what we are saying now? The whole climate of thought will be different. How could you have a slogan like "Freedom Is Slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy [not committing thoughtcrime] means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
1984 is invaluable as a view on life. As yet, the situation it depicts has not existed (that is, known to the West; Stalin's Russia approached it though). However, the way in which it is presented makes it all so real, so believable, that we cannot help but take it as a view on life. The matter-of-fact way in which things are described prevents us from taking any other stance. And as a work of literature, 1984 is on its own. There is no other work that I know of (admittedly a small circle) that can duplicate or emulate any of the feelings and ideas contained within it. It is unique, a one-off, and a gem at that. It is awesome. My reaction: I love it. I'm going to buy a copy tomorrow.