Posted on February 10, 2017
6. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a resurgence in popularity recently, thanks largely to scandals associated with the Trump presidency. A couple of weeks ago the novel, first published in 1949, hit the top of Amazon’s book bestseller list, and its publisher, Penguin, ordered a 75,000-book print run.
I decided that it might be interesting to reread this book as an adult (I must have last read it when I was 13 or 14) and in the current political climate.
You probably already know the plot, but in case you don’t, the book is set in (the then-futuristic) 1984, when an organisation called Ingsoc (short for ‘English Socialism’) has taken control of one third of the globe, creating a vast empire called Oceania, ruled over by the mysterious and all-powerful Big Brother. There are two other such empires – Eurasia and Eastasia – and all three empires are at war with each other, in various combinations, at different times. Our hero, Winston Smith, works in the (ironically named) Ministry of Truth, altering old documents to cover up historical facts that are no longer useful to the Party, but Winston hates Big Brother and he believes the system should be brought down. When he meets the young and vibrant Julia, also an enemy of the Party, he thinks he has at last found a way to rebel against the state, but their happiness doesn’t last for long.
One of the things that struck me the most about rereading this book was that I remembered how I felt the first time I read it. For example, the novel introduces its protagonist, Winston Smith, as a 39-year-old man, and I remember as a teenager being basically unable to picture anyone other than a young, handsome man as the hero of any story, so that’s what Winston became in my head. (What that says about me at the time, I don’t know.) However, this time around I had no trouble picturing an older man with greying hair and a varicose ulcer. (Once again, that probably says quite a lot about me now.) I also remembered particular scenes, and also particular lines that I was waiting to reappear. This was one of them:
“Why should one feel it to be intolerable, unless one had some kind of ancestral memory that things had once been different?”
So, how does this book relate to current political events? Well, the recent growth in interest in Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a lot to do with the “alternative facts” debacle, and it is certainly true that asking people to believe ‘alternative facts’ sounds a lot like Orwell’s concept of ‘doublethink’ in the novel. ‘Doublethink’ is the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time – to know that something is objectively untrue but to believe in it anyway.
There are other parallels too. The Two Minutes’ Hate, in which characters yell at the anti-Big Brother figure of Goldstein and lose themselves in their frantic hatred, could call to mind something of the anger that has been boiling over in the USA lately. Similarly, the ways in which the Party promotes its own people absolutely, and depicts as foreign and ugly and less-than-human anybody from outside is strongly reminiscent of the ‘othering’ that has been going on in the Western world, particularly to do with Muslims and people from Muslim countries. Nationalism and patriotism play significant roles both in modern politics and in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But Orwell’s novel isn’t entirely prescient about today’s society. In fact, ‘Ingsoc’ is a warped version of socialism, which lies on the left of the scale, compared to Trump’s right-leaning stance. In many ways, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World might be a more appropriate dystopian novel for the times, for its rigid class system, its othering of the ‘savages’ and its totalitarianism through entertainment and information overload rather than secrecy and outright oppression. (I call attention, once again, to this brilliant infographic about the key differences between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World.)
Ultimately, though, the central message in Orwell’s novel is extremely relevant today, and this is summed up by Ben Pimlott’s introductory essay in my Penguin Modern Classics edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“The novel, indeed, can be seen as an account of the forces that endanger liberty and of the need to resist them. Most of these forces can be summed up in a single word: lies.”
It’s difficult to divorce this novel from questions like, ‘Did Orwell see all this coming?’ and ‘How relevant is it today?’, but it is a dystopian classic for a reason. This is a thoughtfully written, often heart-pounding novel which asks some deeply important central questions and gives the reader an emotional gut-punch at the end. I would highly recommend it.
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy Nineteen Eighty-Four here.