This novel has haunted me since high school. Even if I didn’t tend to bother with homework, I still always enjoyed my assigned readings, but for some reason I managed to only read half of this. I’ve been meaning to return to it for over a decade now, and I’m very glad I finally did. I have the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge to thank for the extra push!
I loved this a lot more than I thought I would. I knew I’d enjoy it, and it would be good for me to read, but I didn’t think I’d get as wrapped up in the story and as invested in the characters as I did. That was likely helped quite a bit by Samuel West’s narration. He narrated The Day of the Triffids as well, which I loved, so I jumped at this recording when I saw it.
It’s the year 1984 and Winston Smith is living his tired, dreadful life in London, which is now in a ruined state after nuclear war. In this alternative future, what’s left of London is now in Airstrip One, a region of Oceania. The area is governed under a totalitarian IngSoc (English Socialism) government. Through constant surveillance, perpetual war, manipulating mob mentality, and the steady altering of language and history, the Party utterly controls the citizens of Oceania.
The novel begins with Winston Smith committing thoughtcrime by writing negatively about the Party in a journal. The very act of purchasing a journal could be seen as thoughtcrime, let alone writing in it, and this embarks him on an inevitable path further and further into rebellion.
Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.
So many of the ideas from Nineteen Eighty-Four are prevalent in our daily culture that it almost seems silly to recount them here, Big Brother and the Thought Police in particular. The underlying warning of allowing ourselves to be monitored and oppressed by the government is well know, but there was still a lot to gain from reading this again. I was especially interested in the way he used the manipulation of language and history as a tool to oppress.
If someone is vapourized (disappearing from society after committing a crime), they are wiped from history as well. Old newspapers are altered, removing any reference to him or her, so those committed thoughtcrimes no longer exist. It’s as if they’d never happened and subsequently are unable to stay in culture and possibly affect future generations.
It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.
Language is also being altered. Newspeak is still in the midst of being developed and absorbed into the culture, and the Party continually removes words and meanings with the hope of eventually wiping out people’s ability to express or even think certain concepts. Future generations, raised only on Newspeak and without any knowledge of Oldspeak, wouldn’t just be denied the vocabulary to express rebellion; they wouldn’t even be equipped to understand the concept of it. Knowledge and language are powerful tools, and to have those tools taken away (or to let those tools waste away) would leave us defenseless.
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
I was a naive lad in high school, and I remember thinking how far-stretched this all was. Surely no society would ever allow this to happen? This time around, it all felt a little too possible. Just look at North Korea for a clear example of Nineteen Eighty-Four in action. The North Koreans weeping for Kim Jong-il is like watching Oceania’s daily Two Minutes Hate. Force people to show that emotion and you’ll eventually brainwash them into believing it.
I’m glad I revisited this. Even without the message and its cultural impact, I just really enjoyed the story, the characters, and the writing.
It was that her waist had grown thicker, and, in a surprising way, had stiffened. He remembered how once, after the explosion of a rocket bomb, he had helped to drag a corpse out of some ruins, and had been astonished not only by the incredible weight of the thing, but by its rigidity and awkwardness to handle, which made it seem more like stone than flesh. Her body felt like that. It occurred to him that the texture of her skin would be quite different from what it had once been.