There's really no way I can discuss what I wish to discuss without spoiling a few (or many) things.
It took me quite some time to actually finish 1984
. It's not a terribly eventful book, but that never matters so long as the content is interesting. The reason 1984
didn't have me completely engulfed in its pages was not because it's not interesting--Orwell was an incredibly good, intelligent, insightful, and original writer--but reading a book as popular as 1984 more than sixty years after it was written brings about one problem: you pretty much know it before you read it. Terms like Big Brother or doublethink (which were new at the time) have been so present in everyday use that nearly everyone knows them. The "Orwellian" theme can be recognized without reading anything of Orwell's simply because so many people use it as a descriptor of other things. The story and message of 1984
was always far more commonsensical to me than in comparison to people in the 40s and 50s. People of the 40s lived through Nazism and Communism and the development of the Atom Bomb and the wake of the Cold War. That, to me, someone born in the last decade of the century, is only history. So, in turn, and to no fault of the writer, 1984
loses much of its impact and appeal. Nonetheless, still a fantastic book not only for historical reasons but for pure intellectual interest and entertainment as well.
During the first half of the 20th century there were many popular dystopian (or perhaps more accurately, Negative Utopian) novels written, many even before 1984
, like Zamyatin's We
or Huxley's Brave New World
. It's not hard to see why; two World Wars and the beginning of a paranoid-filled Cold War all in less than half a century tend to cause people to reevaluate their governments and societies. Orwell wasn't quite original in his concept of a dystopian future, but he undoubtedly was in his delivery and details.
I guess I will go through the book's parts and describe how I was feeling while reading each, as my opinion of 1984
varied greatly depending on which part I was on. At times I predicted I would give it a 2 out of 5, at other times a 3 or a 4.
Part One does a well enough job of introducing the world of Oceania and the novel's main character, Winston. Not much happens but it serves its purpose as an introduction. It allows us a glimpse at the world but leaves much of it shrouded in mystery (just as much is a mystery to Winston) and gives a reason to keep reading.
Part Two is where things went a bit downhill for me. It introduces the character of Julia, whom Winston becomes romantically involved with (illegally, of course). I held my breath at many points fearing it would turn into a romantic sub-plot, as I suppose it somewhat did, but it did so in a good way. Nothing eventful really happens in this part, aside from Julia and Winston sneaking off in the woods to have sex, a la teenagers in a suburb. Not only that, but not much of intellectual or philosophical importance occurs either. Sure we glimpse a bit further into the world of Oceania, but not much else. This kind of sucks being that Part Two is the longest of the three parts. Julia isn't very interesting let alone a real character (I mean that literally. Julia really serves no purpose besides being a narrative device. She never affects the plot directly as Winston could have just been arrested by himself and the entire romantic sub-plot could have been avoided. Julia as a character = awful. Julia as a narrative device = pretty darn good.)
Then, still in part two, the novel (and I mean this quite literally as well) turns into a text book. For thirty pages. That is no joke. This turned me off immensely at the time (providing the beginning of Part Two hadn't killed my boner already). It just seemed like a really bad way to teach the reader about the novel's setting and politics. Instead of letting it play out through the events or dialogue of the novel just be lazy and turn it into a text book that spells everything out for you for thirty pages. But, as Winston himself said, the 30 pages of non-fiction fiction didn't actually tell him anything new at all; it merely clarified what he already knew. So what then? The thirty pages of cheap world-building wasn't only boring and lazy but pointless as well?
I was pretty disappointed with Part Two at the time, to say the least. It was at that point my then three star rating turned into a two. However, it was the genius of Part Three that completely redeemed and justified Part Two, which I will explain presently.
Part Three begins with Winston imprisoned. This is by far the most eventful and exciting thing that had happened in the book up to that point (I suppose even more eventful and exciting being that it contrasts the dullness of the first two thirds of the book). We then come to Winston's torture and interrogation, which, for me, justified nearly all of Part Two.
The thirty pages of book-within-a-book did the same thing for the reader as it did for Winston; it brought more confidence to what you already knew and it made you even more sure you were right. This is effective, and indeed almost necessary, as it makes Winston's torture not only more intense but also more relatable. The book put you in the same mind-state as Winston, gave you his same beliefs, philosophies, and politics. The reader, in a way, becomes Winston, is Winston, and it is the thirty pages of book-within-a-book that really make it so. Those thirty pages made it clear: Winston and the book were right and Big Brother and The Party were wrong. It's presented in a text-book format even using a font different from novels; people tend to think of text books as fact so this helps to make it appear as truth. So when Winston is tortured and doubts are put into his mind and his sanity is put into question and his beliefs and knowledge and "facts" and even his reality are put up for evaluation and debate and of course eventually rebuttal, it is also the reader who forms doubts and must question their own beliefs and reality. The reader never thinks that Winston may be insane, and whether he actually is or not is irrelevant since just the mere suggestion of it forces you to rethink everything that happened in the book so far and forces you to look at it in different light. It makes you wonder for a moment: is this a story about a rebel or a madman?
For that Winston's torture feels real and allows you to became especially sympathetic. Winston being crazy equates to the reader being crazy and when Winston is helpless in defending his sanity as is the reader helpless.
So it turned out that those thirty pages in Part Two were not lazy or pointless but after all incredibly genius. This not only brought my rating back up to three, but pretty much pushed it to four.
I mentioned that Julia is hardly a real character, well neither is Winston really. He's essentially just a blank slate, a pair of shoes for the reader to place themselves in. He made a lot of mistakes that I'm sure many people would make; he placed his trust and hope in "The Brotherhood," but pitting one group against the other wasn't the answer. He used love as a weapon, but emotion wasn't the answer either. And then, betrayed by both the group and the emotion, he clung to his individuality as well, but that too failed. What was the right answer then? I want to say a group formed by individuals whom love each other is the right answer. The Brotherhood doesn't love each other nor are they individuals. Julia loved Winston but she didn't care about the bigger picture. Winston only became an individual after he lost The Brotherhood and love. Did he have the ingredients but not the recipe? I really don't know, I'm just blabbering and speculating. Maybe the message is that if we allow society to become as bad as it is in 1984
there is no going back and we are doomed. 1984 may not be showing us what a dystopia looks like so we'll know it when it arrives, but instead it's telling us to avoid it, to change our route before we arrive at it.
Bleh, anyway...the ending was fine. I liked it; definitely better as opposed to a happy ending or anything that involves love. The ending served its purpose but it's really not the ending that matters, it's what leads up to it.
I do have my share of complaints, don't think I don't. Part Two is still pretty damn boring no matter how good it makes Part Three. But I think the main think I remember disliking was when Winston was being tortured and questioned by O'Brien, Winston did a pretty damn poor job of debating with O'Brien and defending his philosophies. It definitely took me out of Winston's shoes for a moment and made me want to whisper in Winston's ear and tell him what to say. But some parts it did the dialogue very well, so it wasn't all bad.
As far as 1984's futurology goes it doesn't really make any startling predictions. It's political and social predictions are plausible, and everything makes sense, and are unfortunately in many cases recognizable in societies today. (And the fictional language of Newspeak is brilliant). But when you compare Brave New World
predicting genetic engineering, or Fahrenheit 451
predicting personal music players, or Neuromancer
predicting MMORPGs, 1984
feels a bit underwhelming. Well, okay, 1984
did pretty much foresee security cameras so I guess its futurology is pretty good.
Those are really only nitpicks though and as a whole I definitely enjoyed 1984
. Perfect book? I wouldn't say so. But very good. In the end it was worth the occasionally hard to get through parts. The afterword by Erich Fromm is quite excellent as well.