1984 was published in 1949 by George Orwell (a pseudonym for Eric Blair). It is a dystopian novel, which means that it showcases a negative view of a future society; dystopian novels usually have characters who live with extreme poverty, oppression, or extreme government control. It is commonly thought to be a criticism of the Communism and Fascism seen in the Soviet Union at the time (Orwell is not a stranger to using literature to criticize Papa Joe Stalin), but Orwell said in a later essay that “[Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter), but as a show-up of the perversions . . . which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. . . . The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”
So do with that what you will. I personally think that our boy George is full of it.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
The novel follows Winston Smith, a citizen of the country Oceania, in what he believes to be the year 1984. The countries of Europe have integrated into three intercontinental countries after a global war following WWII (the United Kingdom became Oceania, the USSR became Eurasia, and the East and Southeast Asian region became Eastasia). The three superstates fight a perpetual war for the remaining unconquered lands of the world; each of the countries is constantly at war with one and at peace and allied with the other, but the allegiances change constantly.
The government of Oceania is run by Big Brother, an omniscient, omnipresent figure who is broadcast over the television and radios to give his messages to the people. Big Brother is ostensibly always watching, as the ubiquitous posters around town proclaim — it is presumed that all good citizens will report any ungood actions of their comrades to the proper authorities, which means that Big Brother is in everyone and is indeed always watching.
The social breakdown of Oceania is the Inner Party (upper class), the Outer Party (middle class), and the Proles (short for proletariat, the working class). The Proles make up about 85% of the population yet have the least amount of rights in the society. The Proles don’t seem to realize that their rights are being repressed.
So long as the Proles continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.
The Party (the government, which consists of Inner and Outer Party members) controls the citizens (or comrades) through four different govenment agencies: the Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Plenty, Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Truth. They have the slogans “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”
The Ministry of Peace is the militant part of the government. They are in charge of the armed forces, mostly the navy and army. Considering that Oceania is constantly at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia, this ministry is seen as very important. They produce the propaganda that instructs the comrades to hate the opposing country, which focuses the comrades’ rage and frustration with the enemy rather than with their own system.
The Ministry of Plenty oversees the economy. They control the food supplies, and goods, as well as the rationing of the goods to the people. They maintain shortages in the economy, as the government believes that a weak population is easier to govern than a wealthy, strong population. However, they produce reports that advertise the flourishing economy that Big Brother has provided, typically by just making up figures. In one scene in the novel, there is an announcement that the ration for chocolate is being increased to twenty grams. All of the people around Winston cheer and celebrate, but Winston realizes that twenty grams is actually a decrease from the ration the day before.
The Ministry of Love enforces the love and loyalty to Big Brother. They do this through fear, repression, and brainwashing. The building that houses the Ministry of Love has no windows, barbed wire, and steel doors and is surrounded by snipers with machine guns and guards with electrified truncheons. Inside it is illuminated by florescent lights that never go out. They produce the videos and propaganda supporting Big Brother and prosecute the criminals of “thoughtcrime.” They control the people entirely, though their importance is played down by the Party.
The Ministry of Truth is where Winston Smith (a member of the Outer Party) works as an editor. Editors revise historical records to change the past to make it agree with the contemporary party line, considering that it changes daily. It involves anything from changing records of Big Brother’s speeches to erasing citizens that have become “unpersons” — people who have been executed by the state and therefore have any proof of their existence removed from record. This is done by taking them out of any books, public documents, or pictures, under the belief that their existence will be forgotten if there is no proof that they existed.
The language of the world has also been changed. Oceania doesn’t speak the King’s English, but has created a new language called Newspeak. It has removed the extremities of language and left only the basic forms (good and bad, pleasure and pain, happy and sad, etc). Many words can be used as nouns and verbs; because “think” exists as a noun, it can be used as a verb, which means that the word “thought” is unnecessary. It also utilizes pronouns and suffixes and attempts to use short, monosyllabic words. For example, because “good” exists as a word, there is no reason to have an additional word (“bad”) to mean the opposite when one can simply say “ungood.” If something is horrible, it is “doubleplusungood”.
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.
That brings me to thoughtcrime. Not only was it illegal to do certain things, but it was also illegal to think certain things. The Thought Police use surveillance methods to observe the comrades — Big Brother is Watching. The telescreens are everywhere, in every home, office, building, wall, basically if it will stand still, the Party has a telescreen on it. Not only are the telescreens used to broadcast messages from Big Brother and other Party-esque programs, but they also serve as recording devices to watch every citizen in their homes for evidence of thoughtcrime; there is a team (a nameless, faceless “they”) that analyzes every movement, reflex, facial tic, what have you. They sometimes even talk through the telescreen — during the morning exercises, the woman on screen tells Winston that he needs to work harder and keep his knees up. Winston writes of thoughtcrime in his journal, “”Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death.”
Winston Smith is a man of about thirty-nine — he isn’t quite sure of his actual age because he isn’t quite sure of the actual year. He lives in a squalid apartment and works at the Ministry of Truth. However, revising the history of Oceania makes Winston curious about what has actually happened in history. Big Brother tells the citizens of Oceania to hate Emmanuel Goldstein, who is the leader of an opposing political party and is therefore the Devil Incarnate, and whichever country they’re at war with at the time — at this moment, it’s Eurasia. Winston goes through the motions, but his small apartment is blessed with a corner that is hidden from the telescreen’s cameras. He keeps a secret diary in which he writes down all of his misgivings about society and his hate for Big Brother and the Party. Maaaajor thoughtcrime going on.
Winston works with a man named O’Brien, who Winston thinks shares his views; at one of the Two Minute Hate sessions, where all of the people crowd around a telescreen and are shown propaganda videos to promote hating the enemy, Winston catches O’Brien’s eye and sees the same hatred for Big Brother that he feels.
One day at work, during the Two Minute Hate, he notices a dark-haired girl and hates her because he is attracted to her but she is wearing a sash denoting that she’s a member of the Party’s Anti-Sex League. The Party has a hatred of sex, it seems; Winston figures that the goal is to remove pleasure from the sexual act, so that it becomes merely a duty to the Party, a way of producing new Party members. Winston’s former wife Katherine hated sex, and as soon as they realized they would never have children, they separated. Winston desperately wants to have an enjoyable sexual affair, which he sees as the ultimate act of rebellion.
A few days later, he notices the dark-haired girl with her arm in a sling. She stumbles in the hallway at work and when Winston helps her up, she slips him a note that says “I love you.” Winston is understandably confused. Not only does he think that she’s a political spy who is watching him, but there’s also the thing where they’ve never talked and he doesn’t even know her name. A small hiccup in the relationship. However, Winston is desperate and sees the note as a reason to live. At least long enough to find out her name.
They avoid each other for a few days and then manage to sit at the same lunch table together; however, they don’t talk, so as not to alert the Thought Police that their thoughts need to be washed with a strong cleanser. They plan a meeting at the execution of Eurasian prisoners (very romantic), where the crowd and the Party will be distracted and they’ll be able to talk without being watched by Big Brother. While in the crowd, they plan to meet at a train station and go out to the country where they can truly be alone.
They go to the country, he finds out her name is Julia and she’s not a spy, and they have sex. It turns out that Julia is just as rebellious as Winston, as this is not her first tryst in the country. She wears the Anti-Sex League sash in order to comply with the Party and not attract any suspicion, but she’s really sort of slutty; Winston comments that she’s only a rebel from the waist down. Winston sees this as a good thing, as it means that other Party members are committing crimes. Julia has less ambitious ideas about the Party — she doesn’t really care about a widespread rebellion, she just likes enjoying herself and sticking it to the man.
They return to their Party lives. Once they get back to the city, Winston rents a room from a man named Mr. Charrington to conduct his affair with Julia. When they return to work, Winston discovers that a man he knows, Syme, who was working on a Newspeak dictionary, has vanished; Winston sort of knew this was coming, because Syme was too intelligent for his own good. The Party is gearing up for Hate Week, a fun-filled celebration of hate.
O’Brien talks to Winston in the hallway of the Ministry of Truth, and casually mentions that he can see a Newspeak dictionary if he comes to his house. I’m sure he also has candy in his van if Winston is interested in that, too. Winston takes this as a sign that O’Brien is indeed a like-minded rebel, and decides to go to his house, even though he’s pretty sure that his new life path will eventually end him in the Ministry of Love.
Winston has dreams about his family and his childhood; his father left them and he, his mother, and his baby sister struggled to survive without him. The Party attempts to repress emotions and memories by telling people revised versions of the past, and Winston is sick of it. He talks to Julia after a vivid dream that he killed his own mother and they talk about the Party. The Party attempts to control the people by eliminating human emotions, at least in Party members, to the point where they are no longer human.
Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s house together, where he shocks them by turning off his telescreen. Winston, thinking that Big Brother is no longer watching, declares that he and Julia wish to join the Brotherhood and follow Goldstein. O’Brien gives them a copy of Goldstein’s book, teaches them a rebel song for initiation, and they drink wine and toast to the past. O’Brien and Winston make plans to meet “in the place with no darkness,” and when he and Julia leave, O’Brien turns the telescreen back on.
Winston begins to read Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. In it, he learns about the geographical makeup of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia and how they were formed. The countries are in a perpetual state of war, Goldstein writes, in order to preserve power among the high class society, or the Inner Party; if the lower classes are preoccupied with war, it’s easier for them to be controlled. The war never advances because it’s impossible for one of the superpowers to gain the upper hand on the other as they’re all relatively equal in power. The point of the war isn’t to win, but to control their own citizens. Hence the Party slogan WAR IS PEACE; having a common enemy keeps the people united. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, Goldstein writes, because the Party figures that independence is doomed to fail; only the will of the collective will flourish. If the Party provides everything that the people need or want, then they are free from all those pesky choices that so often plague us and bring societies to their knees. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH because when the people are ignorant of the totalitarian regime, it strengthens the Party.
The day after reading the book, Winston and Julia stand at the window of their love nest and see a prole woman. They talk about how the proles, though discounted and made weak by the Party, are actually the key to the future — they truly have the power because there are so many of them and if they evolve to become conscious of that, the Party is in trouble. They begin to talk about the futility of their life, especially now that they’ve gone down the road to rebellion. Winston says, “We are dead.” To which a nameless, faceless voice replies, “You are dead.”
It turns out that there was a hidden telescreen behind a picture on the wall. The house is suddenly surrounded by Thought Police. They smash the window and a stream of black-clad men enter. The troops beat Winston and Julia and restrain them. Mr. Charrington, the landlord, enters the room and begins instructing the troops. Winston realizes that it was his voice coming from the telescreen, and that Mr. Charrington is actually a member of the Thought Police.
Winston is taken to a brightly lit cell in the Ministry of Love (“the place where there is no darkness”, see what they did there?) and is with a few other prisoners, including a poet who left the word “God” in a Rudyard Kipling poem and a man who was turned in to the Thought Police by his own children. Winston fears that, if he is beaten severely, he will confess and betray Julia. One of the prisoners is taken to Room 101, which frightens everyone; no one knows exactly what is in Room 101, but it’s the mystery and horror that is so frightening.
O’Brien enters the cell, to which Winston thinks that O’Brien has been captured. O’Brien tells him, “They got me long ago.” It turns out that O’Brien is an operative for the Ministry of Love. You just can’t trust anyone these days. O’Brien oversees the torture of Winston, which is excrutiating. His official crime is refusing to accept the Party’s control of history and his memory of past events. As the torture goes on, Winston tells O’Brien anything he wants to hear — O’Brien holds up four fingers and tells him he’s holding up five and Winston agrees. His mind is affected by the pain; he begins to love O’Brien because he is one who stops the pain. I’m not sure how that makes sense, but there you go. O’Brien tells Winston that the pain is going to cure him of his insanity, which is what they convince him is the problem. He also tells Winston that Julia gave him right away, that bitch.
We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent there will be no need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.
After weeks of interrogation and torture, O’Brien tells Winston about the Party’s motives. Winston speculates that the Party rules the proles for their own good. O’Brien tortures him for this answer, saying that the Party’s only goal is absolute, endless, and limitless power. Winston argues that the Party cannot alter the stars or the universe; O’Brien answers that it could if it needed to because the only reality that matters is in the human mind, which the Party controls.
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
O’Brien forces Winston to look in a mirror; he has completely deteriorated and looks gray and skeletal. Winston begins to weep and blames O’Brien for his condition. O’Brien acknowledges that Winston has held out by not betraying Julia, and Winston feels overwhelmed with love and gratitude toward O’Brien for recognizing his strength. However, O’Brien tells Winston not to worry, as he will soon be cured; not that it matters since everyone is shot anyway.
Winston is moved to a more comfortable room and his torture eases. He begins to think that maybe he was a bit hasty in opposing the Party on his own, and maybe they’re not such bad fellows after all. He tries to make himself believe in the Party slogans, but he just can’t shake his deep rooted resentment against the Party. So back to hating it is. He thinks, “To die hating them, that was freedom.” But he opens his big mouth and tells O’Brien that he still hates Big Brother. To which O’Brien responds by sending him to Room 101.
In Room 101, O’Brien straps Winston to a chair and completely secures him so that he can’t move. O’Brien reminds Winston of his worst nightmare—a dream Wisnton had of being in a dark place with something terrible on the other side of the wall—and informs him that rats are on the other side of the wall. Winston’s one major fear in life is rats. How convenient. O’Brien picks up a cage full of enormous, squirming rats and places it near Winston. He says that when he presses a lever, the door will slide up and the rats will leap onto Winston’s face and eat it. (I remember reading this book in 10th grade and being completely and utterly horrified at this part. NOT THE FACE, ANYTHING BUT THE FACE, WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN.)
With the writhing, starving rats just inches away, Winston cracks. He screams that he wants O’Brien to subject Julia to this torture instead of him. O’Brien, satisfied by this betrayal, removes the cage.
Cut to Winston enjoying his freedom at a small cafe, complete with his face intact. He is watching the telescreen and accepts wholeheartedly everything the Party stands for and everything they do. He hasn’t completely forgotten his stay at the Ministry of Love; sometimes he can still smell the rats. He thinks about meeting Julia randomly on a street a few months ago. They talk about Room 101 and admit that they both betrayed each other. Only after they wished the pain and torture on the other person did the Party know that they were broken and were no longer a threat. Winston also remembers a memory of his mother and sister, but thinks that this is just a false memory or a dream. He watches a telescreen with a news report from Big Brother and feels happy and at peace.
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
The beautiful thing about 1984 is that it is still scary in 2011. People are still afraid of the government and technology (2001’s Patriot Act comes to mind) and 1984 and Big Brother have come to stand for rising up against oppression and government control.
Unless it’s standing for selling Apple computers or reality shows. In which case Orwell’s warning of totalitarianism is sort of forgotten.