Book Review — 1984

Orwell’s Blueprint for Absolute Totalitarianism

Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian state and its mysterious, omnipotent and omniscient Big Brother has long been features of our pop culture and political discussions. They are the embodiment of our worst fears about a time in the future when we would lose our most basic rights amid the increase in the power and influence of governments. Some may reject such notion as too pessimistic or paranoid, yet with the current surveillance technologies, we are usually being watched without us even noticing. In that sense, Orwell’s novel should be treated as a heads up — a call for guards against any attempt to invade our privacy and deny our basic rights.

Cover of 2008 edition as illustrated by Shepard Fairey.

In the years prior to the second world war, communism was still on the rise and the cold war was looming clearer than ever. The rise of superpowers has led many to believe that the days of scattered countries were numbered in the face of imminent annihilation by the massive nations. Orwell was worried that, to cope with such changes, Britain might have to change, even if that would mean turning into a monster against its own people. He wrote 1984 with such nagging worries hovering around his head, envisioning a near future when everything would change so drastically into a state of inescapable totalitarian dystopia, a place where it is not even safe to keep one’s thoughts inside his head.

He called this place Oceania, a massive nation consisting of the Americas, Britain, southern parts of Africa, and Australia. Oceania is controlled by a powerful single party, with Big Brother as the head of state. The Party rose to power in the 1950s after the collapse of capitalism, and it holds its tenure as the manifestation of the principles of English socialism, or Ingsoc. While English is still the widely used language of the masses, it has faced a steady erosion into a rudimentary form known as Newspeak. The society is divided into three classes: the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the Proles, while governance is achieved through four ministries: the Ministry of Plenty, the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, and the Ministry of Love.

Winston Smith lives in London, an Outer Party member, working in the Ministry of Truth as a clerk in the Records Department. He lost his family members in some mysterious circumstances and was brought up through governmental programs. His work involves editing historical documents to conform with the present propaganda. Such mutability of the past is an important theme in Orwell’s novel, portrayed as the cornerstone of the Ingsoc principles and the tool by which the Party remains vigilant at any thought and immune from any deviation. As Orwell puts it: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Just like any Outer Party member, Winston’s life is under continuous surveillance, even when at home, through the telescreen — a device which transmits and receives audio and video. Every part of Winston’s apartment is within the scope of the telescreen except the tiny corner beside it, where Winston sits sometimes to practice the illegal act of thinking. Any slight change in expression in front of this device may hint for a pensive mood, giving the “thought criminal” into the hands of the Thought Police, guilty of a crime usually punished by death. Winston is reminded of this harsh truth through the poster of Big Brother’s face on the wall, looking at him apparently in every direction, with the words “Big Brother is watching you” beneath it.

Winston, struggling with the lack of freedom in his home and the deceptive nature of his job, begins to cast his doubts upon the system, resorting to the rather revolutionary act of writing a personal journal of his political thoughts while in his hidden corner, as well as going for walks into the Proles quarters where there is no telescreens, but with the risk of being caught by patrols. He searches for the truth everywhere: in the places, in the pictures, and in the eyes of his acquaintances, but everything seems fake or obscured. The only hope, he writes in his secret journal, is for the Proles to revolt, but even that is impossible as he acknowledges. His thoughts wander further to the possibility of a revolt from within the party, as he becomes convinced that O’Brien, an Inner Party member, is a conspirator. This is reinforced by the revelation to him by Julia, a colleague that seemed to be a staunch party supporter, that she is against the Party.

Winston’s and Julia’s love affair takes place in shady places and at distant intervals. He finds her as a solace to his painful solitude after the estrangement of his previous wife, who was committed to the Party principles to the point that she practiced her relationship with her husband out of the sense of duty, rather than affection. Julia was the total opposite. While she lived publicly as a member of the Anti-Sex League, her secret life was full of love affairs. Winston was amused by that love for sex, which during this times, was reduced to merely a “political act.” However, his amusement of Julia’s attitude didn’t hold to her political convictions, as she wasn’t interested in overthrowing the party or revolting against the status quo, calling her as “only a rebel from the waist downwards.”

The story takes its way towards conclusion starting from them finding a secret room among the Proles to conduct their love. Through this room, we learn about the past prior to the revolution and the hope for the future driven by the sounds of the neighboring Proles, and through the relationship, we learn about the distinction between thoughts and feelings and their roles in constituting what is freedom. Winston’s and Julia’s contrasting characters make us discover the variety underneath the Party’s molded characters, yet it proves to us that no matter how different human beings are, they act the same under the urge of their basic necessities.

Orwell makes no effort to conceal their fate. From the beginning of the story, Winston was convinced that no change could happen in his lifetime. “We are the dead” was his assurance to Julia. Yet the uncertainty lies in whether their efforts would reciprocate to future generations or fall short to surpassing their time. Could they survive long enough in Big Brother’s blind spot? Can they join the alleged Brotherhood and conspire against the party?

Contradiction, reduction, and uncertainty are the main elements that constitute the logic of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The contradiction is evident in the names of the four ministries: Ministry of Peace is for war, Ministry of Abundance is for scarcity, Ministry of Truth is for propaganda, and Ministry of Love is for policing and torturing the citizens. What makes these contradictions believable in the minds of the citizens is the reduction of their brain activity, formulated brilliantly by Orwell through the reduced language of Newspeak, which is basically English without all the redundancies and varieties that allow different thinking, and with all political terminologies removed. Instead, a limited new vocabulary was introduced to emphasize the normality of contradictions, like the word “doublespeak.”

Practicing doublespeak involves a subconscious belief in the validity of the party’s actions and a usually conscious disregard of any fact that may put them in question. The ability to do so is the difference between a conformist and nonconformist citizen, and the ability to do so efficiently is the difference between living a blissful life or vaporizing into obscurity (“vaporization” is Orwell’s word of being erased from existence). Hence, the mutability of the past becomes possible, and with it reality becomes subjective. That’s how uncertainty is brought into the equation, because there are no absolute truths except what the Party says, and even that is subject to change in the future.

With these tenets, Big Brother controls the masses. Yet, Orwell takes them to the extreme by questioning the existence of Big Brother as a person, and the validity of the year 1984 as the year in which the story takes place. He uses other red herrings to cement such mood. This atmosphere of uncertainty, where, for example, not even the fiercest supporter of the regime can be certainly safe from prosecution, is a characteristic of every authoritarian regime, because it implies the power of the rulers to do whatever they like, and the inability of the ruled to even rest assured that they are in a secure position. The more insecure a citizen feels, the more he clings to the promise of providing security, even if those who promise are the ones who denied it in the first place.

A few chapters of the novel are dedicated to the discussion of the political situation in 1984, including the three super nations, their politics, and their continuous wars. These chapters contain a detailed explanation of Orwell’s worst case scenario regarding world politics. Small nations are annihilated by three super nations, each with their own of absolute authoritarian conduct. Their continuous wars are nothing but a mean to get rid of any surplus, so as to keep the public engaged in constant fear and avoid it becoming too comfortable and develop an ability to think beyond the status-quo. He describes how this state global dystopia arisen on the ruins of — and in a way due to — capitalism; they took the good ideals of socialism as their advertised principles just to take hold of power: “Power is not a means; it is an end,” he writes. Wars become irrelevant as each super nation is invincible; hence, “War is Peace.” The only way to be free is to abide by the rules; hence, “Freedom is Slavery.” And the more blissful you are, the more powerful is the Party; hence “Ignorance is Strength.” The three sentences form the motto of Oceania and define its inescapable, subjective reality.

Orwell’s writing may lack the exquisiteness of the great classics writers, yet his concepts are both mind-boggling and far-reaching. His well-crafted storytelling renders the efficiency of his imagined totalitarian regime; perhaps that’s why many use the term “Orwellian” to describe similar states. His futurism embodies the sum of all our political fears and even those that we might not be aware of. His deep pessimism is well rooted in reality, and his conclusions are well accustomed with what’s known about human psychology. Nineteen Eighty-Four, therefore, is a scary read that requires a determined reader to finish it and grasp it to the fullest. He would then realize that it is all the more scarier, not only because of its dystopian atmosphere with its gruesome details of injustice and the feelings of servitude but because the development of such a state in our world is all but possible.