George Orwell's "1984" is one of the English novelist's most acclaimed and well-known works, a prescient piece of modern classic literature whose insights into the brutal nature of totalitarianism and its insidious forms of mental manipulation remain as timeless and relevant now as they were back in 1949 when the novel was first published. The breadth and scope of the novel's influence are tremendous - one need only look at the litany of political terms which it has spawned to observe its relevance and impact. "Doublethink", "thoughtcrime," "memory hole" and the adjective "Orwellian" all came into being as a result of Orwell's agonisingly brilliant and relentlessly bleak vision.
The year is 1984, and the spoils of the world have been divided amongst three triumphant warring superpowers, whose unceasing struggle for global dominance plunges the globe into a conflict without end. The novel focuses on the events in the superpower of Oceania, specifically the small island in the northern hemisphere known as "Airstrip One" (formerly the British Isles). Oceania's society is divided into three strata: the Inner Party, the oligarchic ruling class of the state apparatus, kept loyal to the party through a life of relative luxury and privilege; the Outer Party, the bureaucratic cogs in the machine of the draconian party-state, kept under constant surveillance by the secret police (Thought Police) and the telescreens installed in every room; and the Proles (proletariat), the ignorant, illiterate, teeming mass of humanity who form 85% of Oceania's population.
Winston, the novel's protagonist, is a member of Oceania's Outer Party, a man whose silent rebellion and defiant refusal to slip into the oblivion of the "orthodoxy of unconsciousness" which the Party seeks in its citizens results in a lethal game of cat and mouse with the terrifying, faceless Thought Police and brings him into the orbit of O'Brien, a mysterious, intellectual member of the Inner Party. Through Winston's intellectual, rational, non-conformist viewpoint we are introduced to the backwards madness of the Party's ideology, which boldly asserts impossibilities such as "2 + 2 is 5." Deviation from total belief in these impossibilities is classed as "thoughtcrime," punishable by death. Orwell's world is one of intense contradictions, where doublethink permeates every aspect of life. The state's super-ministries themselves are an exercise in doublethink - the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Peace wages war, and the Ministry of Love is responsible for the excruciating, systematic physical and mental destruction of ideological dissidents.
The majority of the population's uncritical acceptance of these contradiction in terms (embodied the bitterly ironic Party slogan: "War is peace, Freedom is slavery, and Ignorance is strength") are exposed by Winston, who, refusing to participate in the Party's solipsistic mass delusion, writes, "Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad ... Sanity is not statistical."
Time is malleable in Orwell's novel. The oppressed people of Oceania live only in the present, while the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Party controls both the past (a fluid and ever-changing narrative endlessly shaped by the Party's "Ministry of Truth") and the future, an uncertain mirage which promises nothing but greater suffering. As O'Brien says, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."
Orwell's prophetic, nightmarish vision is an inversion of one of the most fundamental concepts of Western philosophy - a belief in human perfectibility and capacity for improvement towards a fairer world. This was a belief sorely shaken by the trials and conflict of the early 20th century, which suffered through two devastating world wars, innumerable famines, political struggles, and economic depression. The devastation and chaos of the economic, social and political climate of the world, particularly in Europe, disproved the inevitability of progress and spawned a spawned a new generation of philosophical thinking (embodied by absurdism, nihilism, and existentialism) which focused on absurdity of our quest for purpose in a meaningless world, and the harshness of a universe indifferent to both our joy and suffering.
Orwell turns this concept of human perfectibility on its head, creating a harrowing dystopia where the tyrannies, manipulations and schemes of the totalitarian regimes become ever-more refined, ever-more inventive, treacherous and effective. There is simply no escape from the all-encompassing, ravenous grasp of the Party, which seeks the exercise of "power for its own sake." The novel, like its equally famous companion Animal Farm - a brilliantly incisive satire of the communist system - was a clear warning to the Allies who, to win the war against National Socialism and the tyranny of fascism, made a Faustian pact with the USSR and its "vozhd", Joseph Stalin. The three superpowers of 1984 (Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia), with their vast spheres of influence, closely mirror the way the Grand Alliance planned the division of a defeated Nazi Germany and a "liberated" Eastern Europe in the Tehran Conference in late 1943. Orwell takes this idea and magnifies it, creating a world entirely divided into zones of occupation.
The themes of Orwell's fantastic novel are as pertinent today as they were back then - in the current world of "post-truth", "fake news", or "alternative facts" as Kellyanne Conway notoriously put it, his novel deserves a close inspection, for those ignorant of the past are bound to repeat its mistakes. In a society where political debate is increasingly characterised by loaded language ("baby" vs "foetus; "illegal alien" vs "immigrant"), Orwell's warnings about those who manipulate language to distort thinking and discussion of ideas (embodied by Oceania's new language, NewSpeak, consciously designed to suppress thought and individuality, to eliminate the very expression of thought contrary to that of the Party) are all increasingly conspicuous.
Orwell believed, as Christopher Hitchens put it, in the "tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion." It is a heartbreaking book, but the richness of its prose, the wisdom of its insights and the passionate, tempestuous emotions which it aroused in me are all a testament to its greatness. I know of few novels I enjoyed more than Orwell's masterpiece.
Alvaro R, Year 12