Saturday, 11 April 2009

Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

So begins probably the single most important works of literature in the Twentieth Century. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the book which characterises an age of dictatorship and control, haunts us with inconvenient truths, and offers a warning to anyone seeking to further centralise control. Where Animal Farm is subtitled A Fairy Story, Nineteen Eighty-Four might as well be classified a nightmare. For what it presents, above all else, is the nightmare of all free thinking individuals: a homogonous and all encompassing state in such complete control of every aspect of the life of every citizen that it is no longer even possible to think freely, let alone communicate that thought to anyone.

Winston Smith is a party man, loyal and dedicated. Deep inside the Ministry of Truth he rewrites the past to fit the current party line. With a flash of his pen news stories are transformed, lives deleted, events fabricated. But inside, Winston struggles against the totalitarian state, and dreams of freedom. Then, one day he begins an affair with a fellow worker named Julia, and in the midst of their romance, he begins to realise how much truth and beauty still exists outside the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. But in such a state, can love even exist? Does Big Brothers control even extend into the realms of love? And if not, what price must Winston pay to let his heart and head be free?

In a world of Newspeak, where Big Brother watches over every act of daily life, and the punishment for transgression might lie in interrogation Room 101, does Winston’s rebellion have any chance of success? And if not, does it matter?

No book more defines the middle part of the Twentieth Century than Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a portrait of a world on the brink, a warning of what could follow, a call to arms for people everywhere. And it is also a thoroughly exciting story. There is furtive sex in a forest in the middle of nowhere, a chase through the back streets of London, a love affair doomed to failure. There is something so exciting about acting out against such impossible odds. It is like a teenager trying to smoke undetected in his bedroom. The rebellion becomes self-fulfilling, the mere act of rebellion becomes romantic. If this were a sci-fi movie, it would be the biggest, grandest, most sensationally impossible movie ever made. Almost any dystopian idea since has adopted Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism. Not only have ideas such as Big Brother and Room 101 crossed over into modern parlance, so too has the bank of TV screens, the sky-high buildings, the grey concrete bureaucracy and the barely contained terror.

It is not so much that our world can be seen in the dystopia of Oceania, but it is a nightmare, full of exaggeration and impossibility, a warning of what could happen should we forget the importance of civil liberties, or fall under the sway of powerful leaders whose only goal is power at all cost. This is complete Totalitarianism as it has never existed in the real world, totalitarianism where you literally cannot evade the watchful eye of the state. In terms of historical accuracy, we should refrain from seeing it as an accurate portrayal of Purge era USSR, or China during the Cultural Revolution. Instead we should see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a classic of twentieth century literature because it catches an intellectual mood of fear and disgust perfectly. It is a warning of the direction history was moving in. In the life of Winston Smith we see the struggle of those living under any form of totalitarianism, so immediate as to be unavoidable. And in seeing it so clearly, we understand the freedoms which we sometimes ignore, but cannot live without. By staring the nightmare exaggeration in the face can we heed the warning and fight against totalitarianism wherever it raises its ugly head.

Few novels can compete with the sheer number of phrases which have crossed over into popular usage, and few novels tell a story which offers a more passionate call for freedom of thought and speech than George Orwell’s final masterpiece. Nineteen Eighty-Four is essential reading in every possible sense, and with such an engrossing plot, you will love reading it too.

9.5 out of 10

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