What can I say about this iconic and influential book which hasn’t already been said?! It’s 70 years since it was published – at some risk – by Secker and Warburg.
This is my third reading of the book. Interestingly, I understood and appreciated it better this time around. Either I have acquired more brain cells, or the writing is finally sinking in. I’d remembered the text as difficult to wade through, but it turns out that the only parts I struggled with were the sections of a banned political tract which are reproduced in the story, and the appendix on Newspeak at the end.
Although Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the first dystopian novel, it’s certainly the most famous. The world is divided into three warring superstates. Our rebel protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in Airstrip One, Oceania. His job is to alter or delete the records of the past. Society is composed of proles (working class), Outer Party members (middle class – Winston is one of these) and Inner Party (the top dogs), headed by a figure called Big Brother. Although Winston is being watched all the time and knows that sooner or later he will be caught and tortured by the state, he gets away with little acts of rebellion. Then he meets and falls in love with Julia, sealing their fates.
I can’t help rooting for Winston and Julia every time. I know they’re not going to single-handedly bring down the totalitarian state. There’s no escape either, because Big Brother is always watching. However, there’s a hint of hope for the future, which Thomas Pynchon points out in his introduction to my edition of the book. The appendix tells us more about Newspeak, the stripped-down, censored, politically correct version of English which the Party intends for everyone to use. It’s written from the perspective of some time after 2050 and suggests that maybe there was a change in government which meant that Newspeak was not adopted after all.
It’s worth noting that the year is not as significant as we might think. Originally, Orwell set the book in 1980. Winston Smith guesses the year is 1984 – he can’t be sure, as the old dating system is not used in Oceania. I don’t see the novel as a prediction of ‘this is what things will be like in 1984’. Actually, the atmosphere has a flavour of the postwar austerity of Orwell’s time – rationing, shabby clothes, greyness, bomb-damaged buildings. Winston even has a troublesome cough, an echo of the author’s illness. I think the novel is an outstanding achievement, especially considering that Orwell had been diagnosed with TB before he wrote it. He died in 1950, leaving us a legacy of brilliant writing and powerful ideas.
First published in 1949. This edition is from Penguin Modern Classics, 2003.
I discuss the 1984 adaptation of the book, starring John Hurt, in this post.