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Nineteen Eighty-Four
by George Orwell

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I believe this was my third reading, the first being sometime in the early to mid-'70s, and the second might have been shortly before, or after, the John Hurt/Richard Burton film version was released in 1984. I recall a TV airing of the 1956 film with Edmund O'Brien and Jan Sterling, but don't remember when or much about it, and it was probably before I was even aware of the book. While most adaptations, and some reprints of the novel, use the numerical version of the title, the copy I have now recreates the original first edition cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) submitted it to his publisher in December 1948, publication coming in June of the following year. Much has been written and said about this novel since, so I doubt I'll be able to bring anything new to the discussion. This review could concentrate on how prescient Orwell was about government surveillance and obfuscation, over the entire span of time from then to now, or only on our current situation, since "alternative facts" is eerily similar to "doublethink." Instead, I'll try to focus on the time it was written, Orwell's influences and motivations, and the construction of the plot and character dynamics.

There was something I read once, although I couldn't recall where, even thought I might have imagined it, or maybe it was just something a friend had said while discussing the book. Then research brought me to the main Wikipedia article that answered the question. Anthony Burgess, in the introduction to his novel 1985 (which I have read but don't have a copy now, and it is out of print), made the claim that Orwell originally intended to title it 1948, the year in which he wrote it. That wiki also states the date within the book itself was changed several times throughout the editing process, but doesn't specify it was ever 1948, but it did go from 1980, to '82, finally to '84. Orwell conceived of the idea in '44, and began in earnest on the novel in '47. The book's main character, Winston Smith, isn't even sure what year it is, so in a sense the time the events are occurring is both questionable and irrelevant. It could be any time, any place, including an alternate history track.

Orwell is generally considered to have been a Democratic Socialist, but adamantly opposed to totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. He fought briefly on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Loyalists supported the democratically elected, left-leaning Republican government, while the Nationalists were made up of mostly far right military personnel. The Nationalists were supported by Germany and Italy, the Loyalists by, among others, the Soviet Union, although there was also a faction of anti-Stalinists, which is the group Orwell joined. I haven't found any reference to Orwell ever visiting Russia, but he was obviously well aware of Stalin's Great Purge and other atrocities. However, this novel is set in London, but it clearly mirrors things that had happened, and were continuing in Russia. England has been renamed Airstrip One, and is only a small part of the conglomerate nation of Oceania, which also includes all of the Americas, Australia, portions of Indonesia, and southern Africa. I'm not that knowledgeable of conditions in England after WW2, although I am aware they continued a program of strict rationing while the economy recovered, which is also the case in Oceania during its perpetual war economy. It is possible Orwell saw a strong fascistic sentiment among certain groups, as there had been before the war, in both England and America. Perhaps Orwell envisioned his country taking even more extreme measures to exert control over the populace. He may have thought fascism could never be completely defeated, or else he merely wanted to warn of the possibility. No matter the date, 1948 or 1984, or the location, the novel deals with what is likely to happen any time personal liberty is restricted.

Several times I had to keep reminding myself this was not written in first person. Winston Smith is the main character, everything is recounted and described from his perspective, but the narration is in omniscent third person. The ending clearly establishes why it couldn't have been Winston telling his own story. After multiple readings, several plot holes are evident, but they might not be noticeable to first time readers. Winston initially thinks Julia, whose name he doesn't know until later, might be a member of the Thought Police. On several occasions he is convinced she is spying on him. At the end of the book, that notion was still in the back of my mind, since we aren't privy to her interrogation, we only have her word she underwent torture too. Winston frequently exhibits behaviour that directly contradicts the things he knows he should avoid, and it is easy to suspect Julia was used to trap him. Either that, or she was also indiscreet, or just didn't care. Maybe she was only rebelling against the Anti-Sex restrictions, without any intent to otherwise defy the Party. Each reader will have to decide for themselves which scenario makes more sense. It is clear that sex was not Winston's primary motivation, but rather the stronger emotion of love. The Party could not tolerate familial or marital love, that had to be reserved for Big Brother.

I think Orwell made a mistake including long excerpts from the book supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, leader of the underground opposition movement known as the Brotherhood, both of which we later learn might be total fabrications. It does present interesting ideas, but those would have been better served in a separate essay, or as part of the appendix, which already has a discussion of Newspeak. Those excerpts interrupt the flow of the narrative, which is a lot more literary than is usually acknowledged. Yes, the themes of oppression and defiance are important to consider, but there are also many lyrical passages; Winston's longing for friendship (not just comradeship); his attempts to recall his childhood; his fear and trepidation when trying to hide his activities from Big Brother; and most definitely his blossoming love for Julia, and the stolen hours he is able to spend with her. The ideas and contradictions inherent in Newspeak, the concept of Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and others, continue to resonate, but much of the strength of the book lies in its disection of the human heart and spirit, even if those are ultimately broken. I doubt it has ever been out of print since initial publication, and it is sure to be read and reread by countless generations. A few of my comments might sound negative, but this is a remarkable book, with important ideas. In other words, it is doubleplusgood.


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George Orwell

June 8, 1949

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