Prophetic, veracious, frightening, actual and, most of all, mind-blowing are epithets that would perfectly describe the book 1984. With the current political climate, we might also add prescient.
First published in June 1949, mostly written on the Scottish island called Jura, and translated into sixty-five languages, this book is widely recognized as the masterpiece and the most influential work of George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair).
Classified as within the genre of political fiction or dystopian sci-fi, this novel deals with social adjustment, how it can influence and corrupt a human being, how power can crush the individuals or crowds, not just by force, but even with a small list of ideas, whether or not they make sense.
In the reality of 1984, after global war, the world is divided into three “superstates,” which are called “Oceania,” “Eurasia” and “Eastasia.”
The story is set in London, the chief city of Airstrip One, a province of Oceania which once was called England.
Society in Oceania is also divided into three levels: Inner Party, Outer Party and Proles.
The Party is the law of the country, and the leader of it is Big Brother. The government is divided into four ministries. The Ministry of Peace deals with war and defense, the Ministry of Plenty with economic relations, the Ministry of Love with law and order, and the Ministry of Truth with news, education, art and entertainment.
The Party dominates every segment of life. The city is full of posters with slogans likw “Big Brother is watching you.” Houses, offices and almost every place where people of the Inner Party and Outer Party live or work have TVs, to keep them under control and to remind them that Big Brother is everywhere. Only “Proles” are released from this grip.
People are controlled like robots, their thoughts are read as if they were written on paper, feelings are locked down or, even worse, they are denied. This could be nothing but the opposite of utopia.
Power fools poverty, power fools love, power fools reason, power fools anything and anyone, and if only one person arises against this power, the tentacles of power (the Party) will catch him violently. But they won’t deal with the body very much. They will deal with thought, with the brain. They will force him to think as they wish him to, until the forced thought becomes the only thought in his brain.
Even the language plays a role similar to punches and violence. To distract and to spread the mortification.
Winston Smith is the hero of the book. The hero of the absurd.
He lives alone in a one-room apartment in London, part of the middle class (Outer Party). His everyday meals are “Victory” gin and black bread.
Working in the Ministry of the Truth as an editor, he is responsible for historical revisionism: He rewrites records to conform to the state’s version of history. Nothing with original historical content survives, all of it destroyed with fire in the “Memory Hole.”
His tragedy starts the second that he thinks about the truth. He becomes so obsessed with thinking the truth that he criticizes the Party and the Big brother.
Actually only “thinking” is a kind of path to death itself, for Winston.
How it was life before him, how it is in actual time, and how life will be after him, are the smallest cells of the revolution, arising deep somewhere inside his body.
As he says “During time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act,” that describes very well how bad it was to live in a place like Oceania, and how miserable was Winston’s life.
Having trust issues and trying to cover this up under the dress of Party, Winston finds himself going totally against the sacred chants and ideals in place. He criticizes Big Brother, he doesn’t believe the reality in which he lives, he knows that there was a different life and, worst of all, he falls in love.
We are first introduced to Julia during the preparation for the “two minutes’ hate.” She is a woman in her mid-twenties who also works at the same Ministry. Although earlier in the book, Winston hates her and even dreams of mortifying her, after some time, Julia confesses her love for Winston, through a short letter. They both begin a love affair, which is simple and complicated at the same time. They don’t share lot of the same things. They love each other, but both know that this relationship won’t work out in the long-term.
Their first meeting happens in a small country far away from curious eyes, in beautiful nature. After that they start to commit their “crime” in a small rented room attached to an antiques shop, crucially without a TV screen, which is owned by Mr. Charrington.
Although Winston and Julia both rebel against the Party, they are completely different in their reasoning, inspiration and motives. Winston rebels in hopes that future generations will be free of the Party and be able to live in something like the Golden Ages, or the times he remembers from before the Party took over, or at least in a time where they would be free to think what they like, not denied the privilege of the truth. Julia, being younger, has no memories of a time before the Party, and therefore can't imagine a time without the Party in control. She rebels not for the future generations, like Winston, but more for the sake of rebelling. Julia believes that the only way of rebelling against the Party is with secret acts of disobedience, or at most, isolated acts of violence, because she doesn't believe that anyone or anything can defeat the Party.
Also, although Julia is against Big Brother, she does not seem concerned about the extent of his control. She is against the Party and what it stands for, but she doesn’t say clearly why. The only time Julia questions the Party's teachings is when they somehow touch upon her own life.
Everything goes downhill when Winston meets O’Brien. O’Brien, even though he is part of the Inner Party, presents himself as an agent of the “Brotherhood.”
In the eyes of Winston, the “Brotherhood” is an organization that works against and tries to bring down the Party.
To become a member of this underground society, Winston first must read “The Book,” written by the enemy of Big Brother, the outlawed Emmanuel Goldstein.
After some time, the Thought Police capture Winston and Julia in their rented room. O’Brien turns out to be an agent of the Thought Police, as was Mr. Charrington.
Winston and Julia end up tortured, in order to heal themselves from insanity, even though they have to betray each other.
Book ends with Winston Smith “cleaned” and in admiration of Big Brother. 1984’s image of the future is: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Creating this book, George Orwell was inspired mostly by communism and totalitarian systems and the wars that he had seen. But after all this time, this book it is still up-to-date.
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
We will enjoy and respect always the frightening thoughts poured out in this book, hoping that the genius who wrote them was wrong, at least in the predictive sense. But we are also aware that somehow we are living Orwell’s prophecy.
Nowadays the world has become too small, as a result of internet connections, and perhaps the only difference between 1984 and this world we are living in, is that ours is not divided into three superstates (but more of them). At least, not yet, or not quite so clearly.
There are always fresh wars that will follow the wars that are happening now. War now is a business. We have to fight in order to make peace, as someone once said, and this aphorism is just a longer version of the conundrum “WAR IS PEACE.”
The lives of individuals these days has almost zero value, almost zero privacy and almost zero happiness.
Appreciating individual life starts in those moments when a particular life is somehow connected with political interests, or when it can serve as a good marketing (propaganda) opportunity for those political interests.
The only humans who are happy now are the ones who do not follow the dogmas of society, the “Proles” that Orwell had in mind. Even though the “Proles of our time” are very few in numbers.
Just as Winston wasn’t sure that Big Brother was real, we are not sure that Big Brother does or does not exist in our time. Maybe there are more than one of them.
Every day we stare into the TV screens (or tablets or phones), a voluntary acceptance of surveillance by a series of Big Brothers. Everything now corrupts privacy and freedom. Walls have ears, traffic lights have eyes and buildings have mouths, but we continue to say that we are living free, when only few years have passed from the “surveillances scandals” which hit the basements of Free World. Big Brother is indeed watching us, and we invite him in.