George Orwell – 1984 (1949)
The most famous dystopian novel ever written, George Orwell’s final book resonates in modern society with such terms as ‘newspeak,’ ‘Room 101’ and, of course, ‘Big Brother’ now part of the public consciousness. Though Orwell’s vision did not occur in 1984 there are some aspects of his future society that are relevant today. It is a brutal depiction of a totalitarian regime where obedience is paramount and the forsaking of those you love is more preferable to breaking the rules.
Set in London (Airstrip One) in 1984, the novel follows the progress of Winston Smith who works in the Record Department of the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite historical texts and sources to create a vision of the past that is suitable to the needs of the Party, the ruling order who maintain control over the citizens via extensive surveillance cameras and the imposing head of their Party, Big Brother, whose image is plastered on posters with the stark warning, “Big Brother Is Watching You.”
As part of the Outer Party, Winston works for one of the four Ministries – Peace, Plenty, Love and Truth – whose titles are actually the opposite of their true natures. The four Ministries have the responsibility of maintaining control over the citizens but in Winston they have an individual who manages to write his hatred of Big Brother in a book out of view of the surveillance cameras but his biggest act of disobedience is his affair with a mechanic named Julia. Can love overcome an unforgiving society?
1984 can be read both as a novel with an engaging plot and as an analysis of society as Orwell saw it in his time and how he envisaged the world would develop. Freedom of individuals is feared by authorities and the only way to truly be in control is to deny your subjects all their rights. Any hint of disobedience is punishable by extreme torture and even death. Totalitarian regimes do exist in the world today where individuals have little in the way of rights but Orwell’s vision is of something even more extreme. Big Brother has the ability to monitor an individual’s every move.
The Party is fearful not just of actions but of thoughts and ideas. All rebellions and revolutions begin as ideas and the Party seeks to control even this aspect of the individual. Winston’s work in the Ministry of Truth in editing historical documents exemplifies the idea that the Proles are not only told what to think but they are told how society, history and the world in general functions and such knowledge is not to be questioned. In our society we give so much credence to what is on the news or in the media. Given necessary images and correspondent reports we accept what we are seeing, we may question the morality of a given event but we don’t question whether the facts we are given are correct or not. In Apocalypse Now! Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) reads articles from American newspapers to his would-be assassin, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), which reveal the Vietnam War is going well and that the US is on course for victory. Major battles the Americans may have won but the Vietnamese were the eventual winners after wearing their enemies down over many years through attrition. The media is a powerful tool in our society and in 1984 the Party is aware of its own influence given the unquestioning loyalty of its subjects.
1984 is a fascinating and incredible book. Orwell’s vision and terminology have, to some extent, become part of our society today. Surveillance cameras are plentiful and the idea that we could be watched and listened to at any moment is certainly not out of the question. The totalitarian regime that attempts to suppress Winston and Julia with such relentless malice is a frightening one but with the continued advancements in technology it is less far-fetched today than it was when Orwell first wrote the novel, and that remains a sobering thought.
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