Although I love writing I simply have to be reading at least one book that I can pick up at any given moment. I try to read a range of books, all types of fiction, biographies and, in particular, history. Over the years I’ve read some brilliant novels, some of which have inspired me in my own writing, others whose stories I cannot shake years after reading them. Compiling a list of my favourite books has proven a tall order but I have come up with what are currently my Top Ten Novels. I’ve stuck with fiction for this list as I may produce a similar one for non-fiction books I have had the pleasure of reading in the near future. The wonderful thing about books is I never tire of trying to find new masterpieces. I love the ten featured here but I wouldn’t be disappointed if ten more great novels came along that bettered them, though I think it’s unlikely to happen to all of these titles.
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 to contemporary society. 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.” Orwell’s vision of the world has three superpowers competing against each other for unclaimed land. London falls within the jurisdiction of Oceania with Big Brother the omniscient ruler, the lucrative Inner Party and the less privileged Outer Party just beneath, while the bulk of the population is made of the Proles, the everyday man and woman. In this society the primary concern of every individual is obedience to Big Brother with the fearsome Thought Police keeping careful watch over the citizens for any signs of transgression. 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 Ministry of Peace actually deals in war while the Ministry of Love practices torture. 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, Julia, which, once uncovered, leads to their capture and interrogation.
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 ill-conceived Channel 4 programme offers a reflection of how such a society would be with 24 hour surveillance wherever we are, in our homes, at work or wandering the streets. 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. 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.
Winston’s affair with Julia is reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 where Guy Montag is drawn to the free-spirited Clarisse McClellan who changes his way of thinking. Julia is from a similar mould as Clarisse. Though a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League Julia is in fact a “rebel from the waist downwards” and instigates an affair with Winston when she hands him a note with the words “I love you” written on. Winston and Julia believe their meetings in a room above an antique shop are not seen by Big Brother but the Thought Police are onto them. O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party, pretends to have ties to the rebel faction, the Brotherhood, led by Emmanuel Goldstein, and to which Winston and Julia are drawn due to their maladjustment under the rule of Big Brother. O’Brien is deceiving the couple and they are soon captured and interrogated for their transgression.
1984 delivers a crushing blow to Winston and Julia’s love affair. The Party’s ability to control the citizens is never better demonstrated than the way it breaks down Winston through relentless interrogation spearheaded by O’Brien. The infamous Room 101 comes into this phase of the novel. It is a room specially designed for prisoners and traitors and delivers the worst possible punishment – it recreates the worst fear of an individual and makes it manifest for them to suffer. In Winston’s case his great fear is rats and once in Room 101 this is what he must face. Prior to their capture, Winston and Julia love one another and relish the infrequent moments they can be together. Once the Party has finished with them their relationship is very different and as individuals they are changed forever. This is the saddest part of the novel. Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a feeling of despair throughout and Orwell’s ending is befitting of the totalitarian regime with Big Brother watching over everyone and everything.
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 suppresses 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 is a sobering thought.
Top Ten so far:-
6) George Orwell – 1984
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