Like so many sci-fi authors and Tarot card readers, George Orwell sat down one day, combed out his half-mustache, and pondered the fate of humanity. Will the dolphins take over? he wondered. Or perhaps the Brain?
In the blissfully ignorant era pre-Snooki, he did not assume, like we all do nowadays, that reality TV producers will eventually round up what’s left of mankind, force us all to participate in a singing/dancing/modeling/extreme eating/extreme weight loss competition, and reward the winners with a battle royale in the Hollywood Hills.
With war on the brain in the brief span of time between World War II and the Cold War, Orwell reflected on Government’s uncanny ability to go from 0 to Catastrophe before you’ve burnt your toast in the morning. And sometimes it doesn’t stop there. Sometimes its influence is so invasive and so sinister that we can only whisper the name of the enemy—like communism and Voldemort.
Winston Smith, 1984′s unlikely protagonist, does not do much in his own dedicated novel. In doing only a little, he metaphorically does a lot—but don’t get your hopes up about an action-adventure tale of revolution and heroism. Mostly, Winston commits “thoughtcrime” (privately questions and criticizes the nation’s leadership), has a clandestine affair with a woman named Julia (who should have been the story’s lead), and reads a book. Winston’s minimal acts of resistance, in fact, tell us less about him, and more about the dystopian society he calls home. “Airstrip One,” as Great Britain comes to be known, has fallen under tight control of a tyrannical political system (“Ingsoc,” short for “English Socialism”) led by “Big Brother.” Big Brother is probably more of a personification than a person, but he is notably depicted as also having a mustache. Every thought, action, and emotion under Ingsoc is dictated and monitored by Big Brother, leaving no room for independent thought or guilty pleasures like Channings and Tatums.
Winston and Julia’s love affair is so strange it would leave even Woody Allen scratching his head. It begins with a gratuitous note from Julia proclaiming “I LOVE YOU,” and ends with rats trying to gnaw off Winston’s face. Their mutual betrayal in the book’s final pages would have struck with more resonance if anything up until then were more plausible—but then, I liked Alias, so what do I know?
1984 is a downer, best read on a rainy day—but it is also engaging and thought-provoking. It serves as an always-relevant reminder that our best hope for the future is teaching younger generations not what to think, but how to think. And Winston’s character comforts us with the knowledge that we can’t all be heroes, or even interesting, and that’s OK (kind of).
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Merciless teasing of Winston aside, yes.
If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.
It struck him as curious that you could create dead men but not living ones. Comrade Ogilvy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar.
It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same—everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same—people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.