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“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” – 1984, George Orwell

Initial Thoughts: This one the last books that I was assigned to read for a university course on Modern British Literature. Before reading the book, I had been planning to read it for years, but I had kept putting it off. In fact, this book was on my spring-summer reading list of 2016, which you can view here if interested. One of the reasons why I had been planning to read 1984 for a very long time is primarily due to its popularity and its relevance in popular culture. I have heard the line “Big Brother is watching” many times and I wanted to know just who was this Big Brother character, and why was he always watching…

Plot Summary

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU…eye-491625_1280

In Oceania, everyone watches and records your every move. One suspicious action can be the difference between safety and being wiped out of existence. When Winston Smith begins to write in a diary – an illegal action – he knows that the thought police will be on his trail. Faced with the inevitability of being caught for his crime, Winston begins to question his place in society, only to discover that there are deadly secrets behind the protective face of Big Brother.

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About the book

Title: 1984

Author: George Orwell

Year Published: 1949

Pages: 326

Series: N/A

Genre: Fiction, Dystopia, British literature, Classic, Science fiction

The Review

In a society where everyone is watching your every move and thought, is resistance possible? George Orwell’s 1984, paints a portrait of a society that uses technology to spy on its citizens, meanwhile spewing out propaganda such as the famous slogan repeated throughout the book: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

When one man, Winston Smith, attempts to rebel against the ideas of the party, he begins to discover the cruel mechanics behind the seemingly efficient façade of Oceania. Oceania’s society prides itself in manipulating historical events in order to serve its own purpose. Society has become nearly entirely automated that seemingly no one benefits from obtaining power over others.

In recent years, 1984 has been mentioned a lot in media coverages. Every time there is a reference to the invasiveness of social media or technology, people quickly say “this is just like 1984, Big brother is watching you!” In some ways, Orwell’s story is a reminder to retain a critical spirit in regard to technology which facilitates surveillance. However, this book is completely fictional and shouldn’t necessary be taken as gospel.

One of the reasons why Oceania in 1984 appears to be such a convincing society is Orwell’s meticulousness. He explains his dystopian society as efficiently as how Sir Thomas More’s Raphael Hythloday explains Utopia. Orwell touches on how society organizes relationships between individuals, labour and social classes, entertainment and the role of art, politics, war, philosophy, daily habits etc. of the people of Oceania. No stone is unturned. Every detail is so well-supported that it would be difficult to refute whether such a place actually exists in an alternate universe.

One of the biggest plot devices in the novel (no spoilers, I swear!), is Oceania’s use of “Newspeak.” Basically, Newspeak is used as a way to control the thought processes of the individuals of society by eliminating words that carry ambiguity or contrary meanings. In my edition of 1984, Orwell provides an “Appendix” which includes “The Principles of Newspeak.” Orwell explains the function of “Newspeak” along with how sentences are created. When reading this explanation of “Newspeak,” and while reading 1984, I began to understand how a person’s language has an influence on how they think. Without the words to express an emotion, thought, or action, a person is left isolated in his mode of thinking. By controlling language, a society can limit the voices of the individuals.

For someone such as myself who is double-majoring in English Literature and, French Communication and Culture, “Newspeak” is a very interesting concept. As I regularly use both languages on a daily basis, I often find that certain words in either language can express similar concepts in vastly different ways. Sometimes, I imagine myself to have two different brains, an English brain, and a French brain. Having both languages at my disposal, I believe that how I see the world is different than someone who knows only English, or French. For Oceania’s “Newspeak,” by eliminating words, society is also narrowing how the individual sees the world, thus eliminating the chances for individuals to rebel or complain against the principles of society.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of 1984 is that Oceania could be a real society, and Winston Smith could be a real man. Many aspects of Oceania’s society closely mirror Western society. That is, until you look closer and realize how Orwell seamlessly weaves current issues into a framework of speculation. When I finished the book, I wondered, could Oceania be a real society today? And the answer was yes, it very well could. But is Oceania parallel to modern society, in that respect I would say no.

The story reminded me a lot of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which focuses on a dystopian society where everyone is entertaining themselves to death. Meanwhile, society systematically cuts out the empathetic ties between individuals in favour of a society which prefers efficiency (such as the line-production).  The two novels are often triumphed for being the two best dystopian novels of the 20th century. After reading both novels, I would say that 1984 triumphs over Brave New World. Brave New World reads like a science fiction novel where society is so radically altered it appears unrecognizable. This can be seen especially at the beginning of the novel where the director takes a group of students to see the growth and development of the newborns. While this could happen, it is not entirely a plausible scenario. Orwell’s novel, in contrast, creates a society which does not necessarily diverge into the path of science fiction. All the technology used in 1984 can be easily transferable between most of our technologies of today. In this regard, 1984 is the stronger of the two novels. Though, I would recommend reading them both if you are a fan of dystopian literature!
Final rating: A+

 

Until next time,

-Alice

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