It is a common misconception among my friends that 1984 by George Orwell is my favorite book. Mainly because I find myself in the throes of excitement saying something like, “1984 is my FAVORITE book!” You can see how confused they would be. Though there is a major soft spot in my heart for dystopian literature, it’s probably not true that it is my favorite book since, as anyone knows who has read it in the past or read along with it as part of the Reading to Know Book Club, it is not a very pleasant book to read. In some places it’s actually downright unpleasant. I have a constantly changing top ten books or so and 1984 is in there, but probably the book that holds the number one spot fairly consistently is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. However, 1984 is the book that changed my life, and potentially found me a husband. That last part is questionable, but I’m willing to run with it.
1984 was written in the aftermath of World War II and when the Soviet Union was in its heyday. It is a partial warning against state tyranny and a partial story of a revolution betraying its adherents. Eric Blair, the real George Orwell, was a democratic socialist with a strong revulsion to totalitarian government. Both 1984 and his other novel Animal Farm: A Fairy Story share the theme of the revolution betrayed by tyranny. Now, I’m actually a little confused by Blair I have to say, because he agreed with a revolution from below (socialism) but not one from above (totalitarianism) yet in both of his novels the revolution from below eventually becomes totalitarian anyway. I guess he believed that if one walked carefully and if everyone did their part we could prevent socialism from devolving. I would probably argue that in all cases history has seen this really hasn’t happened. You end up with a Stalin, or a Mao, or a Big Brother.
As a cautionary tale though, 1984 certainly works. It’s the story of Winston Smith who still clings to truth and memory and hopes that one day Big Brother will be overthrown. Throughout the book we learn the futility of one man against a set system. The takeaway is not to let the world get like Winston’s world because by that point it’s too late.
This time around I found two parts particularly chilling. The first is when Winston mentioned how “Owntime” was perceived as weird and revolutionary. Everyone was expected to share their lives and always be around others. Facebook anyone? Also, not to mention, how exhausting would that be to never have time alone? The second is the part of 1984 that always makes me cry. When Winston looks at himself in the mirror after spending some uh, quality time in the Ministry of Love building and weeps over his dehumanization. I guess it’s not chilling so much as just horribly sad.
I also think it's scary how quickly Winston's comrades swallow everything. They even forget an announcement from the day before that their rations were being lowered and rejoice when they are told that Big Brother has actually procured them more rations. They have completely forgotten the previous day's announcements. Even the proles who are relatively free are mainly wrapped up in day-to-day things and distractions like the lottery. I find myself a little like this to be honest. I have gone weeks and weeks without knowing anything that is happening in the world. The news usually makes me a little depressed and I have plenty of things at home that need taking care of. But I don't know if this self-inflicted ignorance is actually very good. In fact, re-reading 1984 makes me want to be more aware than ever.
The lack of truth or the willingness to change truth is also shocking. Truth is whatever Big Brother and the Party say is true. If they say 2+2=5 then one is to believe them. This is something that has gone on since Adam and Eve right? "Did God really say?" The enemy has always wanted to distort the truth. There is a lot of pressure on Christians to compromise on what is true, and while it is disappointing to see the ones who do cave to the pressure, it is encouraging to see the ones who believe in Truth. 1984 though not written by a Christian, is written by someone who has been given common grace. The book is a call to not let Truth go or even let it slip into compromise.
There is some amount of speculation that 1984 was originally going to be called 1948 but Orwell’s publishers thought that was going to be a little too pointed. Regardless I think the Soviet Union understood Orwell’s accusations enough to ban it from 1950 to 1990. Orwell also was influenced by the Tehran Conference when he wrote about the world being divided into Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. It is also believed that 1984 was inspired by another dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin called We. I read it a few years ago and I could see the influences, but it is not nearly as approachable as 1984.
In my Sophomore year of college I was taking quite a few English classes and learning I was much more knowledgeable in English than I was ever going to be in history. I even switched my major to English for a semester, but then I read 1984 and suddenly I realized the importance of truth and memory and what better way to preserve both those things than to have a solid knowledge of the past. So, I returned to history where I did not do nearly as well, but I did end up studying a few times with the man who later became my husband. Thanks George Orwell!
So, even though we’re over a week into May I’m still going to post this. I’m so happy that Reading to Know hosted this book as part of the book club. And thank you Annette for picking it. Also, kudos to Carrie for pointing out that as much as we may sympathize with Winston, he is still in an adulterous relationship. Sometimes I can get so caught up in the story I forget to take a step back and say, "That's not ok." I'm very glad to have had that in my head this time around. I mean, I don't think anyone every really has much sympathy with Julia "rebel-from-the-waist-downwards" Dixon (her last name is never given in the book, but a later movie gave her that name), but I do remember the last time I read it I found myself interested much more in their romance, because mine was happening at the same time. So, it's good to have some reminders of the Truth.
Also, fun personal fact: Husband and I will frequently refer to things as doubleplusungood if we don’t like something.Another fun personal fact: I have actually made up a tune for "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree."I'm humming it right now.