I don’t know what I expected from this book, and honestly I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve read it. I think this has been made clear by my delay in writing up this post. The dystopians I’m used to usually involve teens and slick latex jumpsuits. And many of them have some empowerment and optimism attached to their plots, even when the price is high. When 1984 sales spiked after the election, I was excited to read it for my Shameful Book Club March read, which is science fiction. I should have known, however, that I was going to get something more complex and less glossy. Fair warning, this post is not graceful. My brain is all over the place on this book, and I’m definitely not educated enough on the book or the era it was written in to speak on it in any new or insightful ways, but these are my thoughts all the same.
Quick summary for those who don’t know: Winston is part of the Ingsoc (English Socialism) Party, an outer party member who lives in what was once London, now called Airstrip One, in the super state of Oceania. He works in the Ministry of Truth and his primary job is forging documents of all kind to ensure that everything on record consistently praises the Party and Big Brother (the ruler of the party who might not even be a real person). This is the Ingsoc idea of “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past,” which is totally true, and ALSO used as a banger Rage Against the Machine lyric. Man, I miss those guys right now. Winston knows he’s engaging in revisionist history, but he lacks the courage to do anything about it, at least when we first meet him he does. At this point in society’s downward spiral, if you step out of line at all or commit even the smallest act of “thought crime” (individual thought or free will), you will be swept up by the Thought Police and disappeared. You’re constantly being watched and brainwashed by the telescreens that have a dominating presence in every room in every building, pumping out propaganda and recording your every move. Sounds familiar, right?
While the party is called socialist, it has long since abandoned the tenants of socialism and is deep into a fascism that is quickly turning into something even worse. Winston has a fascination with the world before the alluded to revolution that eventually lead to Ingsoc. It starts small but grows throughout the book. He is enraptured by a bit of coral reef and is excited by completing the lines of an old nursery rhyme. When he ends up falling in love with fellow Outer Party member Julia, his world is blown open. Julia is kind of the worst. She is every apathetic, selfish young person who does not care about the bigger picture or the people around her. She has figured out ways to get around the system, despite their dangerous consequences, and cares not about the world before Ingsoc or what could be waiting for them in the future. Julia is a statement in this book. She is a wake up call for all of us. We cannot live our lives so small.
As you can imagine, they are caught. Having meaningful and sexual relationships in the Party is forbidden. They are then taken away and we readers get to see what happens in Ingsoc when you step out of line. It’s brutal. The psychological and physical torture that Winston suffers is immense and also brilliant. During the entire time Winston is being tortured and interrogated by O’Brien, a superior he once trusted, O’Brien is explaining the Party to Winston and the reason why Winston’s attempts at anything other than the prescribed behavior were futile…why he himself is futile, really. O’Brien is an evil genius, and Winston recognizes this more and more as time passes. This whole portion of the book is really fascinating because it dives deep into human nature and what builds and breaks it. I refuse to try to unpack it here. I need to read it like three more times before I even make an attempt.
During this time, O’Brien explains to Winston that the Upper Party and Big Brother’s goal is purely to possess power. There is no romantic idea that their society will save humanity. There is no lusting after money, worldly goods, or even land despite the eternal war Oceania has been in. They also don’t seem to really get off on torturing their people. They just want to turn everyone into mindless drones by taking away their free will, their autonomy, and their language (more on that later) and keep them busy by producing materials that the party can’t even use. I got a bit perplexed about all of this because to me that feels very empty. What satisfaction, even as a sadistic sociopath, would you get from this kind of motivation? I understand the addictive properties that power can have, but once they achieve the power what do they do? To me, power is a means to something more. Maybe I’m not the right psychological profile to understand this. Finally, Winston succumbs to O’Brien’s treatment and does everything O’Brien wants him to do. And then he dies.
Something that took me by surprise was that I expected 1984 to fit more perfectly with our current situation. Again, I don’t really know why. I guess the sales. People have projected a lot onto this book that I don’t think the book represents at all. When I was clocking around online to see what other things have been written about the book in the past, I came across every kind of blog trying to shoehorn it into the author’s personal political agenda. One alt-right ass used the entire book to rant about the evils of feminism and women, and totally neglected to discuss surveillance. Don’t you think a crazy alt-right blogger would be concerned about being watched?? And while the book says some interesting things about women, and I completely agree that women make wonderful vessels of indoctrination and reinforcement of cultural and political ways (just look at that over 50% of white women who voted for 45), his arguments were not about that. But what I noticed is that everyone reads 1984 and wants it to support them and have their backs. As a liberal, I point to it and say, “This is what propaganda and the Patriot Act are going to do to us!” As an alt-right garbage hole, that guy was pointing to it and saying, “This is what brainwashed liberals and women are blindly pushing us toward!” The reality is that 1984 is absolutely something to point to, but it shows us reality. It shows us a non-partisan look at how a society could potentially devolve. It shows us one example that we need to look out for. If you try to make the book support your polarized views, you will fail.
This is what happened to me. I thought it would validate me, like The Handmaid’s Tale, but I was surprised! First of all, it does not even come close to inspiring revolution. In fact, it crushes it into oblivion. It also was written during a time (publish 1949) when our capitalist way of life was severely threatened by extreme ideologies, therefore it has a bit of a cautionary tale concerning abandoning capitalism. I don’t really think that’s the vibe of those who consider themselves currently at risk. I think the popularity of Bernie Sanders proves the opposite, actually. And I already mentioned the issue it takes with women. Where we see serious parallels are with the eternal wars being waged by the Inner Party and other world powers, and the surveillance state they live in. More on that later.
While The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of God are definitely closer cautionary tales to the current climate (and in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, a reminder of our past and other’s present as well), I also read an article that vouched for Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World as the dystopia we should all have our eyes on. 1984 is absolutely relevant, but it reflects the fears of the actual date 1984 better than 2017. Yes, we are terrified of becoming the next North Korea, but the Cold War was when we were most threatened by that. McCarthyism was our 1984, but the warning it delivers is still valid. I was originally going to read Brave New World for this when I first slated the books for the year, and I am hoping I can get to it sooner rather than later now. The general idea is that society becomes placated by drugs and media, which is pretty much the deal these days.
I really want to talk about Newspeak, though. I think the concept of Newspeak was the most fascinating to me throughout the entire book. The idea of Newspeak is to limit the English language as far as possible so that communication is technically still possible for basic daily activities, but self-expression is impossible. The work Ingsoc is a great example. It’s Newspeak for English Socialism. Words are mushed together and adverbs and adjectives are done away with. Vocabulary is severely limited, so instead of having different words for different ideas you would just add a suffix or prefix to an existing word. Bad turns into “ungood.” Creating new ideas is impossible, the language of resistance is impossible, sharing history is impossible, etc. It is a critical part of the Inner Party’s master plan, which is to turn the Outer Party into worker bee drones.
I’m fascinated by linguistics and the evolution of the English (or any) language. In grad school we talked about the development of information and whether it existed or not before language. All very interesting but not very relevant to this conversation. Anyway, I get really angry with grammar police and people who disregard or disrespect dialects like Ebonics (Black speech in America). We change language to expand expression and add cultural context. It is an art. If I hear one more person complain about the evolution and use of the word “literally,” I will literally punch them in the face and then literally read the literal definition of “literally” out of the literal dictionary, and then that dictionary will literally catch a blaze with the power of truth. What’s so wrong with words changing and evolving?
(Quick reading list to educate the interested: Talking White (Slate), A Linguist Offers a Brief Immersion in Black English (NYT))
So we’ve got snotty intellectuals trying to limit and police how we speak, and then on the other side we have the anti-intellectuals who are doing the same. My boyfriend and I reflected on this when we saw a recent headline about 45 calling the perpetrators of the horrific Manchester bombing “evil losers.” Odd word choices. We were expecting something a bit more, grand, I guess? But we acknowledged that this is why people voted for him, because he speaks at an incredibly simplistic level. Some people loath eloquent political speech, and they hate when people don’t “talk normal.” They feel isolated and condescended to, and I get that. I don’t always agree with it though. Quick aside–I had a boyfriend in college who once went ballistic on me because I used the word “obnoxious.” Not only did he not know what that word meant, but he felt that I was making fun of him and insulting him by using it. I was not then, but I am now.
This is not the same as controlling thought via Newspeak to eliminate resistance and create drones, but it is a form of control via language. People react to the language of others very emotionally, and they try to eliminate that emotion (which is usually painful) by eradicating their language. I’m not going to get too deep into how I feel about this except that I do believe that there are times when a particular type of speech is appropriate or necessary, and then there are times when you should let people speak the way they want. It’s just interesting to see this in our own current society. If you want to see a real life version of the idea behind Newspeak (that didn’t really take and actually turned into one of the richest dialects ever), observe what Europeans and Americans did to African slaves.
So, to recap, Newspeak = elimination of personal expression (something everyone seems to want to do to others in our own society) and the conversion of folks into robots. And allow me to say this now, if someone has a different opinion than you, you should be f*cking thankful. Listen to that opinion, even if it hurts. Deny and deflect group think as often as possible.
Guys, I haven’t even gotten to Net Neutrality and surveillance yet. There is so much to talk about with 1984, but I think the most obvious is how we are very clearly living in a surveillance state right now. Our phones and computers are tapped, drones make it possible to expand the concept of plain view when talking about your 4th Amendment rights (if the drone can see it, you’re screwed), we put our entire lives on the internet, that same internet might start being controlled by powerful monopolies, Ancestry is collecting your DNA which might eventually get you denied for healthcare, and incredibly polarized television programs scream at us 24/7. That is pretty much exactly what’s going on in 1984…so what are we going to do about it? I highly recommend everyone come up with a game plan. Here’s a good place to start: https://libraryfreedomproject.org/resources/onlineprivacybasics/
This book ended completely devoid of all hope. I wanted so badly to see Katniss’ arrow take out Big Brother, or Snape sacrificing himself for a better future, or Mulan leading the charge against all odds! I wanted those hopeful moments I grew up with, but what I got was something much closer to reality. And if we’re even remotely observant we will see that this already has happened in countries on this planet today. There is no hopeful spark in 1984, like, not even a little bit. The only hope I can take from it is the appendix in the back that is written like a textbook entry analyzing Newspeak and its evolution. Like the discussion of finding Offred’s tapes at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, this appendix is written like an analysis of past history. Something like this could only exist if the past Ingsoc society was finally defeated or crumbled of its own accord. So there. That’s the hope. This garbage can’t last forever. Human society is always in flux, and there is hope. We just might not see it in our lifetime.
Phew, well. That was a hot mess of a post! I really want to hear what you guys think of 1984 and our current climate. Or just 1984 in general. Or dystopian/speculative fiction from the mid-20th century versus what the teens are reading these days. Are we doing ourselves a disservice with all this hope flying around? Is that unrealistic? I don’t know, let’s get into it.
And here’s a book recommendation to leave you all with: Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older.
Ok, so general Shameful Book Club update. I’m still listening to Mists of Avalon (50 hours, guys), so that post will be delayed for sure. I haven’t even cracked Under the Banner of Heaven, so expect that to be delayed as well. I’m really two thumbs up on this, aren’t I. As I said before, Practical Magic will be June’s read, and I will announce July’s read either in my next post OR before July hits, whichever comes first. July’s is VERY shameful for me. you’re going to love it!