1984 by George Orwell – Book Review

1984 by George Orwell – Book Review

By Lizzie Stoddart, March 2021

*DISCLAIMER* There are some spoilers in this Nineteen Eighty-Four book review.

‘To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: 

From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings!’

Often titled 1984, George Orwell’s novel was published on 8th June 1949 by Harvill Secker. One of the first dystopian novels written, Orwell wrote the book in the midst of a tumultuous world and the events of World War Two. The would-be results of a different outcome are vividly reflected in the plot and meaning of the book. 

Typically set in horrendous, imaginary places, dystopian fiction novels often comment on our real society’s ghastly truths – an element that rings clear throughout Orwell’s novel.

The novel is set in London, in the new country of Oceania, but it’s a very different city from the one we know today. It opens in April 1984 as ‘the clocks were striking thirteen.’. The country is under totalitarian rule, meaning the government controls everything and everyone. The government is led by a party called ‘Ingsoc’, and the leader is known as ‘Big Brother’. Unknown to the citizens of Oceania, Big Brother is not a real person but a constructed representation of the Party. In this world, nothing is private. There are cameras everywhere, even in the citizens’ homes, and Big Brother is always watching you. 

‘The face of Big Brother, black-haired, black-moustachio’d, full of power and mysterious calm.’

Orwell has imagined a universe where, rather than the fate of the world resting in Winston Churchill’s hands, the responsibility is left up to an ordinary, working man: Winston Smith. Smith works in the Ministry of Truth: a government building where history is rewritten as a way of controlling the people. History books and records are destroyed, and the information the Party wants to be perceived as truth replaces it.

‘The lie passed into history and became truth.’

Smith hates the Party, and he despises Big Brother. He starts to keep a diary (an act for which he could be executed) in which he writes about his loathing and the meaning of truth and freedom. In it, he expresses that ‘freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.’ The government has such control over the people that if they say two plus two equals five, the people will believe it. They have to believe it.

‘People who had incurred the displeasure of the Party simply disappeared and were never heard of again.’

In many Nineteen Eighty-Four reviews, it is said that the characters are bland; that the reader is only sympathetic towards them because of the situation they’re in. It could be said that the characters are not characters at all, but merely a plot device Orwell uses to express his meaning. I can’t entirely agree. The characters may be perceived as bland because they have no choice. The people of Oceania are stripped of the freedom to speak for themselves or even think for themselves. The Party invented a stripped-back language called ‘Newspeak’, making it almost impossible to think a rebellious thought. If they did successfully have even one thought out of line from the Party’s values, they would be committing a ‘Thoughtcrime’. Winston Smith is one of the very few people left clinging to his true self. 

‘He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.’

When Smith first meets Julia, he hates her. She represents everything that the Party is, but she is young and beautiful, and Smith is attracted to her, so he also hates her because she is unattainable. He can’t have her for many reasons, one of which being that real friendships and relationships of any kind aren’t allowed. But when Julia slips Smith a note which reads ‘I love you’, they begin their secret affair. They discuss their loathing of Big Brother together, and as Smith develops as a secret rebel, he decides he wants to take it further and put his thoughts into action. 

Smith and Julia entrust their rebellious thoughts to O’Brian, a member of the Inner Party who seemingly sympathises with their feelings towards Big Brother. He gives Smith a book by a man named Goldstein, explaining that every rebel reads it. An unnecessarily long passage follows in which Smith is reading the book, and the reader is supplied with an extract. The passage is interesting in part, but its meaning would have still been conveyed if it was shorter, and its impact may have been stronger. 

As soon as Smith finishes reading the book, he and Julia are captured by the Thought Police. The next section of the book is where Orwell really demonstrates the true power of the Party. He highlights that if you break a person down enough, they will believe anything you say.

If Animal Farm is a satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning.

There have been many adaptations of Orwell’s novel, on the screen and the stage. His words continue to be as prevalent now as they were in a world recovering from war. Unlike Churchill, Winston Smith did not achieve a mighty victory.

‘The past was dead, the future was unimaginable.’

Orwell thought it impossible not to include his political and societal views within his work. All of his books contain societal commentary; one of the most obvious is perhaps Animal Farm. He explains in his essay Why I Write, the four great motives he believed to lie behind an author’s intention to write, the fourth being ‘political purpose’. Orwell states that no book ‘is genuinely free from political bias’ and that everything he wrote after 1937 is ‘against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism’. 

The political content of George Orwell’s novels has received mixed reactions through the decades. Nineteen Eighty-Four was even banned in some countries, and in 1981 it was challenged for its ‘explicit sexual content’ and ‘pro-communism’ in Jackson County, Florida. Contradictorily, the novel was banned and burned in Stalin’s Russia in 1950 for its ‘anti-communist’ message. Ownership of the book could have resulted in an arrest – exactly the sort of thing Orwell warns against in his work.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a powerful book. Its message is strong and will always be relevant. Despite posing as Dystopian fiction, it testifies to the harsh reality of life under dictatorial rule, a frightening future that is never very far from reach. 

‘War is peace. 

Freedom is slavery. 

Ignorance is strength.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Set in the year 1984 when Britain is part of a totalitarian state called Oceania ruled by “The Party”. The world is grasped by constant war and propaganda, surveillance, and historical negationism work together to control the population and keep them in the dark.

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