Reading 1984 in 2013

1984-posterSt John’s Wood Library book group have been reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.  

But has Winston Smith’s wrestle with oppression stood the test of time and remained chilling?

And do you hear the term Big Brother and think ‘Oh great, when is that coming back on TV ?’ rather than ‘I really must read 1984’.  



Posted on March 11, 2013, in 1984, George Orwell and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. To be honest, whenever I hear “Winston Smith” I think of the big clue at the end of The Demon Headmaster…

  2. One more comment from St John’s Wood Library Reading Group:

    GEORGE ORWELL – 1984

    It is interesting that in the month I am writing this review we have seen headlines in The Sun newspaper referring to The Ministry of Truth, in response to Leveson and the proposed Charter Regulations, and the opening in London’s V & A of the long awaited David Bowie Is ….. Exhibition. During his career Bowie had several creative influences, and when he produced the dystopian fantasy album “Diamond Dogs” it was prompted after his reading of 1984. So what of 1984?

    I first read this novel as a teenager, quite a few years ago now, and my initial impression was ‘this is awful’. I then had cause to read it for a degree course and found my heart had softened towards it somewhat, and now in 2013 I find it has finally grown on me. Published in 1949 this was Orwell’s last book and was seen as a critique of the Enlightenment. Coming from a middle class background and having been Eton educated and endured all the school rules, dinners, snitching and bullying he sites these times as one of his major influences in the writing of this novel. Split into three parts we see the way of life in 1984 described in part one, his love affair and emotional development through Julia in part two, and finally their capture, torture and subsequent reintegration into 1984 society. From the moment Big Brother’s moustache is described in paragraph two we are thinking of Stalin. Orwell’s politics was of the far left and he has stated that every line of serious work he has written since 1936 was directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism. Orwell was in despair over the state of post-war socialism and believed they were only concerned with keeping themselves in power.
    One of the greatest achievements of 1984 is the identification of the term “doublethink” that is the ability to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. This concept lies behind the names of the chief ministries in Oceania – “The Ministry of Peace” wages war; “The Ministry of Truth” tells lies and “The Ministry of Love” tortures and kills people. Oceania is a class divided society with the Inner Party, the Outer Party and the Proles and it is through the latter that the protagonist Winston sees hopes in escape from the dystopian hell that is Oceania. However it is only when the Proles become conscious that they will rebel and until they rebel they cannot become conscious, the classic ‘Catch 22’.
    Throughout the book we witness the breakdown of family life with children betraying their parents, rather like the Hitler Youth of the Second World War; the constant rewriting of history and manipulation of statistics; the three party slogans “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength”; the awful food, poor plumbing and dodgy cigarettes; the glorification of manipulation of “Hate”; to the development and finally disastrous end of a love affair when the Ministry of Love have forced Julia and Winston to betray each other and enter into the condition of ‘doublethink’ both hating and loving Big Brother at the same time. The only hope and this is where my interpretation differs from my teenage years, can be found in the Appendix at the end of the book. This describes the principles of ‘Newspeak’ the official language of Oceania which “had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.” The fact that it is written in past tense could suggest, post 1984, that ‘Newspeak’ failed to catch on and had in fact become a thing of the past itself.
    There is no doubt that 1984 was prescient in its use of cameras with the current proliferation of CCTV cameras, The Big Brother entertainment show where individuals are watched 24 hours per day and shown on huge television screens in our houses; there was a lottery run by the Ministry of Plenty; daily horoscopes produced, pints were no longer served in public houses only litres and half litres etc. Now of course certain newspapers would have us believe that the State is trying to control and limit the freedom of the press through Royal Charter. Despite the fact that it was published over sixty years ago it remains relevant today and a warning about the power of hate and the manipulation of thought through language. Big Brother is watching you.

  3. Such a relevant book! Perhaps it should be read once one starts working and realises how current some of the atmosphere is.

  4. Oceania was in a state of constant war.

  5. Another reader’s comment:

    George Orwell’s book 1984 was published in 1949 following a time of enormous political and social change in Europe. Orwell had experienced the extremes of fascism and communism during the Spanish Civil War, the world was becoming aware of the full extent of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi Germany as well as those by the Japanese and facing the reality of man’s ability to harm and destroy others. During the war people had had to put their individual ambitions on hold and conform to the expectations and conditions of War. In England, London was full of bomb sites and people were still having to live with rationing. The atomic bomb had been used and a new and even more terrifying possibility of world war introduced.

    Although most people in England today would not think they live in a totalitarian society, as one reads 1984 there is a strong sense of the familiar. Orwell did not know that the stand off of the Cold War period would lead to a period of seemingly incessant military activity around the world. For the US and Britain the wars between Orwell’s Oceana and alternatively Eurasia or Eastasia seems prescient of their involvement in Afghanistan where support has been changed over the years. The Russian invasion was replaced by the hunting down of terrorists by the western powers; the use of language, not yet as advanced as Newspeak but nevertheless employed to the advantage of those in power – we were told that the Russians “retreated” whereas the western troops are described as currently overseeing a “transition” to Afghan rule. Language has also been used to disguise the reality whether the war in Iraq was seen to be won or lost. Not to mention the extremely fudged logic behind our involvement, based on the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

    The use of cigarettes and alcohol to keep people happy can also been seen paralleled in that it has been known for decades that “cigarettes kill” and yet they are still available to buy over the counter. Similarly although we receive regular and dire warnings about the harm alcohol can cause us, we can still buy it readily in supermarkets and consume it more or less as and when we like. The underclass class of the proles, people who seem completely outside of society could be seen to exist today. The groups of people marginalised because they are immigrants, or very poor, even the old and people with disabilities who can never be quite sure that the hospital staff will give them the care and respect they might give more able people or that their pensions and allowances will survive the latest round of government cuts. Government seems dominated by privately educated Oxbridge graduates, who themselves can’t be sure that they won’t be betrayed by some colleague as and when it suits them.

    As one finds the parallels in our current society, it is tempting to believe as did Winston Smith that one is able to stand outside, to think as he did, “I understand how I don’t understand why”. Orwell points us towards a recognition of the limits of democracy; despite decades of academic analysis of interpersonal interactions and of larger scale relationships between the individual and society and those politicians who hold the power. Through attempts to identify the dominant discourse and spot those values that are privileged social scientists have sough to understand “how” these relationships function in our society. The construction of conspiracy theories may help us feel that we can remain untouched and maintain our viewpoint. The reactions to the death of the Government scientist David Kelly were an example, Many of us firmly believed and still do that his death was too convenient for the Governement. But maybe it was “just” the powerful bullying of those in power that had its effect.

    In the early part of the book, it is possible to believe that Winston will survive. He will join with the mysterious O’Brien and conquer the nebulous Big Brother. But in the second half of the book it becomes clear that Winston and Julia are careering towards their own destruction. The rules are clear and they are breaking them, that from the moment he dared to pick up his pen and paper Winston was doomed. He seems to sense this as he speculates about O’Brien. As Orwell takes the reader through the complex society of Oceana a major theme is of betrayal and the complete eradication of people as individuals as well as of ideas and history. Despite the drive to stamp out the individual and especially to make it impossible to form relationships of any kind, Winston responds to Julia’s approaches and they set up their apparently safe haven above Mr Charrington’s shop.In some ways the reader is not surprised to find that Mr Charrington is in fact a member of the Thought Police and the comfort of the room above the bookshop a trap. Winston himself was employed in re wiring the news and inventing villains and heroes to match the mood of Big Brother. Big Brother is never seen but the enemy of the state, Goldstein’s face, is projected on the ever present tele screens to remind people who it was they must hate. An exercise of communal focus, bringing everyone, even Winston at times, together to share the same emotions.

    1984 is a deeply disturbing book that forces the reader to reflect on the use of language by those in power and it’s effect on the collective thoughts, emotions and behaviours of the individual within society.

  6. One of our readers commented:
    On reading George Orwell’s 1984, one is drawn into the story from the very first sentence….”It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen”. The hero, Winston Smith, lives in a dystopian future where all party members are monitored by ever-present telescreens, and conditioned to obey all commands from Big Brother and the party leaders. History is constantly being rewritten and the people come to distrust their own memories. Tenderer emotions such as love have been eliminated. Only hate and anger remain . It is a grim world with torture and death almost inevitable .
    Orwell’s prose, clear and direct, and the inventiveness of his imagination makes reading even the worst horrors bearable. We are carried along by the hope that Winston will somehow manage to evade his fate.

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