I always find it interesting to read iconic books and discover what they’re really like, and here’s perhaps one of the most iconic of all: one of the key works of dystopian literature, whose author’s name entered the language as a byword for oppression, largely as a result of this particular book… But, read from the vantage point of the present day, Nineteen Eighty-Four is in some ways unassuming, even unsatisfactory, as a novel: its characterisation is rather broad; its plot relatively simple; its portrayal of the ‘proles’ seems cartoonish when compared to the pin-sharp precision with which Orwell depicts the higher echelons of society; and the main female character, Julia, has relatively little role beyond being an adjunct of the protagonist, Winston Smith.
Yet Nineteen Eighty-Fourstill has power, even for a new reader who knows its basics, and partly because of the same clarity of execution which gives rise to the issues I just noted. For me, the overriding atmosphere of the novel is one of great bleakness. The ruling Party may respond with violence against any opposition to its anthology; but it’s the grim drabness of everyday life, and its acceptance by the majority of the population, that leaves the greatest impression. As Winston Smith reflects:
In any time that he could accurately remember, there had never been quite enough to eat, one had never had socks or underclothes that were not full of holes, furniture had always been battered and rickety, rooms underheated, tube trains crowded, houses falling to pieces, bread dark-coloured, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting, cigarettes insufficient – nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin. (pp. 62-3)
It’s not the operations of Orwell’s totalitarian society that I find most disturbing, but the thought processes which the Party embodies and has engendered. The whole concept of Newspeak – a language with restricted vocabulary, deliberately designed to limit the range of possible expression, and therefore of ideas – is abhorrent to me, especially as someone who loves language. The Party are oppressive rulers after power for its own sake, and literally beyond reason – when one senior figure starts spouting official pseudo-science, there is no way of knowing whether he genuinely believes it, or whether he knows that it’s just what the Party deems expedient to say; and, as the novel underlines, that doesn’t matter, because what the Party says is as good as true in the society it has created.
Nineteen Eighty-Four highlights the importance of diverse thought and opinion; that is what the Party cannot tolerate, what might cause their downfall if they allowed it to spread. We also see the dangers of not engaging – Julia may oppose the Party, but her approach is no basis for effective opposition, because she’s not interested in building the future or talking about politics. It’s the portrait of a world where options have been closed off and forgotten about that makes Orwell’s work so chilling, even now; and long may that continue to be so.