A friend of mine once lamented that great literature is often wasted when we’re forced to read it in high school. Some works need a bit more time and distance to be fully appreciated. And then there are those that hold up to being read then and then read again with a different life perspective.
After spending the last few days immersed in the nightmarish world of George Orwell’s 1984, I can’t help but feel this is a novel that should be read not only in high school but every few years after graduation day.
I read this one in school and beyond the popular culture allusions to it, I didn’t recall the true dark nature of the story nor Orwell’s fascinating world-building within the printed page. Starting off with the great opening line about a clock striking thirteen, the novel immediately set me on edge with that feeling that something is horribly wrong here. In some ways it reminded me of certain episodes of Star Trek where mind-bleepery is on full display. As the audience, we know something isn’t quite right with reality and we spend the rest of the episode trying to figure out if and when our familiar characters will return to the reality we know for most other episodes.
The nightmarish part about 1984 is that the characters are caught up in this world and there is no escape back to a less harsh reality. Winston Smith works for the State, altering historical documents to support the regime’s current view of history and to keep the population under control. As the novel points out multiple times, control of the people is easy if all the supporting documentation to the contrary backs up your point. Eliminate any hints that you’re fallible and suddenly, you’re not.
A thinking man, Smith wants to escape. He’s haunted by memories that his country was originally at war with another world superpower who is now their allies in the fight against a superpower that was the ally before. The State (through the means of Big Brother) whips up the hate for the nameless, faceless enemy, even though there is little or no evidence that the war is actually taking place or has any hopes of ending any time soon. It’s a bit chilling to ponder this in our current age. The population is also kept under control by not knowing if and how time is passing. Has it been a year, more, less? It’s hard to tell in the world of Orwell with the constantly blaring screens that monitor your actions and thoughts in every home.
Reading 1984 again, I was struck by how much of what Orwell predicted is coming to pass.
And how we have allowed it to come to pass. We allow monitoring for the sake of being more secure and we have multiple screens in our homes that can and do monitor our every thought. As exciting and powerful as Siri or Alexa can be, it’s a stark reminder that they can be used to control us as well. And how it can all be done some subtlety.
Winston wants to rebel, he’s just not sure how. He starts out keeping a journal and slowly tries to find someone to share his subversive tendencies with. This comes in the form of Julia, a woman who works for another division. Winston goes from suspicious of her (he wants to kill her, fearing she is a member of the Thought Police) to being romantically linked to her when she slips him a note professing her love. The two meet surreptitiously and begin an affair. Big Brother has even gone so far as to rob humanity of the beauty of sex.
Julia is interesting because while she’s willing to rebel, she’s not as interested in Winston is in the whys and reasons to rebel. She’s content to rebel by sleeping with Winston and getting certain contraband items for the two to share. But she’s not interested in trying to figure out how and why it is the State and Big Brother rose to power.
And while I’d read the novel before, I couldn’t help but wonder if somehow Julia was less an agent of subversion and someone sent to ferret out Winston as a rebel. Orwell seems to imply as much from Winston’s initial reaction to his disbelief that someone young and attractive like Julia should seek him out. While the two are captured together and sent to the Ministry of Love for interrogation and rehabilitation, I still can’t help but question Julia’s motives and role. Maybe I’m reading too much into the story, but reading the novel this time around I kept wondering if she was in on it and using sex as a way to expose potential radicals and revolutionaries.
It’s paths like this and ponderings that make 1984 stand up as great literature. If you haven’t read it lately, it’s a book worth re-reading. And if you haven’t read it yet, it’s one you need to seek out and find out. It will chill you, it will set you on edge and it will make you think.