I’d always wanted to read 1984. The opening line alone is one of the most iconic in all literature (even if the clocks striking thirteen ends up meaning that the city simply operates on a twenty-four hour clock rather than a twelve hour one, a fact that makes the line way less impressive and takes a lot of credit away from Orwell). I’m starting Brave New World, a companion novel of sorts to 1984, at the time of writing this review, and the description of that by Arthur C. Clarke (an author I’ve reviewed a few times on this site, both Fall of Moondust and Space Odyssey) is “A startling warning against a future that seems eerily present already”, and that’s also a perfect summary of 1984.
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, altering the past to preserve the ever-changing present, brought about by the all-powerful Big Brother, the omnipotent ruler of Airstrip One (London). After hearing rumours all his life of the mysterious Brotherhood, an organisation said to be rising from the shadows to stand against the totalitarian government that watches and monitors the public’s every move at all times with the sinister Thought Police, Winston resigns himself to becoming a member of this secret revolution. Concepts abound that were very present both at the time Orwell was writing, and also persist in the dictatorships of today.
Obviously, 1984 is a social commentary at heart. There is a storyline there, but it’s difficult to write at great length about it when an overshadowing mass of the narrative is, as already mentioned, a warning to keep democracy’s values held high and not to give in to those in positions of power when they seek to alter our very existence. Of course, it’s an extreme example, but it makes a lot of sense. That said, though, it makes it hard to write a review of it as one would for a regular novel. The storyline itself isn’t the main point, and it really has to be examined as a political piece, which is not what this site is really for. I personally didn’t actually like the plot, and found it to be very unsatisfying, especially seeing as it started out with such great promise. Movies like Equilibrium clearly draw influence from Orwell’s classic, and I thought the novel was going to go something like that film did, with a great twist at the end and the destruction of the antagonist. But it didn’t. A fact I will discuss in the ‘To be Improved’.
To talk about some of the strengths of the novel, though, I particularly enjoyed the implied backstory. I touched on this in my review of Bright, where I pointed out that I much prefer to be shown backstory and not told it through large walls of expositional text. High fantasy like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones find it particularly difficult to avoid this, and it’s why I’ve nearly always steered clear of that genre. With 1984, the so-called ‘Floating Fortresses’ and ‘Malabar Front’ expertly conjure up imagery of faraway exotic lands and conflicts so removed that even though you can picture them exactly from the brief description, they (like modern-day Syria, Iraq and the like) are too distant to be of much immediate concern to you. It was just tastefully done, and I appreciate that.
Then, a sudden dramatic change around halfway through the novel from the deep, dark, rocket-bombed cityscape to the rolling British countryside, complete with carpets of bluebells and wriggling dace in babbling brooks, was as stark a contrast as that between to separate alien worlds. Which, in many ways, it is, and that’s the point. The real world is so far afield from the horrors of Big Brother and Room 101 that it really is like another planet, unreachable and far away. Whether this was Orwell’s intention, I’m not sure, but it really felt like it.
To be Improved:
My big issue with 1984 is how quickly it goes downhill. It takes Winston such a long time to garner up the courage and resources to stand in the face of the Thought Policing and everything else going on around him, to rise up against the total submission to the government, but then it takes a fraction of the time to break him back down again and ruin all that he has worked towards. The story sort of dead-ends itself right at the last few pages, and that was really jarring seeing as it seemed to be building up to something way more important and exciting than the protagonist failing. Losing. Giving up.
You stand behind Winston for so much of the novel, even enduring the horrors of the Ministry of Love’s torture facilities with him, with such brutal descriptions and reams of illogical fallacies spouted from O’Brien, the ringleader of the operations, that you feel sick to your stomach. And then it’s all for nothing! So frustrating.
After talking to my dad about the novel for a good hour after finishing it, I realised that the entire point of it is not the story itself, or the plight of the everyman (with a name like ‘Smith’, who else could the hero represent but everyone?), but the very fact that it gave us enough food for thought that we could discuss it at great length uninterrupted. In this way, 1984 is a very scary thing, because the principals of doublethink and the whole ‘the whole point is not the fact that there is a point but whether or not you think there is’ thing literally jump out of the page and make their way into the real world. It’s all a bit meta and it makes my head hurt, but props to Orwell for managing to do so.
Enjoyable enough, and certainly not a book I ever found myself stuck on at any point, but not an outright page-turner either. The first chapters really set up the main character and give you, the reader, this real burning spark of hope that lasts until the very end, where just as it is about to turn into a raging fire of rebellion it is stamped out by the antagonists, never to be seen again. A bleak commentary on the state of dictatorships and the risk of letting society fall to the demagogues, the underlying warnings behind 1984 are extremely cunning for its time, but unfortunately the novel falls short in terms of narrative quality in the face of the more poetic and poignant modern classics like The Road.