Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

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Title: 1984

Author: George Orwell

Genre(s): fiction, dystopian

Length: 328 pages

Published: July 1st 1950

Rating: ★★★★

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Overview:

Not long ago, a friend of mine graciously sent me two books in the mail: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and 1984 by George Orwell. Both had been sitting on my “to-read” list for years, and having both on my bookshelf day in and out made it that much easier to pick them up: I finished the first last month and the second just yesterday. I’ve also been in a serious reading mood, picking up nonfiction books like The Gulag Archipelago or Beyond Order rather than my usual historical biographies, so that mood spilled over into my fiction choices as well. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but I don’t regret the choice in the slightest.

From what I’ve read, Orwell was a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, but even he recognized the growing totalitarianism in the world and how the desire for power—especially on a social rather than individual scale—could destroy the human mind and spirit. 1984 is the extrapolation of that idea, fictionalized yet oh so near to reality, and, despite a few flaws that might tempt modern readers to shelve the book, is just as relevant now as it would’ve been in the 1940s and 1950s.

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Style/Voice:

I don’t know why I begin reading new books expecting the prose to be difficult or dull, but I have that tendency, and I picked up 1984 with that same skepticism—only to, as I usually do, be pleasantly surprised by Orwell’s writing style. He combines simple sentence structures with vivid word choices to create a clear picture of the dystopian world of the novel (sometimes much to the reader’s horror). Here’s the opening of the book, which showcases what I mean:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of the Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the fact of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features.”

Much is established about the storyworld in only five sentences, but more than that, there’s a sense that Orwell is very at home with what he’s writing—and when an author gives off the impression of knowing precisely where the story is going, it gives some sense of confidence to readers that we can come along for the ride. This same sense is carried throughout the whole of 1984 and serves the story’s purpose well.

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Characters:

The cast of 1984 is fairly small: Winston Smith (the protagonist), Julia, O’Brien, and a smattering of side characters (Mr. Charrington, Parsons, Ampleforth, Syme). The figures of “Big Brother” and Emmanuel Goldstein also serve as part of the cast despite remaining distant from the rest of the characters. On a personal level I didn’t like any of them, in the way that one becomes fond of characters. Winston is intriguing due to a) his position in the society of Oceania, and b) his wrestling with questions about the Party, the “proles,” history, and humanity in general, but Orwell uses Winston to show many negative aspects of human nature when placed in such positions, as well. I found Julia to be a bit annoying, despite the fact that she plays a significant role in Winston’s life and the story’s themes, because her usefulness to the plot necessitated her being sexually liberal and intellectually uninterested simultaneously (which in my mind screams “male author” in a bad sense, even if there was objective reasons for why her being that way would be useful). However, much like Wuthering Heights, I don’t believe the point of the novel is to like any of the cast, but to recognize different aspects of humanity/philosophy in them and to gather information about themes through their actions (the plot)—and when viewing the characters that way, they are interesting even in their significant flaws and, in some cases, outright evilness. For the sake of spoilers I won’t discuss more, but know that if you decide to pick up this book and find yourself disliking the characters, it’s helpful to allow yourself to not like them but still analyze what the author intended to say through their personalities and choices.

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Plot:

How does one describe the plot of this book without spoiling it? The synopsis from Goodreads does a decent job: “…the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality.” In literary terms, I would categorize it as a traditional tragedy, just with the godless philosophy of modern times. In technical terms, the pacing of plot points, the timing of information reveals, and the build of suspense are all crafted very well. 1984 is a tightly constructed that is compelling even through it paints an ugly picture.

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Setting:

Although I already wrote about the characters of 1984, the setting is a main character in many regards. There’s a psychological presence to the setting that is hard to describe without spoilers. Oceania is totalitarianism to an extreme, and the implications of not just what that society became but how it grew into its monstrous form and maintains its power makes the reader feel that looming presence of evil in an almost palpable way (where otherwise it’s showcased in the infamous character of “Big Brother”). The use of description to contrast the strata of society (the often-bombed, poor areas where the “proles” live, the Outer and Inner circles of the Party, the antique shop filled with items from the past, the eating halls and bars, etc.) serve to reinforce that larger sensation—and at the end, when perhaps the most frightening location is revealed and visited, that vague dread is transformed into a potent and harsh look at just how vile the true face of Oceania is. As far as dystopias go, this is by far the most unnerving I’ve ever read.

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Objectionable Content:

The biggest source of objectionable content in 1984 is sexual. There are several instances where two characters sleep together (including some description of bodies, although none detailing the act itself), discussion of sexuality in general (usually in contrast to how The Party has attempted to squash the instinct), and one instance where a character has the desire to rape and kill another character (which is never acted upon). Bombings take place in the outer parts of the city, and people are killed during them (including an instance where a character finds the severed hand of a recent victim); there’s description of a bombing outside of Oceania of a boat of refugees. Characters are tortured via beatings, starvation, technological equipment, and psychological manipulation, and other methods of torture not shown directly are discussed. Alcohol of various types is consumed almost constantly by characters and many characters smoke. Orwell also utilizes racial descriptors, particularly of Jewish and Asian people, and while sometimes it’s ambiguous whether they’re meant negatively or not, modern readers will probably find them offensive or at least off-putting.

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Conclusion:

Have you ever read a book that left you with the sense of being haunted? I’m writing this review a day after finishing 1984, and there’s still some quiet feeling of disturbance whenever I think of it. It’s the same feeling I get while reading The Possessed or The Gulag Archipelago (albeit real accounts such as TGA affect me more this way). That is a testament to the book’s effectiveness—it’s not meant to be a pretty story showing the best that humanity can be, but a warning about the outright evil we are capable of perpetuating when gripped with a collective lust for power. Knowing what I know about history and current events, I saw within Orwell’s warning pieces of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, current-day North Korea, and even sentiments in the United States and other western countries, where language is manipulated and managed, and art and science are harnessed for the furthering of ideology. It’s not the sort of book you read to be entertained, even though it’s well-written. And while there are elements (the amount and type of sexual content, the use of racial descriptions, the general dislikability of the characters, etc.) that make me rated it 4/5 stars instead of 5/5, I see why this book is considered a classic and why it holds such significance. It’s a book I’m likely to recommend because it so poignantly captures the evils of totalitarianism. Now if only more people would heed Orwell’s decades-old warning rather than just reading about it.

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