Just in case you’ve never heard of this book before (you barbarian), a few quick facts: Eric Arthur Blair, under the name of George Orwell, wrote it in the late 1940s. He died shortly after publishing it. He wrote a few other novels during his life, but none so famous as Animal Farm, which preceded Nineteen Eighty-Four and is about a bunch of farm animals who rebel against their master and start running the farm for themselves but is actually a satirical allegory of the rise of communism in post-revolutionary Russia.
Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four carry the same message: they want to warn us of the danger of not thinking for ourselves and giving too much power to those who govern over us. According to Wikipedia these two books together have sold more copies than any two books by any other twentieth-century author.
Most people in the English-speaking world are forced at one time or another to read Animal Farm during high school (I can recite significant portions of Animal Farm from memory – occupational hazard of being an English teacher), which is a shame, really, as they end up hating what is really a delightful little novella. On the other hand, for some reason people think there’s something wrong with them if they have not yet read Nineteen Eighty-four, or at least, that’s the only conclusion I can draw from the fact that it’s the book most people have lied about having read.
If you haven’t read either of these, but are planning to still do so and don’t want me to spoil it, you might want to stop reading about here. If you’re not planning to read them, read on – at least next time you lie about having read it you’ll sound a bit more informed 😉
All I really knew about this novel before I read it is what it said in the blurb and every shortened bio of Orwell I’ve ever encountered: that it’s about a totalitarian society where your every move is scrutinised by ‘Big Brother’, where no word, action or even thought is private from those in power.
Nineteen Eighty-four is the story of Winston Smith. Winston is guilty of the only crime that still exists in Oceania – thoughtcrime: quite literally, the crime of thinking. Because in Oceania you are only allowed to think what the Party tells you to think; you’re only allowed to remember things the way the Party said it happened and if the Party says two and two is five, then you disagree at your peril. But that’s exactly what Winston does. He disagrees. He starts questioning the teachings of the Party, and his job of routinely rewriting the truth. He wonders if it’s possible to remove the Party from power. He does a bunch of things (in secret, of course) which, while not illegal (because nothing is illegal) is not what a member of the Party ought to be doing, and finally he manages to join the Brotherhood, a secret organisation that exists to bring down the Party.
But in Oceania, Big Brother is always watching, even when Winston thinks he is safe from Big Brother’s eyes. Big Brother listens to every word, views every action – he even listens to what you mumble in your sleep, and Winston finds himself in the hands of the Thought Police. Helpless before their torture and brainwashing he finally relents, betraying himself and the woman he loves and admitting that it’s easier to simply let Big Brother think for him.
Books have been written on Orwell’s dystopian society where the Ministry of Truth propagates lies, where War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength and Freedom is Slavery by people much cleverer than me, so I’m not going to get into that. What I will say is that it gripped me from page one and it made me think. There was a section in the middle where Winston was reading The Book – let’s call it the Brotherhood’s manifesto. I laboured through those pages and very nearly skipped them and think Orwell could have given us that information without actually quoting the book Winston was reading. On the other hand, he made up several pages of a comprehensive political theory for a work of fiction and deserves credit for that.
I did not much like the ending – I’m a romantic and will always be a sucker for ‘happily ever after’ – but it really couldn’t have ended any other way than with Winston failing before the overwhelming might of Big Brother. For ultimately that’s the warning of Nineteen Eighty-four: if we allow those in charge to have too much power, if we give up too much of our privacy, if we become lazy in thinking for ourselves, we will eventually reach a point where a return to how things were will no longer be possible.
And today more than ever we must take this warning to heart. Wherever we go we are being watched by security cameras and, thanks to remote access, even inside your home through your webcam, tablet and Xbox Kinect. With the introduction of Google Glass this will only escalate. Speaking of Google, do you have any idea just how much of your information they have access to? Reading this article one has to start wondering who’s watching the watchers.
In South Africa you need to show your photo ID and proof of address to get a cell phone and parliament recently passed legislation that makes it illegal for journalists to expose government corruption if their source information is deemed classified. Under the Patriot Act US federal agencies can intercept private communications without a warrant and detain people without trial on mere suspicion. Dehumanising treatment of law-abiding citizens in the name of safety have become the norm at airports around the world. There are many more examples around the world of certain groups of people getting more power than is good for them.
The world Orwell envisioned is frighteningly close today. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.