Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell revisited – Part I

On Monday thebookboozer posted a rant about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  She didn’t like it.  At all.  In fact, I think she used the word ‘hated’ in her commentary.  This intrigued me, as I think it’s a brilliant novel, perhaps not in terms of the writing, but definitely in terms of content and message.  I decided, rather than hijack her comment section with my thoughts, I’d write my own post to respond to the reasons thebookboozer gave for disliking the novel and explain how I think one should approach the novel to truly get the most out of it.

1984 by George Orwell book cover

Let’s start with the specifics thebookboozer highlighted for disliking the novel.  The first part of her rant was directed at the supporting character, Julia.  She calls Julia “the worst character ever”, which begs the question, what constitutes a poor character?  I would say a poor character is a character that does not accurately reflect a real human being, a caricature, if you will.  Is Julia that?  I think not.

She is not entirely three-dimensional.  With the novel written exclusively from Winston’s point of view, we get little insight into her thoughts, desires and motivations save what she reveals through her words and actions towards Winston.  But to me she seems a fairly accurate depiction of the student revolutionary – those wannabe activists and anarchists who litter university campuses (and political parties) across the world who are all about organising protests and shouting slogans but lose interest the moment serious discussion starts.

Is she a likeable character?  Not at all.  Is she a hateable character?  I’d understand if you feel that way.  But a poorly written character?  There I disagree.

Her second gripe has to do with repetitiveness and in particular The Book which takes up a significant number of pages in the middle of the novel.  The Book is given to Winston by another character and is basically the manifesto for the resistance.  This section is hard to read, as I admitted in my own review of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it does repeat much of the information we had already gotten from Winston earlier in the novel.  But I’ll say again that one must admire Orwell’s genius in creating such a detailed history and political system for his fictional world and conveying it in a manifesto that completely differs from the rest of the novel in terms of tone and style.

Or put differently:  sure, that bit is incredibly boring and not crucial to the plot, but give credit where it’s due.

thebookboozer disliked O’Brien’s elaborate entrapment to convict Winston of “thoughtcrime” while he actually knew of Winston’s treachery from the very start and didn’t even really need a reason to arrest Winston in the first place.  On the one hand that could be considered poor plotting, but on the other it illustrates a government so secure in their own power that they amuse themselves by letting dissidents entertain treacherous thoughts and even letting their enemies believe they’re winning, only to make them fall that much harder in the end.  If that kind of power doesn’t scare you, I’m very worried about where our society is heading.

Finally Room 101 was one too much for thebookboozer.  From the moment of Winston’s arrest we are teased with the spectre of Room 101.  Whenever someone mentions it it’s with the utmost terror at what lies waiting there.  What is waiting there is different for every person as Room 101 contains every person’s greatest fear.  For Winston it is rats and that’s what finally breaks his last piece of resistance.  The threat of being eaten alive by rats makes him finally betray Julia, the only thing they could not get him to do otherwise.

thebookboozer makes the very noble claim that she’d never betray her loved ones if threatened with her greatest fear (scorpions), and she might be one of those exceptional people who wouldn’t, but the reality is most people would.  Hollywood would have us believe that most people are noble and would gladly suffer in the place of their loved ones, and most of us would claim to do exactly that, and we’d really mean it.  But if we went through what Winston did, being tortured physically and mentally over a period of days, weeks, months, until we even started looking forward to the pain because it’s the one thing in the world we are certain of; to have our will broken repeatedly, never being allowed to rest, to recover; being taunted by hope only to have it snatched away at the last moment every single time; if we went through all that and were then forced to confront our greatest fear, that one thing that gave us nightmares as children and still has the power to make us wake up screaming in the middle of the night as adults…  I think at that point there would be very few of us, if any, who would still remember those noble claims we made while the sun was shining and we were free.

That concludes my response to the specifics of thebookboozer‘s complaints about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Tomorrow I will take a look at how I think one should approach this novel, and classics in general, in order to get the most out of them.

7 thoughts on “Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell revisited – Part I

  1. 1984 has to be one of the seminal classics of twentieth century literature. The irony for me is that Orwell is viewed as prophetic. But the original title 1948 said it all. His inspiration was thecontemporary USSR of Stalin. Really he had nailed an aspect of the human condition, and I guess that is what makes the book so timeless.

    1. You’ve just summarised Part II 😉

      Don’t you think he is prophetic? He may have been inspired by Stalin’s Russia, but I think he also wrote it as a warning to those who are free not to take our freedom for granted, as it can be lost again so easily and once it’s taken away from us it becomes near-impossible to regain.

    1. I believe it’s a necessity for any person living in a democracy to read this book 😉 But no, no one made me read it. I wanted to. Although, having taught Animal Farm for several years and knowing a bit of Orwell’s life history, I approached it differently than I normally would when reading.

  2. I am so glad that you wrote this! You make a very good point about Julia. I think if I could rewrite that bit in my post, I would refer to her as maybe a terrible human, not so much a terrible character. I think she was well written, I just wasn’t convinced at all that Winston loved her. She really is the picture of a student revolutionary, but I also have a really hard time with people who are like that in general. She is not someone I would ever surround myself with, so maybe that is what I really disliked about her. The fact that I found her so different from myself that she was unrelatable.

    I love your take on O’Brien and the whole set-up. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective at all. I think I spent most of the time in the interrogation wondering in the back of my mind what the hell was going on. Was O’Brien really part of the Inner Party? Is this some charade by the Brotherhood? If O’Brien really is part of the Inner Party, is there even a Brotherhood? Why would they take the time to write that whole book? I AM SO CONFUSED.

    So I didn’t spend that time reflecting on how terrifying the whole situation was. Looking back on it, if I hadn’t spent all of that time trying to figure all of the shenanigans out, maybe I would have thought it was scarier. But I don’t know. I just think that the interrogation wasn’t as scary as it was supposed to come across as.

    I like to think that I am one of those noble people. I suppose unless faced with the actual situation, I couldn’t 100% say what my reaction would be. However, I truly hope that I am one of those people whose deepest darkest fear really isn’t anything other than losing the people that I love. I really can’t think of anything worse than that.

    Now look at me, blowing up YOUR comment section! Do you mind if I link back to this post from my original? I love giving people different perspectives to check out!

    1. You are very welcome to link back to this. In fact, you should have received a pingback from me, unless you have them disabled.

      You pose an interesting question whether Winston truly loved Julia. I think that depends on your idea of love. From our perspective it would seem that he is rather infatuated and slightly obsessed with her. But that is probably his idea of love. In a society where personal relationships are discouraged and your spouse is chosen for you by the state, where sex is only allowed for procreation even in marriage and where parents live in fear of their own children, I think we can forgive a character for not knowing what real love is. After all, who would have modelled it for him?

      I think your experience with the novel had much to do with your expectations of it. I could be wrong, but I think had you gone into the novel with different expectations it might not have been so frustrating and confusing to you. More on that in Part II.

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