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.
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.