In case you missed it, on Monday thebookboozer wrote a rant about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yesterday I expressed my opinion on the specific points she raised for not liking the novel (to which she graciously responded). Today I’d like to advance my theory as to why she did not enjoy the novel and propose how one should approach this novel, and really any classic novel, to get the most out of it.
I feel I have to state upfront that I wasn’t an English Lit-major. I just read a lot and love looking things up if I don’t know them. I love reading the classics – in eighth grade already I was reading Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle – but I’m not by any means a literary snob – in eighth grade I also read just about every Nancy Drew novel in existence at the time. So what follows is absolutely my opinion and may be completely wrong, so please don’t quote me in your senior thesis or anything like that.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered a classic. That begs the question, what is a classic? Wikipedia quotes Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve who wrote:
“The idea of a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures…. A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”
In (much) simpler terms, a classic speaks to the human condition. It shows us in a way that forces us to face ourselves for what we really are. It does this in a way that is both unique and timeless (which is why we still read Shakespeare even if we can’t understand three-quarters of the language). This is not a comprehensive definition, but when I think of “the classics” that is how I consider it.
That means when you pick up a book considered a classic you’re letting yourself in for more than just a story. You’re going to get a bit of an education (even if that wasn’t the author’s intention).
I think part of thebookboozer’s frustration with the book was that she was not ready for this. At one point in her post she compares Nineteen Eighty-Four with V for Vendetta, a graphic novel published in 1989 which is all drama and violence and excitement. I can fully understand, if that’s your frame of reference, that Orwell’s novel will be frustrating. Granted, V for Vendetta has reached cult status in its own right, but I don’t think it can quite be considered a classic according to the above definition and as such is not the best example to which to compare Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Modern dystopian novels like The Hunger Games or V for Vendetta do often address similar themes as the classic examples, though I get the feeling they’re more concerned with entertaining the readers. Authors of the classics often seem more intent on getting their point across than on ensuring their readers have fun. And I think this is especially true in Orwell’s case.
All of his writing, fiction and non-fiction, was in some way informed by his life experience. After school he worked in the Burmese police force where he experienced first-hand and came to resent the oppression of the British Empire. He fought in the communist uprising against the fascist government in Spain. He experienced the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War and saw the very communism which he used to support become corrupted in Stalin’s Russia.
All of this lies behind Nineteen Eighty-Four. He saw how power could corrupt governments over time and how that inevitably lead to human suffering and he wrote the novel (along with Animal Farm which preceded it) as a warning to us that 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.
That was Orwell’s purpose, and not merely to entertain. That’s why boring, pathetic Winston is the protagonist, and not Goldstein, leader of the resistance and author of The Book (who’s probably an invention of the thought police in any case, used to entrap those guilty of thoughtcrime). Orwell wanted to show how the government controls an ordinary man’s life even while that man is helping them to do the same to others and he wanted us to realise that if we let things go that far there is no going back.
To conclude, besides having the right expectations when we sit down to read a classic, it’s often helpful to read up on the author as well. Understanding the historic context and personal life events which inspired them can provide us with much insight into their work, perhaps making getting the message a bit easier. (Hmmm. Maybe I should follow my own advice and give Moby Dick another shot…)
On a related note, thebookboozer called Nineteen-Eighty-Four one of the first dystopian novels. This piqued my curiosity and it turns out Orwell was actually quite late to the game as far as dystopian fiction was concerned. In A Brief History of the Dystopian Novel Andrew Liptak mentions H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) as one of the first examples (with many more subsequent examples before Orwell came around), though even Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, could be considered dystopian.
So Nineteen-Eighty-Four is by no means among the first dystopian novels. It is the most popular and listverse.com ranks it third after Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which also predates it) and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, both of which is considered better-written than Nineteen-Eighty-Four, but not as universally known.
And apparently the less-than-stellar writing can be explained by the fact that Orwell was racing against death to get the novel done. Understandable, I think. And in spite of it, of the big three dystopian novels Nineteen Eighty-Four is the only one to have contributed so much to our modern vocabulary and to confer on its author his own adjective – Orwellian.
So, perhaps we should not be too quick to dismiss this novel. Perhaps we should rather give it our fullest attention, as it deserves.