I hope your holidays are going well. Today it’s raining where I live, so I’m writing wrapped up in a blanket and enjoying the sound of the rain tapping on my window. Lovely!
I’ve recently finished reading 1984 by George Orwell. Immense book. Amazing. I must admit I was a little discouraged at the beginning, for the novel seemed a bit slow and I couldn’t really get involved in the story. But after 50ish pages I got engaged and at that point I couldn’t stop reading. Here are my thoughts about it. Warning: if you don’t want any spoilers, stop reading right now!
Published in 1949, the book sets the first example of dystopian novel in contemporary literature; each dystopian story written afterwards will have to be compared to it.
Winston Smith, the main character, is a member of the Party which controls the population through the figure of the so-called Big Brother, a man whose posters are hung everywhere, but that nobody ever sees in person. The Party controls people with telescreens positioned in every house. He secretly loathes the government and starts writing a diary to preserve his thoughts. During the course of the story we see him falling in love with Julia, with whom he secretly engages a relationship despite the prohibition of getting romantically involved with anyone. After some months, they decide to join the Brotherhood, a movement which tries to contrast the Party, but they are soon imprisoned and tortured. At the end of the story, they meet again, but they are completely transformed: the tortures they had to endure irremediably changed them and their feelings towards one another. The Party has obtained what it wanted: they have betrayed each other and, in the last pages, we acknowledge Winston now loves and admires the Big Brother.
What I particularly enjoyed about the novel are the philosophical implications held in it. When Winston is brought to the Ministry of Love to get tortured (yes, that’s the name for the place where the Party tortures people), he has the possibility of chatting with O’Brien, the man he believed was part of the Brotherhood and instead betrayed him and Julia. The government has put psychologists at work to understand human mind so that they could convince people to believe what they want them to believe. Not only that, they have also studied perfect answers to objections, so that dissenters get confused and can’t possibly reply to what they say. For example, when Winston declares he knows Earth is older than mankind and that the Party is deleting the proof of what happened in history before the raise of the Party, O’Brien replies that Earth is as old as man. The explanation he gives is that “nothing exists except through human consciousness”: therefore, the world as we know it can only be when we think about it, when we see it. Winston doesn’t really know what to answer, even if he knows O’Brien is lying. But then O’Brien asks him if the past exists. He answers that yes, sure it does; but O’Brien asks him another question. Does the past exist tangibly somewhere, in this moment, in some place on Earth? Of course, the only thing that Winston can reply is “no”. Then, O’Brien assumes that the past doesn’t exist: the only thing that matters is the present. A present where the Party leads the population. This is just one example: the entire book is full of philosophical assumptions that are hard to answer to, even if we know by common sense they are not real. When the government is capable of tricking its enemies so well, there is little they can do.
Another part that I enjoyed is that where Orwell describes the “Newspeak”. It’s a new language the Party is programming; they plan to switch from English to it in some years and have many specialists work on the vocabulary. An entire appendix is dedicated to it at the end of the book. As a linguist, the only thing I could do was loving the description the author does and appreciating the deep connection he states among language, culture, mind and control. The purpose of the Party is that of creating a language which contains less words: that is because, of course, you can’t rebel against something if there is no word to express your rebellion. The peculiarity of Newspeak is, in fact, that it is the only case where a language grows smaller instead of bigger. They try to make human mind flat, so that it doesn’t question anything. Let’s take the adjectives “good” and “bad”, for example. Why do we need both of them when we can use a prefix? So, Newspeak accepts the use of “good”, but declares its opposite to be “ungood”. I really loved the concept behind this and I am certain Orwell put a lot of effort and study to think about all these elements. I also believe we should study this book more at school. Not only in literature, but also in philosophy.
Overall, as you have seen, I fell in love with this book and I totally recommend it. It’s not a light reading, I warn you – but it’s absolutely worth it.
What do you think? Have you read 1984? Have you enjoyed it? Do you agree with me? Tell me what you think with a comment below!