Genre: Dystopian near-future Sci-Fi. Published: 1949.
Premise: In the wake of a full scale atomic war that followed WWII, “The” political party, IngSoc (which stands for “English Socialism”) has taken over Oceana. But Winston, an outer party member living in London, knows to his bones that everything is wrong. Can life always have been so unbearable? The constant propaganda, the shameless “rewriting” of the past, the continuous war and concomitant rationing? He also knows something else: that he hates Big Brother. And this means he is just walking dead—because Big Brother always finds the thought-criminals.
In A Nutshell: Taut; a smart political (and philosophical) thriller; a warning for the ages; still relevant today. I began reading this book because I was studying socialism, and the premise seemed fairly anti-socialist. (I didn’t know Orwell’s political stance, before reading.) I had originally read the book in high school, but the political implications largely escaped me, as I was mostly concerned with Winston’s arc at that time. This time, I raced through the pages to find out what had gone wrong with IngSoc, and what Orwell proposed as the solution. But Orwell ended up sharing a very different conclusion than what I first expected: [highlight to view spoiler: that IngSoc is not socialism at all; that true, democratic socialism, unlike its corrupted strains (aka Communism and Fascism), could actually save humanity. He didn’t exactly explain how, but he said that with all the technological advancement, democratic socialism could eradicate the problems of inequality and poverty. The leaders of Ingsoc parade as socialists, but they are, instead, power-hungry life haters. (Their motivations are more than a little mysterious, to me; but I’ll go into that later.) So instead of improving everyone’s conditions, Ingsoc brings everyone to the same level of near-poverty, so they’re all “equal.” But, Orwell proposes, it doesn’t have to be like that. Socialism can save the world (END spoiler)]. I disagree with this conclusion, but that’s beside the point. He did a marvelous job teasing me along until I was practically begging for his thesis.
What I Liked: (1) Exactly what I just said- that I couldn’t put this book down until I knew what Orwell was trying to tell me. Although some have complained that the book is too much like a political essay, I completely disagree. I was very interested in the stories of Winston and Julia. (2) I like how he points out, through concepts such as “doublethink,” that totalitarian/fascist/communist countries are not the only countries that need to worry about Big Brother. If America and the UK are not careful, we could easily slip into the dumb herd mentality which facilitates the rise of a totalitarian leader. One of Orwell’s biggest messages is that we must never censor thought or speech, even if we disagree with one another. We must not be afraid to share divergent opinions, lest we become like the hapless characters controlled by IngSoc. (3) I also like that Orwell assumes the existence of a human nature, in opposition to some relativist thought.
What I Disliked: (1) That he assumes humanism is the only way to fight against doublethink, automaton-like behavior and evil itself.
“‘There is something in the universe, I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome.’ ‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’ ‘No.’ “Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’ ‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man’” (222). “You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable” (222).
If humanism were our only defense, our outlook would be every bit as grim as Orwell portrays. So, in that sense, I compliment his realism. The human heart, alone, can certainly be overcome by these powers. But I don’t think humanism is our only, or best, defense. (2) In the end, the true ideology of IngSoc seemed unrealistic, to me. It felt just slightly “off,” like the antagonist’s ideology in Atlas Shrugged. Like, “I’m sorry, but nobody believes that.” (I must add that the anatagonist’s motivations in Atlas Shrugged seemed much more realistic, to me, than the motivations of IngSoc in 1984. I couldn’t quite penetrate the mysterious motivations of Ingsoc. They kept slipping through my mind like sand.)
Recommendation: Despite (and, really, because of) its grimness, I would recommend this book to anybody ready for a really creepy Dystopia. It was a little over my head at seventeen, but now, at twenty-three, I’m very grateful for Orwell’s brilliant, mindful work. As Erich Fromm put it, in the afterword, it presents a “mood” prevalent during the aftermath of WWII and amidst the growing fears about nuclear war with Russia. It’s a priceless peek into the mind of a mid-twentieth-century secular humanist and democratic socialist on the growing problems facing humanity in the nuclear age.
[Highlight to view spoiler: The book quotes about the human spirit (quoted in the “What I Disliked” section) became very intriguing, to me, after I read 1984’s afterward by Erich Fromm. Orwell and Fromm were both democratic socialists and secular humanists. While Orwell clearly warns against the communist and fascist tendencies toward thought-control, Fromm points out that concepts such as “doublethink” should come as a warning to Western “free” nations, as well. Weak minds, lacking the ability to think critically, can easily succumb to power such as is wielded by IngSoc. Fromm seems to interpret the book as Orwell’s fears that new, modern generations of “automatons” could lead the free West into just such horrible states as are found in 1984. Fromm also says that greedy capitalism is the cause behind this problem, and that very well might be a part of Orwell’s message. (I don’t recall seeing any textual support for that; but since Orwell was a democratic socialist, I suppose he may have felt that way. I just don’t know for sure because I haven’t read enough of Orwell’s other writings.) At any rate, Orwell clearly agrees with Fromm in the opinion that whatever the cause of this frighteningly “automaton” like malady of the young generations, humanism is the cure. (Winston says as much in the quotes above.) Humanistic values such as courage and love could help the new generations avoid the pitfalls of Oceana, Eurasia and Eastasia.
I recently read The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, in which Lewis discusses the very same observations about humanity; but he attributes the symptoms to a different disease with a slightly more complicated, if similar, cure. First of all, capitalistic greed isn’t the problem: a complete disregard for religious thought is the issue. (His “religious thought” refers to early religious texts dating from the Bible backwards, including Eastern and other ancient texts, such as Hammurabi’s Code.) Youngsters are being taught, in school, that virtue is a fairytale. How can we expect the results to be anything but awful? Lewis’s solution is similar to the humanistic one, because it also advocates a return to the virtues that distinguish man from animal. But his solution is different in that he points not to humanism, but to religious thought as the remedy. Lewis contends that religion is the only true source for the values Orwell attributes to human nature. I just thought I would share that as an interesting counterpoint to the grim Orwellian perspective. Lewis was just as fearful of the consequences of a generation of spineless, virtue-less automatons; and both Lewis and Orwell find hope in the power of virtue; but Lewis points to a source beyond simple humanity. Click here for my review of The Abolition of Man. (END spoiler)]