Book review: 1984, by George Orwell

A couple years ago, I finally got around to reading Orwell’s famous 1984, and you know something? It wasn’t that great.

Now I know it isn’t Orwell’s fault pretty much everybody who reads his book knows the ending already, but a good book should still be engaging even with the ending spoiled. 1984, on the other hand, was about 80% dull.

In fact, I found the most interesting parts were the ones where Orwell was waxing philosophical and largely ignoring the story. His point about the importance of meaningless gestures (such as not betraying those we care about, even when it doesn’t help them) was a good one, and well made. Likewise, the political analyses in Goldstein’s book were interesting, though I disagree with him on a couple important details, such as the assertion that social inequality has ever been necessary or desirable.

The concept of doublethink is particularly insightful, denoting a profound and sophisticated principle in such a way as it can be easily understood, and furthermore providing posterity with an excellent term to describe this principle in action. Though I don’t believe it ever comes up in Goldstein’s book, you can see doublethink at work in members of the upper- and middle- and even underclass’ attempts to defend the class system. Perhaps even more significantly, we can sometimes see this process at work in ourselves when we make excuses for doing something less-than-wholly justified (we’ve all been there).

But the story itself? Pretty forgettable; I wasn’t invested in either Winston or Julia, or their doomed romance. They felt more like props than interesting characters in their own right. And the plot felt more than anything like just marking time until the Ministry of Love gets its claws in the two and starts working them over.

Even the Dystopian world failed to grab me. Yes, the trilateral empire of Oceania-Eurasia-Eastasia is nightmarish in the abstract, but I never felt the visceral sense of horror that even a fictional police state should evoke. Ironically, and in defiance of the adage that an author ought to show rather than tell, I found Orwell’s Dystopia far more chilling when he describes it journalistically than when he depicts Winston navigating it as part of his everyday life.

 

My other problem with the world was that, O’Brien’s delusions notwithstanding, I don’t see this society surviving indefinitely in the real world. Despite O’Brien’s claims that the Party dictates human nature, what we see is that in fact the Party can only manipulate human nature to its own purposes (such as using people’s most primal fears to get them to betray those they love).

 

Sooner or later, some fraction of humanity always rebels at being dominated and exploited, and I don’t see any evidence that the Party is capable of either curbing or otherwise neutralizing this tendency. I can believe it’s capable of breaking any given rebel spirit just like it breaks Winston and Julia; I’ll even accept it can somehow make this change in personality permanent, though Orwell never really goes into how this works. (And thinking of real world dissidents who have endured decades of imprisonment, torture, and other abuse without capitulating makes this turn-around difficult for me to swallow without explanation.)

 

But the Party seems to me woefully unequipped to break rebellious spirits in large numbers (such as you would get in a mass uprising)*, and nothing in the book really convinces me that their control is so tight as to render mass resistance impossible.

 

*So many faces, and so few boots.

O’Brien’s other major oversight is in thinking the Party can impose stasis upon the world. If there’s anything nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s constancy. O’Brien claims the Party controls nature, but what he means is that the Party controls human perceptions of nature. Once again, O’Brien is dead wrong in asserting that reality is entirely subjective, existing only in people’s collective consciousness. He and Winston can think he’s floating all they want, but if the floor underneath his feet is electrified, he’ll die just the same.

And the thing about nature is that it’s chaotic. It’s just going to keep throwing curve balls at humanity, and the more the Party tries to assert its own ideology over natural processes, the sooner will be the time when it gets a curve ball that it can’t believe or explain into nonexistence (e.g. asteroid impact, climate change, etc.). And then Oceania is toast.

The only way the Party could remain perpetually in control would be if it completely understood both human nature and the workings of the natural world. Knowledge that complete is well beyond human capability to attain even now, and perhaps it always will be.

Add to that, even within the internal logic of Orwell’s story, you can only believe the situation is eternal if you accept his assertion that the working class has never and can never act in its own best interests without leadership from sections of the upper or middle class. And by “accept,” I don’t mean agree with Orwell’s arguments, I mean take the assertion on blind faith, as Orwell never bothers to give even a halfhearted explanation for why the underclass is incapable of action (and, indeed, the insight necessary to inspire action); he merely has his characters state that it is so.

So from my perspective, Orwell’s Dystopian vision is fatally flawed. To be fair to him, we can find similar flaws with most everybody’s vision of a sufficiently Dystopian—or sufficiently Utopian—society. This is not to say that things can never get that bad or that good. It’s just that because each individual human’s understanding of the world is incomplete, our attempts to predict how they can become that bad or that good, and in exactly what way, are bound to be imperfect.

I also have to wonder if Orwell really agreed with O’Brien that “death is the ultimate failure.” I could believe that he doesn’t, as a major theme of the book is that Winston’s greatest failure—the one which not only defeats him but converts him—is in betraying Julia. That makes a lot more sense, but if O’Brien is wrong, well, that’s yet another hole in his argument for Oceania’s permanence.

Before I read it, I was scared of this book. I knew what it was about, and I was afraid it would horrify me, scare me, depress me. As it turns out, it just bored me.

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