Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Dystopian Classic by George Orwell

Will you not agree with me if I say, in literature dystopia means ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell? This dark, nightmarish world painted by Orwell coined words for us to remember for a lifetime – ‘big brother’, ‘the all seeing eye’, ‘thought police’, etc.

At first, I was amazed how someone could foresee forty-years ahead of his time so accurately. Is this even possible, how could Orwell prophesize the future?

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ creates an eerie, disturbing environment for the readers set ‘in the future’ at the time of its publication. For us, it is about three decades back in time and yet seemingly threatening in the present.

In the year 1984, Winston takes us through his world with curtailed freedom of speech and expression in a totalitarian regime. The world is divided into three parts – Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia; with Oceania in constant war with either of the two. It is in Oceania that Winston lives in and we are familiarised with the ways of the world from this geographical location (presumably Europe and America). There are ministries – Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Love and Ministry of Plenty governing the people of Oceania. Each ministry is a contradiction to their name in their objectives and achievements. 

The society is divided into three layers – Inner Party, Outer Party, and the Proles. In the real world, it seems like the prevalent caste system of India and the Bourgeois-Proletarians of the West. Orwell writes about the Proles as, “They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming-period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle aged at thirty, they died, for most part, at sixty.” To me, this was purely the description of poor in India that Orwell would have witnessed personally or taken an account from his father. This population is similar to cattle that would never revolt and only conform to the set pattern. “If there is hope,” Winston had written in his diary, “it lies in the proles.” But the Proles are preoccupied with their problems – poverty and starvation. “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

The first page itself introduces the reader to the phrases of ‘thought police’, ‘hate week’ and the ‘THE BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’. The ‘watch’ is literal as there are telescreens for surveillance inside homes and in public places. The vigilance is omnipresent and even the children are trained to become spies for the ruling political party. There is an incident when a seven-year-old girl turned her father to the ‘thought police’ after she heard him say ‘down with big brother’ in his sleep. There is public hanging on disobedience from the party lines. How could Orwell foresee cctv in those times or recruitment of children by Taliban? There are many intriguing aspects of his farsightedness and futuristic thinking. 

The overbearing slogan which appears repeatedly in the book is:

‘WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

It is purely an age wherein the party in power has changed the history in its favour, smashed the opponents, and controls the news media and public opinion. “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which Party is always right.” Something that we understand in today’s era of sold-out media conglomerates. Orwell presents ‘newspeak’ as the language which will replace ‘oldspeak’ (i.e, the present English language). Towards the end, there is an appendix that provides in depth detail regarding ‘newspeak’ as if it were to really become a way of communication. 

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ does not dole out a sermon, rather it is Winston’s normal life and his dilemmas that take the reader through this disturbing world. There are instances where you become Winston, for you have faced similar situations in life, maybe to a lesser degree but yes you cannot shy away…I like the part where Orwell puts the daily needs of the characters’ at stake, for example, there is victory coffee and not the real coffee, saccharine in place of sugar, victory gin that smell of oil and rationing of razor blades.

Party’s belief in sexual puritanism is another aspect that is explored when Winston meets Julia. Julia is an enthusiastic Party worker on the exterior, the one who loves her way of life. The two characters are juxtaposed – Winston’s firm believe in a revolution and Julia’s exuberance to just live her life without being caught by the party. But, “A party member lives from birth to death under the eye of the Thought Police.

‘The Book’ comprises ‘The Theory and Practise of Oligarchical Collectivism’ by Goldstein. Winston had believed that there is a revolution at work with Goldstein as the leader. This is the rebel’s handbook (which later turns out to be another trap). There is nothing new in the book, it is just an affirmation of all the views that Winston held all through. The book only put together the information systematically; maybe this was a deliberate attempt to reaffirm the story and political lines.

Winston is taken by the Thought Police while he is with Julia. The two now face imprisonment and interrogation. Towards the end, the book takes you through the gory details of the torture on Winston in prison. There is intricate detailing of electrocution, other forms of physical and mental torture in room 101.

There are some beautifully woven vulnerable moments, especially when Winston narrates the story of his mother as he remembers in his faint dream-like recollection. “If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love. When the last of the chocolate was gone, his mother had clasped the child in her arms. It was no use, it changed nothing, it did not produce more chocolate, it did not avert the child’s death or her own; but it seemed natural to her to do it.” Winston recounts these days from his childhood, about his hunger pangs as a child and running away after snatching the only small piece of chocolate that his mother gave to his little frail sister. After this incident, he ran away from home and when he returned the two had vanished. Winston knew that this was not uncommon in those days, probably his family members died or the party took them.

Towards the end, the telescreens utter – “Vast strategic manoeuvre – perfect coordination-utter rout-half a million prisoners-complete demoralisation-control of the whole of Africa-bring the war within measurable distance of its end-victory-greatest victory in human history-victory, victory, victory!” These are phrases that we hear in this age with no actual wars being fought.

As I end, let me share my favourite quote from this dark piece of fiction, “The idea of an earthly paradise in which men should live together in a state of brotherhood, without laws and without brute labour, had haunted the human imagination for thousands of years.”

One thought on “Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Dystopian Classic by George Orwell

  1. Pingback: Burmese Days by George Orwell: British Officials, British Rule and Burma – Bookishloom

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