Fiction Reviews

Nineteen Eighty-Four

(1949 / 2021) George Orwell, Oxford University Press, £8.99, pbk, xxxviii + 250pp, ISBN 978-0-198-82919-5


When I first read this book, the year1984 was in the future. It is now nearly forty years in the past and that alone is a good reason for rereading it. This particular edition, from Oxford University Press, has the advantage that it comes with detailed explanatory notes by John Bowen, Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of York.

The book opens with a twenty-three page Introduction, followed by a two-page Note on the Text, three pages of Select Bibliography, and a two-page Chronology of George Orwell. The story itself covers 242 pages, which includes Orwell’s own ‘Appendix - The Principles of Newspeak’. Finally, there are eight pages of Explanatory Notes by John Bowen, which refer to and clarify specific items in the text.

The book has been round for so long that most people know at least a smattering of the story, and so many of its terms have gone into the language. We sometimes refer to the Thought Police and doublethink, and have invented similar terms such as groupthink. We watch TV programmes such as Big Brother and Room 101, though neither is quite in the sense that they were originally used.

The story centres round Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth, the government organisation whose purpose is to ensure that everything contains the truth. The truth is defined by the government so his job is to update things when the truth is redefined, which is often. The idea is simple - if the government say it is true then it must be true; any previous records are therefore now incorrect and must be corrected. His age is uncertain but he believes himself to be about thirty-nine and that the year is probably about 1984, though he is not certain of that either.

The history of his world is a little different to ours. There was no Second World War and it is unclear if there was a Great War, as such, before that, though there had certainly been considerable warfare around the world in the earlier part of the century. This had resulted in much of the world falling into three super-states: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. The three super-states are in a state of continuous low-level war and despite the ever-altering allegiances between them no two states can overwhelm the third. The remainder of the world is what they are supposedly fighting over, though in reality the main purpose of the war is to maintain the status quo within each state.

Smith lives in London, the main city of a country now known as Airstrip One, in the super-state of Oceania. He is a member of the Outer Party, the people who do most of the mundane work of keeping the state going; they are somewhat akin to our Civil Service in their purpose. The state is run by the Inner Party, who are more akin to the Ministers and senior government figures of our world. Members of the Inner Party enjoy a reasonably high standard of living, though are more inclined to complete obedience to The Party than anyone else (they have more to loose), whereas members of the Outer Party have a much more miserable existence. The remaining, and most numerous, section of the population are the proles, the people who do the work and keep the wheels of ordinary life turning from the position that staying alive is better than the alternative. The proles believe whatever they are told to believe, and when the Ministry of Truth corrects ‘errors’ they simply and immediately believe the new ‘truth’. It is a miserable world. Life in the other super-states is much the same.

To make matters worse, and to ensure that everyone obeys all orders and lives as they are told to live in every detail, everyone is under constant surveillance - there is no such thing as privacy, anywhere. Everyone’s every action is watched and every word is heard. The Thought Police monitor everything, and anyone who departs from their expected behaviour is taken to the Ministry of Love for correction.

Because his work is to update the truth, Smith is aware of how often it has changed and eventually this gets to him. He starts a secret diary and he comes to realise that he hates Big Brother, the doubtless fictional leader of The Party. He is covertly approached by Julia, a woman younger than himself, and they start a very secret affair; should the slightest knowledge of it ever become known they will find themselves at the mercy of the Thought Police. He locates a place they can meet regularly, a room above the shop run by the kindly Mr. Charrington. Alas, it transpires that the kindly gentleman is actually a member of the Thought Police and they are arrested and subjected to correction. Smith finds himself at the mercy of O’Brien, one of his superiors at the Ministry of Truth. He is subject to many tortures, ending up in the dreaded Room 101 where he is faced with his worse nightmares. Despite all his efforts, he is broken, his mind is shattered, and he comes to love Big Brother.

The story is well constructed and the writing is a joy. It has been a while since I was so impressed with the literary standard of a writer. Descriptions are evocative and the images in my mind were strong, though often not comfortable. Orwell has described a dystopia that lingers long in the mind, as the last seventy years have proven.

The accompanying notes explain many day-to-day references in Orwell’s text, so even those who know little of London or English history will find their knowledge usefully extended. The notes explain much more: about the politics of the Orwell’s younger days, his views as to just how bad totalitarian governments would be, and add social and historical context. They make interesting reading and add to the understanding of the text and what Orwell was warning us of. They are a worthy addition to the book.

Comparing the world of the book with the world today, it is interesting to see how our world has changed and how far down some of those roads we have already gone. CCTV surveillance is to be found in most cities and towns, everyone reports everything to everyone else through social media, and the ‘truth’ is defined by whatever group is defining it. ‘Fake News’ has become the cry of anyone who disagrees with the truth about them. The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four has not come about as described in the story, but elements of it are all around us and we were warned.

If you have not read Nineteen Eighty-Four then you really, really should.

Peter Tyers

See also Jane's review of Nineteen Eighty-Four.


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