Fiction Reviews

Nineteen Eighty-Four

(1949/2020) George Orwell, Harvill Secker, £12.99/ Can $27.99, hrdbk, xviii + 123pp, ISBN 978-1-787-30252-5

(1949 / 2021) George Orwell, Penguin, £16.99, hrdbk, 144pp, ISBN 978-0-241-45351-3


Nineteen Eighty-Four brought us one of the most famous opening lines in fiction, often quoted in top ten lists of the best openers ever written. ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ tells us that we in a world both familiar and unfamiliar, and that trouble is heading our way. The story picks up where Animal Farm left off, not with animals but with people. Those who have read Animal Farm will remember that the promise of utopia led to a revolution that made life worse for those at the bottom. The pigs maintained control by lying and rewriting history and when that failed, the precise application of brute force. In the world of Nineteen Eighty-four, the same tactics are applied.

The book was written in 1949 but its story takes place in 1984 (imagined by Orwell to be a dystopia). A superstate called Oceania has come into existence (along with two others), ruled by a political group known as The Party, led by someone known as Big Brother. Oceania is at war, although none of the characters in the book have any first hand experience of this, and there’s no fighting taking place where they live. News of the war is brought by daily broadcasts, all controlled by the state of course. The story follows a man called Winston Smith, who works at the Ministry of Truth where he spends his days correcting old newspaper articles so that they report a party approved version of the past. This is the world where Big Brother Is watching you. Party spies are everywhere. Thoughts can be crimes. It is widely known that the government can watch you through your television, although they only watch a few randomly chosen people at a time. Therefore Winston can never be sure whether or not he is being watched at any given moment, leading to a need for constant vigilance. It is a time of fear and paranoia overlaid with incessant propaganda telling people that everything is wonderful.

Winston is himself a member of The Party, as everyone is expected to be, but privately hates it and everything it stands for, living with the knowledge that he’s secretly a criminal, for to have such thoughts is illegal. He suspects that some of those he works with also have such thoughts, but he cannot ask them. Nor can he share his suspicions with anyone. One of these people is Julia, a woman Winston initially suspects of being a spy. The two of them embark on a relationship. This is in itself a crime as the law states that sex is allowed for reproductive purposes only. They secretly begin to talk about the situation they find themselves living in, and Winston finally has confirmation that he is not the only one who dislikes The Party. But Winston is heading into trouble. He’s arrested for these crimes, imprisoned, and famously tortured in room 101. He’s repeatedly shown a number of lights. When asked how many there are, a correct answer results in pain. Winston resists for as long as possible but eventually he is inevitably broken and gives his abuser the required answer, 2+2 = 5. Not only does Winston change his response, he now genuinely believes that 2+2=5. There is no victory, no overthrow of power, no phoenix to rise from the ashes and rebuild a better world. Instead Orwell opts for a painfully realistic ending. Winston is powerless against the might of the Party, and when put under extreme stress, humans do not stand tall and rise above it. They break. There is no saviour and no hero to be found here.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell’s last book, written in 1949. Orwell was a democratic socialist and highly critical of Stalinist rule in Russia. The book was intended to show how an authoritarian government operates and how control is maintained. Although Winston is tortured at the end of the book, and Orwell was under no illusion as to the use and effectiveness of physical punishment, he also very cleverly demonstrates how words can be used to control and manipulate. The idea of what constitutes the truth is explored in a thought-provoking way. We live in a society where we’ve been brought up to assume that if something is written, it is the truth, but Orwell shows how naïve this is and how easily even a written truth can be altered (something that has particular resonance today, in our world of edited wiki pages and carefully curated social media feeds). Much of the world that Orwell created has leaked into our everyday language – we’ve all heard of the thought police, even if we’re not aware of the origin of the phrase. The novel is easy to read but dark in content in a way that Animal Farm is not, and so recommended for an older teenager.

As with the Harvill Secker reprint of Animal Farm that I have also reviewed, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been given a lovely hardback cover and retro styled dust jacket, this time with baby blue end pages. It will look great on the bookshelf and in photographs. There’s an introduction by Robert Harris and a detailed explanation of NewSpeak in the back. It would make a lovely present for a bibliophile (or for anyone who is making their first foray into reading Orwell).  Highly recommended.

Jane O'Reilly

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


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