What is there to write that hasn’t already been written about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four? Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the novel’s ideas proved so fundamental they have become idiomatic in the English language. ‘Big Brother’, ‘Thought Police’, ‘Orwellian’, and to some extent ‘doublethink’ and ‘2+2=5’, are expressions most are familiar with and part of everyday speech. Given the depth political and social realities are delved into in realistic, eye-opening fashion, it’s an understatement to write Nineteen Eighty-four is one of the most significant works of science fiction to have been written.
Ignore the title; Nineteen Eighty-four is not an attempt at futurology. Intended as a cautionary, the book is the story of Winston Smith, an ordinary government worker living in unordinary circumstances. His job to revise history per orders from above, Smith’s life is filled to the brim with cameras, listening devices, and government snitches trying to maintain a status quo that is anything but free. The Party’s totalitarian regime—generally nicknamed ‘Big brother’ by citizenry—monitors nearly all aspects of life, including work, home, even people’s love lives. Beyond voyeuristic, Smith et al must watch their every move lest the most minor of statutes or laws be broken. The Thought Police watching and waiting, most offenders are dragged away, never to be seen again. Smith’s days filled with anxiety and dread as he trudges from work to home, meeting the enigmatic Julia one day moves life in new directions. But is Big Brother watching?
Though many mistake Nineteen Eighty-four for a work in defiance of socialism or communism, the novel is in fact a book of anti-totalitarianism, fascism, Stalinism, and any other –ism or form of tyranny that subverts individual freedom for blanket control by an oppressive leadership. Published in 1948, a time which recently bore witness to the fall of two despots (Hitler and Mussolini) and the rise in power of three more (Stalin, Franco, and Mao Zedong), Orwell’s concerns in the novel stray far from the ideologies propounded by Engels and Marx. Cleverly imagined, the scenario Orwell depicts—the complete devaluation of life and the subsequent breaking of the human spirit through fear of the government—is almost palpable. The terror of living in such a controlling authoritarian regime may perhaps be the single most striking element of the novel.
Orwell perhaps better known for his non-fiction at the time of Nineteen Eighty-four’s publication, the book benefits greatly from his straightforward, journalistic approach. Smith’s life described in the most direct of terms, the fictional setting of Oceania comes across as cold and bleak. Like non-dramatized reporting, the tough living conditions, the eye-over-the-shoulder, the details of evading Big Brother and the Thought Police, and the sterility of Room 101 are described in austere and affective detail. Narrator voice never intruding, social and political terms are expressed via the story rather than direct to the reader. This approach not only creates a realistic view of Oceania in the mind’s eye, but renders Smith’s plight all the more poignant in both personal and social terms.
In the end, Nineteen Eighty-four is the most realistic look at life under a technology-enhanced, totalitarian regime ever written. Given that the technology Orwell imagines is drawing closer to reality every day (witness London streets), his vision increases in value as both a warning regarding, and reminder of, the value of individual freedom with each passing day. Investing every ounce of social and political nuance he gained from journalistic work (e.g. Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London) with socio-technical ideas that only prove themselves more prescient, you owe it to yourself to read this piece of human history that speaks to the present with a stronger voice each day. It’s impossible to walk way unaffected.